Is science elitist? Part 1: The politics of perception

Science Communication Institute > Impact > Is science elitist? Part 1: The politics of perception

The hotel had free breakfast. For me anyway, this is a huge treat because my breakfast at home is usually pretty bland, consisting of a cold bagel, some yogurt, and a small cup of coffee. Here at the hotel, they were serving all-you-can-eat scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and an assortment of pastries, plus a bottomless cup of coffee. So I filled up my plate and headed out into the seating area. It was early, so there were still lots of empty tables. And then it hit me. Fox News commentators were speaking in very urgent and serious news tones about the Biden crime family. From the big-screen TV mounted near the ceiling over the fireplace, I was being told that the weaponized DOJ had done something involving Hillary Clinton and then this led to something else of dire consequence. I had glanced at my news feeds earlier in the morning and knew that mercenary forces had just attacked Russia. All the headlines everywhere were about Russia. And yet, here was Fox “News” broadcasting its version of reality to breakfast guests, unapologetically ignoring the real news of real consequence happening in the real world.

In the Fox world, information is a game, the audience is a mark, and reality is for suckers. Fox News doesn’t inform viewers—it just panders to them with information that fits a zero-energy narrative of the world like a comfortable old pair of slippers. For millions of Americans, this is how they grasp reality, through the lens of Fox commentators who are misleading them because to Fox, the only goal is to attract and retain viewers, full stop.

In this version of reality, objectivity is both shield and weapon. Fox will claim it is simply seeking truth—a bald-faced lie but one believed by loyal viewers. At the same time, Fox will accuse those who speak the actual truth of being either deep-staters or elites. Of course, this attack line isn’t Fox’s invention. It’s simply propaganda 101, the same kind of propaganda fascists and dictators have always used to distort public opinion.

Scientists are easy targets in this game. Fraudsters who seek power and profits know real facts often conflict with the version of reality that attracts and retains viewers, so rather than educating their audiences, they dismiss the facts, and portray the purveyors of facts as arrogant, close-minded, partisan, and duplicitous. Why, after all, wouldn’t a scientist want to debate a political hack about whether vaccines are safe? Surely it’s because the scientist is elitist—the ultimate epithet in modern American politics—lording their “facts” over the common man, and forcing society to submit on bended knee to the will of dark, deep-state forces with liberal, even nefarious agendas. Facts are malleable, we are told, real truth has yet to be defined, and populist opinion deserves equal weight with scientific evidence and expert opinion.

To be fair, science has always had some amount of internal tension between the keepers of the chalice and the common man—between the principal investigators who corner a large share of the funding and fame in science, and the everyday working scientist who may feel unseen, underpaid, and underappreciated. This tension isn’t always a meritocracy. It isn’t always the case that the best ideas rise to the top, or that objectivity is always the order of the day, because scientists are human. Just like everyone else, they have biases, vices, and misaligned incentives. But this isn’t where the elitism accusations are focused. Instead, these accusations target the institution of science as being out of touch, and the practitioners of science as being drunk on liberal ideology.

Surprisingly, judging by how offended liberals are by this behavior, the world has always been this way. Science has always been held in high esteem but it has also been viewed with suspicion by a large percentage of the population—by those, for example, who simply can’t reconcile the Theory of Evolution with the Book of Genesis, or whose power is threatened by truth. And there is also nothing new under the sun when it comes to protecting historical “truths,” scientific or otherwise, and misleading the masses to protect our preferred truths. Even the actors are somewhat the same—power hungry leaders and businessmen versus those who might threaten their power and wealth. What has changed in our modern era are the tools, the drivers, and the stakes.

As far as the tools are concerned, misinformation, partisan and state-sponsored disinformation, false equivalency arguments, and truth-denier monologues are all easier to spread and find their way to target audiences due to social media and the Internet. In past decades, it took a strong ground game to recruit new members to the Ku Klux Klan, which for a time during the 1920s was America’s largest membership group. Today, the same messages of disinformation and hate can raise millions overnight from a laptop in Russia. In addition, the same communication tools that make it easier to spread disinformation in the world have also made it easier to spread bad information in science. The basic mechanisms of science are still the same, but agents of disinformation have capitalized on changing information dissemination patterns to claim that science is flawed because it has occasional retractions, or that because a non-peer reviewed study published in an open access preprint used falsified data, therefore all of science can’t be trusted. It is much easier for one bad apple to spoil the whole lot in today’s science world (at least in terms of public opinion).

