About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Right, but my issue is not with the personal attacks on me. My skin is thick enough, I assure you, or I wouldn’t have been able to survive for a quarter century in academia. (Before you laugh, think of how much rejection is built into the job: most of your job applications will be turned down, most of your papers will be harshly criticized by at least some anonymous reviewer, and most of your grant proposals will be returned unfunded, again anonymously and often rather harshly. If you don’t have an ego big enough to sustain the bruises year after year, you better get out of the game.)
No, my problem is with the all too common accusation of intellectual arrogance being hurtled at myself and most of my colleagues who defend science from pseudoscience, be that creationism, intelligent design, UFO claims, psychic powers, astrology or “alternative” medicine. The reasoning, such as it is, goes like this: how dare you, Dr. X (put here any name of any scientist who dares to write for the public), claim that so many people are wrong and you and a small number of other egg-headed intellectuals are right? Who are you to declare the truth of evolution and the falsity of intelligent design? What makes you the arbiter in deciding what is science and what is bunk?
The answer is simple: I am an expert. You shouldn’t trust me on car mechanics, or on civil engineering, or on market analysis. But what I have to say about science counts more than what most people have to say about it because I am a scientist and they are not. The reason I don’t feel any qualms declaring evolution a sound scientific theory and intelligent design as not even junk science is because I am a professional organismal biologist, and pretty much everyone who accepts ID is not. By comparison, imagine how foolishlyou would feel if a thousand car mechanics tell you that you need to change the carburetor in your car and you keep insisting that they don’t know what they are talking about, elitist auto-experts that they are, because carburetors obviously don’t exist!
Intellectual arrogance, in the utmost degree, is being displayed by those who dismiss out of hand the considerate opinion of someone who has studied a field for 25 years only because they cherish a particular religious worldview that has no independent foundation in reality. Arrogance, according to my dictionary, is “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities,” and it seems to me to fit perfectly someone who has no technical background in a given field and yet pontificates endlessly about what is True and what is not.
The idea that someone who has not bothered to study a highly technical area of knowledge turns around and accuses experts in those areas of being arrogant is both ridiculous and a common strategy in certain political quarters. Consider the Obama-McCain contrast of this electoral cycle, or the Kerry-Bush of the last cycle. I don’t know whether Obama or Kerry are “elitist” in any meaningful sense of the word, although as Jon Stewart aptly put it, I want the guy who is running for the most powerful job on the planet to be better than me! But the idea that McCain -- who is so rich that he doesn’t know how many houses he owns, or Bush -- with a degree from ivy league Yale and a career propelled by his father’s money and connections, are “common folks” who really feel the pain of the people is astoundingly ludicrous. And yet millions of people buy straight into it without a second thought (thought, or lack thereof, being the key word here).
Our national discourse has gotten so bad that demagogues can get away with throwing any amount of mud at their opponents while claiming to have their hands as clean as snow, just like people who have no knowledge or understanding of the matters at hand can gingerly accuse serious professionals of being intellectually arrogant -- and feel very much self-righteous about it too. Al Gore, in his most recent book, put it in terms of an assault on reason. To reason, again going by the dictionary, is the ability to “think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” The right wing-fundamentalist axis that has gained so much prominence and political power in the United States over the past several years has truly thrown reason out the window. Now they would like to finish the job by accusing intellectuals of being un-reasonable, obtuse, and conceited.
It is time to reverse the tide and take a stand. If you reject the theory of evolution, or think that there is such a thing as alternative (as opposed to evidence-based) medicine, or claim without evidence that aliens are visiting the planet, or think that the stars influence human destiny, and so on, you are anti-science and live in a dream world with no connection to reality. More damning, you are engaging in the ultimate act of arrogance: to declare something true or untrue not because you have reason or evidence, but only because it makes you feel better. May I suggest that you need a good dose of humility, and that one way to get it is to admit that the universe is not about you, and that some people out there really know more than you do, as unpleasant a thought as this may be?