Scientific Elitism: Escape From The Ivory Tower?

The academic ivory tower: synonymous with prestige, power, and that sneer of venality with the uttered word – elitist. There are articles extolling the anointed to leave their ivory towers and pitch their (peer-reviewed) published work to the masses. There is not only the perceived snobbery which comes from working in academia (whether student or professor), but also the added veneer when it comes to the phrase ‘scientific elitism’. What does one mean when they utter such a stark phrase? It is rather trivial to use it indicate that those in scientific fields have expert knowledge, and interests, related to their disciplines. Take, for example, the first sentence in this article after the British exit of the European Union (emphasis mine): “The Brexit [British Exit] vote should have led scientists to examine the disconnect between Britain’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Instead, we risk looking like shocked, money-grabbing elites.” Near the end of the article we see the dreaded word crop up again: “Is science elitist? If you’re a non-scientist, can you engage in science as easily as in sport, politics or music? By not doing enough to engage, aren’t we partly to blame for the result? Most importantly, do we want scientists to be a professional elite, or for science to become a shared and fundamental part of culture?”

Every field, such a plumbing, has those who know more about the subject than any random person from the street. However, does simply knowing more about, say, the plumbing system in a house automatically qualify you as elitist? If that is the case, then every person is elitist in some way or another in their work or their hobbies. That is not to say there is not some form of what would be termed snobbery occurring in the top echelons of academia, usually practiced by the stars of their fields on the lesser mortals. In fact, there was an interesting economic study which showed that when a star of their field suddenly dies at the height of their career, their collaborator’s subsequent output diminishes while their rivals output flourish.  Leaving aside intellectual snobbery, can elitism in science be good?

We implicitly praise elitist practices much of the time. When someone does well in school and receives prizes for their efforts, this is an acknowledgement that the person is, in some measure, better than others. The same applies to university admission, where competitive practices, such as demanding excellent grades, drive the prestige of the institution and hence demand for entry. There would be no Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or Yale without this elitist practice. If these practices were truly democratic, then school prizes and university admission would be decided by lottery which clearly defeats their objective. Of course, there are factors such as socio-economic status which influences which segments of society have a higher chance of being admitted to these prestigious institutions. They are not at all meritocratic. That speaks more to placing elitism in context rather than wishing for its abolishment.

We should have a desire for excellence in science, whether it is publishing top-quality work or making the next big breakthrough. Some people perform this better than others (and is not necessarily linked to the research institution). Decrying scientific elitism is a soft-target: scientists rarely get a chance to fight the stereotypes when they are busy performing research, writing papers and grants, and even attempting to engage the public with their research. But engagement has its own form of tyranny; I would readily welcome at the table anyone who has made an effort to read the relevant sources and come with an informed opinion, whether they are an academic or a lay-person. This is strikingly rare; many, especially those espousing pseudo-science, readily resort to personal attacks on their opponents and wave the ‘scientific elitism’ card as a means to legitimise their position. Of course, the workings of nature are not up to personal opinion or decided by vote.

Scientists, especially grad students, have a hard enough time – questioning their life decisions – without wondering whether or not they will be accused of being elitist. That is why, in the name of science, thou shalt embrace that moniker.

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