Thursday, October 08, 2009

Intellectual Elitism? You get what you give.

The other day I found out Steve Fuller has joined the bloggers! Fuller is a prof for sociology at the University of Warwick, UK, and probably one of the most prominent figures in the realm of the sociology of science, knowledge discovery and management, and something called "social epistemology" (I apologize for my intellectual insufficiency, but I have no clue what that is). His blog is called "Making the university safe for intellectual life in the 21st century."

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

34 comments:

Uncle Al said...

How does an epistemologist know what he knows? (and don't go asking an ontologist, either.)

Scientific success is the number of grant funding applications approved - zero risk, zero innovaiton, least-publishable bits, PERT-charted inevitability; an IPO business plan woven of Official Truth; perfect process uncontaminated by insubordinate perfidies of product.

desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism. Elitism insists the better is preferable to the worse. Uncle Al is an elitist. Carothers wanted to make very long molecules. A physical chemist diddling a molecular still without managerial oversight stumbled upon nylon. A Swiss patent clerk did pretty well too - though not with patents.

Giotis said...

I think it's the other way around. Many scientists are frustrated because the public doesn't care about their work. I often see scientists eager to explain the importance of their work to the various media. Besides the appreciation of their colleagues they desperately seek the recognition from the general public and they are trying with zealousness to prove that they are useful.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Why is that the other way round? That's what I've been saying, one aspect of it. It is however only a very small fraction of scientists that chose this way. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

The other way around regarding "Intellectual elitism". I agree with that you've written.

Giotis said...

Although I just remembered a characteristic story with G. H. Hardy. Hardy was pride about being a pure mathematician and his work had no applications what so ever. He looked down on his colleagues doing applied mathematics. But of course we are talking about Cambridge and Oxford in post Victorian imperial Great Britain and Hardy was kind of eccentric. That was indeed true elitism at its extreme. Times have changed but many people are still perceive scientists this way.

Praxiteles von Pumpernmeister said...

" His view on evolutionary theory is that the jury is out,"

Wow, what an intellectual provacateur! ie, a pretentious twerp whose "research" is as vacuous as it gets.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Intellectual elitism is exhibited by the professor of economics who insists that the reason that the unemployment rate is up is because people don't want to work. This is not a subtle case; but the more subtle cases involve the arrogant insistence that the world adheres to one's pet theories when there is no preponderance of evidence.

What one is working on may never be applicable to the practical world. To be in such a situation is not intellectual elitism. But not to use what one knows to solve a real problem, because it is a real problem and thus "beneath" oneself, is intellectual elitism.

Intellectual elitism is to not recognize or to devalue very real skills other people have simply because one has a mental model involving a hierarchy of skills (usually with one's own pursuits at the top).

One of the failures of the Bell Labs system in its later years was the inability of its personnel to translate their inventions (applied research) into products. This was at least in part, I think, because certain disciplines were considered to be beneath the researchers. This is intellectual elitism.

"I am not interested in X" is one statement. The implication that X is crap because I'm not interested in it, is another thing - often an ingredient of intellectual elitism.


Best,
-Arun

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Intellectual Elitism” I would agree in most cases is just another term for specialization. However, that’s what it is objectively, yet what is being explored here is the subjective perspective of both those looking out and those looking in; with the truth of it resting somewhere in between.

Personally I don’t believe there is an academic specialty that doesn’t have ability to be practically useful, simply that in many cases it’s not readily apparent how it is; either by being obscured by subtlety or resultant of the time it will take to have it found to be practically relevant, either to further discovery, innovation or simply to expand our ability to make better decisions.

Also, it should be reminded, that for science in particular, part of the process is the elimination of what is wrong, to have us discover what might be right; which can have a null result perceived as being a complete waste of time, while in actuality representing both time and effort that necessarily and unavoidably must be spent. This recognizing that as in the real world, wisdom is found more often in understanding one's mistakes rather then one's successes and this also being a bedrock fundamental aspect of science.

