Science Has an Intellectual Elitism Problem


This is a guest post by Joshua M.A. Stough.

Over the last few weeks, science twitter has been…let’s say “discussing”, the place of religious faith and spiritualism in the scientific community and society in general. The source of the argument is a simple, but often aggressive assertion that religion is antithetical to science, presented as a binary choice: either you are an intelligent, free-thinking individual who accepts only that which can be empirically tested and validated, or you are a superstitious moron who mindlessly believes the dusty words of ancient charlatans. For many this will sound all too familiar, as it is frequently trotted out by a specific brand of atheists on Twitter, Reddit, and some of the seedier corners of the web. 

Before I continue, I’d like to make it clear that this is a relatively small part of the atheist community, the majority of which is frustrated and tired of the arrogance on display. If it were limited to a small collection of jaded teenagers and sophomore philosophy students in the deep echo chambers of the internet, it probably wouldn’t warrant much attention, but we’ve seen the same argument repeated by several prominent and visible scientists, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, as well as numerous scientists and academics on Twitter. This blog isn’t for them, it’s for the people who genuinely want to improve the education and understanding of those who reject scientific consensus for social, religious, and emotive reasons, but aren’t sure how. I’d like to share my own story as an example of how compassion, sensitivity, and the normalcy of the scientists I’ve met over the years did more to change my worldview than any amount of intellectual bullying, peer pressure, and exclusivity.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home, in the Evangelical tradition, and while my parents weren’t hardcore fundamentalists like the sort you see on the internet, my education growing up inevitably included the unerring truth of the Bible. I remember reading books with dinosaurs walking alongside Adam and Eve, archaeological evidence for Noah’s Ark and the global flood, and the age of the earth as determined by the genealogies listed in the book of Genesis. All of this seemed pretty innocuous at the time, but during my teenage years, things started to change.  Adolescence brought on a deep passion to protect the things I cared for, particularly family and religion. When I was in middle school, my dad shared his experiences with depression, and how our religion brought him back from the brink of suicide, which further solidified its importance in my life. By the time I was in high school, I was gobbling up books from Young Earth Creationists (YEC) explaining how the scientific community twisted evidence to support evolution.

This is one of the claims that seems to perplex scientists the most. Why would anyone do that? The books had an answer for that too. One of the key tenets of YEC, is that the scientific community is made up of militant atheists who have set out to destroy religion by using science to prove the Bible is unreliable. YEC authors sell themselves (and their books/products) as drawing a line at the book of Genesis, protecting the entirety of Christianity from those that would defile it. What is their proof? The intellectual elitism and aggressive anti-religious activity of prominent scientists described above.

I stopped believing in YEC around my Junior year of college, after about 4 years of being confronted by a reality that wholly contradicted their narrative. When I got to college, I found that scientists weren’t militant atheists at all, but just ordinary people doing a job they loved. They watched TV, they listened to music, they had families, and many practiced religion. During my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Daoists, Atheists, and Agnostics. It wasn’t peer pressure or bullying that changed my mind, it was my AP Biology teacher Dorothy listening to my beliefs without judgment. It was my undergraduate research advisor Mark with his humble passion for science. It was the dozens of great scientists fostering a seed of understanding in me that they didn’t even know about, and at the end of all this I’m grateful for it.

Public distrust of science is at a high water mark. While significant portions of the populace deny the scientific consensus on the origins of life on Earth and climate change, others reject the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and still others even reject that the earth is round. Some in the scientific community have responded with mocking and open hostility, potentially closing the doors of science for people watching, be they students, parents, staff, social media users, or politicians. Make no mistake, this is a diversity issue every bit as much as a public approval issue. Science needs to be open to people from all walks of life for its own sake as well as that of others, and we all need to recognize that changing hearts and minds is a process that takes time, not a single event. Our words and actions either contribute to, or detract from that change. Act wisely.

3 thoughts on “Science Has an Intellectual Elitism Problem

  1. Corporate media exaggerates everything, especially perceived conflicts. And if not conflict exists, they’ll create one. That is because inciting fear and outrage draws in viewers and melodrama sells advertising. As you say, most scientists aren’t anti-religious. In fact, many are religious. That is even more true in a religious society like the United States. Most Americans in general were raised in religious families.

    Likewise, there is far less opposition to science among the American public, despite how it gets portrayed in the corporate media, including social media. Fox News, for example, may love to play up the narrative rhetoric of religion vs science, particularly in attacks on environmentalism as dangerously radical, elitist, and maybe even communist. Yet according to a Fox News poll from last week, among Americans, 72% are concerned about “climate change” and 70% favor increased government spending on green and renewable energy.

    That indicates the majority is not anti-science and anti-intellectual or, for that matter, even anti-leftist. The same poll found about three-quarters of Americans think that racism is a serious issue in society and policing, the criminal system needs reformed, “illegal immigrants” should have a pathway to citizenship, the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade should be maintained, and there should be “government-run healthcare”. That is the vast majority. Where is the supposedly ideologically-divided partisanship we hear so much about in the corporate media?

  2. Dude, this post kicks ass.

    Really, really wonderful. Thank you giving him a slot.


  3. This brief personal essay is timely, crystal clear, and compassionate. Thank you! The way you speak from your own experience works persuasively. Thank you for being a peacebuilder.

    In my experience, most scientists (atheist, agnostic or of faith) have been tolerant and inclusive. They want to share their passion for science. They trust that, given a chance, science can speak for itself. (No bullying needed.) It may be mainly non-scientists among the illuminati who practice science elitism. Just an idea. (I’m a literature professor who loves science. Two scientists count among my close friends, and I talk regularly with my colleagues in STEM at the liberal arts college where I work.)

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