A new Time Magazine article [paywalled] describes the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, where researchers are permitted to think about problems for the sake of solving problems – even when no immediate application is known. Part of the point of the article is made with one quote (my emphasis):
“I feel the institute is a little bit the canary in the mine,” says
Dijkgraaf, 53, who took his post last summer. “It is not clear a place
like this can exist. Society is moving toward short-term thinking,
toward direct applications. We are really swimming against the
stream.” In other words, pursuing questions for which the value of the
answers isn’t obvious may be a luxury that America can no longer
afford–or at least appreciate the importance of.
At first glance, this looks like a classic anti-science Congress story. And to some extent, it is. But, there is something much larger happening which nearly everybody is implicated in, but hardly anybody is noticing.
Everywhere you look, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that the “professional scientist” is becoming a sort of societal role model. And there’s a widespread simplistic sense that if we can just convince more of our children (and perhaps more Republicans) to become specialist, professional scientists that we can basically solve a lot of the issues which we imagine we’re going to be facing in the 21st century.
But, very few people seem to actually ask what it actually means to professionalize science. What actually is a professional?
For understanding the professional, the concept of “ideology” will
emerge as much more useful than that of “skill.” But what is ideology,
exactly? Ideology is thought that justifies action, including routine
day-to-day activity … your ideology justifies your own actions to
yourself. Economics may bring you back to your employer day after day,
but it is ideology that makes that activity feel like a reasonable or
unreasonable way to spend your life … Work in general is becoming
more and more ideological, and so is the workforce that does it. (Jeff
Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, p15)
Jeff Schmidt wrote Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives while he was an editor at Physics Today. Although the book focuses very specifically upon the way in which physics is taught within our universities today, it’s implications pertain to all students and employees who might be called knowledge workers, or who are going into that sort of endeavor today.
The problem which Jeff points out is that a professional is, strictly speaking, an obedient thinker:
Professionals generally avoid the risk inherent in real critical
thinking and cannot properly be called critical thinkers. They are
simply ideologically disciplined thinkers. Real critical thinking
means uncovering and questioning social, political and moral
assumptions; applying and refining a personally developed worldview;
and calling for action that advances a personally created agenda. An
approach that backs away from any of these three components lacks the
critical spirit … Ideologically disciplined thinkers, especially the
more gung-ho ones, often give the appearance of being critical
thinkers as they go around deftly applying the official ideology and
confidently reporting their judgments. The fact that professionals
are usually more well-informed than nonprofessionals contributes to
the illusion that they are critical thinkers. (Jeff Schmidt,
Disciplined Minds, p41)
This would seem to offer a bit of a problem for science. Scientists are, in theory at least, supposed to be open to new ideas. From “Science Education and Scientific Attitudes” by Pravin Singh:
The current set of scientific attitudes of objectivity,
open-mindedness, unbiassedness, curiosity, suspended judgement,
critical mindedness, and rationality has evolved from a systematic
identification of scientific norms and values. The earliest papers of
any importance in the field of scientific attitudes are those of R.K.
Merton (1957). He conceptualized the norms or institutional
imperatives on the basis of evidence taken mainly from statements by
scientists about science and their scientific activity. He then
identified four norms. These are universalism, communality,
disinterestedness and organized skepticism.
Universalism requires that information presented to the scientific
community be assessed independently of the character of the scientist
who presents the information. The norm of communality requires that
scientific knowledge be held in common, in other words, the researcher
is expected to share his findings with other scientists freely and
without favour. The norm of disinterestedness requires scientists to
pursue scientific knowledge without considering their career or their
reputation. Scientists are exhorted by the norm of organized
skepticism never to take results on trust. They are expected to be
consistently critical of knowledge.
To this list of institutional imperatives Barber (1962: 122-142) later
added two more — rationality and emotional neutrality. Rationality
relates essentially to having faith in reason and depending on
empirical tests rather than on tradition when substantiating
hypotheses. Scientists are encouraged also to conform to the norm of
emotional neutrality i.e. to avoid emotional involvement which may
colour their judgement.
Is it not possible that these scientific attitudes have been
popularised and then reified as a set of ideal attitudes but in
reality is not often found in actual scientific practices? The
following studies raise serious doubts about the scientists’ adherence
to institutional imperatives.
Again, contrast this with the meaning of professional which Jeff Schmidt presents us with:
The scientific ideologies, or “paradigms,” that scientists internalize
during their training guide their thinking in every important area of
their work, determining, for example, the particular abstractions or
models they use, the procedures they consider valid and even their
notion of what constitutes progress and understanding.
Because they internalize both the paradigms and their employers’
priorities and values, scientists, at least in their own eyes, are
completely nonpartisan in their work: They don’t “get political.”