The drivers of anti-truth sentiments are similar but different. Threat has always been the biggest driver. New knowledge requires we adjust our worldview and expand our perception of what makes the world go round. This knowledge can be difficult and even uncomfortable to embrace, from information that threatens our place in the center of the universe, to information that describes human sexuality in a way that might seem incompatible with our religious upbringing. Science is often the tip of the spear of wokeness in this regard. The science communication community has always tried bridge the gap between the public and this conceptual and linguistic newness, but the task is harder today because science is becoming more specialized, the amount of science that needs translating is vast (with the number of science papers published doubling approximately every 20 years), the number of science journalists has been in sharp decline over the last few decades (mirroring newsroom cuts in general), and the forces and resources available to do all this work are woefully inadequate compared to the forces and resources arrayed against truth and knowledge.

Another major driver in the war on truth is inequality. Fascists and dictators always play the populist card and pretend that the suffering of the masses (real or concocted) is due to elitist purveyors of truth. Today, Fox and others have relentlessly portrayed Americans as being historically well-off under Republican leadership and destitute under Democrats, and they use this falsehood to attack the elitists who have supposedly made lives miserable. At the same time, four trends in American society have fed this narrative: The wealth gap between the very rich and everyone else continues to grow, college enrollment continues to decline as the costs of a college education grows (to the point where getting a college degree requires either significant debt or significant wealth), college humanities programs continue to shrink as students increasingly pursue STEM degrees, and the trades grow in demand, providing a viable and accessible alternative to reaching the middle class. So, not only are elitists to blame for the economic misery of Americans, according to Fox, but the public can’t afford to attend universities anyway (why would they if it is easier and cheaper to get a union labor job?), and even if they can afford the bill, they aren’t going to study subjects that might help them push back on the Fox narrative of the world. Each of these trends aren’t necessarily bad by themselves, but their combined downstream effects may hobble our future efforts to define and defend truth.

Partisanship is yet another driver. Partisanship continues to rise, not just in America but around the world, with conservative rhetoric moving much farther right than moderate and liberal voices have moved left over the last few decades. Throughout the world, anti-intellectualism has increasingly been the target of conservative rhetoric. Whereas 75 years ago, “elite” described people with high incomes (and is still used in positive ways to describe high achievement in sports, for example), today it has come to represent cultural differences, where elitists believe in climate change, get vaccinated against COVID, read the New York Times, drive electric cars, and watch Disney movies. The right-wing anti-intellectuals (who are, hypocritically, mostly men with truly elite educations and incomes) have weaponized this word to mobilize hatred and distrust for the people and institutions who, they say—and in order to get more money, votes and viewers—are out of touch with the victimized and oppressed common man.

A final significant driver is regulation—not necessarily formal government regulation but a sense that people everywhere should be free without bound to determine their own rules and their own way, unshackled from their societal obligations. This driver is real but at the same time invented because this freedom never existed—it’s just a concoction that has evolved over time from Reagan era mythologies about the supposed benefits of deregulation. Who is oppressed today? So goes the argument, it’s the masses who are being treated unequally. And who is doing the oppressing? The elites. And what is the mechanism of their oppression? Regulations that come from the elitist purveyors of deep-state truth, with guidelines that limit smoking in public and pollution from cars, give students a solid foundation in science and the humanities, and protect us from deadly and highly communicable diseases. But why should we believe these deep-staters if they are out to oppress us? If they are so smart, where are our cancer vaccines? Why doesn’t my “science-based” diet work? Where are our jet packs? Why are some kids gay (asked as if this is some kind of contracted illness)?  The “failure” of science to cure all ills and provide infinite good, coupled with fundamental misunderstandings of science and the fact that science can make our lives inconvenient through regulation, is portrayed as a failure of science, and a sign that science is simply an instrument of elitist oppressors.

