Steve Fuller was one of the participants of our last year's conference "Science in the 21st Century," though he could unfortunately only take part via a video link, due to prior commitments. (Worse than that, the recording failed. Shame on the IT staff.) I had been expecting a charming British accent, but as Wikipedia tells us Fuller is actually from the East Coast. He has also been among the advocates of an initiative called "Academics for Academic Freedom," fighting for the right of academics to offend. You see, he has some experience with offending people. Blogging is also an excellent tool to that end.
Reason why I'm telling you that
a) I think the man could need some traffic to his blog, so go and give him a welcome to the blogoshpere, and have an eye on his writing. Or go ask him what "social epistemology" is.
b) He had a post today that briefly touched upon the question of how to measure scientific success (output/impact/whatever), triggered by a comment in this week's THE by Adam Corner, claiming that the "desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism."
"Intellectual elitism" is one of these words that I find offensive. It is frequently used to express the conviction that academics, if there indeed was such a thing as "academic freedom," would not care whether their work was of any use for the society they live in. They would just levitate above the clouds and waste the taxpayer's money. Thus, so the argument, they need to be forced to produce useful outcome, call it "pragmatic objectives". And "useful" needs to be quantified by a metric, in the best case economical, but in any case something that you can put into Excel. You see, if it doesn't end up being something you can buy at Walmart, then what's all the research good for?
Everybody who has ever in their life had any actual contact with researchers in academia knows that this picture of the academic mindset is completely wrong. Academics do not feel more or less responsibility to contribute to the social good than any other part of our societies. In fact, the more "basic" their research is and thus the more detached from the average persons day-to-day live, the more they are painfully aware their work is not of immediate use, and there is a high risk it will never be of use. That is not a pleasant position to be in. You wouldn't believe how often I have talked to friends and colleagues about this. Some leave academia because they want their work to be of more immediate use. And for those who stay it will be a question that comes back.
If you need an example, read what Daniel over at Cosmic Variance wrote just yesterday, when he was comparing his work as a physicist to that of economists. He "confess[es] to a certain amount of envy" because, unlike theoretical physics, "what economists do and say really matters, in an immediate and tangible way."
That is not to say "intellectual elitism" doesn't exist. It surely does. But it's caused by rather than being a reason for social detachment. The "elitism" you see, hear, and frequently criticize on this blog is not more than a forward defense that is amplified by exactly that criticism. It is a difficult job to work on basic research: non-profit, a very very long-term investment of your society, a job that brings a high risk that nothing of what you do will ever be good for anything.
In addition to that, most of them have to live in an atmosphere where academic research is over and over again discredited as a waste of money. Long-term investments are never easy to justify in politics. It is even worse if your research is hard to communicate to the general public. As a consequence, researchers start telling themselves and everybody else that they are special, and form communities that are to some extend exclusive to enhance their group identity. They might chose to engage in public outreach to better embed their research into our societies and offer their knowledge - to make themselves more useful. And they make jokes about their own irrelevance, as Daniel ends with saying "maybe I’d rather not have to worry about destroying Iceland while looking for a bug in my code."
But the fact is, those working in academic research are special. "Elitism" isn't a good word though, maybe one should call it "expertism." Academic research differs from other jobs in many ways, but it is certainly not the only job where people feel special. Politicians I guess suffer from a particularly difficult sort of "specialness." Policemen do too. Look at any job-related community, and you'll find some in-group behavior, some commonly shared ideals that they are proud of. Serving the public. Save neighborhoods. What do academics have to be proud of other than their intellectualism?
The bottomline is, "Intellectual Elitism" is nothing but a word that's being used to justify limiting academic freedom. Or to express anger about not being part of the "elite" community. But the "elitism" that you see is merely a defense by people in a socially difficult position, who have to cope not only with the knowledge that their work and life can eventually be completely useless, but also with constant public criticism. You get what you give.
- "This whole damn world can fall apart
You'll be ok, follow your heart"
~ New Radicals, You get what you give