The Ivory Tower

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while, and my thoughts are still not fully fleshed out, but I’ll have a go at writing it anyway. You sometimes encounter a suggestion that academics regard themselves as living in some kind of ivory tower from which they rarely emerge, and from which they can look down – disdainfully – on everyone else. I don’t, however, think this is generally true; there are clearly some arrogant academics who think they are better than everyone else, but that’s probably true for most professions. Most academics that I know are just trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and typically feel quite lucky to have ended up where they have.

However, I think there is an element of truth, but not in the way most would expect. I’ve now worked in five different universities in three different countries, and although I’ve had some bad experiences, it’s mostly been very positive. You get to interact with interesting people; you get to do interesting and challenging things; you get to visit, and live in, interesting places. What also helps is that you mostly interact with people who speak the same language and have a similar background; although I should probably explain what I mean by this.

Although academia can be very culturally diverse, most will have undergone a similar training and will speak the same scientific language; they will understand the terminology and will have the relevant background knowledge. This means that you can have interesting (and often pleasant) discussion that don’t degenerate because someone misinterprets some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics. Also, many discussions aren’t really arguments; someone isn’t trying to win – all those involved are often quite happy to just learn something from others.

However, when academics venture out into informal settings, like social media, what they encounter can be very different. They will encounter those who claim to understand a topic, but don’t. They’ll encounter those with little research experience, who claim to know how it should be undertaken. What start off as friendly discussions can turn sour when someone misunderstands some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics. They will encounter people who think the goal is to win some kind of argument, rather than to simply have an interesting discussion. I can easily see why some might look at this and simply decide that it’s not worth venturing out.

Having said that, I have found venturing out very interesting. I’ve learned a lot about myself; I’ve learned a lot about other people; I’ve learned a lot about the public understanding of science; I’ve even learned a lot about science, and the scientific method – I’ve read things I wouldn’t otherwise have read. I think, mostly, it has been a positive experience. However, it has been very time consuming, stressful at times, and – in some cases – very unpleasant. It’s not something I would necessarily recommend, even if I think it can be a net positive experience.

As I said at the beginning, my thoughts on this are not fully formed, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to get at. I guess one thing that does cross my mind is that public engagement should be about more than just discussing science, and presenting scientific results. What would be useful is if there could be a better understanding of the scientific method/process, so that maybe there can be a better understanding of why scientists/researchers engage as they do and a better understanding of the importance of terminology and what underpins some research areas. On the other hand, maybe academics also have to try and understand how they can interact publicly without running into the kind of problems that they sometimes encounter.

Links:

What partly motivated this post was this article which makes some interesting suggestions as to why science often gets shot down in the public domain.

Given the topic, it’s probably worth highlighting some of my earlier posts about ClimateballTM.

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This entry was posted in ClimateBall, Global warming, Greenhouse effect, Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Ivory Tower

  1. I’ve just realised that I called this post “The Irony Tower” when I really intended it to be “The Ivory Tower”. There’s probably something subliminal there, but I’ve gone and corrected it.

  2. It is somewhat unfair to equate going out of the university with participating in the climate debate. There are so many wonderful interested and truly sceptical people in the world with whom you can have a normal conversation and who do not try to misinterpret every word you say and if they do not understand something simply ask.

    The disinformation campaign is so successful that even in Germany the first question is often whether climate change is real. There is normally no real doubt, but people still like hearing it themselves from a scientist.

  3. Victor,

    It is somewhat unfair to equate going out of the university with participating in the climate debate.

    Yes, this is a fair point. I had thought of adding something about how public engagement can often be rewarding and pleasant, but couldn’t quite fit it in. However, I agree, there are many situations where engaging with the public is wonderful, so I should be careful of tainting everything because of a particular aspect of public engagement that leaves much to be desired.

  4. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    =={ However, when academics venture out into informal settings, like social media, what they encounter can be very different. They will encounter those who claim to understand a topic, but don’t. They’ll encounter those with little research experience, who claim to know how it should be undertaken. What start off as friendly discussions can turn sour when someone misunderstands some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics. They will encounter people who think the goal is to win some kind of argument, rather than to simply have an interesting discussion. }==

    I think that you may be focusing there on some surface dynamics which might be piled on top of an underlying mechanism. Some people who interact with academics are pursuing a larger agenda against the librul elites. Relatedly, but not exactly the same is that some are pursuing a private sector vs. public sector agenda. And yet others that you, in particular as an academic scientist are likely to encounter, are pursuing an engineer vs. academic scientist agenda (which, of course, it directly tied to the other two agendas I mentioned).

    So I have also mentioned somewhat distinct dynamics also, but they are all tied into a mechanic of a group identity struggle, where people feel more solid in their own sense of self by (finding what are essentially arbitrary distinctions and then) reaffirming some sense of superiority over otters.

  5. Joshua,

    I think that you may be focusing there on some surface dynamics which might be piled on top of an underlying mechanism.

    Sure, quite possibly. However, this would suggest that a better understanding of these underlying processes would help, which is – I think – part of what this article was getting at.

