Are scientists part of the elite?

Chris Hayes appeared on Point of Inquiry to pitch his new book The Twilight of the Elites. Chris Mooney and he discussed the difference between science and Wall Street, two areas of human activity that appear to value intelligence above all other qualities, and both of which claim to be meritocracies. Hayes argues that meritocracy has failed because it has devolved into a system of ‘inequality in, inequality out.’ Could science suffer from the same problem?

Mooney, a long-time defender of science, argues that science is different from other elite institutions such as politics or Wall Street. Peer review deters fraud; most mistakes are eventually revealed. Many scientists may be socially distant but they don’t seem to suffer the debilitating hubris noted by Hayes.

The discussion about the success of science was a bit confused but my summary lists the following benefits of science:

  1. Self-policing, through peer review.
  2. Pursued for the sake of knowledge.
  3. Insulated from the crassest commercial concerns.
  4. Globalized merit so other countries are beginning to succeed even more than America.
  5. Not as many superrich in monetary terms.
  6. Failure is common. Most experiments fail.

I would put these points together into two major differences: pursuit of basic knowledge, and smaller social distances. Basic knowledge is not immediately connected to commercial success, although some scientists do start or join profitable businesses, but even more are driven by curiosity about the world. While bankers and politicians are driven by power. The social distance between the super successful and the ordinary scientist is much smaller than the distance between a hedge fund manager and a middle manager; the work of Nobel prize winners is peer-reviewed just like the work of ordinary scientsts. Everyone experiences the failure of an experiment or the rejection of a paper again and again, even superstars.

One of the glaring omissions in the discussion between Hayes and Mooney is the complexity of social interactions. The natural sciences seem to be the default comparison which seems to be a bit unfair when comparing to the actions of elites in business or politics. Explaining the natural world is not easy or simple, but the social world adds an additional level of complexity because the explanations provided by the social sciences become fodder for further actions.

Consider the history of postmodernism, originally begun as a critique of literature and architecture, rapidly expanding into political correctness, and then becoming a commonsensical part of everyday discourse entitling everyone to their dose of relativism. Postmodernism started as a liberal critique of power and ended up being used by the conservative Bush administration to justify a new imperialism of power opposed to the reality based community, illustrating the protean nature of social science. Before any predictions can be made the substance of the studies, human beings, have changed.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.