Science Is Classist. Here’s a Solution

Science Is Classist. Here’s a Solution August 15, 2017

Protect Science from Classist BiasIn my last post, I wrote about politics, again. I was disappointed, but not too surprised, when the post sank, a bit stone-like, into the internet’s murky waters. I got the hint, though: people who read this blog don’t like to read about politics. This is a blog about religion and science, after all! Since practically everything seems to be politicized these days, why read yet more about politics on a blog that’s supposed to be about something else? In the coming months, I’m going to focus more on science and religion again. But first I want to explain, as a kind of capstone, why I wrote last week’s post, and why – despite the eye-glazing effect of some of the ideas in it – the topic I wrote about is important for religion and science.

Last weekend, I had a realization. A lot of what I’ve written about here over the past year could be boiled down to two simple facts: (1) science, and the academic world in general, tend to be pretty classist. And (2) in an age of populism, this is a dangerous thing to be.

To be a scientist, after all, you almost always need a Ph.D. or an equivalent doctoral degree. A Ph.D. takes a lot of time and money to earn, which involves hanging around a research university for at least four or five years. Hanging around research university campuses exposes you to a world of fascinating, intelligent, cultured, and refined people, many of whom find the tastes, hobbies, dialects, and social mores of the non-college-educated to be both quaint and revolting.

The journalist Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader, has a pithy way of describing this dynamic: front-row kids versus back-row kids. In Arnade’s terminology, front-row kids are the type of person who does well in school. They’re the kids who used to always sit in the front row of classes, listening to everything the teacher said. They did well on tests and assignments.

Back-row kids are the sort of person who probably never really thrived in the academic environment. They didn’t sit near the teacher. They got average or not-so-great grades. After high school, they probably either enrolled at a lower-tier state institution or, more commonly, didn’t go to or finish college.

Scientists and other researchers are, by definition, almost always front-row kids. They’ve generally done well in academics throughout their lives. They’re good at retaining information and seeing connections between abstract ideas. The front-row culture in which they live tends to reward social flexibility, and strongly discourages parochial loyalties or sentimental ties to the past.

In today’s economy, front-row kids get all the best and most prestigious jobs – professor, data analyst, intellectual-property lawyer, Google programmer, finance bro. But back-row kids are stuck with one of three types of jobs: 1) jobs that involve physical manipulation of real things, such as building construction or factory worker (jobs which many back-row kids tend to enjoy and be good at, but which are growing rarer, and used to pay well but no longer do); 2) cruddy service jobs, which nobody enjoys and which it is not possible to be either good or bad at, because they require so little intelligence or skill; 3) unemployment.

Front-row kids tend to congregate together in a few, very geographically restricted areas: a handful of college towns (Ann Arbor, Boulder, Austin, Madison, etc.) or insanely expensive A-list cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle). This spatial clustering has turned front-row culture into a massive echo chamber that’s closed off to anyone who can’t afford $1200 per month (or more) for rent. Inside that echo chamber, the concerns and perspectives of people who build roads, live and work on farms, mine for minerals, or fix automobile engines are essentially inaudible.*

For the most part, front-row culture is socially liberal. You show off that you’re a good front-row kid by meticulously emphasizing fairness and prevention of harm, but downplaying respect for authority, loyalty to the group or the nation, and purity or sanctity (the five basic ingredients of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.)

Back-row culture isn’t exactly conservative. Back-row kids are going to religious services less and less and supporting welfare programs more and more. But back-row people of all races and colors do tend to strongly value respect for authority. They’re more likely to fly the flag and join the armed services. They often have strong loyalty to places: cities or regions where they grew up, local sports teams, extended families.

To front-row kids, this kind of committed loyalty seems provincial, even backward. Front-row kids value mobility and initiative. They often left their hometowns to go to college and then, after earning their degree, found themselves briskly funneled into a large city, college town, or glittering tech region.


Here are some of the things I’ve heard educated people say about the Midwest:

“I could never live in Wisconsin. Too many farmers.” – An astrophysicist, next to whom I was sitting at a dinner. While we were eating. Food.

“I could never raise children in the Midwest. The bigotry.” – An esteemed professor, who pronounced the latter judgment while shaking his head sadly, but without qualification. He clearly assumed that this statement was too self-evident to require elaboration. The Midwest is full of bigots. Obviously. I mean, they’re practically synonyms, right?

“You’re from Wisconsin? I’m sorry. I’ll bet you’re glad to be out here in Boston.” – An NPR radio host at a party. He believed that Wisconsin was a barren wasteland of flat farms and inbred people. His grew as wide as saucers when I showed him a picture of the Apostle Islands, which are in Wisconsin.