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    You are defining normal science here, much as Kuhn does, where the broad consensus drives discussion and makes it possible. What we need now is to drive the Overton window away from the nutters.

  7. I think there is a problem with the opening premise: “You sometimes encounter a suggestion that academics regard themselves as living in some kind of ivory tower …”

    I’ve never understood the criticism to be that academics regard themselves as living in an ivory tower, but that academic views are by their very nature generated from within an ivory tower. I.e., the academic world is NOT that of the real world. Theory as opposed to practice.

    Assume a spherical cow … has academic value. Its real world value may be less apparent.

  8. anoilman says:

    People are people (and scientists are people too), but I think ‘Ivory Tower’ is tossed around as an insult…. 🙂

    Speaking of Ivory Towers… Check out John Tyndall and the Ivory Towers he climbed. Did you guys know he worked with Louis Pasteur too?
    https://archive.org/details/mountaineeringi00tyndgoog

  9. o’neill,

    I’ve never understood the criticism to be that academics regard themselves as living in an ivory tower, but that academic views are by their very nature generated from within an ivory tower. I.e., the academic world is NOT that of the real world. Theory as opposed to practice.

    That is certainly a variant and there are clearly those who regard academics as somehow detached from reality.

  10. izen says:

    @-oneillsinwisconsin
    “Assume a spherical cow … has academic value. Its real world value may be less apparent.”

    Simplifying to a sphere suspended in a vacuum is an academic approach that actually makes some sense in climate science.

  11. MarkB says:

    “the academic world is NOT that of the real world. Theory as opposed to practice.”

    Simplifying assumptions are hardly limited to the academic world, they’re just more rigorous about stating them. For instance, unregulated free markets are not the universal answer to any possible difficulty as some (e.g. every John Stossel column ever) would have you believe. Market failures do exist even in Economics 101 classes.

  12. BBD says:

    @ Eli

    When the pressure equalises, global temperatures are going to rise measurably.

  13. Susan Anderson says:

    Wondering what verbal play could be made with what looks like a cow pregnant with at least triplets. Sigh, the mind will wander.

    Thanks for the Huffpost link, Adrienne McCartney expresses the dilemma well. This, for example: “scientists respond slowly, ponderously and with excruciating glacial care” and

    The media and public tidal wave of alternative facts, misrepresented data, invented nonsense and malicious deception overwhelms and saturates the discussion platform environment with such startling and ever increasing rapidity that measured scientific response to it becomes impossible. There are too many ridiculous claims to counter with well researched educational responses. Add to this the very real reticence and snobbish disdain many scientists have towards scientific communication, or ‘scicomm’, mixed with the linguistic divergence between what scientists mean by certain words and how the public perceive those words and we have a recipe for a vast fetid soup of stupendous ignorance on the one hand and intellectual isolationism on the other.

    While I’m a huge fan of scientists, there is a nerd factor. It’s such a relief to graduate into a peer group that doesn’t regard one as peculiar! One common misconception is unawareness of the amount of time, hard work and dedication that goes into qualifying and executing real science.

    Somehow our passive entertainment addicted population thinks using small electronics in a big hurry is the same as study and knowledge. They’re being encouraged by some greedy actors with way too much money to think activity is the same thing as thought and hard work and the careful cultivation of real skepticism.

    Well, I’m going nowhere fast with this comment. I don’t have the answers, but would encourage any and all scientifically aware people to think about laypeople’s language and lose the extra careful distinctions (while not disrespecting the need for nuance). For example, climate is weather over time and space. Don’t be afraid to talk about how specific weather is part of a trend. This works well with laypeople who in the back of their minds have noticed that something is going on. Helping them understand it directly as trends while discouraging making too much of today’s events is quite successful; I’ve had many friendly conversations with near strangers along these lines. One can reference lifetimes, travel, the news, farmers, without stepping out of line with the truth.

  14. Brigitte says:

    anoilman – thanks for the Pasteur Tyndall link!! More here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_generation#Pasteur_and_Tyndall
    But I couldn’t find it in the mountaineering book…which is nice nevertheless!

  15. anoilman says:

    Brigitte; I was looking for books by Louis Pasteur for my wife who’s a microbiologist\epidemiologist. Then I came across some of Tyndall’s work;
    https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=TYNDALL%2C+JOHN+%3B+PASTEUR%2C+LOUIS&sortby=1

    You can find Tyndall’s Mountaineering books here;
    https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=john+tyndall&fe=on&sortby=1&tn=mountaineering

    Books and Plates describing Tyndall’s experiments on energy absorption of gasses are… not in my budget. Science books with pictures tend to be very expensive.

  16. Michael 2 says:

    “What start off as friendly discussions can turn sour when someone misunderstands some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics.”

    Academics are hardly alone in this phenomenon. I encounter it almost daily in computer science and telecommunications. It is nearly impossible to have a friendly discussion on the merits of Microsoft Windows versus Apple OS-X. In photography, it is sometimes possible to have friendly comparisons of your Nikon camera to my Canon or vice versa provided we tacitly agree not to argue about which one is better.

