Elitism Is Back, Baby (Star Trek Is Proof)
    By Hank Campbell | May 12th 2009 12:43 PM | 86 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    I have a confesson to make; I'm probably smarter than you. Don't take it badly, I am smarter than most people and I am not saying I am definitely smarter than you, because I don't know all of you and that would just be ridiculous hubris.

    But I am smarter than most of you, yet I have been forced by societal norms to keep it quiet. Oppressed, even.   Still, it comes out even if I try to hide it.   I am always convinced I will be the smartest guy in every room I enter and most of the time I am right, without even saying a word.

    I am part of the elite.  If you are reading this, you probably are too, given our demographics.

    Not all people like that.  In America, certainly, we have been trained that there are no classes, no royalty, no serfs - I believe we are the only country where we actually thank the busboy for sloshing some water on the table while he fills a glass and interrupts our meal.   We're no better than he is, even though he is working as a busboy and we're paying to be interrupted, because his time is as important as ours and he needs to know if our meal is okay and move on.  We fought a whole war so that all men could have the pretense of being equal in big ways but then it happened that we had to be equal in even the little ones.  The anti-elitists realized they had overwhelming numbers and began an insidious campaign to take control.

    So elites are a hidden and somewhat persecuted minority, truly ghetto-ized in the sense that we know we have to keep quiet lest we be attacked.  I think that's bad.  I also think it's starting to change.    Elitism is coming back into fashion.

    Fashionable nonsense is a fabric of many threads, as the saying goes.    Anti-elitism has not only been fashionable, it's been downright expected. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on special needs kids, art programs, music, all because we are trying to find a way to make kids less smart feel better about themselves, but smart kids?  Elite kids supposedly already have an advantage so if they don't get an education that nurtures them, it's their own fault for squandering their natural-born gifts.

    It's a baffling mentality.   America has less than 5% of the world population yet produces nearly 32% of the science.   Given an overwhelming population boom in  other countries if we are going to maintain our standing we need to not only be nurturing intellectual elites, we need to be recruiting them from other countries. So it's time to bring elitism - respect for the best and brightest - back.

    Elitism actually went out of fashion for a number of reasons, some of them quite good.   First among those good reasons would be that people in the humanities and in culture started huffing at ordinary people who didn't think crosses dipped in urine were art, or if they didn't know the name of some obscure off-Broadway play.  'Elitist' therefore got a colloquial definition and it became more like 'pretentious.'   Even an otherwise reasonable source like Merriam-Webster succumbs to it, equating elitism with snobbery.  

    Yet we talk of elite athletes and we immediately recognize that there are athletes, there are good athletes and then there are world-class caliber athletes - the elite.   No one seems to have a problem with someone obviously superior being called elite, with the key difference being that sports , at the advanced level (let's leave out quotas in college sports programs programs for the moment) is the one true remaining meritocracy.   If Usain Bolt is not an elite sprinter, beat him in a race.

    But academic elitism is separate, even meriting its own entry in Wikipedia, which calls it an "ivory tower" mentality and contrasts it to plain-speaking, populist folks who are champions of the people.  Yet they are mostly, and rightly, talking about fixed social cliques with political agendas who only support themselves; a self-validating circle.  It's those humanities people again but that mentality impacts science as well because once the cultural guns are turned on one type of academic, it tends to hit all types. Anti-elitism is basically a cultural Scud missile - you know it will blow a lot of people up, you just never know where it will land.

    Make no mistake, people who recoil against that kind of elitism are right, because those with political and cultural agendas in academia are more interested in 'fairness' instead of excellence, an idea that kills quality science.   

    The problem is puncturing pretentious academics in non-science fields has sloshed over into science as well; even here we get non-scientists who have come to wear their lack of knowledge as a badge of honor.   And that cultural training has made it so anti-elitism can happen in science too. Scientists are competitive but some go farther and choose not to acknowledge someone intellectually ahead and even rationalize their lack of success that by subscribing non-science reasons to someone else's standing; better marketing, an easy project that showed successful results, a culturally hot topic, but for the most part we all recognize that some scientists really are the elite - it ain't like the Nobel Peace prize or Economics, the prizes in science and medicine are up for debate but for the most part are reasonable.