An other thing being many theorists, while good at making discovery, don’t necessarily have equal or any ability to fully understand and appreciate its implications. I think the most classic example being, when Maxwell wss asked what utility the spectra of electromagnetic waves was outside of the visible, he replied he didn’t believe they would serve to be of much use.

Lastly, I would agree this elitism often is a reaction to both a real and perceived vulnerability. However, I’m also a firm believer that it is self defeating, since it actually demonstrates there being a need for a more widened and general understanding, for which isolation being the opposite reaction to that what’s actually required. This in itself should serve to indicate, to those both on the inside and out, that when it’s all boiled down, there are no elite.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, I agree that it's not beneficial. What I was trying to say in my post is that you're not solving the problem by alienating academics further. Instead you should make more effort integrating them. Getting "science closer to the public," I think would lead to an improved mutual understanding, and the alleged problem would solve by itself. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

The example you mention has nothing to do neither with intellectualism, nor with academia or elitism. Somebody with that attitude shouldn't be a scientist to begin with, but you find in all areas of human life people who insist on their "theories" of how the world works, and are dismayed if the world doesn't behave accordingly. Many of the people who do that end up in psychotherapy.

"I am not interested in X" is one statement. The implication that X is crap because I'm not interested in it, is another thing - often an ingredient of intellectual elitism.

What you are talking about is an attitude one finds unfortunately in academia, but it's rather unintellectual indeed. If you look eg at researchers in physics, most of them (including myself) I wouldn't call "intellectual" whatsoever. They are mostly just narrowminded, specialists, with a particular skill in a particular area. Believing something is crap because one isn't interested, or not recognizing or devaluing skills of other people is another aspect of this arrogance. You would actually alleviate these issues if there was more "intellectualism" in academia. I don't think though that academia is exceptional with this specialist's arrogance. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Yes I know you are most cognisant of this, perhaps more than anyone else I’ve come across. This is of course becomes most plainly evident in your creation and maintenance of this blog. So yes, also for me it’s not that the ivory tower should be radically altered or raised to the ground, yet be expanded so in future it might be more widely understood, appreciated, welcomed and ultimately contained by all. That’s the dream or vision if you will, onr which I’ve always hoped formed to be the ultimate destiny and purpose of humanity, yet one which I must admit still remains to be seen if it be true.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, I think we're on the same page. Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

The attitudes I pointed out may not mean intellectual elitism to you, but I believe it is those attitudes that bother non-academics and cause them to raise the charge of "intellectual elitism".

Best,
-Arun

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

That might indeed be, but this wasn't the aspect that Corner was referring to in his comment. He was referring to the "intellectual elite" being allegedly unconcerned about the public good. I was saying that's just a made up justification used to push academics around and discredit their own sense for responsibility and accountability. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

I agree with Arun. This kind of 'Intellectual elitism' is the least of my worries. What I really care about is when research has profound implications in real life. It is often the situation where scientists are funded by big corporations and trusts. A number of scientists who betray public's trust, consciously modify the results of their research in order to serve conveniently the interests of their sponsors. This is a huge problem since people lives are in stake.

Another big issue is the justified perception of the public that scientists due to their passion for their work are willing to ally with the devil in order to continue their research and they have no moral inhibitions in doing so. In other words their passion for exploration is so big that they don't care about the negative impacts of their work in society or about the means they use to accomplish their scientific goals.

These are the real problems in the science world but they are off topic I think.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

my impression is that "intellectual elitism" (understood as the unwillingness to explain concepts and ideas in way comprehensible to someone not familiar with the field and its jargon) is higher in the humanities than in the natural sciences. This seems to supports your view that it is merely a defense by people ... 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.

Cheers, Stefan

Bee said...

Dear Stefan,

Thanks. Same to you as to Arun: this was not how Corner referred to the phrase and not what I commented on. I made pretty clear what I was talking about, didn't I?

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.

Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Until now I thought that 'Intellectual elitism' was the belief of highly educated people that they are superior and different from the general public. They position themselves at the top of the social pyramid and they think that they are the only ones that have something worth saying about the world in general. The rest should just listen.

