Academic Arrogance and Ivory Towers

Obviously I am very keen on trying to engage with the public over research in general and dinosaurs in particular but it brings with it an interesting dichotomy of my relationship with both my fellow academics and the public at large that is worth expounding on a little. There is a little Jeckel and Hyde going on really as a result of the way both parties (academics and the lay public) act with respect to the other, and me being one of those trying to bridge that gap often left frustrated with one or the other or both, thanks to the fundamental unreasonableness of members of both camps.

First off, my fellow researchers. I think it is part of our fundamental duty as scientists to communicate with the public. I happen to do it because I also think its fun, and I’d like to think I do a decent job of it, but I would do it anyway (however begrudgingly) because I think it is the right thing to do. If nothing else, ultimately the public pay our salaries and fund our research, and they should get something back a little more accessible than the odd paper in Systematic Palaeontology. At a less philanthropic (but more practical) level, influencing the public is necessary in terms of securing our funding, and repelling the anti-science and pseudo science that affects us all from time to time. It is therefore to my chagrin, that a significant number of academics not only do not engage with the public, but actively avoid doing so. They see it as a distraction from their work, and very much live up to the classic stereotype of looking down on the public form their ivory towers, Why should they give their time to try and explain their work to them? Those little people who lack the intellectual capacity to follow their superior reasoning, do not have their years of experience or reams of knowledge, and probably don’t care anyway. They have nothing to gain from the exercise, the public would not get anything from it, and would not understand if they did bother to listen, and there is “important science” to be done.

That attitude appals me for all kinds of reasons. What use is our knowledge if no-one understands it? OK, not everyone is ever going to be able to follow even the basics of string theory, or quantum mechanics, or gene therapy – but that does not mean that we should not at least try to help some people grasp some of what we do. Why are we not trying to inspire the next generation of scientists, explain to the current generation of adults why our work is important, and what it means, to influence them to get better facilities and greater freedom for our work? Or to just spread the knowledge around – you never know who might read New Scientist or Science Blogs, or even just the free local newspaper and realise that their uncle’s little unpatented widget might be applicable to making artificial hearts or some such event. These things really do happen on occasion. One does not need to be an idealist to see the practical benefits of coming out onto the balcony of that mile high tower, if only to pontificate briefly and disappear again (though I’d prefer them to come out the front door and really talk it over for as long as possile). I am happy doing grunt work, explaining all kinds of things to all kinds of people to all kinds of levels, but every academic who thinks like that makes my job harder and ultimately his own work less valuable, even if he saves three hours a year not writing an article for the university magazine.

At the other end though, the attitude of many of the public remains not much better. Why must they question everything so, from a position of such profound ignorance? There is a certain truth to the attitude of the ivory tower dweller – there is a reason that it takes years to get a degree, a masters, a PhD – hundreds of papers and dozens of books must be read and understood and related to each other, mountains of data must be sifted, philosophies of science must be absorbed, methods developed, checked and studied, papers written, talks given, discussions had, and above all you must get the tacit approval of your peers by getting your work into print and securing grant money to do your research. Becoming an academic takes time, effort, dedication and intelligence. Not everyone is smart enough to make it, and of those that are, not all are dedicated enough, or lucky enough to be able to stay on and pursue a full academic career (I am far from securing a full-time position despite 7 years at university and another 3 in full-time academic employment). It is therefore true that not everyone out there will be able to understand what you do – even a certified scientific genius like Stephen Hawking I suspect would struggle over the complexities of the polymerase chain reaction without one hell of a crash course in biology and genetics, just as James Watson would probably struggle with the maths of black holes. Why? Because even intelligence is not enough for many subjects, even at relatively basic levels – you need to be smart and have the knowledge and an appreciation for that knowledge in terms of what we know, what we don’t know, what we can’t know, and how it fits together into wider patterns and theories.

So why then do people who must know that they have little or no knowledge of a subject outside of a junior school class taught some 15 or 20 years ago, and whom did not even pass the university entrance exams, feel entitled to grill academics over their research, or refuse to believe the results, or suggest that the researchers do not understand their subject? I see far too many opinion pieces in the press, vox pops, blog comments, whole blogs even and more from people who seem to just not only fundamentally misunderstand the issue or point at hand, but do not realise that they do not understand. Does it not occur to them that they lack the education and intelligence to get to the core of these issues? I’m not just referring to the creationist nutters, but even parts of the informed audience – those with an active interest in science and some basic (or even advanced) knowledge – will go to town on a paper or book when they obviously do not understand the subject. There is a reason senior scientists advise the government on science and not someone who does not even have a degree, let alone one in the relevant field.