    A crack in the culture started to show a few years ago, in an odd place;  a movie called The Incredibles. In this movie, the superheroes were forced to suppress their gifts while the villain, a  supposed champion of the people, set out to create a way for everyone to be 'exceptional' - if everyone is exceptional, no one is, was his thinking.     Conservatives cheered the sentiment, of course, yet they are most often the ones sneering at academics - apparently being the best and brightest is only good if you are starting an oil company.    The cultural subtext is open to interpretation by both sides but the message was clear - we need elite people.

    Luckily, when we need elite people most, anti-elitism is crumbling. Yesterday, I watched the new Star Trek movie and the crew of the Enterprise, in their younger Star Fleet Academy days pre-quel, are not chosen because of their diversity or to satisfy some notion of fairness, they are chosen because they are the best at what they do. The elite.

    Not only are they better than everyone else, they are even better than each other.  And make no secret about it.   It's downright refreshing. Yes, they happen to be ethnically diverse, a nod to Gene Roddenberry's 1960s series where Americans and Russians and whites and blacks (and even green women) would all get along and be recognized for their achievements (which makes liberal types happy) but, most importantly, they were only chosen for the Enterprise because they were exceptional (which makes conservative types happy).

    The bold new future of Star Trek command is excellence, not fairness. In a fair world, we all get to be Star Fleet captains. In a world of merit, only the best do.

    Before we can celebrate what the future might hold we have to examine what the war on elitism has brought.   You see it every day. How many times do you defer on easy questions and say that isn't your specialty, or hear out some long-winded crank who wants to goad you into mentioning you have a PhD just so they can tell you it means nothing? Well, of course it means something.

    In an anti-elitist world, research grants and tenure are given to people who match an artificial metric. If there aren't 50% women in physics, we must add some, we are told. Larry Summers was excoriated for implying that women, given the difficulties in being responsible for populating the planet along with the same academic rigor that men face, didn't always want to do hard sciences.   Barack Obama, declaring his own war on anti-elitism, still gave the guy an important job in his new administration, which had to have confounded the somewhat irrational critics of Summers, since they all voted for Obama and did so because they believed he would not make appointments based on politics - Summers is qualified and Obama wants to be successful. He can leave cultural gerrymandering for his Supreme Court picks, real work in his administration requires elite people.  

    And if I'm running a Star Fleet flagship or creating a science site, I want the best people - the elite - too.

    You do also. People can get lousy science education from other places or they can get great information here. So the next time some know-nothing puts quotes around your degree (What do you think about that, "Doctor"?) or tells you that because you have a degree in molecular biology you couldn't possibly speak with authority on whether or not gravity works, don't be modest - show your elitism with pride.

    Your culture needs you.

    Create Your Own


    Man, if you're part of the elite I must be a freaking genius!

    What to say to this?  You are really brave to have published this.  Simple acknowledgment that some people are mentally more able than others is taboo.  Unlike being the fastest sprinter, or highest jumper etc...  who get endorsement contracts for being so talented. 

    While I don't agree with all of the sentiments expressed.  I can feel where you are coming from.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    Hank .... great article and long overdue
    Mundus vult decipi
    And once again, art programs have been mentioned as playtime occupations to make the unintelligent feel important. I would venture that this is because of the lack of discipline and skill that goes into much of modern abstract expressionist type art- if you actually took the time to learn to draw well and study color and design theory as a technical realist artist instead of throwing up a bunch of colors on a canvas(like certain famous yet unscrupulous modern artists) you would know that it isn't always playtime for hyperactive little monkeys. I am an artist with an interest in science and a high IQ and I am sick and tired of it! There is more to intelligence and the fullness of human experience than mathematics. What can be more mathematical than music when properly studied? Than fractal art? How many studies have to come out showing that when music and art are taught in a serious methodical fashion starting from an early age, that the academic performance of participating students tends to go up in all fields? Once upon a time the artists were proud members of the intellectual elite, but now thanks to attitudes like this one they're given construction paper and finger paints and banished to the school cafeteria at recess time.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sounds like you're actually saying the same thing Hank is; namely that uninspired individuals are being catered to, while those that have the discipline and skill are being bypassed.

    The problem isn't that art or music aren't significant disciplines, the problem is rather that they are much more prone to pretentious individuals and snobbishness than mathematics is (although there are a fair number of snobs in other disciplines too).  The difference is that those that are culturally prententious can foist their nonsense off much more readily than those in the scientific disciplines where they are much more likely to called out if they are wrong.