But I see now that there are lot of stereotypes attached to the notion of 'Intellectual elitism' and this leads to confusion.

Stefan just described a different notion of 'Intellectual elitism' and Bee in her post refers to something entirely different.

RD said...

I am an academic economist and can assure you that economists are more guilty of elitism than physicists. Every year, first rate physicists publish 2-3 dozen very decent books for educated general readers, and this is something I applaud. Meanwhile, economists cannot be bothered to do anything of the sort. The practical value of a fair bit of the research coming out of my department eludes me.

When I argue that my university should not do X or my department should not do Y, because we would look like rip-off artists if we were ever found out by the national press, certain of my colleagues have told me that my argument is "the weakest possible one." Even my colleagues who are regular church attenders do not criticise this line of reasoning, which strikes me as arrogantly elitist to the max.

Bee said...

Yes, people have different prejudices when it comes to the alleged elitism of academics, and some of them are even true. However, I clarified explicitly in my post what I was referring to, which was the context in which Corner brought it up, implying that the "intellectual elite" has no desire to be useful for our societies, and thus "pragmatic objectives" have to be imposed by people who believe they know better. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi RD,

How would this behaviour separate them from that of many government bureaucrats or politicians? That which you are describing is what many people think of the value of something that isn’t their own. This has nothing to do with being intellectual, yet rather being instead just another of many thoughtless humans that occupy the planet.

As I said before, there actually is no such thing as being elite when it comes to human behaviour. However, the elitism Bee is describing is a reaction to feeling misunderstood and unappreciated, which is something that is as much the fault of society in main. resultant of their own self inflicted ignorance, as much it is of the intellectuals who believe they can’t be made to understand more, so why bother.

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

This makes no sense to me. What kind of "pragmatic objectives" can you impose to philosophy, theology or paleontology? On the other hand why disciplines like Biology, Chemistry or Engineering need any new objectives? Their objectives are quite clear and they are very pragmatic. What I mean is that whether a certain discipline has any palpable applications depends on the very nature of that discipline. If he means that we should abolish certain scientific areas, I find that to be absurd. But if he means that society should fund much more the scientific fields that produce useful concrete results for society and improve the quality of our lives, then I agree.

For example researchers searching for alternative, cheap and climate friendly energy sources should be funded much more than those who seek signs of extraterrestrial life. But this is already happening I guess.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Well, at the very least you could ask for their research to be of some interest. I suppose understanding religions is in many aspects important to understand history, and that in turn is important to understand present conflicts. But see, that's exactly the point. You don't know what philosophy is good for. I assure you there's millions of people out there who don't know what quantum gravity is good for. And if I look at research projects in biology, most of them I don't know what they are good for either. Do they need new objectives? I guess many people would think so. More hands-on research, less poking in the dark. Quantum gravity? What a waste of money! But then, how do you get these "pragmatic objectives?" Do you take a majority vote? We'd get rid of 99.99% of all academic research in about zero time. And that's what I was trying to say, you can't let any "objectives" be imposed by people who don't know what they are judging on to begin with. People might not like to rely on other's judgement, but they can trust that academics have as everybody else an interest in making themselves useful for mankind and leading a meaningful life. You tell them what to do, and the outcome will be a short-termed increase in measurable productivity, and then you'd get stuck. Best,

B.

Plato said...

"This whole damn world can fall apart
You'll be ok, follow your heart"


I think one can be well set in terms of their own fortitude of being, confident, and self motivated, finding that the inherent quest of learning and acquiring knowledge can be needless of secular research and lone wolf expertise and elitism.

"That fire" can be something else, in terms of the truth seeker and I believe stands the better test of time in regards to the job one takes on and is paid for, versus what sidelines toward future research might be done as one continues with their trade with great interest.

Learning can be fun.

Best,

Giotis said...

