Boost the Public Understanding of Science By Raising the Status of Understanding Science

by Joseph Shieber

A recent study in Public Understanding of Science found that

… Republicans and evangelical-identifying individuals perceive more social threat from scientists. Viewing scientists as a group posing a social threat was associated with having less accurate science beliefs, support for excluding scientists from policymaking, and support for retributive actions toward scientists …

One of the co-authors of the study, Ariel Hassell, suggested that the study demonstrates that, “When people position science as something we should be for or against, believe or disbelieve, we lose sight of the fact that scientific research is a process.” She continued:

Often new evidence renders previous knowledge incorrect or irrelevant … Distrust, criticism and debate, when done in good faith, are part of this process and should be engaged with rather than demonized or weaponized. Otherwise, as our study shows, people may begin to see science and scientists as a social or political threat, inhibiting society’s ability to address large scale problems like hunger, disease and climate change.

It strikes me as correct to see this study as offering evidence that it is unhelpful to criticize as irrational those communities that reject scientific consensuses. I’m not sure that a further lesson from the study, however, is to suggest that “science isn’t something to be for or against.” Instead, it would be more useful to find a way to reorient those communities so that being informed about — and being in agreement with — elite scientific opinions would contribute to higher social status. That is, it seems to me that we SHOULD be finding ways to encourage more communities to perceive science as something they should be FOR. (Indeed, only then – as the study itself shows – will they appreciate “the fact that scientific research is a process.”)

I take this to be one of the lessons emerging out of my recently published paper, “An Idle and Most False Imposition: Truth-Seeking vs. Status-Seeking and the Failure of Epistemic Vigilance.” (It’s available as open access article here.) Here’s why.

In that paper, I have an opportunity to review some of the work of Jean-Louis Dessalles on conversational goals. Dessalles rejects the standard view that the core goal of conversation is the exchange of information. On that standard view, the purpose of conversation is to acquire as much information as possible. Instead, Dessalles argues that we should understand the core goal of conversation as a way to boost our own social status.

Of course, Dessalles is hardly the only theorist to have recognized deficiencies in the information exchange view of conversation. In my paper, for example, I draw on Nietzsche’s claim, in “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense,” that the

… art of dissimulation reaches its peak in man: here deception, flattery, lying and cheating, talking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed splendor, donning masks, the shroud of convention, playacting before others and before oneself—in short, the continual fluttering around the flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that virtually nothing is as incomprehensible as how an honest and pure drive to truth could have arisen among men.

Building on Nietzsche’s observation, I dub the claim that the central purpose of conversation relates to social status “Nietzsche’s Thesis”:

Nietzsche’s Thesis: In conversational interactions we are primarily concerned with our and our interlocutors’ social status, rather than their truthfulness. How we evaluate those conversational exchanges has more to do with our concern for our own social status, rather than for truth.

Also in the paper, I discuss four puzzles for the information-exchange view that Nietzsche’s Thesis handles better.

First, we aren’t miserly with our own conversational contributions, but are instead happy to contribute more than our “share” to a conversation. If the purpose of conversation was information exchange, then we would keep track of how much information we’ve shared and not contribute “too much” until our conversation partner had contributed their own information. This isn’t how conversation works, however. Instead, we’re happy to talk more than others and don’t bother to keep track of whether we’ve shared more information than our conversation partners.

Second, and relatedly, people are often much more eager to talk than they are to listen. Again, however, if the information exchange theory were true the opposite would be the case. We would try to talk as little as possible in an attempt to acquire more information than we shared.

Third, conversational exchanges are governed by a principle of relevance: when we talk to one another, we try to make sure that our contributions relate to whatever our conversation partners are discussing. This is not what would be predicted by the information exchange theory at all! Instead, if the information exchange theory were true we would expect people to bounce around from topic to topic with no attempt to be relevant so that they could acquire a maximum amount of novel information.

Finally, from the perspective of the information exchange theory practically all actual conversations are suboptimal. When we meet a new person, we don’t talk to them about the most important information we’ve acquired in our lives so far, nor do we begin our conversation by asking them to divulge the most important information they’ve discovered. Rather, we exchange pleasantries or talk about our families or jobs.

