Are Scientists Arrogant?

Source:  The Logic of Science

I spend a lot of time debating people who reject science, and I have observed a common tendency for people to try to dismiss scientific results by attacking scientists with accusations that they are, “arrogant,” “close-minded,” “dismissive” and don’t “take people’s concerns/anecdotes seriously or engage the public” It’s important to realize that all of these accusations are simply ad hominem fallacies, and even if they were true, that wouldn’t make the scientists’ results any less accurate. In most cases, however, they aren’t even true, and they are actually reflective of the people making the accusations, rather than the scientists themselves. So I want to consider each of these claims and see whether or not they actually apply to most scientists. I am going to try to deal with each accusation more or less separately, but there will inevitably be some overlap and, indeed, each section builds on and connects to the other sections. I am especially going to focus on the claim that scientists are arrogant and pretentious, because the other claims are really built on that one.

Note: To be clear, I am not suggesting that no scientists are arrogant, close-minded, etc. Obviously there will be a few bad apples in any group. However, the accusation is that scientists in general display these qualities, and that is what I am taking issue with.

Are scientists arrogant?
Let’s start with the accusation that scientists are arrogant, elitist, pretentious, etc. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “arrogant” as:

“having or showing the insulting attitude of people who believe that they are better, smarter, or more important than other people.”

There are several important things to note about this definition. First, simply insisting that you are right and someone else is wrong is not necessarily arrogant. It only becomes arrogant when it is done in a haughty “better than thou” manner or when the assertion is based on an unrealistic assessment of one’s own skills, knowledge, and ability. That last part is really important. It is not arrogant for someone who is highly trained and has lots of experience to think that he/she knows more about the topic than someone with no training or experience on that topic.

Let me give several examples to demonstrate what I mean by that. First, imagine that someone who has never taken an engineering course and has no relevant experience reads several blogs and comes to the conclusion that a particular bridge is unsafe. However, multiple professional engineers (each of whom went through several years of training to earn advanced degrees and have subsequently spent years working as an engineer) carefully examine the bridge, examine the arguments made by those who are concerned, and conclude that the bridge is safe. Are those engineers being arrogant? Is it presumptuous of them to “assume” that their advanced degrees and years of experience have made them more qualified than a bunch of bloggers to assess the safety of the bridge? Obviously it isn’t. We expect that people with that type of training and experience will know more than the average person. That’s why we have the word “professional.” It is insane to think that reading a few blogs is worth more than a degree from MIT.

Similarly, imagine that someone who has never even sat in the cockpit of a plane boards a commercial airliner and proudly proclaims that he is more qualified than the pilot because he has “done his homework” on the internet and logged lots of hours on X-box air combat games. This man then proceeds to lecture the pilot on everything that he/she is doing “wrong.” Would it be arrogant of the pilot to ignore him? Obviously not. No one on that plane would be OK with that man taking over for the pilot (except the man himself, of course), and everyone would agree that the man in question is being arrogant and foolish and needs to take his seat and shut up.

I can, of course, give countless examples like this that everyone would agree with. No one would argue that a neurosurgeon is arrogant for not taking surgical advice from unqualified family members you got their surgical licenses from Youtube. No one would accuse a professional mechanic of arrogance for ignoring a customer who doesn’t know the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver. No one would say that a lawyer is arrogant for thinking that they know more about the legal system than someone who has never set foot in a court room or opened a law book. Yet for some reason, when it comes to science and some fields of medicine, people feel entitled to think that they are experts. They actually seem to think that Google is equivalent to an advanced degree.

When you think about this, it is ludicrous. Becoming a professional scientist takes, on average, four years of undergraduate studies (note: science majors are usually rated among the most difficult/time consuming), 6–10 years of intense graduate training (most grad students work/study 60+ hours a week and rarely take holidays), and several years of doing a post-doc. Further, after all of that training, you spend your life actually doing science, which means that you are constantly gaining experience and new knowledge. The idea that reading a bunch of blogs and non-academic books will put you on par with that type of training and experience is the epitome of arrogance and hubris. It is just about the most pretentious thing that I can think of. Of course scientists know more about science than the average person on the street, just as plumbers know more about plumbing than the average person, and mechanics know more about cars than the average person. We intuitively expect that anyone who goes through that type of training will be extremely knowledgeable.