    As was pointed out in the article, there have been far too many instances of the "art" label being applied to things that were simply offensive as if simply being an "artist" was supposed to grant free license for producing garbage.  Part of being an artist is also the risk of being ignored or trivialized if your work doesn't resonate with anyone.  The "elitist" label has been applied to those that think that any junk automatically qualifies as art and declaring those that don't understand it (or like it) are somehow ignorant and unappreciative of the artist.

    To be blunt, if I have to study something to appreciate it's artistic value then it isn't art.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Yes and I can see that was the gist of it, but perhaps there is some more qualified way of saying it? When I read "We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on special needs kids, art programs, music, all because we are trying to find a way to make kids less smart feel better about themselves" I see a blanket statement against teaching all art and music, not simply at teaching acceptance of shoddy art and music. It is not fair to compare using a "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" style of rigorous realist art training to a special needs course. What I think is basically being said is that since art education has broad and subjective standards, it shouldn't be taught at all. Wouldn't it be better to return to more identifiable standards within the art program? It's like saying that you should cut the math programs out of schools where the students don't perform well at math, when in fact you should be funding it more and taking better care to bring the students up to par.

    In order to get an art degree in the 1960s, a student had to show technical proficiency in a number of things as well as a strong backing in art history. I don't know why these standards were abandoned, but they could in fact be put back into place. You can still teach students the behavior of pigments and how to mix and grind their own paint, how that relates to the behavior of light, etc. And you can still require that they know how to draw realistically before they CHOOSE to do another style, just as Picasso knew full well how to draw a realistic human face before he chose to artistically scramble it. I don't know where the schools got away from this frankly, and it strikes me that to call yourself an artist without a strong sense of design and color theory and technical expertise is like calling yourself a poet in a language that you can't even speak. But discounting the arts wholesale because of that, and objecting to funding art programs AT ALL, only makes the problem worse. When all the teachers have left is Crayola fingerpaints, all they can teach is fingerpainting. Don't underfund the arts because of the current prevalence of mediocrity, demand that they do a better job at exposing students to real tangible skills- and give them the time, facilities and materials to do so. Then perhaps we painterly types will be fit to mingle with you mathematical elites once again.

    No, you shouldn't have to study something to be able to appreciate its value. But you should have to study in order to express your full intent as the creator of its value.

    Gerhard Adam
    It sounds like you're saying the same things as the article.  The lack of standards aggravates the problem.

    The problem with funding, is that too much money is being spent to make people feel good about themselves, instead of nurturing those that have talent.  As I mentioned in another post, I am continuously shocked at the number of people that have absolutely no internal censorship mechanism to reign in their out of control egos.  Invariably they make the most cursory of efforts (if they try at all) and expect to be praised for mediocrity.

    In my case, I taught music (in my younger days) and rapidly grew tired of people that felt that owning an expensive instrument was sufficient effort to be considered proficient.  Apparently it never occurred to some of these folks that actual practice was involved.  More to Hank's point, these same people were offended if you drew attention to their lack of discipline and/or talent.

    In my current viewpoint I simply lack the patience to tolerance laziness or incompetence when it comes to any subject.  I don't expect everyone to be excellent, however I do expect that some effort be expended to achieve an objective. 

    Similarly this is why some of the issue surfaces with the "arts".  Too many people think that being an artist or a musician simply means wearing makeup, piercings, and purple/green hair (or pick your favorite).  They have failed to recognize that eccentricities don't come before substance.  The talent must be there, then you can indulge your self-expression to whatever degree you can tolerate.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I was going to make a similar point, and a bunch of you beat me to it.  Elitisim in the arts is a good thing.  That's not to say that everyone has to like what art critics say we should like, but judgments about good art and music are not completely subjective. They're more subjective than science, but there is such a good thing as great art and poor art - however, the standard is not how popular something is with the public.

    Being a great judge of art or music (not to mention a producer of great art or music) requires some significant technical skills, even if you have an innate knack for it - like being a great wine taster. Most of us recognize that there are great wines and poor wines, but we also recognize that it takes some training and practice to tell a good wine from a great one.

    So we should be elitist in our art institutions - museums and galleries should promote the best stuff, and academics should teach and write about great art. That doesn't mean that academics have to tell us all what to like - if Thomas Kinkade is your favorite artist, then fine, nobody should make fun of you (too much) for loving that, but that doesn't mean there is no such thing as good critical judgment.

    There's also novel art and derivative art. A piece of art can be well and good on technical merits, but still not be "great" because there is nothing new in it. The same goes for science.