Many of my educated friends think it’s ludicrous to claim that academics and scientists are classist, because most academics and scientists aren’t rich. For my educated friends, social class equates with income, period. As such, a plumber who makes $120,000 belongs to a higher social class than an assistant professor or postdoc who make $55,000.

But this framework ignores something crucial: social class is also about tastesnorms, and prestige. In its tastes and norms, the academic world is a lot closer to what used to be called aristocracy than even the best-paid plumber is. Academic jobs are also more prestigious – people are generally more impressed if you say you’re a research scientist than if you say you’re a plumber, even if as a scientist you make a yearly salary that a journeyman plumber would scoff at. Science is a prestige occupation.

The cultural gap goes deeper than simple prestige. Think about how scientists make the money for their research. They don’t produce concrete goods for exchange on the marketplace. Instead, the bulk of the money for scientific and other kinds of research comes from grants. Grants are, for all intents and purposes, a kind of patronage – a wealthy benefactor or government donates funds to a specialized expert, who’s then freed to perform a complex, long-lasting, arcane type of work that could never be supported by the unfettered market.

Patronage is how dependents of the aristocratic class – artists, philosophers, and scientists – survived the long millennia before the modern era. Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle, and Isaac Newton are only some of the many great thinkers who were, at some point, beneficiaries of royal or aristocratic sponsors. Intellectual expertise was inseparable from aristocratic norms and culture. And so intellectuals tended to behave like aristocrats – or to actually hail from the aristocratic and royal echelons of society.**

But then came the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, sparked off by the American Revolution. What these revolutionaries were overthrowing was aristocracy. After winning independence from Britain, the new American Republic didn’t adopt a king, or grant noble titles to its landed families. The colonists had just fought a war to get out from under the thumb of a government run by hereditary nobles. What the early Americans wanted was a country where nobody could boss anyone else around just because they had the title “Duke” or “Earl.”

As a result, social norms in the American Republic have always strongly discouraged behaving too much like a princeling. Even wealthy people – of whom there were plenty right from the get-go – have historically tended to take on the mannerisms of the middle class. That is, they’ve tended to behave like people who make money by trading and attending to practical concerns in the public market, not like people who inherited estates and titles.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the early French observer of American democracy, wrote (emphasis mine):

In the United States, the most opulent citizens take much care not to isolate themselves from the people…They know that the rich in democracies always need the poor, and that in democratic times one ties the poor to oneself more by manners than by benefits.

He went on to point out that, in a democracy, regular people ask of the rich not “the sacrifice of their money, but of their haughtiness.

Tocqueville did two important things in these passages. First, he observed that in a democracy, the masses have political power. And since the non-rich always outnumber the rich, you need to earn the goodwill of the non-rich if you want to get anything done (like, oh, funding state universities).

Second, he highlighted that if you want to earn the goodwill of the non-rich in a democracy, you need to show that you have something in common. Since the rich clearly don’t have their financial circumstances in common with the poor, the best strategy is to share common cultural reference points or values. In a democracy like America’s, which was founded on the idea of overthrowing aristocracy (remember?), that means not looking down on regular people.* It means that you can occupy the higher social position, but you can’t let it go to your head.

And it definitely means you can’t sneer at the people who grow your food or fix your car.


The world of research depends, to a great extent, on public largess. But many professionals – a class that includes scientists – have begun overlooking (or rejecting outright) Tocqueville’s dictate for how to obtain goodwill in a democracy. Think about the quotes I listed above. These aren’t the sentiments of privileged people who have humbly “sacrificed their haughtiness.” They’re the expressions of front-row people who can’t perceive how haughty they sound. People who, in expressing what is quite patently geographical and class bigotry, sincerely think they’re making perfectly obvious, commonsensical statements, like “coach airplane seats are small” or “Pittsburgh is a city of 310,000 inhabitants in western Pennsylvania.”

Now let’s back up a moment and take a closer look at the social dynamics of the front-row crowd. The front-row world is very competitive. You have to get the right educational credentials, the right job. It helps your career to live in the right neighborhood. It’s not surprising that us front-row kids wouldn’t be experts in humility. Humility can even sometimes actually harm your career prospects in science – for example, if you let someone else steal your great idea.

But the failure to obey Tocqueville’s dictate is one of the major wedges driving apart American culture.

I’m going to repeat that dictate:

In democratic times, one ties the poor to oneself more by manners than by benefits.

As the front row acts more like aristocrats, their ability to win the goodwill of the populace wanes. Period. You can’t just institute, say, a universal basic income and expect the rabble to shut up at last and love you. At some point, for a democracy to work, you have to stop thinking of regular people like rabble, and start treating them as people. As equals. Otherwise they will vote against you. Period.

To the extent that scientists and researchers are enveloped in front-row culture, I think many of them are deeply unable to see this. A lot of my exasperated scientists friends wring their hands about the need to explain things to regular people. Few of them think about the need to connect with those people, on a democratic basis – not through representative politics, but through democratic interactions, as equals.