Consider how well Nietzsche’s Thesis handles all of the puzzles! We’re unconcerned with trying to track whether we’ve contributed “more than our share” of information and we’re more eager to talk than to listen because contributing more to the conversation affords us more opportunities to boost our social status. Similarly, we conform to the principle of relevance, exchange pleasantries, and discuss families or jobs because observing those social niceties also contributes to at the very least maintaining – if not enhancing – our social status.

Indeed, the mistake that Jean-Louis Dessalles makes is that he remains too wedded to the idea that conversational exchanges involve information exchanges. For even though Dessalles recognizes the Nietzschean point that we engage in conversations to maintain or enhance our social status, Dessalles thinks that the way that we contribute to that status is by demonstrating ourselves to be good sources of interesting information.

As the puzzles should demonstrate, however, this is a mistake! The social groups in which we’re embedded determine what sorts of conversational contributions will boost our social standing. And while there may well be some social groups that place a premium on interesting or novel information, there are many other groups that place a premium on other sorts of conversational contributions.

Now, here’s how the lesson of my paper pertains to the status of science in certain social groups. Consider that even those groups that do place a premium on interesting or novel information don’t necessarily place a premium on FACTUAL information. Furthermore, even those groups that claim to place a premium on factual information might have suboptimal notions of which sorts of information ought to count as factual.

This last point was underscored for me by Capel Lofft’s recent essay “Don’t Be A Robot: Think For Yourself” in The Critic. In that essay, Lofft suggests that an

obsession with credentialism and the authority of experts reflects the fundamental fact of most of the contemporary left. They have completely lost faith in the “common man”, the ability of the ordinary citizen to participate in democratic institutions and exercise both individual and collective agency, assisted by the power of education and self-improvement. They hate and fear the masses, which is why their politics has devolved into a mixture of disempowering legalism and condescending technocratic expert-worship.

Lofft demonstrates a nostalgia for the mania for intellectual self-improvement among the British working classes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, a mania perhaps most famously documented by Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. As Lofft describes it, this period was characterized by the example “of the working-class person, often performing a relatively humble job, who knew more about the novels of Henry Fielding or marine biology or Christological disputes in the Byzantine Emperor than some academics.”

Unsurprisingly, given Lofft’s attempt wring an anti-vax, pro-Brexit, pro-conservative message from his praise of the intellectual ethos of a previous generation of the British working classes, Lofft misconstrues the actual lesson of such working class drives for self-improvement.

Far from rejecting academics and intellectual “elites,” the improvement societies of the British working classes hosted those academics for lectures and evening classes. Far from rejecting traditional academic roles, working-class intellectuals demonstrated their embrace of academic elites by joining their ranks. For example, both Henry Jones and Alexander Bain were working-class men who became prominent academic philosophers – Jones at Bangor, St. Andrews and Glasgow, and Bain at Aberdeen. George Dunbar rose from poverty to become Professor of Greek at Edinburgh. (For further discussion see here.)

Furthermore, prominent academics and intellectuals supported the drive for self-improvement among the working classes. John Stuart Mill and James Clerk Maxwell were both early supporters of London’s Working Men’s College. Many well-known scientists and professors gave lectures for the Mechanics’ institutes that spread throughout the UK and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In fact, some universities of today – including Birkbeck, University of London, and the University of Manchester – began as Mechanics’ institutes.

This, then, is what the self-improvement movements of the British working classes actually teach us: in social groups that respect science and expertise, knowledge can flourish. But respect for science and expertise is a necessary precondition of that flourishing!

In other words, the “Think for yourself; don’t be a robot” movements of the tech bros, car dealership owners, and regional real estate investors who form the core of the conservative conspiracy mongers who reject science are not at all like the working class self-improvers who Lofft pretends to praise. Whereas those 19th century working class heroes respected expertise, practiced intellectual humility and sought to profit from engaging with intellectually challenging work, today’s 21st century know-nothings reject expertise, are full of their own pseudo-intellectual pretensions and seek to ban books and college courses that make them uncomfortable. Until we find a way to revive the social prestige of science and expertise among the members of those 21st century social groups — or, more likely, until we find a way to break up those groups and reform them in new ways, ways more receptive to science and expertise — the future looks bleak for the public understanding of science and scientifically informed public policy.