    When a product contains nothing substantially new, then it is a high-value commodity...not great art or science. It can be recognized as usefu without being held up as something worth special attention.
    Can't say much right now - here we passed through the terminator zone several hours ago.  But just to mention two science fiction stories:

    In the one which I did read, people with an IQ greater than 130 were sent to concentration camps, where they were still allowed to invent in case they produced something useful to 'society'.  But I think they were prevented from breeding.

    As for the other, I only read a review.  There, beauty was hated, and beautiful people were "uglified".

    Now, time for Tidur, but God willing, I might write something more coherent tomorrow.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    In the one which I did read, people with an IQ greater than 130 were
    sent to concentration camps, where they were still allowed to invent in
    case they produced something useful to 'society'.  But I think they
    were prevented from breeding.

    It's been my contention that smart people need to outbreed stupid people.  Darwin's mechanism just isn't fast enough.  :)
    Becky Jungbauer
    Agreed, Gerhard - great and long overdue. Why should people apologize for something like intelligence, talent, etc? And why should they feel ashamed, or bow down to the lowest common denominator? Whether you like Ayn Rand or not, I think she captures this sentiment perfectly in her work.
    Gerhard Adam
    Agreed and what's worse is that it fosters this schizophrenic attitude towards one's own abilities.  On the one hand we're supposed to be modest and not flaunt our skills and on the other we are set to fail because we can't adequately "sell ourselves" in the market.

    I can appreciate that there is certainly a distinction between not apologizing versus being arrogant and boorish.  However, I think that this society has done much damage in not recognizing the "elites".  In particular, I've seen some of the contestants on the auditions for American Idol (yeah, I know ... I'll do penance later) and can only marvel at the brain's ability to shield itself from the vocal abuse many seem intent on afflicting.  It is truly fantastic to see how poorly most of these people evaluate themselves and how entitled they feel despite having no talent.  What's worse, is the encouragement they must be receiving from people that are too intimidated to stop them from embarassing themselves. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    That's a perfect example, Gerhard. Some (all?) of these people honestly believe they're talented and deserve to be on the show. Someone must have encouraged them - you see the parents hugging them as they exit, crying, and telling the child that the judges just don't know talent when they see it.
    Gerhard Adam
    I can understand that we may be overly critical of ourselves, but it seems that spending a bit of money on a tape recorder and actually listening to yourself might be a worthwhile investment (at least before striving for national embarassment).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hello Hank,

    very interesting, compelling piece. You raise some important questions, and this is especially compelling to people like me, who have always believed in equal opportunities. There has to be a way to balance the two needs - the need to allow excellence to flourish, and the need to elevate the average. I think America is doing well in this respect. Less fortunate countries are still able to handle excellence but cannot cope with the latter problem, which however is crucial -if we create a rift between the best and the good this will work against an optimal use of the skill of both.

    I have one piece of criticism to make - if America has 5% of Earth's inhabitants, what is the fraction of the wealth ? It is meaningless to compare that 5% to the 32% of science, however that latter figure is computed.


    I have one piece of criticism to make - if America has 5% of Earth's inhabitants, what is the fraction of the wealth ? It is meaningless to compare that 5% to the 32% of science, however that latter figure is computed.
    That's a good point.   For 'wealth', we should just use adults so the US has 6% and 34% of the wealth.  Income is the not the same, of course, since wealth is property plus money minus debt.     Japan has much higher per capita income than the US but not the same wealth since they are an island and limited in population.  Europe and the US are about the same in wealth, though N America is a little higher because that includes Canada.

    This leads to another aspect of being elite, of course.  Did America become the wealthiest because people who wanted to work hard and could not get ahead in the legacy of the feudal system in Europe moved to America or did they move to America and were suddenly blessed with a lot of resources?   The answer to that will probably come down along political lines.

    Like the artistic person above who resented my inclusion of arts funding as an example, how we read the data is often how we want to read it.    I like that America is still on top in science output but I completely recognize that if we compare US wealth to EU wealth, they are about the same and that if compare EU science output to American science output, they are about the same (so, money talks) but that a country like India, who can make a microscope for $4 - or the Soviet Union, who produced outstanding physicists despite having no hard currency - will force us to not think just in terms of spending, but in terms of nurturing smart kids.