But do scientists and researchers really see the non-college-educated bulk of the population as equals? After all, we are better, smarter, more informed. Middle Americans reject climate science and vote for populists. They’re clearly not equal. They need to be led and guided. Right?

Well, where does your food come from? Because mine comes from farms. The coal that generates my electricity comes from mines. The roads in my city are paved by people who don’t attend international scientific conferences. My garbage is picked up every week by people who, by and large, don’t have PhDs.

This means we have three choices:

  1. We can live in a functioning democracy. In a functioning democracy, the fortunate, the rich, and the well-educated are perfectly free to enjoy their advantages, but they need to recognize and value a common culture with the less-fortunate. Most of all, they need to be humble. Yes, it’s great that you earned a Ph.D. and do cutting-edge research. No, you shouldn’t feel guilty for your success. It’s great to be a scientist! But just don’t forget that someone else is growing your food, filling potholes, and maintaining your electrical grid. You depend on these people. Remembering this makes it easy to keep the channels of goodwill open. And if the channels of goodwill are open, non-PhD-holding people will be happy to keep voting public money for research.
  2. We can live in a dysfunctional democracy. In this option – which, I’d argue, we’re currently in – the front-row kids enjoy intense social and educational advantages, attending universities and colleges that train them how to act and see the world like a privileged class, but without emphasizing how much they owe to the less fortunate. Front-row culture carefully conceals the dirty work that keeps society running: mechanics, road workers, and farmers are segregated from the bustling, trendy neighborhoods. Across society, the type of work you do takes on a moral aspect: manual and low-status labor is seen as vaguely morally impure, something to be done by people who believe backward things about gender. Conversely, being educated and intelligent is seen as equivalent to moral uprightness. In this dysfunctional democracy, the mechanics, farmers, bus drivers, and desk clerks know full well how much the front row kids despise them. Tocqueville’s bond of manners and customs is gone. Resentment spikes. The result? Voters become notably less enthusiastic about giving public money to research – which is, after all, a front-row occupation.
  3. We can just give up and live in something like an aristocracy. In this option, the front-row kids admit that they don’t share a common cultural world with the people who make and grow and fix their stuff. They abandon even the pretense of sharing a unified cultural framework with manual workers, repairpeople, and farmers. Given enough time, it’s possible, even likely, that the correlation between occupational status and moral purity becomes cognitively engrained, as in Hinduism’s Varna caste system. It comes to just seem like pure common sense that trash collectors and farmers are morally inferior to stem cell researchers. In this world, nobody has to worry about getting the public’s support for scientific or other agendas anymore, because the public doesn’t get a say.


Currently, we’re orbiting Option 2, leaning sometimes toward Option 1 and other times toward Option 3.

What does this have to do with science?

The problem with Option 3 is that a real aristocracy, by definition, may not offer the personal liberty and freedom that make scientific research possible. Thinkers from Bertrand Russell to Michael Shermer have argued that science and democracy are tethered together because they both depend on, and support, high levels of personal liberty. The science writer Timothy Ferris concurs, writing that

freedoms protected by liberal democracies are essential to facilitating scientific inquiry, and…democracy itself is an experimental system without which neither science nor liberty can flourish.

Ferris offers five reasons why “science flourishes only in liberal-democratic environments:”

  1. Science is anti-authoritarian. Ideas are supposed to be tested, not accepted on the basis of handed-down authority.
  2. Science is self-correcting. People debate about ideas, using argumentative skills to build cases. This independence and measured conflict are the essence of democratic self-governance.
  3. Science needs widespread intellectual resources. Political repression means that the next epochal genius might languish forever in an ethnic ghetto or be denied an education because of her gender.
  4. Science and economic advancement are intertwined. Economic advancement is also associated with democracy. They need each other.
  5. Science is social. It needs a lot of experts to bring their individual gifts and talents to bear on any given problem. In a society where political repression is the norm, individual gifts and talents tend to languish. And so does science.

Ferris sums up his arguments with a quote from John Dewey:

Freedom of inquiry, tolerance of diverse views, freedom of communication, the distribution of what is found out to every individual as the ultimate intellectual consumer, are involved in the democratic as well as the scientific method.

What this means is that if we were to choose Option 3 – giving up on making common cause with the non-college-educated majority of our population – we will be setting up the conditions that could very well undermine institutional science itself. In other words, liberal democracy is a full package. If you want it to succeed, you have to acknowledge that the majority holds the cards. You have to take careful heed of Tocqueville’s dictate: don’t let your successes or your education go to your head, and understand that public goodwill depends on a minimum of haughtiness and self-importance. Your high IQ is good, but it’s not morally good (or bad).