  17. Willard says:

    From the Twitter Tower:

  18. Michael 2 says:

    Years ago, citizens of various nations were sometimes terrified of neighbors, Russians for instance. For 20 years in my Navy career they were the enemy; an honorable enemy that could be negotiated with and trusted not to blow themselves up at the same time they were destroying the United States (we hoped anyway and we’re still here despite MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction). Then I came home and guess what, my next door neighbor was a Russian from St. Petersburg (renamed that from Leningrad if I remember right). We liked him but he overstayed his Visa and presumably went back to Russia.

    The internet has pivoted alignments from nationalism to something else; now it is possible to have political and cultural alignments ignoring national borders but these alignments are every bit as fearful and non-interacting with each other as previous generations national borders, languages and boundaries. So how do you discover and define social borders and boundaries when national boundaries have become largely meaningless?

    ATTP talks about the ease with which you can operate socially within academia; well it was the same in the armed forces. Many specialties, but what you have in common is greater than these various specialties. Everyone knows the 11 general orders and you can be reasonably sure that nearly everyone has a background check and is reasonably sane and personal weapons are locked up in the armory.

    Susan Anderson references an article in Scientific American explaining why deniers are or ought to be called deniers. I might have a look, then again, I might not. Just how many deniers do you suppose still read Scientific American? Who is the intended audience of that message? You are; its normal readers, being given social instruction:

    “Sorry, boys, whether you embrace or dispute the label, you’re deniers. And you need to be called such.”

    WHY does a denier need to be called that, and where are you going to find one? Most deniers have been banned long ago from places you visit. It is a warning to their regular readers. Consider George Orwell’s “1984” — the actual person of Goldstein was irrelevant, the actual status or even existence of Oceania was irrelevant. It is a word that creates and maintains a boundary when national boundaries have lost meaning.

  19. Willard says:

    > WHY does a denier need to be called that,

    For the same reason contrarians call the mainstream position alarmist:

    I’m not sure it’s a need, though.

  20. Susan Anderson says:

    Thank you Willard. Michael2, I recommend taking a look at Gavin Schmidt, who is an expert (I am not) for the answer to neverending quibbles and encouragement of doubt and delay. Climate science denial is a denial. The quibble about the holocaust is intentional distraction. Better heed the message though: it’s about humanity, not about argumentation.

  21. Steven Sullivan says:

    Wait, Judy Curry has thought on this too! We scientists should be inviting the public to talk. But I guess correcting their grossly uniformed claims isn’t part of the program. I guess we’re too busy. https://judithcurry.com/2017/03/05/exactly-what-are-scientists-marching-for/

  22. Mal Adapted says:

    M2:

    Most deniers have been banned long ago from places you visit.

    That’s a self-contradicting assertion. You’re here, aren’t you?

  23. JCH says:

    You can read most of them at the RC borehole, which , oddly, is almost always less boring than the RC comment section.

  24. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    Consider George Orwell’s “1984” — the actual person of Goldstein was irrelevant, the actual status or even existence of Oceania was irrelevant. It is a word that creates and maintains a boundary when national boundaries have lost meaning.

    We have always been at war with meaning, Michael 2.


    In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat. In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality. All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover, to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past, which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past. Newspapers and history books were, of course, always coloured and biased, but falsification of the kind that is practiced today would have been impossible. War was a sure safeguard of sanity, and so far as the ruling classes were concerned it was probably the most important of all safeguards. While wars could be won or lost, no ruling class could be completely irresponsible.

    – 1984

    Not sure about that last claim, given the current Party.
    Maybe we just need another war.

    With the falsification-fighting underway, one should remember this always:
    There are FOUR lights!

  25. Nick Stokes says:

    “Books and Plates describing Tyndall’s experiments on energy absorption of gasses are… not in my budget”
    Gutenberg is the place. Six Lectures on Light.

    Or Tyndall’s introduction to Pasteur’s bio.

  26. Willard says:

    Oily One talks about buying real books, Nick. It’s an interesting market. Not sure it’s on the rise overall, last time I checked it wasn’t, but usually the rarest items are safe places not to lose money. (Time is an open problem, however.) Another advantage of collectors markets is that good taste is rewarded.

    BUY ALL ARTFUL ART!

    Taking an Aussie accent, I’d try to tell you: “You call academia an Ivory tower? Now, that‘s an Ivory tower”:

    The Office of Government Ethics has informed the Trump administration that the White House has an “incorrect” view of ethics laws.

    In a Thursday letter, OGE director Walter Shaub contradicted what he called the White House’s “extraordinary assertion,” made in a recent letter, that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.”

    Admittedly, it may look more like a golden tower than an ivory tower.

  27. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Willard:

    It’s an interesting market. Not sure it’s on the rise overall, last time I checked it wasn’t, but usually the rarest items are safe places not to lose money. (Time is an open problem, however.) Another advantage of collectors markets is that good taste is rewarded.

    Sometimes, the main advantage is rappelling.

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