The Ivory Tower and Main Street

imagesby Massimo Pigliucci

Here comes another in our occasional series of videos featuring myself in conversation with Missouri State University philosopher Daniel Kaufman. In this episode Dan and I take up the very mission of Scientia Salon and discuss its implications. We talk about the love/hate relationship that the public seems to have with the Academy, and ask whether the public is skeptical because academics are ideologically biased.

Dan and I get into the differences in higher education between the United States and Europe and Dan makes the point that education is (or should be) about a lot more than economic growth. We also tackle the move toward a digital classroom, and end by asking (rhetorically) whether expertise, especially in education, is really needed.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.


60 thoughts on “The Ivory Tower and Main Street

  1. “In Italy and other European countries one gets a much better high school education”

    That’s not indicated by PISA scores after adjusting for demographics.

    There is no shortage of liberals in the upper echelons of Wall Street, and you also find people like Paul Singer who backs Republican candidates and PACS but also spends millions of dollars promoting homosexual marriage.


  2. Aravis,

    I agree entirely. There are some institutions and services, designed originally to cater to the needs of a few, that simply cannot be scaled up for mass production in their current form. Elite education is one, almost by definition. Providing top class legal services to everyone who needs them is another. I’m sure there are more.
    But we have managed to provide universal primary schooling and in the world of technology we provided near-universal sanitation and transport and telecoms. Most recently, we have achieved blanket availability of personal communication services and that seems the most likely infrastructure for any solution to the problems besetting higher education. Some subjects obviously require “hands on” training while almost every kind of education benefits from face-to-face tutelage, but we’re nothing if not an adaptable species. My favourite fiction is SF, a genre that is currently drowning in post-apocalyptic dramas that seem to reflect a wider cultural pessimism about the future. I ignore this sub-genre and remain almost insanely optimistic about the long-term prospects for hom. sap.

    You’ve defined the two purposes of education perfectly, in my view. However, the citizenship aspect must be covered before the age of eighteen or it’s too late (never mind being grossly unfair and inefficient) and given the sophistication of today’s kids, I think they could take this in their stride a lot earlier. Training for jobs should not necessarily involve degree courses. Unless you take a vocational degree or plan a career in the academy, a degree for most kids today (don’t have stats, just anecdotes and observations that I believe are widely shared) is just a necessity when applying for a job, even if the degree subject is completely unrelated to the work. Whatever else an expensive degree is for (£9,000 per year in the UK), it should not be for making employers’ selection decisions marginally easier. The push to get more and more kids into University only serves to confirm the growing perception that unless you have a degree, you’re worthless, particularly in the jobs market. In the absence of religion ( we’re all equal in the sight of God) perhaps it’s up to philosophy to make a popular case for the intrinsic worth of all people?
    In an ideal world the promise we should make to kids is that they will have access to a quality education according to their capacity and interests, and streaming in the way suggested by
    Aravis will surely by part of this. Lastly, I think it needs to become an explicit aim of primary education to inculcate a capacity for independent learning and self-motivation that will allow students to flourish in a technology-based distance-learning environment.


  3. As to conservatives in the humanities, if they “self-select” themselves out of such programs, it might be not because they’re not interested in studying literature, etc., but because the political environment is inhospitable to them. That conservative speakers are now routinely disinvited from campus events, usually due to protests originating from humanities departments, evidences such hostility.

    Regarding Massimo’s suggestion that “affirmative action” for getting conservatives into the humanities would be as senseless as such for getting liberals onto Wall Street, I think there’s an important difference. Wall Street is not about critical discussion of general matters of truth while universities are supposed to be, so the relevant exclusion is a failure in one of the purported aims of universities. Further, with regard to public universities, and universities receiving public funds generally, it’s unfair that students must have a certain political outlook to succeed in certain humanities programs.

    The notion that conservatives are not interested in literature is a stereotype. I’m a liberal but I’ve known a number highly literary conservatives, and a few generations ago there were more conservatives on the literary scene. That conservatives are now politically shut-off from humanities careers is at least a possibility, and if it is the case, something should be done about it.

