Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why would a science writer go on a campaign to belittle education and celebrate ignorance?

By Marc Jampole

Tooling around the Internet, I found two recent Forbes articles by a science writer named David DiSalvo that denigrate education and knowledge. Both are lists, one of do’s and the other of don’ts. But instead of just titling the articles, “Some stuff I’ve learned along the way,” DiSalvo prefers to take pot shots at those with degrees and smarts.

The names of the two articles say it all:
The two lists mostly come down to ways to get along with people: “Don’t talk down to others” and “You can learn something useful from everyone,” although the lists do take occasional snide sideswipes at learning, such as “Learning is good; doing is better” (which turned out not to be true in the case of the atom bomb). Basically, it’s Horatio Alger-Dale Carnegie kind of advice.

So why did DiSalvo tie both lists together with insults to the educated? It is possible that he learned the positive lessons he lists from people who didn’t go to college, just as it’s possible that he saw people he considers brilliant do the dumb things he lists. But that’s his anecdotal experience. Most of the stuff on DeSalvo’s do-this list I learned from people who went to college. His don’t-do list seems to apply equally to people of all intelligence and educational levels in my experience. Those are my anecdotes.

As a science writer, DiSalvo should know that anecdotes don’t prove a thing. If he wants to show some trait that we usually admire, such as brilliance or the discipline to complete college, may be tied to something unadmirable or dangerous, he should cite a study. That’s what a science writer usually does, even when sharing something personal. For example, a recent series of studies gave strong evidence that wealthy people behave less ethically. Of course, no Forbes writer would ever allude to these particular studies, since the Forbes ideology glorifies the wealthy as deserving masters of the universe.

Thus DiSalvo uses a very unscientific approach to make assertions that undercut his profession, since both doing and writing about science require education and a certain modicum of intelligence.

In all of these attacks on intellectualism in the American mass media is a certain smugness, as if to say, we don’t have to read and we don’t have to study. I can understand climate change deniers or those who don’t want to teach evolution in the classroom having such an attitude. But someone who writes about science?  You’d think DiSalvo would find another way to unify his lists of disparate homilies. For example, he could have just as easily written, “Ten Smart Things You Don’t Have to Go to College to Learn,” which is less confrontational and not overtly anti-intellectual.

I would be hard pressed to limit to 10 or even 25 the important things that I learned at college and graduate school—important principles of my profession of writing, ways to deal with people especially in big bureaucracies, success strategies for the real world, the scientific method and other ways of thinking. I’m just listing the topic areas, not the lessons.

And don’t get me started about the things I have learned from the many brilliant people among my relatives, professors, clients, colleagues and friends.

I bet DiSalvo’s list of things he learned from brilliant people and things he learned in college would be as long as mine.

Of course, no one would pay him to write an article around a list that praises science, at least not in the current mass marketplace of ideas, which prefers to celebrate ignorance.