However, it is often impossible to explain some things to them (because they don’t have the necessary background to understand) and if you are forced to fall back on “Because I say so” which comes over as “Well you just don’t understand because I’m smarter / better educated / have the requisite experience / knowledge”. Then you are accused of being elitist and lose the argument and / or respect by default. It really is a catch 22 – they don’t understand the issue and you do, yet you are not allowed say so, and you can’t explain it to them either. Despite my distain for academic elitism (the ivory tower effect), I can be equally irritated by those who refuse to bow to superior knowledge. There is a reason that academic X wrote a paper on Y and that his opinion is requested on the subject it should be valued and treated with some respect and not instantly challenged. It’s a problem for science when so many of the forums in which these exchanges are public and so much of the ‘arguments’ are proposed by those who should not be in the forum in the first place. All knowledge is not equal and not all opinions are equally valid, and the problem is only enhanced by the unwillingness (or inability when confronted by so many blogs and magazines with online comments) of researchers to engage the public.

Thus I am left in an unenviable position, trying to encourage my peers to actually engage, and make them see that engaging is a worthwhile endeavour that will not be wasted on the public, while being exasperated by that same public who seem to want to ignore these efforts and just spout ignorance over the top of real research with often an active distain for science, and a fundamental mistrust of the researcher by default. It is hardly the best position to be in, nor the most rewarding – attacked on all sides (and yes I have been actively chastised by a fellow academic for even suggesting that we should try and communicate with the public at all, in addition to arguing with the ignorant and the classic “I don’t believe you”-s and “you’re wrong”-s of the rest) and appreciated by few (on either side). Still, I feel that it is only the only real solution to the issue – every scientist who beings to contribute, however little, will themselves be assisting in the wider goal of public education and removing a bit more of the concept of the ivory tower, while at the same time chipping away at the ignorance of the public and encouraging them to read the science and appreciate the skill and effort that goes into generating the research.

We have a long way to go on both sides, but the internet does make it easier for scientists to engage and easier for the public to reach them. Part of the success of AAB is down to the fact that the scientists can reach the public directly without leaving the office, and by answering questions put to them, are by definition, dealing with issues they know people find interesting. There is a new generation of communicators coming through and more and more labs and universities are getting the hang of PR in general and dealing with the public specifically, and science education as a whole is slowly improving. There is a long way to go, but we are on the right road.

13 Responses to “Academic Arrogance and Ivory Towers”

  1. 1 chris y 23/08/2008 at 7:17 pm

    Formatting issue. You probably need to close italics after the second sentence in the final para. of this post. Which is, I think excellent. But I’m largely ignorant of these matters, so I wouldn’t pay much attention if I were you.

  2. 2 David Hone 24/08/2008 at 12:10 am

    Got it, thanks. And thanks for the support – I doubt this will go down too well on either side, but as far as I am concerned it is accurate and based on my experiences.

  3. 3 Mark Mancini 24/08/2008 at 9:33 am

    My thoughts exactly with reagrds to the entire article. I’m currently beginning the long trek to becoming a paleontologist and long ago resolved that the primary concern of my academic career would be properly communicating science with the public. Like yourself, I love teaching…I get to share these fascinating things about subjects I adore AND I get to inspire others to pursue the field long after I’m gone! Teaching (and all science communication for that matter) isn’t just rewarding, it is absolutely essential for academia that we be good stewards of our science so we may retain any hope of motivating the next generation of its practitioners.
    Unfortunately, I’m all to farmiliar with people who are unwilling to accept arguments from anyone more qualified than themselves in a particular field. A former employer of mine went so far as to state that he didn’t believe in dinosaurs because, as far as he was concerned, scientists have yet to prove their existance! It’s absolutely mind-boggling! If your child or significant other needed brain surgery, to whom would you entrust the job, a certified brain surgeon freshly graduated from med school or the local high school drama teacher? The same applies to all sciences, yet some people are arrogant enough to believe that with absolutely no training of any sort whatsoever (excluding the possible viewing of a single episode of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ or ‘Nova’) they can intellectually compete with someone whose spent the better part of a decade earning their master’s or doctorate in the subject? This is not to say that scientists should exclude discoveries made by knowledgable amatuers (indeed, paleo in particular can ill-afford such a mentality), but let’s face it, no one is going to be knowledgeable in every field and its the height of egocentrism for some people to assume so. Like you said, if we are to make any headway in this department, the public and the academics must be willing to meet each other half-way.