    I made that case more directly in Should Science Be Designated A Strategic Resource? when I contended it should be treated just like oil or food.   This does not mean we will 'discover' WMDs at CERN and take over your lab.   :)
    Becky Jungbauer
    By the way, I can't vote - I don't make fun of the Big Bang Theory guys, I identify with them, hence my predicament.
    Great. Captain Obvious with the some-people-are-smarter-than-others-which-must-mean-I'm-BRILLIANT argument. Yea! "Hard" science people are just invaluable and everything else is apparently GARBAGE. Good god, man, if you're smart enough to be "elite," you shouldn't NEED society's recognition, approval or sanction. The problem with this argument is that it inevitably leads to Social Darwinism, anti-intellectual backlash and potential eugenics. The fallacious statement is always arrived at that the "non elite" must sacrifice so that the "elite" can exist as the "elite." Well, I'll agree with one thing you said: no, the world isn't fair. So, the unelite have as much right to claim an "advantage" as do the elite and sometimes the elite lose regardless. Keep making yourselves feel better though. Just don't presume that your elitist cheerleading actually matters in the long run.

    Gerhard Adam

    Well you just made Hank's point for him.  In that short paragraph you indicated that if you're any good you should be able to make it in spite of society's attitudes and then jumped to the conclusion that acknowledging skills would invariably lead to Social Darwinism and eugenics.

    It does NOT follow that providing an opportunity for elites will result in sacrifice by others, anymore than recognizing elite athletes automatically negates the ability to play baseball in school.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Here's another way of looking at it. They say you can judge a civilisation by the way it treats its minorities. Elite kids are in a very real sense one of those minorities.
    You know, Mr. Hank Campbell, "smart" people like you wouldn't have such an issue about not being so socially recognized and heralded for being excellently smart if YOU yourself have had your fair share of honors in your own academic life starting from Kindergarten to your Doctoral degree, if you have one. Given the traditional LINEAR scholarly education the society has always had conformed with.

    Geniuses who are truly SMART shouldn't have a problem asserting for their social recognition if they are in such a place where their being smart has contributed so much to their environment and if they are surrounded by fellow geniuses who know what to appreciate about being smart. They would instead be more preoccupied with competition, "being the best among the elite", and not being bothered whether he/she has gathered enough affirmation and privilege from everyone in the world about being smart since he has presumably amassed that in decades of being one, wouldn't he?

    Human nature is designed to appreciate and honor extraordinary abilities of other people that not a lot of demography can surpass. That's when the creation of elites take form. Have we ever heard any of those elite artists and elite athletes complaining about not being labeled enough as great artists or great athletes after achieving their own feats? NO. We haven't. That is because their capacities for greatness have overflown enough that it makes it incredibly hard for the world to ignore -- that probably they may even get tired at times of hearing praises that they may want to be challenged and recognized as multi-faceted human beings as well. I never heard of any story that tells Stephen Hawking complaining in his lifetime about not being honored enough as a terribly smart person. Even if he indeed was a minority. Simply because he revolved in the world of the mentally elite and he knew the world kneels to people like him.

    So, if somebody is complaining about not belonging to an elite society of sorts, or NOT being recognized enough as one, maybe he SIMPLY does not really belong there. Take heart, embrace yourself. *chuckle*

    Sorry, while you're all talking about being elite, I'm doing elite. 

    P.S. No one likes an asshole, not Jesus and definitely not any of Rand's ex-friends. 
    And that's really a perfect response.   The one thing I expected (more 0f) was people here resenting someone else claiming to be smarter.   Look how anesthetized we've become to false modesty thanks to societal pressure.    People laughed at the behavior of that Star Trek crew because it was refreshing - these guys consistently told the other members of the crew, all chosen because they were the best, that they didn't know jack.  And that's how it should be;  we're not here to play emotional pattycakes - if people want to tell someone here they are wrong, show some data.  All opinions are not created equal.

    You keep on being elite, Maitri.  We've got your back.
    While I will be the last person on earth to keep my child from shining to the fullest of his or her capabilities, I will also be the first person to smack him or her down for being a jerk about it.  Modesty doesn't necessarily come from social pressure, it comes from manners and not flaunting your talents like some uncouth nouveau-riche, golf-course-dwelling suburbanite.  Just do it, go about your business and stay away from from those who will pull you down; talking about it is tasteless and smacks of intellectual insecurity.

    And remember that quite often, it's not laws, collective mediocrity or a society's' obsession with homogeneity that "drag us down."  It's our infatuation with perfection.  We have to learn to be human first.
    While I will be the last person on earth to keep my child from shining to the fullest of his or her capabilities, I will also be the first person to smack him or her down for being a jerk about it.
    If your son has a PhD, or like some here is a world-renowned researcher or has a Nobel prize, and an anonymous person tells him that doesn't actually mean anything, he's not being a jerk for noting that, in science, education and knowledge does actually mean something.   He's taking back credibility from the "scientists don't know more than anyone else" crowd who have been siphoning it away culturally.