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  4. One clue to why the paucity of conservative social scientists might be the remark of one of their heroes, Margaret Thatcher “There’s no such thing as society”. Whether they would deny the existence of society or not, I don’t think most conservatives (and libertarians) love to meditate on the idea of society. Libertarians in particular might find the idea repellant.

    There are many possible reasons for apparent bias (and is there such a thing as objectively definable bias?), and we do not have to accept the right’s tendency to treat failure to reflect the average man on the street’s opinion as bias. E.g. international reporters might be “biased” as to the worthiness of the case made by some “foreigners” who are angry at the U.S. but could that be because they’ve gotten out into the world and seen things that most Americans have never seen?

    The “Galileo complex” is a good trope, and related to a potential role that philosophers could play in reforming naive views of scientific epistemology. James Delingpole, one of the most noxious global warming deniers, like to say that the very idea of consensus is anti-scientific, and even some sane scientists get confused, tending to conflate consensus with “group think”.

    The philosopher Miriam Solomon’s book Social Empiricism gives a case study of how the consensus on continental drift came about, noting how various disciplines from paleontology to geology to paleomagnetism to oceanography came to validate the idea at different times. I treated this, and the analogy to global warming, at some length in and while I’m pretty sure she didn’t get the idea from me, I believe Naomi Oreskes is also starting to make use of that analogy.


  5. That climate deniers are paid by fossil fuel advocates is so true that even the Congress of the USA is getting angry about it, and has started to enquire (a bit late, in 2015).

    The European university tradition made learning into a (secular) religion. Being clerics initially, professors were frown upon, if they married. Nine, eight centuries ago.

    The PISA scores are to be taken carefully: not all countries, even in the West, present unbiased samples, far from it.

    The same holds with universities. All top French university professors are attached to research institutes (CNRS, INSERM, INRA, ONERA, IPGP, Pasteur, etc.). So conveniently the Chinese-UK-USA classification disqualify them, and their contributions and publications.

    It’s a question of money: French universities are free (or nearly so). If one discovers one can get a better learning in humanities (say) at the Sorbonne than in Harvard, it would cost Harvard, and the like, tremendous money. This is clearly happening in economics, political science, sociology.

    The Ecole Des Mines remade recently the classification in finance, business and economics, and found the French universities or schools (HEC, etc.) came out ahead of all British schools, and at parity with the best American ones… If one just looked at internationality offered salaries which the graduates got..

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  6. C Van Carter I can usually tell how a person stands on a certain issue if they use “homosexual” (possibly articulated with a bit of … oh, certain emotion) rather than “gay” or “gay and lesbian.” Clicking through to your blog provided the ready confirmation. The link of one particular person’s website, near the bottom of your list, confirms that in spades. Thanks. Or “thanks.”

    Of course, supporting gay marriage is no proof of liberalism. Libertarians do the same. A Wall Streeter supporting gay marriage while also supporting subprime mortgages, including deliberately foisting them on minorities of high enough income who don’t need them, creating new financially manipulative alphabet soup derivatives (including, as Thomas Jones’ link showed, now extending such toxicity to the higher education world), etc., etc., is anything but liberal.

    You did, though, confirm that the US has a tougher demographics sled on K-12 education than other “developed” nations.


    In the US, in my opinion, we need to get corporations back to doing what they regularly did up until about 20 years ago: provide job retraining to current employees as part of transitioning through larger changes for the company. If tax credits to do this aren’t helping enough, then, like people who won’t buy Obamacare, tax penalties for companies who fail to do this may be needed.

    Unionized employees still have more of this as part of their benefits; I say this as a former college adjunct instructor who taught UAW workers using their benefits for college classes.

    These would all, of course, be vocational-related. (English composition and similar classes count as vocation-related.) I also wouldn’t want businesses including the classical humanities under job retraining, lest we get something like the quasi-indoctrination of Japanese workers, or something worse yet in China, or off the pages of “Brave New World.”

    And, speaking of unions, besides education benefits a few of them still had, at one time, when we allegedly didn’t bowl alone, etc., union halls provided bits of this, at least, themselves.

    Unfortunately, as the mew book Age of Acquiescence notes, American unions, in the New Deal, and WWII, largely settled for capitalistic gains rather than increasing their place at the table in a broader sense. In turn, that probably was one of the seeds that led to the long-term semi-disintegration of trade unionism in America.