Finally, the stakes for truth telling are different now than in years past. If we don’t believe in climate change and work together to save our planet, the impact of this change will be catastrophic. So far, we’ve only spoken in muted tones about sea level rise and temperature increases. We don’t talk about pending methane release from permafrost regions of the planet and from the ocean floor, both of which will increase temperatures even more to the point where a great deal of sea life will die within our lifetimes; we don’t talk about the potential for a runaway greenhouse effect that could turn Earth into Venus in a matter of centuries; we don’t talk about the coming water shortages, mass migrations due to flooding, and entire countries that could soon become uninhabitable. And that’s just climate change.

So, what are the solutions to this dystopian information dynamic? There is no single solution. The first step is to recognize we have a problem. The second step is to get serious about devoting real resources and attention to solving this problem. This isn’t a problem scientists are equipped to handle, especially alone, or that small nonprofits with limited funding can tackle. This is a problem that will take serious money and global, high level focus and expertise to combat. But how exactly? Think in terms of a pincer strategy. From the public education direction, we need to ensure the future integrity of public education. Better science communication efforts can help here—more PSAs regarding vaccines and such. Better access to a free college education would also help, like free or subsidized community college for all, or zero interest student loans. For those who will end their education at high school, better K-12 exposure to critical thinking skills (especially information literacy) will be key. It also goes without saying that it needs to be much harder for school districts to ban books; courts may need to step in here to ensure that public-funded education isn’t in effect a curriculum designed by a few science deniers.

From the science reform direction, we need more truly reflective processes for how science gets pushed into public policy. These policy processes are already transparent, and they already involve copious amounts of public input, but this firehose of information still flows through just a small number of decision makers working under partisan oversight, and the end result is often policy that doesn’t adequately reflect the real concerns of the people who will be affected. The public in many parts of America will not accept future mask mandates, for example. So how will we combat the next pandemic or epidemic? Nor will the public in many parts of the country accept more rules to limit their carbon footprint. The public needs to be brought into the science policy process more fully and effectively, not to water down science but to help weave it into policy in ways the voting public will accept. This challenge is made all the more difficult due to disinformation, but it’s a challenge that—when addressed successfully—will demonstrate good will on the part of the science community, and also result in more buy-in from the public and more trust in both science and science policy.

Finally, from the regulatory direction, we need to tackle the threat disinformation poses to society. Free speech doesn’t include shouting “fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Disinformation volcanoes like Fox News, Joe Rogan and RFK Jr. should be treated differently by regulators than more objective information sources like NBC News. What this means in practice should be debated. If disinformation is a threat to public health and safety, then this might mean suing the cable and Internet channels that carry these messages, or suing the messengers themselves for endangering public safety. There’s not really a fine line here. People are free to say whatever they want to say, but only to a point. You can stand in your yard and shout about how Jews control the world, but you can’t necessarily stand in the middle of downtown and do this (without a permit), and you certainly can’t stand downtown and encourage your audience to take up arms against the Jews, with or without a permit. What Fox and other disinformation spreaders do on a regular basis comes much closer to this third extreme than the first. They are in my hotel lobby telling the public that the real news of the day is the Biden crime family, and to not trust the American justice system. And they, along with their snake oil brethren, also do this in other hotels, businesses and homes around the world, with their bloviations convincing millions every day that fiction is truth, truth is fiction, and knowledge is the enemy.

If history is any guide, people won’t be misled forever. Once the snake oil peddlers are forced to stop (by dint of law, fine, prison or all three), the fever will break and people will quickly rediscover reality. But for the sake of truth and everything that depends on it, we need to start taking our modern-day fight against disinformation more seriously. Taking these three approaches to containing and combatting disinformation—improving our education, science policy, and disinformation regulation—should make a dent. And then, we’ll need to work on the issues themselves, like combating climate change. Confronting the elitism charge against science is only step one. This doesn’t mean science itself is entirely blameless on this charge. Reforms are warranted here as well, but these have nothing to do with anti-intellectualism. We’ll discuss these reforms in part two of this post.