The answer is simple I think. The different scientific areas will present their work and their objectives to a state committee i.e. the representatives of the people. This committee shall be advised by experts from various disciplines. Depending on the state's wealth, the funds will be distributed based on society's priorities, goals and values. The committee will not impose any objectives to Academia; it will just distribute funds. Thus and returning to my previous example if you are searching for alternative, cheap and climate friendly energy sources you will get 1000€ because this is a first priority for our society. If you are seeking signs of extraterrestrial life, you can follow your dream of course but you'll get 10€ because this in not our society's priority.

Sounds naive but again I fail to see where the problem is and i have the impression that this kind of fund distribution is already happening more or less.

BTW regarding the song you referred to, I personally prefer Patti's Smith People have the power:-).

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I think we roughly mean the same. What I try to point out is that rarely a research project is simply "I search for extraterrestrial beings" or "Clean energy." In practice, under these overarching goals, there are thousands of very specialized mini-steps whose relevance is very hard to tell for anybody who doesn't have sufficient expertise. What I said is that, sure, the overall directions should be decided upon democratically - after having been informed as far as possible by experts as you say. But then don't mess with how the money is used. In particular, don't come up with invented "measures for progress" or "pragmatic objectives" etc, that are (that being the content of the post) nothing but an expression of mistrust. When it comes to academic research you just have to live with the fact that most of it doesn't lead anywhere. But that's not because the researchers have the wrong objectives, that's just the matter of the subject. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Tkk,

Here is a PS on the 20/80 rule with some recent numbers. I just came across data about the funding from various sources that went to German universities. From 159 universites, the top 20 (12.5%) got 60% of the funding, the top 30 (18.9%) got 77% of the funding, and the top 40 (25%) got 88% of the funding. So it's pretty close! Best,

B.

Bee said...

Forgot: Here's the report. It's in German though.

Tkk said...

Thanks for the '20/80' numbers for German science funding. (But can't read report.)

I learn of the 20/80 phenomenon from attending management training at GE executive school some 2 decades ago, after I was given charge of a research team and a significant budget. In summary here's what they taught me:

1) 20/80 is a reflection of basic human group behavior backed by social science studies.

2) To exploit this behavior, such as by funding, by teaching, by managing, by punishing, in order to achieve defined goals and results, however, take a great deal of skills. It is very easy to mess up and get something else. But when applied correctly it delivers amazing results. How to do it requires 1 full week of intensive training by experts, which also require doing simulations of sophisticated mathematical model of certain aspects of group behaviors. Using funding allocations that mirror the 20/80 behavior is the most common. The funding can vary from 10/90 to 30/70 but no more. The 'easy' part is the funding. The hard part is to predict which member of a group will become the 'top 10 or 20' performer before they get the money. Because if they are already the top performers then there is no need to fund them in order to create them. There's only the need to maintain them. And maintaining them do not require the 20/80 rule!

BTW what are you doing with 2 drumsticks. Have you ate them? :-)

Bee said...

Hi Tkk,

Thanks, that is interesting. A question that I've been wondering about for a while: Do you think it would be beneficial for academia if some researchers had a training in knowledge management (eg explain them the 20/80 thing and how to use it)? It seems to me one could save a lot of time and confusion already by having people at least trying to identify a problem for not to repeat it etc. However, in my impression most scientists would consider it a waste of time. I mean, they consider everything that's not original research a waste of time. But as a matter of fact science is a community enterprise, so there's a potential that better management has benefits. Global companies figured that decades ago. Why didn't we? Best,

B.

PS: Not the chicken type.

sandycharm said...

That's a great post.

Rikard said...

I was going to comment here earlier, but I couldn't decide how to best describe Steve Fuller without invective... Instead I think this post at The Panda's Thumb says it pretty well.

Best,
Rikard

IvanM said...

Steve Fuller? For reals? Perhaps you missed this part of his wikipedia page.

I'm sorry, I'm just a little shocked to see you recommend a guy who's been actively helping the creationists here in the US to push our science education back towards the Dark Ages.

Bee said...

Ivan: I've been in contact with Steve for a while, and it's been an interesting and useful exchange. I didn't know the story with intelligent design until somebody pointed me to it. So yes, I recommend you don't dismiss everything somebody says because you didn't like one thing. Best,

B.