Thinking scientists are smarter than other people hurts us

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I’ve started contributing to the Forbes Science page again! This is my second new contribution; stay tuned for plenty more. (And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.)

No, Scientists Are Not Smarter Than Non-Scientists

For Forbes:

Often when I mention I have a PhD in physics and astronomy, the response I get from people is “oh, you must be so smart” or “you’re smarter than I am”. (If it’s a medical doctor, the response is usually “I hated physics in college!”, but that’s a different story.) In general, people tend to associate science with “braininess”, often in addition to other less desirable traits. You could reasonably ask if I’m so smart, why I’m a freelance journalist who is perpetually short on money. But this isn’t about me in particular: it’s more about the way society (at least in the United States and like-minded nations) sees scientists versus non-scientists.

Science writer Kat Arney delved into this issue in detail in a recent column for the (UK) Royal Society of Chemistry. As she points out, the problems with the “brainy scientist” stereotype are manifold: that science is a meritocracy, and that non-scientists are somehow less valuable.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

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Albert Einstein: Physicist and Social Justice Warrior

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

From left: Former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, Albert Einstein, Lewis Wallace, and Paul Robeson. Einstein had invited Wallace (who was running for President in 1948) and singer/actor/civil-rights activist Robeson to his house to discuss anti-lynching activism. Robeson asked Einstein to co-chair his  organization, American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL). [Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images]

From left: Former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, Albert Einstein, Lewis Wallace, and Paul Robeson. Einstein had invited Wallace (who was running for President in 1948) and singer/actor/civil-rights activist Robeson to his house to discuss anti-lynching activism. Robeson asked Einstein to co-chair his organization, American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL). [Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images]

How Albert Einstein Used His Fame to Denounce American Racism

The world-renowned physicist was never one to just stick to the science

For Smithsonian Magazine:

By the spring of 1933, the most famous scientist in the world had become a refugee.

Einstein was a more fortunate refugee than most. By that time he was already a Nobel Prize winner and media celebrity, recognizable around the world. That fame made him a high-profile enemy for the new Nazi government in Germany, but it also guaranteed him safe places to go. Ultimately he ended up in America at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Einstein saw racism as a fundamental stumbling block to freedom. In both his science and his politics, Einstein believed in the need for individual liberty: the ability to follow ideas and life paths without fear of oppression. And he knew from his experiences as a Jewish scientist in Germany how easily that freedom could be destroyed in the name of nationalism and patriotism. In a 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University, the oldest black college in the U.S., Einstein decried American racism in no uncertain terms.

“There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States,” said the renowned physicist, using the common term in the day. “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” [Read the rest at Smithsonian Magazine]

The white scientist versus the African teenager

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A Rationalist’s Irrationality

Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk?

For Slate:

Richard Dawkins is not your garden-variety Internet troll. He’s a retired professor at Oxford University and the author of a number of well-received, best-selling books on science and atheism. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most-read popular accounts of evolution, and it introduced the term “meme,” long before Internet cats, as a way to express how ideas spread and evolve. In other words, he’s as establishment as they come. He is no fringe conspiracy-monger lurking in the anonymous cave of message boards and comment sections.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he is, based on his willingness to say offensive things on social media, often at the expense of non-famous people. In the latest iteration, he proposed the notion—just as a simple “what if”—that Ahmed Mohamed got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get money and attention. [Read the rest at Slate….]

As a personal aside, I expected some pushback over this piece, and I certainly got it. At present, there are nearly 1000 comments at Slate, and I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me angry messages on Twitter. However, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses as well, and despite a few people declaring they’ll never read a thing of mine again, I hope I haven’t driven too many away. It’s been an interesting 24 hours, to put it mildly.

One thing I did find interesting though was the various interpretations of the piece. I wrote a critique of a prominent scientist and science communicator, and intended it to be nothing more or less than that. It wasn’t a critique of atheism (though some took it that way), or a defense of religion in general or Islam in particular (though some took it that way). I personally am uninterested in debating those things in the abstract. Ideas are always fair game for criticism in my view, but people are only fair game in inverse proportion to their vulnerability. Thus, the powerful and the privileged are tough kids and can handle a little harsh truth if they need it. Picking on the poor, the minority, those whose voices are not widely respected is at best bullying.

Systems that privilege some and deny others demand criticism, which means yes! the practice of religion is definitely a legitimate target for criticism where it deserves it. But to say that any random practitioner of a religion — a child, say — is fair game because you don’t like some of the tenets of that religion? I can’t follow you there. Someone who uses political office to enforce their religious beliefs on another is leveraging power and privilege; an atheist like Dawkins with many listeners and a stable social position can also leverage power over others, albeit a less direct form of power. The privilege and power are the enemies when they are misused, and I think people of goodwill can unite in that cause, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.