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Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Speculations on the scientist as a public figure

The term public intellectual is ill-defined. When and where does, for example, an intellectual become a public intellectual? What is the relationship between the categories the intellectual and the academic? Are there differences between the public scientist, the civic scientist, and the communicator of scientific ideas? And where do these fit in with the notion of the public intellectual?

I am always tempted, perhaps as a consequence of a brief dalliance with philosophy, to attempt to analytically disentangle terms. That approach is not without merit, a consequence of its methodological commitment to clarity. I will, for now at least, attempt to suppress my analytic urge. I will offer instead a metaphor. As it is a metaphor it is not perfect, and I make no claim that it is entirely accurate. It is not a model or mirror, but rather it is an illustration. I will use this to illustrate the distinction between two distinct public roles that the scientist might play.

Consider our democratic society as an adversarial courtroom in continual action, making and overturning rulings with a constantly changing cast of barristers, judges and jurors, cases and rules of evidence. By democracy, here I mean democracy with a small d, a label that is attached to a type of society rather than a formalised mechanism of government. In this courtroom all those who are members of our democratic society, the demos, play the role of jurors. A small number of the demos also play other roles in this courtroom. The role of the judge, for example, may be occupied by editors, media magnates, and other arbiters of access to debate and discussion. We should not ignore or attempt to excuse the mess of this metaphor. Democratic societies as courtrooms are a virtuous mess. The roles to be acted and the cases to be heard are in constant flux.

The purpose of this metaphor, which is perhaps a suitable candidate for an allegorical story (Borges springs to mind), is, as I said, to highlight two distinct public roles that the scientist might play in a democratic society. There is, I argue, a real difference between the public scientist and the public intellectual who is a scientist. This is a difference with functional consequences in a democracy. In the courtroom of democracy the public scientist adopts the specialised role of the expert witness.

Expert witnesses are called to give opinions on subjects within their field of acknowledged, usually certified, expertise. The authority of acknowledged expertise transforms these opinions into things that seem very much like objective statements. These statements are then entered into the record, and can only, once the status of the expert witness is accepted, be disputed by other expert witnesses.

Barristers then use these statements to construct arguments, to persuade the jury of the demos of the merits of their case, to find in their interest, or the interests of those or that which they represent. In the messy courtroom of democracy, any member of the demos has the possibility of acting as a barrister. Who actually does is determined by those playing the role of judges.

Scientists are able, as we all are (to some degree), to offer thoughtful, considered statements on subjects beyond those within the boundaries of their field of expertise. They can construct arguments representing a community, an interest, an ideology. When a scientist does this their public role is not that of expert witness. They become a barrister on the floor of the courtroom of democracy. This is the role that is occupied by the public intellectual.

Scientists have occupied this role in the past. Consider J.B.S. Haldane, as an example. He was a leading geneticist of his time, and indeed, is an important figure in the history of genetics. But he is also an important figure in the history of left-wing thought in Britain. He was a member of the Communist Party who wrote columns for the Daily Worker. These columns, it is safe to assume, did not concentrate on the communication of genetic science. He spoke at trades unions meetings, and, in the 1930s, travelled to Spain to assist the Republican Government in the Civil War. Haldane acted as an advocate – a barrister – for a particular set of interests in the courtroom of a democratic society.

Haldane was just one of group of (largely left-leaning) scientists who acted outside their scientific field in the public eye. The ability for a scientist to act as a public intellectual was an unspectacular feature of democratic society in the first, say, three-quarters of the last century. There are a handful of comparable scientists today, but, even given their existence, I argue that the ability of the scientist to play the role of the public intellectual is greatly reduced.

Consider those who are perhaps the closest contemporary analogues to J.B.S. Haldane and his like; R.C. Lewontin and (the late) Stephen Jay Gould. These were both left-wing American biologists, whose writings and public positions extended far beyond the concerns of their professional fields; genetics and palaeontology respectively. The consequence of these public interventions ought to offer a cautionary tale to scientists seeking to become public intellectuals. As well as praise and a certain amount of fame (Gould being immortalised by a guest appearance in the Simpsons) both Lewontin and Gould received heavy and vociferous criticism. This criticism was not limited to their pronouncements on politics (small p and big P), but also discredited their scientific work. Discrediting here does not mean that their work was proven to be shoddy, or mistaken, within the boundaries of the community of science. Rather, it means that their credibility as scientists capable of making objective statements in the role of expert witness was reduced for a large section of the demos.

Those who are expected to play the role of expert witnesses should not offer opinions outside their field of expertise, it seems. This might seem to be a sensible rule in the courtroom, but that, remember, was only ever a metaphor. This, sometimes quite vicious, restriction of potential public intellectuals to their narrow sphere of certification is not, as some have argued, an erosion of elitism. Rather, it is a symptom of an anti-democratic trend that masquerades as anti-elitism.

The rejection of scientists playing the role of the public intellectual reflects the managerialism and technocratisation of our democratic societies. The reaction against the public interventions of scientists is as vociferous as it is as their fields of expertise are held to be esoteric, divorced from societal concerns. They are unqualified, or perhaps, misqualified, to perform the role of barrister in the contemporary courtroom of democracy. This can be painted as anti-elitism. We can be persuaded that scientists (and musicians, actors, novelists) ought to stick to their field of expertise. We might be tempted by arguments that suggest that these figures taking to the floor of the courtroom prevents the rest of the demos from having their time at the bar. But, of course, once qualification is required the rest of the demos do not get their time at the bar, as volunteering for the bar is replaced by a call to the bar. The diverse elite of public intellectuals and advocates is replaced by a managerial, technocratic elite.

The scientist is still of course required, and scientists still perform the role of expert witnesses. But expert witnesses are required in all societies, whether democratic or authoritarian. Authoritarian societies can do without public intellectuals and, indeed, courtrooms.

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