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Blog

Is science elitist?

By Hamish Johnston

…and if so, is that a bad thing?

There was lots of talk this morning on various BBC outlets about whether the “elitist image” of science is putting off the public. The debate was inspired by a campaign launched today by the UK government that aims to get the public more interested in science.

The campaign seems to have chosen a rather odd group of people to argue that science is not elitist. According to the BBC they include mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (Oxford), chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Eton, Oxford) and TV naturalist David Attenborough (Cambridge).

Granted, the programme has also enlisted the self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal and author Bill Bryson – both of whom have achieved great success (partly thanks to science) without a university degree.

But is science elitist? I suppose it is in the sense that one must study hard to become a scientist — and someone from an elite background is more likely to have the resources and parental backing to succeed academically.

Also, the practice of science is elitist in the sense that we all know who the top scientists in our fields are — and these individuals are often treated with great reverence.

But let’s not forget that whatever their background, members of the scientific elite worked hard for their success — indeed, science is one of few professions where it is very difficult to be a fraud.

That’s why I was a bit annoyed by Kathy Sykes of the University of Bristol, who declared on BBC TV this morning “You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist”. I suppose she is technically correct, but I think her statement is rather flippant given the high degree of intellectual rigour displayed by scientists.

Do the public think science is elitist? The UK’s science minister Paul Drayson has said so. But according to a poll commissioned by one of his departments, only 3% of Britons believe scientists have “the most influence on our daily lives”. So if science is an elite, it is an impotent one.

Finally, one needs to ask if people eschew science because they perceive it as elitist? I think we only need to look at lawyers — perhaps the most elitist of professions — who as fictional characters permeate popular literature, film and television. And law schools seem to have no trouble attracting students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

So maybe elitism is not such a bad thing?

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12 comments

  1. Hamish Johnston said: “But let’s not forget that whatever their background, members of the scientific elite worked hard for their success — indeed, science is one of few professions where it is very difficult to be a fraud.”
    What?! After innumerable last-time publications about a whole pest of frauds in science leading to special “ethical” commissions and measures, after all that you find it’s only a rare exception? Why do you think that “hard work” and “fraud” are incompatible? Frauds are very ambitious, hard-working persons, in science and elsewhere… Examples are not missing and accumulating everywhere, unfortunately…
    “I was a bit annoyed by Kathy Sykes of the University of Bristol, who declared on BBC TV this morning “You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist”.”
    Kathy just tries to remain polite and cover a much harder truth: in order to be a scientist today you can be everything (really!) but not a genius. Because in the latter case, appearing by explicit problem solutions, alias “discovery” (what other meaning of “genius”?), you are not even accepted for presentation of your results and dialogue, in today’s “industrial farming” system called science. By the way, it has been extensively discussed and multiply confirmed either, things like “Isaac Newton could not practically publish in Nature today”, with his level of scientific novelty.
    “So if science is an elite, it is an impotent one.”
    Ah, so you still noted? Never too late to tell the truth!
    “So maybe elitism is not such a bad thing?”
    Sure, but the genuine, not importent one of today’s establishment science. Should we have genuine, creative realisation of such intrinsically attractive activity as science, would we need any special promotion “campaigns” at all? First they waste lots of your money for fruitless abstractions (they are without any interest even for professionals), then they waste additional money to “prove” that such obviously impotent science is so interesting… Hey, Britons, what’s going on in the best of all possible kingdoms? Need some help to get rid of your “elitist” frauds? Have a look at a related short but precise opinion (and discussion) about today’s state of science.
    “Is science elitist?” No, it’s rather importent and dangerous, as any ambitious impotent and greedy fraud having unlimited access to truly powerful tools. Take care, masters.
    Now we’ll see whether journalists at Physicsworld.com are honest “elitists” or … otherwise (because you have recently silently “lost” my two comments on this blog, despite multiple recalling messages).

  2. The “right” question depends on the observational perspective. Currently theoretical physics is in rather defensive stance – with compare to younger “progressive” sciences, like genetics or neurology – particularly due its missinterpretation of scientific method.

  3. Nick Evanson

    Yet another sadly ill-conceived idea by the government that they expect will result in magically doubling the number of students taking sciences beyond GCSE level. As much as I welcome the evangelism of science as any other professional, I know full well that it will do nothing to solve the multiple roots of the problem:
    (1) a culture that rewards shallow, self-centred behaviour more than than genuine self-improvement and hard work;
    (2) an education system that insists on making GCSE physics increasingly easier, in the false hope that more people will take it at A-level or further;
    (3) a science industry that’s totally blind to its own stupid mistakes (e.g. Sellafield’s visitor centre advert that, once again, ‘proves’ that all scientists wear lab coats, are severely myopic and follicly challenged;
    (4) a government that is happy to dither over the future of the energy industry, but is more than happy to step in and through billions of taxpayers’ money at the car industry;
    (5) an increasing trend in the media to portay science as either ‘requiring’ gunk and explosions (i.e. children’s science programs) or ‘requiring’ dramatic narration, music and scripts-for-5-years (i.e. BBC Horizon).
    But hey, what do I know? After all, I’ve only spent nearly my entire working career in science education, so naturally I’m the last type of person that government campaigns would ever involve.