  4. 4 David Hone 24/08/2008 at 5:35 pm

    Mark, thanks for the encouraging words, I am glad it is not just me who feels this way. The academic side I have a lot of sympathy for since as I move up the ladder I find more and more of my time taken up with ‘must do’ work, but I still know senior professors with huge teaching loads, students to supervise, administration and their own research who can make time to get out into the wider world and push science to the public. Thus I know it is more than possible at any level for everyone to give just a little bit of their time towards this.

    The public are another matter and yes it is incrduluous that they should rely on scientists and engineers and doctors to build their cars and computers, develop electricity and flight, and heal cancers and infertility, but then mysteriously not trust them to prove that the ozone layer is depleted or that stem cell research is safe. The mind boggles.

  5. 5 manabu sakamoto 26/08/2008 at 10:25 pm

    Agreed, Dave.

    Public awareness of science, I think, starts with the education system, and people who decides how much effort should be put into each subject. If boards of education are dominated by non-scientists that for some reason thought they didn’t get anything from their science and math classes when they themselves went to school, then chances are likely that they won’t see the point of allocating necessary funds to science because they might see these classes as unnecessary. Instead they may approve of buying a million-pound art-piece for the school lobby.

    So I think good education is key to solving most of society’s problems.

  6. 6 Seth 29/08/2008 at 2:10 am

    I’ve only found the non-science public particularly disagreeable when discussing an issue related to their ideology or material well-being. So, the applied things that I do are the most likely to get a negative response. I would urge scientists not to disregard what a random person without credentials in an audience may say. All knowledge is provisional, they may very well have a valid point, even without a few letters after their name. Sometimes a person not educated in a subject’s paradigm is more able to view it creatively.

  7. 7 Dube 03/09/2008 at 8:45 pm

    This is a fascinating topic! You’re absolutely right about the public questioning things they don’t understand. One thing that can help bridge the gap between scientists & researchers and the general public is the field of science journalism. I received a master’s degree in science & technology journalism a number of years ago, and after reading your post, I can definitely see where people in that field can certainly help. Scientists & researchers may get tired of dealing with the public or explaining little things, but if they have a science journalist to help bridge the gap, then they don’t have to spend as much of their important time. And a science journalist can take more time to write things in a way that the general public can grasp easier.

    Great post!

  8. 8 Strangetruther 18/09/2008 at 3:01 am

    Teaching non-scientists something they’re not keen to believe is easy – compared to teaching scientists to drop an old idea and adopt something better. Palaeontology is a biological science depending heavily on statistical algorithms, and needing sound understanding of the philosophy of science because we only have relics to study and experimenting on them is difficult. Yet without any qualifications in these areas palaeontologists argue till they’re blue in the face that their ideas in those fields are right, even against unassailable technical arguments. “Scientist” is a relative term… but then again, until you submit to Popper, you can’t really claim to have entered the kingdom of science at all. And that puts most scientists into the category of pre-scientific thinkers like our ancestors, and most of the people who physically construct our houses, having excellent – or at least perfectly adequate – brain hardware but relying on “naive physics” and “naive philosophy of science”. They can get by with this mediocre brain software but it’s inexcusable for them to get in the way of people who can address the big questions properly.

  9. 9 Oli 22/10/2011 at 10:27 pm

    Hi Dave,
    Well put, and it’s interesting to see the perspective of a person who is sympathetic to both the academics and to the general public. It’s true that the public is at times ignorant and even belligerent about challenging academics, but as a member of the unwashed masses, I just wanted to let you know that we don’t mean any harm.

    Incidentally, the distrust of science is often fuelled by irresponsible Red Top headlines, and an overexposure to Zombie films/games. My girlfriend is a science student and I’m a language student, and we have the old ivory tower debate every now and then, and it usually results in us agreeing that, as you said, unreasonableness on both sides lies at the heart of the matter.

    Good stuff, and keep it up!

    • 10 David Hone 23/10/2011 at 8:29 am


      Glad you liked the post. One thing I would say that there really are people who are more than just belligerent towards scientists and if they don’t mean any harm they’re doing as great job of keeping it hidden.

      And yes the press (and not just the tabs) really, really don’t help. There’s a ton of posts on these issues on here if you hunt around a bit.

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