    Nothing in my article said people should be smug - except for a few people I think the columnists are quite gracious about responding to people who have questions, informed or not - I said scientists don't have to get trivialized by pundits or anonymous commenters who use arguments like 'your PhD is in condensed matter physics, not string theory, so you don't know what you are talking about'  as a defense of some ridiculous position they are trying to promote.
    "He's taking back credibility from the 'scientists don't know more than anyone else' crowd who have been siphoning it away culturally."

    Those who are good scientists or researchers know they are.  Noting it, especially to that crowd, does nothing except prove their ill-willed and agenda-riddled, but not entirely wrong-headed, point that we're smug ivory-towerists. 

    The "scientists don't know more than anyone else" relativistic crap exists on both ends of our current political spectrum and it is because of the resistance to a good, enlightening education.  What will combat it is not separating ourselves from the rest of society but getting out there and fighting for good science, good schools and making more of our kind.  What good is credibility when there are so few of us?  Our self-proclaimed elitism will be our extinction.

    While we're at it, let's also note that having a PhD, being a world-renowned researcher or having a Nobel prize does not make one smart.  Some of the dumbest, most narrow-minded people I know are famous PhDs; they are just experts at their niches.  By the same token, a lot of the smartest people I know didn't even go to college and are quite well-rounded, well-read and capable people who synthesize results from sources far and wide, outside of one single discipline.  Remember that inbreeding and inflexible educational processes, too, cause extinction.  This is something else to keep in mind in the battle for humanity's brain.
    Gerhard Adam

    I think far too many people are missing the point and assuming that the concept of "elitism" is intended to grant privilege, or accolades, or some sense of dominance over others.  Until being elite is recognized then there is nothing on which to focus resources to provide the challenge and training necessary to capitalize on those abilities.

    A child that is excellent in mathematics needs the additional encouragement and challenges to push themselves and do better.  However, if that amibition is stifled because all the energy is going into training mediocre students to learn mediocre mathematics then an opportunity has been lost.

    There is no question that specific "elite" individuals have made major contributions in science, sports, and the arts and have gained recognition for it.  However, that isn't the point.  The point is in recognizing and encouraging the next generation to excel, while realizing that being "elite" doesn't necessarily equate to being a super-star.

    All to often the "gifted" or "elite" are simply left to fend for themselves.  If that's the direction that society wants to go in, then there's no point in complaining that they can't compete in the world at large.  In today's society, no one would leave an "elite" athlete to simply find their own way.  Is it really so difficult for people to grasp that being "elite" may involve more than an ability to manipualte a ball?

    Mundus vult decipi
    I have just been tellywatching an attempt (unsuccessful) to beat the world record for Custard Pie Throwing.  Since Hank has written:
    First among those good reasons would be that people in the humanities and in culture started huffing at ordinary people who didn't think crosses dipped in urine were art, or if they didn't know the name of some obscure off-Broadway play.  'Elitist' therefore got a colloquial definition and it became more like 'pretentious.'
    I will share with you all this custard pie to throw at those ‘humanities’ fellows.
    Among so many academic figures whose attitude towards literature was one of bored superiority or active hatred, his love of the material itself was life-giving as a spring in a desert ... He took a poor view of ‘literary criticism’ and once asked me if I did not think it entirely useless? ...

    ... little more than a week before his death I received a letter from him from which ... I quote: ‘Yes. Once one goes in for Blake (or Milton or Kipling) one meets, disguised as literary critics, a great many dissentients of quite a different sort. But you’ll knock ’em all down, like a second Camilla.  Plenty of fact, reasoning as brief and clear as English sunshine, and no personal comment at all.’ That was the only kind of criticism he saw any use for.
    [This is the British poet Kathleen Raine (1908 –2003) writing, and ‘he’ is C.S.Lewis]

    Indeed, is it not such ‘dissentients’ of ‘bored superiority’ and ‘active hatred’ who stir up Joe Public to hate scientists?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I'm enjoying the exchange here. I agree with a lot of what Hank said, though not all of it, but the most useful thing about his saying it is something similar to what the most useful thing about Larry Summers's saying what he said: that it's gotten us to think about it, and to discuss it.

