Ben’s Science Sort of manifesto.

written for Patrick, who wanted to know what i thought of SSO, based on an earlier claim that i thought SSO’s mandate is to socialize science.

My friends, Science is not something we DO, it’s something we are.
If you play video games, you are not necessarily a gamer.
If you answer phones for a living, you are not necessarily a receptionist.
But if you have been trained in the sciences, you are a scientist.

My point being that a culture, any culture, recognizes fault lines which divide its population into classes. In the past, you might have been recognized as a catholic, or a protestant. Or as servile or Nobility. Or as a tradesman or clergy. Or a toronto maple leaf’s fan, and a montreal canadiens fan.

Where these fault lines lie is a matter of the culture’s history, and of the zeitgeist. they grow and fade and shift in time according to how useful the divisions are to those who want to discuss the state of the nation. You will notice that no one cares about communists anymore, whereas 40 years ago, being a marxist could get you blacklisted.

So the “scientist/nonscientist” divide is one of these cultural fault lines. And we have done well by it. Polls i have read attribute a greater degree of credibility to the scientist class than any other class. people trust scientists more than politicians, and more than celebrities, and more than teachers. To the glamour of science is attributed the characteristics of trustworthyness, of altruism, of intelligence. People are less likely to think that our arguments are self-interested. They are more likely to think that our opinions are factually correct.

But there are problems too.

the fact that we are seen as “separate” from the “rest” of society means that we are less relatable. Furthermore, becoming a scientist becomes a matter of personal identity, and issues of personal identity are deep-seated and visceral. Think of the girls who drop out of physics because they are told  that “girls can’t do physics”. This isn’t an argument about personal capacity, it’s a matter of personal identity.

Furthermore, all of the cultural accolades which are granted to the scientist class might translate into political power. There is a reason that the tobacco and the oil industry drape themselves in the trappings of science. Conversely, this makes scientists a political threat, and therefore a political target. Think of the war the right wing tea party is waging on science funding. This is because the organizers of the tea party recognize the threat  which the scientific class poses to their own political power.

So although we personally benefit from the glamour of being identified as scientists, this glamour makes us a target, and it can act as a deterrent against more people entering our fields.

If science continues to grow in the esteem of the public (and it will), and if the fault line between “scientist” and “nonscientist” continues to deepen; i foresee great cultural wars. We’ll see jealous politicians cutting science funding. We’ll see jealous celebrities promoting unscientific theories. We’ll see clergymen calling for violence and spurning the scientific class. Just as we only care about learning and data and logic and structure; there are people who are only concerned with the appearance of credibility, and the political power which accompanies it.

I don’t mean to paint a pessimistic picture. I don’t think that we will lose these wars in the long term. Living well, it is said, is the best revenge. It’s also the best means of persuading people that you’re doing something right.

but I do foresee battles. and i hate conflict. it’s a waste.

so what’s to be done?

I think the answer lies in our own experience. I think the answer lies in shows like “science… sort of”.

I want to dissipate the glamour around the science class. People need to see that science is not inaccessible. anyone can understand it. People need to see that scientists aren’t special. they’re normal. they like to chitchat. they like to drink beer. they talk about movies and have arbitrary opinions. we need to show that individual scientists are merely experts. nothing more. anyone can be an expert. mechanics are experts. database managers are experts. even bakers and hairdressers are experts.

I think that if we show that  science is accessible, and that scientists are just experts (at something interesting), that maybe we’ll see the glamour dissipate. And then people won’t see scientists as a separate class of people. And then maybe there won’t be a battle, and no one will get their funding cut ever again.

bn

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2 Responses to Ben’s Science Sort of manifesto.

  1. DustinNo Gravatar 13 December, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    Ben, I just wanted to tip my hat to you. This was a great read, and I agree completely that SSO can play a huge roll in helping to bridge the gap between the non-scientifically literate and the experts.
    Its funny, you touch on something that I’ve been saying for years: For all the executives and scientists and celebrities and high muckity-mucks in society, we’d crash into anarchy in less than a week if all of the janitors, garbage men, and street sweepers went on strike at the same time. Most of them are experts in what they do, and they provide the most critical services in our society, and our general failure to give them the credit they deserve for what they do is to our shame.

    • benNo Gravatar 17 December, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

      :}

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