Most people are interested in science and they admire and respect scientists, but I’ve noticed that some folks exhibit one of two extreme reactions.
1) Self-Disparaging: Scientists are smart. They talk about all these things and use all these words, and I can’t figure out what they are saying. Therefore I’m stupid.
I was once trying to explain to a person not educated in science a specific scientific issue. I was trying to describe things in a manner as simple as possible, but I didn’t seem to be having much luck in getting the point across. In the end the person excused himself for not understanding what I was talking about, and then he added, “I’m stupid”. Whereas some individuals, like the one I described, state outright that their intellect is defective, or at least not up to par, others get defensive and either try to bluff their way through a conversation involving science or try to avoid it all together. Sometimes I even sense an animosity, an unspoken tension, or hostility when a scientist is around. It’s like some people are concerned that they will be exposed as not knowing enough or as not being smart enough.
2) Dismissive: Scientists seem smart, but it’s really all talk and jargon. Anyone can be as smart as scientists and talk science and read and quote scientific studies. Not only that, scientists are often beholden to the interests of governmental or other institutions that fund their research, and they lie, misrepresent, or fake their results when their data don’t fit the facts to keep on being funded.
Due to the nature of my blog, I have had several exchanges with creationists, anti-vaccination advocates, conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers, and so forth. These individuals believe they know more than the experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding a particular scientific field. These people normally laugh my replies off with off base comments filled with little emoticons and links to junk science sites or lists of scientific articles of low quality.
I want to state here that both extremes are wrong.
I believe the first extreme exists due to the popular perception of what being smart means, its value to society, and how scientists tally up to this perception. Regarding this, I want to make the following points:
1) As I have posted before, intelligence has many components. The fact that one person excels in one of these components does not make him/her smarter than those that excel in others.
2) There is nothing magical of mysterious about being a scientist. Although, science can be performed at several levels, the basic qualification required to be a scientist is to think like a scientist. Anyone who does that can be a scientist.
3) We all have areas of specialization on which we have become knowledgeable. A climate scientist may know a lot about global warming but they may not make the best salesperson, farmer, restaurant manager, secretary, truck driver, accountant, etc.
4) We must not dismiss the knowledge we have of our particular area of expertise compared to others. Being a librarian may not look important compared to working at NASA shooting satellites into space, but we all fulfil a role in society and benefit groups of people with our work.
5) For scientists, explaining what we do to people who are not knowledgeable in science is very important. A key component of being “smart” is finding a way to get the point across. As a scientist, when I cannot explain some important scientific issue adequately to my audience, I consider it my failing, not that of my audience.
The flipside of the first extreme is the other extreme which I believe in recent times has been fueled partly by the vitriol unleashed against scientists by those aligned with special interests, or those subscribing to notions that scientists are dishonest or sold to government agencies or corporations. Regarding this, I want to make the following points:
1) When a person has dedicated their life to learning and studying an area of human knowledge such as a scientific discipline, this has to count for something. If you are not an expert in that area, suggesting that you know more than the experts is not only foolhardy but also disrespectful. This is nothing germane to scientists, as it also applies to any area of human expertise.
2) The scientific consensus achieved regarding issues such as climate change or the safety of vaccination is supported by many scientists from different countries and ethnicities who have different political, social, philosophical, and religious persuasions. They all agree because they have been finding the same things. It is risible to suggest that ALL these scientists have sold out in some sort of global conspiracy.
3) Scientists are human beings, and as such they can have moral or ethical failings and harbor contradictions. No one denies that. Most scientists are moral and ethical persons, or at least they try to be, and just like other groups of people in the overall population, the transgressions of a few individuals do not bear on the majority of scientists.
So to recap, yes, scientists are smart and they know a lot, but even if you do not understand many aspects of science, you also are smart and have specialized knowledge about your own area of expertise that is useful to society. Additionally, scientists have the responsibility of explaining science to non-specialists in a way that is accessible to them and that will better equip them as members of society to deal with issues like the climate change and vaccination controversies. Finally, scientists, like other professionals in our society, also are worthy of respect and should be recognized for their merits and judged on their individual actions. As with many things in life, we are better served by avoiding the extremes.
The image is a public domain picture from Pixabay free for commercial use.