    I do, though, have to take issue with the least important thing you said, Hank:

    the crew of the Enterprise, in their younger Star Fleet Academy days
    pre-quel, are not chosen because of their diversity or to satisfy some
    notion of fairness, they are chosen because they are the best at what
    they do.
    Say what? Did you watch the same movie I did?

    McCoy was put on the Enterprise as part of the distribution of rookies (he might have been specifically selected, or it might have been chance; we don't know). Kirk got there because McCoy smuggled him on. Uhura got there because she sweet-talked Spock (sigh; talk about back-sliding...). Scotty got there because the Enterprise rescued him from a crappy assignment he'd been abandoned at. We don't see how Sulu and Checkov made it there.

    Spock winds up in command because he's first officer when Pike leaves, and Kirk takes over by making Spock angry.

    None of that is because they're the best at what they do. In fact, Sulu embarrasses himself at first, by forgetting to, um... take the parking brake off, basically.

    Now, eventually, Uhura is given control of the communications system because of her mastery of the Romulan language, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, and Kirk all prove themselves, and McCoy is... well... McCoy. But that's after they've had the (more or less chance) opportunity to be in the position to prove it.

    So, then, let's get back to the meat of things: a key thing that Star Trek has just taught us is how important it is to give people a chance to prove themselves. To make sure we don't put up artificial barriers that prevent them from being and doing what they're capable of being and doing.

    To wit: make sure that it's not only the wealthy who can attend the best schools. Make sure that minorities and women, despite whether Mr Summers was right or not, have the opportunity to excel in science and technology. Make sure that we see the potential in people, and allow them to develop it and demonstrate the result.

    I guess I was under the assumption that the word 'Academy' was like one of the US military academies and not like a private school.    So personal family finances were a non-issue.  

    But here is my take on the crew selection.

    Kirk was denied a place on the Enterprise because he hacked the Kobyasi Maru test - and they would likely have ruled in his favor but it got interrupted by the crisis so his status remained inactive.  That was a bureaucratic snafu, not a competence issue.

    Uhura was only denied because Spock didn't want the appearance of favoritism.  As she said, and he agreed, her scores were superior to everyone else. So she was a victim of discrimination in that he didn't want it to look like she got the assignment due to their canoodling.  

    Scotty was cast out of the mainstream because his idea on transporters was too advanced - as he laments and Spock agrees when they meet.  Scotty is much more elite in this than he was in the series.

    Sulu has stage fright, sure, but he is 17 - so far younger than the rest, yet so brilliant he has to be included.  Elite.

    Spock is first officer for the new flagship of the Federation under a seasoned commander - it's like saying Omar Bradley was not a great leader because he worked for Ike.   Yes, becoming Captain was somewhat unlucky but, as John F Kennedy commented when they asked him how he had the wherewithal to be heroic, "They sank my boat."

    I'll give you McCoy.   He is assigned to the flagship, yes, which sounds like a pretty good endorsement, but he could just have been lucky.   Having the CMO die and be his replacement is also luck (see JFK above).
    Becky Jungbauer
    Hi Barry - first of all, love the pic - what kind of beer are you holding? Second, your last paragraph struck me. I agree with you that people should have the opportunity to excel. I struggle with affirmative action - which is what your last paragraph reminds me of - because I don't agree that those who are qualified should be passed up for those who are not simply to make sure that everyone has an equal chance, but I also understand that if you don't give people chances they may never get them. I can see the merits and negatives to both sides of the equation.

    Hank, I take issue with your article for a reason not mentioned yet: every time I open the article to read comments or try to reply to comments your starship audio clip plays and scares the crap out of me because I forget that it's there! (Yes, I have a short attention span and forget things like that easily.)
    Hi, Becky.  The photo was taken in Salzburg, and the beer is a hefeweizen (I don't know the brand; I drank a lot of hefeweizen while I was there).

    Affirmative action doesn't have to mean promoting one group of people at the expense of others.  A proper implementation makes sure that we take action to make sure that minorities are given the chance to compete... perhaps that we actually go out and look for deserving, qualified minority candidates to put into the mix.  But then we still choose the best qualified in the end.