What I have been describing here is, of course, a well-established phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, people who are unskilled/unqualified tend to grossly over-estimate their own abilities/knowledge, whereas people who have the proper training/experience tend to have a more accurate view of their abilities or even under-estimate them. In other words, statistically speaking, it is the untrained people who tend to be arrogant about their abilities, not the highly trained scientists. To be clear, scientists certainly can still have unrealistic views of their own knowledge, and first rule of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that you don’t know if you are succumbing to it. So I am not suggesting that scientists are immune to this problem, but it is true that, on average, people without scientific training have a more unrealistic view of their scientific knowledge/abilities than actual scientists do.

To be clear, it is entirely possible to be highly trained and still arrogant. If, for example, a scientist said, “I am a scientist, therefore, I am smarter and better than you” that would be arrogance, but that is not usually what I see occurring. Rather, what I generally see, is that people accuse scientists of being arrogant simply because the scientists won’t accept their pseudoscience. For example, I frequently see a situation where an anti-vaccer makes an utterly ridiculous claim, and a scientist carefully and politely explains why that argument is unscientific, at which point, the anti-vaccer says something to the effect of, “well you’re just being arrogant and think that you know more than everyone else.” It is not arrogant to politely correct errors and debunk bad arguments.

Similarly, I often see people make the bizarre claim that scientists are arrogant because they think that they understand some very well-studied phenomena. For example, on multiple occasions I have heard someone say that scientists who accept climate change are arrogant for thinking that they understand how the climate works. How is it arrogant to think that thousands of studies have allowed us to understand something? It is arrogant to say, based on no evidence whatsoever, that all of those studies are wrong, but simply accepting the results of a massive body of research is in no way shape or form arrogant. Similarly, it is not arrogant of doctors to think that vaccines are safe, because vaccines have been so thoroughly tested.

In short, it is not arrogant for a highly qualified and experienced expert to think that they know more about their area of expertise than someone who has no training or experience in that area, nor is it arrogant to think that thousands of careful studies have produced reliable results. It is, however, arrogant to think that reading a few blogs or sitting around conjecturing puts you on the same level as a highly trained expert. Additionally, experts can certainly be arrogant if they misuse their training/experience, and statements such as, “I’m right because I’m a scientist” certainly display arrogance, but that is not usually the situation that I encounter.

Note: Do not confuse what I am saying here. I am not saying that being an expert automatically makes you right. It clearly doesn’t. Rather, I am talking about a person’s perception of themselves relative to their actual training and experience. Please read this post for an explanation of the difference between deferring to experts and appealing to authority. 

Are scientists close-minded?
At the outset, I want to make it clear that there is an extraordinary difference between being open-minded and being willing to accept utter nonsense. Most scientists are actually open to new ideas. That is, in fact, the reason why science has been able to progress so far. In other words, if scientists were truly close-minded and refused to consider any idea other than the “dogma” of their fields, then our scientific knowledge wouldn’t have changed in decades. It has changed, however, because science is inherently a process of discrediting old ideas and replacing them with better ideas. So most scientists are open to opposing ideas, but those ideas have to be based on good evidence and sound logic. If you want to convince a scientist that they are wrong, then you need to present them with actual high quality evidence (i.e., large properly conducted studies that were published in reputable peer-reviewed journals).

This is the fundamental point that so many people seem to miss: being open-minded means being willing to change your view when presented with high quality evidence. It does not mean being will to change your view based on anecdotes, blogs, Youtube videos, and hearsay. More often than not, when someone says “open your mind” they really mean “accept something totally ridiculous without any solid evidence to support it.” That’s not being open-minded, that’s being gullible.

Do scientists take parent’s/the public’s concerns seriously?
This one is a bit baffling to me, because the answer is so obvious. Yes, scientists absolutely take the public’s concerns seriously! That is why there are over 1,700 studies on GMOs, numerous large studies on vaccines and autism, etc. Nevertheless, I constantly hear people who insist that scientists aren’t looking for the “real” cause of autism, aren’t looking for better cancer treatments, haven’t studied GMOs, aren’t looking at the possibility that global warming is natural, etc., but all of these claims are utter nonsense. They are demonstrably false. For any of these topics, you can find multiple studies addressing those concerns. For example, in this post, I explained why we know that climate change isn’t natural, and I cited multiple studies that have examined that possibility. The topic has been extremely well studied, but I felt compelled to write that post because I encounter so many people who seem to think that scientists have never even bothered to look at the possibility that climate change is natural.

To put it simply, when someone says that scientists are ignoring them, more often than not, the problem isn’t actually that scientists are ignoring them, rather, the “problem” is that scientists didn’t find the result that they were hoping for. There are, however, exceptions which I will discuss in the next section.