  7. (Patrice) “That climate deniers are paid by fossil fuel advocates is so true …”

    I had the impression some big oil like Exxon Mobile had backed away from the climate denial business, maybe because they employ a lot of competent scientists who’ve told them the gig will soon be up. If this is true, I’m sure the Koch’s have more than made up for it.

    Either way, though, the thing has taken on a life of its own. It will be very traumatic for the right wing punditocracy/think-tank-o-sphere when global warming becomes obvious to all regardless of how much they disregard the science. For years, and especially since “ClimateGate”, it has been Exhibit A in their case that all liberal media, politicians, and academicians are lying scumbags bent on bring everything under government control. This has been very effective in driving people to disregard all news sources except Fox and its ilk.

    The anti-liberal contempt-fests in right wing comment sections mostly come from people writing what they really think though how they got to think that way is hard to unravel.

    It seems to me a good job for the philosophical mode of thought, as well and some social science, to confirm (as I think it would be confirmed) that there is a marked epistemic value to an environment in which people generally pick up information, whether 1st, 2nd and 3rd hand, and pass it on out of a sincere tendency to want to exchange information *versus* an environment where people are paid to generate stories, with various bases for believability for the purpose of achieving specific political goals. That is the situation to varying degrees in right/libertarian think tanks. The Hoover Institute seems to hire people for having a promising (from their perspective) point of view and intelligence, and to tolerate some independence. The Heartland Institute seems to foster complete hack work, AEI is somewhere in between. Cato is worst than it used to be; it was founded with Koch money and these days I think the Kochs lean on them heavily.

    There is further epistemic value to a set of people all studying some facet of the world where there *is* some fact of the matter (whether or not it is tractable with the current state of knowledge and technology), *with* in addition an ethos that rewards anyone who can show that a current theory has a flaw that their theory can correct.

    The scientists contributing to the consensus on AGW are an extremely diverse lot, representing chemistry, many subdisciplines of physics, experts in prehistoric flora and fauna, oceanographers… I followed the slow formation of the “consensus”. It was no bandwagon; for a long time the prospects seemed clear, but nobody was quite ready to use the word “consensus”. I think you would be hard put to find any of these scientists who thing their work along proves global warming, but on the other side, there are plenty who think there theory and data alone disproves it.


  8. The contrast of diversity in the Ivory Tower vs. Main Street is interesting. After getting my math Ph.D. and three years postdoc in university research labs (which happen to be in blue states), I worked in a technology corporation’s research labs (in a red state). The latter could be seen as something between the university Ivory Tower and Main Street: In fact, the corporate labs were seen as “Ivory Tower” by the business sections. But even in those corporate labs there was a preponderance of “blue” people over “red” people vs. Main Street.


  9. (Answer to Hal and other who mentioned AGW, or the AGW deniers, including Massimo)
    The global emissions of CO2 are around 50 Gigatons, yearly (with 35 Gt just from burning carbon; the rest from land use, and land abuse).
    This does NOT take into account another 13% or so, supplementary contributions from other man-made greenhouse gases.

    The increased load of CO2 from human emissions is around 2%, a year, of its total content in the atmosphere. Half of this supplement goes into the ocean (acidifying it, and we are close to the danger point).

    Big Oil employs lots of smart educated scientists with PhD, or the like.
    Big Oil has another problem: new oil fields have a very bad ROI.

    Big Oil know all this. Big Oil knows AGW is real, and just a facet of an immense catastrophe. Some Big Oil companies have thus diversified (say in solar energy).

    So the resistance to curbing carbon burning comes mostly from other sources (coal, small operators, Koch brothers, etc.). They finance high profile deniers (such as Obama’s law professor at Harvard). It would be a huge amount of work to make society carbon free, and take out the fossil fuel rents. If all of society knew and understood the numbers I just mentioned, carbon burning would be phased out quickly.

    Meanwhile California is enjoying a megadrought directly connected to AGW, the greatest in at least 2,000 years..

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  10. I note in passing that Australia has a very strong vocational education stream which is available to individual students or as part of on the job training or apprenticeships.

    Unfortunately the current government feel that the US system is far superior to our own and wish to push it that way. Pity.


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