American electoral institutions are still set up for democracy, but democratic ideals are definitely straining. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and science advocate, recently Tweeted a link to an article supporting the concept of “epistocracy” – a representative system wherein more intelligent and well-educated people get a larger share of the vote.

Pinker may not know this, but this is how many older, restrictive, property-qualification voting systems were justified – the landowner got to vote on behalf of all his many dependents, such as tenants, wives, and children, because he was presumed to be more enlightened and therefore to understand their shared interests better than they did. (The dependents did not get to vote.)

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and tech guru, has explicitly argued that “democracy and freedom are no longer compatible.” Support for democracy as an ideal has reached all-time lows among many demographic groups, especially the young. This sudden collapse of democratic sentiment has led the political scientist Yascha Mounk to warn, ominously, of “democratic deconsolidation.”

This is what I meant last week when I suggested that democracy is in danger. The relative economic equality that lends itself to democracy has been replaced by enormous concentrations of wealth and poverty. The relative cultural equality that characterized the early American Republic is being challenged by something more like a caste system, as tastes, habits, and values diverge further and further between the front row kids and the back row kids.

The fact that democracy is in danger doesn’t mean it’s certain to collapse. It doesn’t mean we’re all doomed. But it is worth thinking through what these profound cultural changes might mean for those things we value. If science is one of the things we value – and it sure ought to be – then we need to carefully consider what they could mean for science.

I think it’s clear: the culture of front-row classism is putting many of the things that front-row people value most in danger. Formally and institutionally, we still have a democracy. Back-row kids massively outnumber front-row kids. If we persist in alienating and disrespecting the back row, they will keep voting to defund our work. Period. That’s how democracy works.

Thus, it’s not surprising, but it is disheartening, that the front row’s commitment to democracy is wavering at the very moment when cultural tensions between the back-row majority and the front-row minority are at their highest. Many thought leaders seem to be actively flirting with – but not yet quite endorsing – ideas that look suspiciously like Option 3, or the road to it. If you can’t get democracy to work in your favor, why not look around for a more amenable system? Well, because science probably needs democracy.


It may sound sometimes like I’m alarmist. Maybe that’s true. That would be awesome; I’d love to be wrong. But the signs everywhere indicate that we are genuinely in a precarious position – socially, economically, and politically. A major policy expert at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently stated that he thinks “the world is drifting toward a truly massive general crisis.” I do think, at some level, that he’s right – we are probably in for a rough ride over the coming years. If we want science and reason to come out of those years intact and functioning, we have to work hard at preserving the social and political conditions that make science possible.

One concrete thing that front row kids, like scientists, can do to help is to learn to have basic respect for the back row kids. Just because someone does not have a college degree or a PhD, and just because he drives trucks or she wears paint-splattered overalls for work, does not make him or her less worthy than you. If someone decides to stay in the town or neighborhood where she was born, foregoing the high-flying world of scientific meetings and itinerant postdocs, then consider being grateful. Her stable presence in her little neighborhood, surrounded by friends she’s known since kindergarten, might be directly benefitting you. Even scientists need somewhere to raise their kids, after all, and where better than a neighborhood with committed, well-knitted residents?

I’ve written these last two posts because, in my budding career as a researcher, I keep encountering a massive cultural gap between the academic world and everyone else. Practically speaking, this is in some sense inevitable: academics and scientists do specialized, difficult work.  Of course their worldview and habits will be different from those of a lathe turner or a delivery driver. But the undertones of arrogance and classism do not have to follow. Arrogance and classism undermine the goodwill across segments of society that make democratic society work. Gratitude, respect, and understanding that it takes all kinds – and that we’re all in this together – are paradoxically what will ensure that the careful, rarefied labor of science can continue into far the waiting future.


P.S. Because of the recent violence in Charlottesville, I think it’s very important to point out that the class dynamics I’m talking about are absolutely not limited to any particular race or ethnicity, despite the examples I used of coastal condescension toward the (mostly white) rural Midwest. A lot of the working class – people who fix, build, grow, and make things – is non-white, and in my experience many front-row kids don’t respect Latino or black working-class people any more than they do white working-class people, although they may sometimes be constrained by social propriety not to express that disrespect quite so openly. Unfortunately, the classism I’m talking about is very equal-opportunity.


* This includes the blue-collar workers of all races who live in less well-off neighborhoods in Boston, New York, etc., and who are often just as unlikely to interact socially with the their well-heeled counterparts as Midwestern farmers who live 1,000 away are. See my postscript above.

** In my last post, I claimed that, prior to the mid-19th century, science was mostly conducted by “gentleman scientists,” or self-funding, independently wealthy (or aristocratic) men of privilege. It would be more accurate to say that science was conducted either by the independently wealthy or by people with social access to the wealthy, which in practice often meant having a privileged background oneself.

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