A related claim is that scientists don’t engage the public. First, many scientists do in fact engage the public (for example, this blog exists because I am a scientist who thinks that it is worth my time to engage the public). Second, scientists are extremely busy people. We usually work over 60 hours a week, so asking us to add public engagement to our work schedule is not a small request. Third, those of us who do try to engage the public are rewarded with a constant wave of hate and insults. I wake up every day to find new messages telling my what a blind idiot I am for accepting the results of carefully controlled studies. I am constantly accused of being a paid shill, and I have had numerous people tell me that I am an evil, murdering, monster for supporting vaccines/GMOs. Given that level of vitriol, is it really surprising that most scientists don’t take time out of their busy schedules to engage the public? Again, most of the people making this claim don’t actually want scientists to engage them, rather they just want scientists to pander to them and tell them that they are right.

Are scientists dismissive?
The claim that scientists are dismissive is similar to the claim that they don’t take parents/the public seriously, but it has an important difference. Usually, I hear the latter being used to argue that there is a lack of research; whereas I typically hear the claim that scientists are dismissive in association with debates (this is more closely connected to the arrogance claim). In other words, many people argue that when they present scientists with their arguments, the scientists are dismissive of them and ignore their arguments rather than dealing with them. There certainly are many cases where scientists ignore people’s claims/arguments, but that needs to be qualified in several ways.

First, more often than not, this occurs when someone is making a ludicrous claim/argument that is contrary to everything that we know about the universe, and in those cases, ignoring the claim is often the appropriate response. If, for example, someone tries to tell you that rainbows form when unicorns defecate while flying through the air, you are not in any way obliged to take that claim seriously. That is obviously a silly example, but this happens all the time with real arguments that are equally absurd. Quite simply, if you are arguing for a position that has no scientific support and has been refuted by multiple studies and a basic understanding of science, then your opponent is not being “dismissive” by not taking that argument seriously. Rather, they are being rational.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it is OK to respond in a way that is haughty or belittling, but you are under no obligation to treat an absurd proposition as if it is a rational one. Additionally, it is always technically possible that numerous studies are wrong or even that our most fundamental concepts about the universe are wrong, so you should be willing to challenge them if presented with proper evidence. If someone comes to you with a stack of legitimate peer-reviewed studies that document the existence of unicorns and their ability to fly and poop out rainbows, as well as explaining why our current understanding of the physics of rainbows is wrong, then, at that point, you are obliged to take the argument seriously. However, if all that they are presenting is blogs, anecdotes, etc. than you absolutely can dismiss their arguments, because the burden of proof is on them to support their position, it isn’t your duty to refute it.

acid-diet

As an illustration of how this typically plays out, consider the meme above. It shows the type of dialogue that many people would label as “dismissive” or “arrogant” and, indeed, when I shared that on my blog’s Facebook page, one person commented with precisely that claim, so let’s examine that comment. First, the scientist in the meme actually asked a question rather than instantly rejecting the argument. If the person supporting the acid diet had responded with, “yes I do understand homeostasis, and here are several recent studies which showed that our previous knowledge was wrong and foods can actually affect the pH of our blood” then the scientist would have been forced to look at those studies. The person did not say that, however, because those studies don’t exist. Homeostasis is one of the fundamental concepts of physiology. It has been very well studied and we have a really good understanding of how it works. So claiming that food will shift the pH of our blood isn’t actually that far below unicorns on the absurdity scale. Therefore, ignoring claims that the acid diet works is not being “arrogant” or “dismissive” it’s being rational.

Conclusion
Although scientists certainly can be arrogant, close-minded, etc., usually when I see people making these accusations they are simply committing ad hominem fallacies. There is nothing arrogant about thinking that years of advanced training and experience make you more knowledgeable than someone that lacks that training and experience. Indeed, in most areas, we readily acknowledge experts and are happy to defer to them. Yet for some bizarre reason, when it comes to science and medicine, unqualified people feel entitled to think of themselves as experts, and that delusion is the truly arrogant one. Similarly, there is nothing dismissive or close-minded about rejecting anecdotes and shoddy arguments. Being open-minded means being willing to change your mind when presented with solid evidence. It does not mean being willing to accept utter nonsense despite a mountain of contrary evidence.

Note: You could argue that this post is actually anecdotal because it is based on my observations of debates rather than actual statistics, and if someone can find a solid peer-reviewed study that showed that scientists have an above-average level of arrogance, then I will happily write and addendum. However, that line of reasoning is really missing the point, because the fundamental question isn’t actually “are scientists arrogant?” Rather it is, “is it arrogant to think that advanced training and experience makes someone more qualified than someone who lacks that training and experience?”

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