They don’t think about, let alone challenge, the ideology built into
their techniques. Contrary to popular images of scientists as
challengers of established beliefs (like Galileo or Einstein), the
vast majority of scientists never seek to test their paradigms and do
not participate in paradigm disputes. They don’t waste their
employers’ coin by getting caught up in efforts to overthrow existing
worldviews or to establish new ones. Instead, they tend to treat the
accepted models of reality as reality itself. (Jeff Schmidt,
Disciplined Minds, p82)
From the public’s perspective, very little of this is actually visible. From the viewpoint of a regular Joe Lay Person, the real problem today is that of the “cranks” and “pseudoscientists” which are running rampant on the Internet. The problem tends to be that a great amount of investigation is oftentimes required to judge some of these claims. Few laypeople seem to be willing to do a job which we all assumed that the scientists themselves were already doing – i.e., questioning their assumptions.
I’m going to define a pseudoscientist as somebody who proposes fraudulent or faulty science, and a crank as an introvert critical thinker who, in diverging from established theories, is at risk of making a mistake which others might find obvious. Both sets of people would appear to be a part of the non-professional scientific community. But, it should go without saying that if “thinking like a scientist” today also involves certain ideological requirements that are being used to screen out divergent thinkers, then there would also have to be a set of people within the non-professional scientific community who could be called critical thinkers. They are people – many of which come from the universities themselves, and a good handful who actually manage to publish in peer reviewed journals – who just simply disagree with the established ideology. Some of them have been quite famous actually … Hannes Alfven and Halton Arp being two that perfectly fit the bill.
What people seem to not realize is that specialization was not always the rule in science. If James Maxwell had, for instance, restricted his knowledge to just one specialty, he would have never linked light together with electromagnetism. According to Jeff Schmidt, corporations prefer specialist scientists for very specific reasons:
More important to employers than the economic benefits, however, are
the political benefits of the division of labor – benefits that help
management maintain its authority in the workplace. Confined to a
range of activity that is limited both horizontally and vertically,
employees do not gain firsthand knowledge of the overall organization,
strategy or goals of the institution that employs them. Those who
work within this division of labor see the consequent ignorance in
themselves and in their coworkers and feel a need to be directed by
people who comprehend the whole operation. Management has the
broadest view of what is going on, and this helps make its supreme
authority in the workplace seem natural and justified.
By making employees easier to replace and by deflating their feeling
of accomplishment in their work, the division of labor strips workers
of their sense of power in the workplace, discouraging them from
challenging management on the way the work is organized. And the
division of work into narrow tasks (most of which are the same even
when the product is different) denies workers a feeling for what they
are producing, thereby discouraging them from challenging management
on the nature or design of the product or service. Hence the division
of labor, by making self-management seem impossible and by
strengthening management’s control over the workforce and over the
content of the work, helps make the hierarchical system of production
more secure. (Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, p91-92)
What people seem to not realize is that one of the reasons that people become nonprofessional critical thinkers in science is to specifically avoid specialization by creating a broader knowledge base that extends far beyond established theories, and across numerous domains. Many worthwhile ideas actually exist at these outer fringes, at the intersection of uncommon and unpopular ideas. The interdisciplinary, inter-paradigm nonprofessional scientist can be an incredibly powerful critic of the body of specialist conventional scientists, in part because they cultivate fluency in controversies which specialists are rarely taught. The problem, it seems, is that most people seem to think that these nonprofessional critical thinkers don’t actually exist. And this belief appears to persist, even in the face of strong arguments, evidence and even peer review publications.
Beware further professionalization of science. There are side-effects to this rush to create more specialists. If we hold professional specialization up as the new standard, we are committing to fundamental changes to a system which led to a great number of discoveries.
That said, the professionalization of science is not necessarily the end of science for the sake of science, in itself. After all, science’s best critics – the nonprofessional critical thinkers – are still asking many big questions which exist outside of the scope of the professionals. If history is any indicator, a select few will turn out to be right in their critiques. But, so long as every single person who disagrees with established theory online is labeled a crank or pseudoscientist – without care by the public to distinguish them from critical thinkers – the public will simply throw away one of the few sets of people who will be doing science for the sake of just science.
If Socrates were alive today, it seems that he’d be branded a crank online. There’s something culturally wrong with that. Our society seems to collectively imagine that we can just throw away the critical thinkers with the pseudoscientists and cranks, without any future consequences. I urge people to put more thought into differentiating the various types of nonprofessional scientists. After all, Jeff Schmidt won his court case against the American Institute of Physics – with the help of Noam Chomsky and more than a thousand other researchers who wrote letters and signed petitions – and it became the physics discipline’s largest freedom of expression case ever.
The problem, it seems, is that nobody seemed to notice then, just as nobody seems to notice now the continued professionalization of the sciences.