  4. Mark Harmon

    Hamish Johnston said: “…science is one of few professions where it is very difficult to be a fraud”
    It depends on what kind of science. And some fraud my be unintentional. The science of Dark Matter for instance may turn out to be a fraud. A complicated and very interesting and well intentioned fraud but something that may have as much truth as anecdotal evidence that fairies live at the bottom of the garden.

  5. Alex

    “Currently theoretical physics is in rather defensive stance – with compare to younger “progressive” sciences, like genetics or neurology – particularly due its missinterpretation of scientific method”
    Missinterpertation of the scientific method? Sorry – what scientific method? You mean the six-or-so step procedure that appears on color coded posters in highschool classrooms? It seems to me that the actual methods employed by scientists in research are typically pretty variegated and tailored to the questions they meant to investigate, and the text book “scientific method” doesn’t apply universally. Particularly when you’re looking at the methods used in theoretical physics as opposed to those employed by experimental sciences.

  6. Tom Weidig

    How about professional musicians or football players? We never accuse them of being elitist. In fact we admire them for being elitist.
    Why can I not sing at the big concerts or go to Manchester United’s football training to join the guys? Do you know who this makes me feel to be excluded? Even though I am an OK football player!
    People happily admit that someone sings better or is better at football, but admitting less intelligence is a bit more delicate for one’s self-confidence.
    The real issue is probably not elitism, but the difficulty to show mastery. Everyone recognises good music or football play, but how do you show good science play?

  7. Harry Hamill

    Well said, Nick Evanson. I too laboured at the chalk face (latterly the interactive whiteboard face) for many years as a science teacher. During that time we worked under a ceaseless tide of ‘initiatives’ designed to make science more accessible. The net result was simply a continuous regrouping of the same basic syllabus topics under different headings accompanied by an endless stream of prettily illustrated text books with shuffled chapter headings (I strongly suspect the publishing industry of lobbying for this approach to science education!). These spurious changes were invariably sold to us by ‘advisors’ as the magic fix for the problem of perceived low attainment in science. The basic problems are exactly as Mr. Evanson has described.
    Yes, science is elitist in the sense that any real understanding of the subject and command of its techniques requires concentration and application over a long period of time. No amount of ‘gunk and explosions’ will be an adequate substitute for this. We live in a society obsessed by celebrity and instant success where an attention deficit (whether recognised as a ‘disorder’ or otherwise) is regarded as ‘cool’. Only the core of the able, diligent and (and this is not often recognised) imaginative will succeed in science. In the current environment that comprises a very small proportion of the population. To increase its size requires a paradigm shift in the culture, not a quick MacFix.

  8. It is important to be clear about what we mean by ELITISM. Here are two definitions pulled off the web.
    1. ELITISM – the belief or practice that government should be by a self-appointed group who consider themselves superior to those governed by virtue of their higher birth. — elitist
    2. ELITISM is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite — a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be …
    In definition 1 the nature of the Elite is purely social – the elite rule because they are the elite. In definition 2 the elite rule because they have ‘outstanding abilities’
    I have three things to say.
    Firstly, the idea that the people in charge of an organisation are experts in its field of operation is basically (IMHO) a good idea. Thus there is an inevitable tendency towards a structure which is elitist in definition 2. This is not necessarily bad.
    Secondly. In my experience I have met people whom I consider to be basically stupid at the very highest levels of our scientific establishment. To this extent it is possible that the elite we have in science may not have outstanding personal abilities, but merely have had outstanding luck in the situation of their birth.
    Thirdly, if we want to tackle the association of science with an elitist class, we could abolish the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. Although founded on great principles, these organisations now represent an association with what is undoubtedly a social elite lacking any justification whatsoever:- what has Royalty got to do with science?

  9. Paulo Gotac

    If any scientist insists in “feel” elitist, he is completely out of track. It’s mandatory that everybody perceives that we live in an era when anything that ressembles an elit is consumed in ultrafast pace by monsters like the web.
    Nobody can be enclosed in a ivory tower(this lack of scrutiny is an elitistic mark) during the time the scientist used to be in the past.

  10. Strangely, the press release announcing the Science [So What? So Everything] campaign links to the 2008 Public Attitudes to Science survey, which showed that awareness of, and attitudes, to science was high and increasing. So why the expensive awareness campaign?
    The real issue of course, is that, in spite of the fact that young people are aware of the importance of science in their lives, fewer are choosing is as a career. Never has there been so many options for bright teenagers to distract them from science careers.
    Talented students are attracted by elite, high status careers, such as medicine. They will not be tempted by science if it is made too accessible. I want scientists and engineers to be clever — they should be seen as an elite. Not an ‘ivory tower’ unchallengeable elite, but a respected elite based on the understanding that they have achieved some expertise from a combination of intellectual prowess and sustained effort.
    An awareness campaign just allows the government to claim it is doing something, without having to actually tackle the serious problems that are stopping the country from attracting the best student into science and engineering careers.

