Time for two examples of largely unintended arrogance from scientists.

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING, IT’S HOW YOU’RE SAYING IT. The poker scene in “Flock of Dodos” and the title of an essay illustrate how, whether they mean to or not, scientists can come off as arrogant sometimes.


“WHY ARE THE SCIENTISTS SO ARROGANT?” – Kansas high schooler at “Flock of Dodos” premiere, 2006

In February, 2006 we held the first public screening of “Flock of Dodos,” at a sold out 350 seat theater in the suburbs of Kansas City. One group who showed up that snowy night was a dozen or so high school seniors along with their teacher. I was eager to hear what their response was to the movie. When it was over I heard from a friend who spoke with them. They enjoyed the movie but they found the group of evolutionary biologists at the poker table to be “arrogant.”

That was the word they used. Which hurt a little given that I was one of the scientists in that scene. Had you asked me the day before how I thought the public would perceive the scientists in the poker scene I might have said, “argumentative” or even “eggheadedly foolish,” but I never would have thought of arrogance as the key descriptor. Yet over the years in listening to the feedback it’s very clear most non-scientists view them that way.

And now that I’ve viewed the movie a few hundred times, I do as well. Everyone at the poker table comes off as arrogant, including myself. We are all supremely confident in our pronouncements. Not just in the substance of what we say, but just in the way we say it. I’m not sure any of us intended to be arrogant. There’s an endless tendency of scientists to be a little short on the self-awareness thing.



Similarly, and unfortunately, last week it was my turn for Round 2 in the Roundtable Discussion I’m taking part in on the website of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists with two top climate folks, Roger Pielke, Jr. of University of Colorado and Robert Socolow of Princeton addressing the issue of, “The Political Distortion of Science.” I really liked both of their first round essays — Pielke talking about the importance of fairness and honesty in dealing with controversial science topics, Socolow talking about how science is not just another profession — it is a specific means of inquiry.

So for my second round I was all set to rave about these two essays when I spotted the title of Socolow’s second essay, the second half of which consists of the phrase, “Science as a superior way of knowing.” Suddenly the sweet music of agreement ended with a record scratch as I uttered the words, “oh, my.” It’s a shame because his essay isn’t all that arrogant, but the title is simply unacceptable if you’re concerned about the public perception of science. You can’t tell the public, “we have a SUPERIOR way of knowing.” You just can’t.

Anyhow, I offer up my analysis of his title with my second round essay. And just like those of us at the poker table in Dodos, I don’t think he intended it to be arrogant. It’s just difficult sometimes to put yourself in the position of people who have no connection to the world of Ph.D.’s. They speak a different (more common) language.

BTW – ┬ácheck out this story today of another Kansas high school kid — this one is standing up to the whole wacky school system there — yay!