  11. As a summary of various comments here, “personal” and creative “elitism” in new knowledge advancement looks generally positive: all knowledge we have was basically initiated in that way. But there is also “the dark side of the force”, which results in an equally negative “elitism” of scientific knowledge itself, rather than individual scientist talents. Indeed, all great (and small) art pieces, be it music, literature or visual arts, are also created by very “specially” trained and talented, if not “esoteric”, professionals, but practically everybody can easily appreciate the result of their work, with or without any special education. We can take pleasure in it or reject it, but almost always there is a feeling of general “comprehension”, being able to estimate it, up to subjective “personal” preferences. The same is true for other human activities results, such as engineering: without usually knowing all the details (which one typically can know if necessary), one does understand what a car, or a plane, or a computer is, with no basic limits. Now, that friendly family of “normal” human activities includes, as usually, one “black sheep” called “science”, which is done by the same brain efforts as arts or technologies, but its results are practically inaccessible to real understanding – and therefore interest – of large public, and even their usually assumed “general understanding” by educated amateurs or even professionals of science is qualitatively below the one we have for the most advanced results of all other human activities. There are even quite “institutional” and completely super-natural “mysteries” postulated as a basis for that allegedly “objective” kind of knowledge and persisting over a century of otherwise very intense and “rationality-driven” progress. Something should be seriously wrong here, objectively, rather than because of “poor propaganda” or education (which have never been poor, actually!). And it’s difficult to attribute such huge difference to dramatically “stronger” efforts of science creation, with respect to other activities: a composer, engineer or architect are equally “advanced” in their respective activities (it’s enough to try to reproduce the results by “anyone’s” efforts!).
    If this is true (as it seems to be), then instead of singing glory to “our great science” and trying to artificially enforce its already low and still catastrophically falling popularity (in the age of peaking “knowledge-based” development and total education – very strange indeed!), it would be much wiser – and simply indispensable – to try to understand that underlying fundamental origin of “infinite”, qualitative difference between public understanding of science and everything else: let’s first detect the disease behind the symptoms. And if one tries, then it may be not so difficult to see that a very special kind of knowledge known as “science” and imposed in all schools and universities as the unique ever possible kind of sufficiently objective knowledge is in reality not unique, actually very skewed, intrinsically incomplete, not objective (objectively always incorrect, in its totality) and therefore only temporal, temporally useful kind of knowledge. Moreover, today’s situation, where growing public distrust of and disgust with that “traditionally unique” and “officially great” science constitutes but an iceberg-top, infinitesimal part of real science problems, clearly shows that the time of that everywhere falling kind of knowledge, known as “positivistic” (empirically based) science, is definitely off. Call it “scientific crisis” if you want: if we don’t quickly find and develop a suitably consistent solution – i.e. another, intrinsically complete and therefore naturally comprehensible kind of knowledge – then we shall have a “collapse” kind of problems everywhere, from energy to medicine (it’s already the case, if you follow the news), and very soon this tendency will inevitably become irreversible (when one is forced indeed to treat the consequences and there is no more time to dig into their origin). Want to avoid yet another “unexpected” crisis? So I tell you that it’s already here and propose a provably efficient solution, for the case where anybody’s interested. Regards to Royal Highnesses.
    And finally, the great creation of Isaac Newton, his unified world picture used as a basis for the whole positivistic science endeavour, is also a very transparent illustration for today’s limits of the latter. One can easily understand its general content both with and without “formulas” and therefore it seems to be so widely comprehensible. But it clearly appears now that those “clockwork” planetary systems in Newtonian vision is rather a rare (though disproportionally important!) exception, than a rule, and when you deal today with real, really modified living organisms, none of that previous “triumph” remains efficient or even simply applicable any more (and it starts already at the elementary particle level!). Therefore it’s time now to move to quite another, intrinsically complete, explanatory and realistic kind of knowledge (avoiding any imitations of “novelty” without change!), with its widely accessible, naturally attractive “elitism” and equally inherent creativity, eventually even exceeding those of arts or engineering. And if it looks all too “theoretical”, try to check e.g. for the “garage genetics” state (among so many other problems!), to have an idea about catastrophically pressing “practical applications”.

  12. I think science is open to ideas, regardless of where they originate and seeks to verify through observation analysis with accepted models. Daily Access to most equipment in for verification of higher levels of scientific theory is restricted to those who have committed their time to formal education process to assure efficiency in utilization of equipment.
    If you are not a Phd of Physics you are not getting a fellowship at FERMILAB, regardless of accomplishment in the portion of the field accessible by books and pencil.
    This is the point where science loses something, prohibition and exclusion of ‘other’ genius.

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