    Of course, a lot of this differs depending upon what we're talking about.  When we're filling a senior-level job position, making sure we advertise the job to minority candidates may be sufficient.  When we're looking at admissions to graduate-level schooling, we'll do more... but we still have the quality of the program to consider.  At earlier levels of schooling, maybe the approach is to assign some of our best teachers to schools with primarily minority students.  In any case, the goal all along the way is to make sure we're taking action to give opportunity.  The goal is not to be discriminatory in the opposite direction.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Affirmative action may open up some opportunities, but it will close some to others.  It is certainly not a program based on "excellence" or selecting only the best.  It is a program of quotas alone.
    As usual, Gerhard puts it better than I can - this is what I find objectionable about affirmative action, Barry (perhaps not the theory, but the reality). But I completely agree with you that we should not promote one group at the expense of others - militant feminists are one example of this - and that we should choose the best qualified in the end.
    Gerhard Adam

    I think the problem is far too complicated for a simple 'one size fits all" solution.  Affirmative action may open up some opportunities, but it will close some to others.  It is certainly not a program based on "excellence" or selecting only the best.  It is a program of quotas alone.

    Even the issue of determining who deserves an opportunity is fraught with difficulties since there are so many factors involved that are not readily reducible to quantifiable metrics.  In fact, how does one assess "elite" qualities if the people doing the assessing may, themselves, only be mediocre?

    Reverting back to a movie example ("Good Will Hunting"), we have a story that deals with exactly the sort of problem we're discussing, and it should be apparent that the lead character needed a phenomenal amount of coaxing and attention to get to a point where his skills could be developed.  In the real world, the likelihood would have been that he would've taken an ordinary job and moved through his life accordingly.  Maybe there would've been a point later in life where he returned to school or even explored some of his mathematical skills, but it is highly unlikely that he would've ever been tapped to do serious work in mathematics (which was the whole point in nurturing him).

    How many times might such a scenario play out in the real world? 

    While I don't see a particular solution that can address all these issues, I think the point that Hank makes is a good one, because without recognizing that such "elitism" even exists, we can't begin to address the problem.  There will always be a struggle, for everyone, to separate themselves from the "herd" and seek out the opportunities that can maximize their particular talents and skills.  However, I don't think it's asking too much that when such talents are recognized, that they be afforded the opportunity to increase their skills beyond the level of the average with which they may be surrounded.

    It's difficult enough to deal with the social pressures of someone that is "gifted" when the prevailing view is that someone is a "geek" simply because they have more esoteric interests.  For some reason, intellectual skills are viewed as threatening to the majority of people, so they do little to encourage those that may have them.

    Interestingly enough, people generally don't feel as threatened by the "elite" athletes, because (perhaps not so surprising), they tend to view them as being intellectually deficient in many cases, and console themselves with that.  So for many of the "elites" in our society (athletes, artists, actors, etc.), we tend to acknowledge their talent by also we often harbor the sentiment that they're not very bright (in general).
    It's almost as if our intellect is the one weapon we feel most comfortable wielding against those that are more talented, better looking, or whatever, and hence the one thing we are least willing to acknowledge in someone else.

    Mundus vult decipi
    This is truly fascinating. I have a few experiences to add, though. I believe that a lot of our societies issues with elitism either have their roots in or are fueled by our education system. I am currently an undergraduate (though I aspire to become one of the elites in my field) with a public school education from first grade through high school. I went to private kindergarten. As the recognition of an elite group of students increased during my education, the resources to support those students decreased.

    Kindergarten: The vast majority of those in the top 10% of my high school graduating class attended the same private kindergarten that I did (I don't have exact numbers). Most of them were in the "auditory learners" class with me. (My kindergarten had a "visual learners" class and an "other", aka "behavioural issues,"class, as well.) My class began reading lessons several months ahead of those in the other classes, and we were still further broken down into reading groups. Although our teachers never identified the best readers, we all knew who they were and aspired to be moved up into their group. My kindergarten classmates mostly attend top tier universities and aspire to careers in academics while those that were in the "visual learners" class mostly attend state schools with goals in professional fields. No one in either of those classes (that I know of) did not go on to college.

    Elementary School: Three of the top four students in my high school graduating class attended a multi-age magnet elementary school with me. My elementary school broke the student population into subgroups ("teams") based on grades (there are three teams: kindergarten and first, second and third, and fourth and fifth), then divided the students in those teams into classes based on ability for each individual subject. No student remained with the same teacher in the same room all day long. However, groups were codenamed using colors or animals to prevent us from knowing our ability level compared to our classmates. Exceptional students (like one of my classmates who excelled at math far beyond what was available for our team at any given time) were pulled out for individual instruction or moved up to another team for that subject. My younger sister and I both had the ability to attend this school, and it positively impacted our education in ways we can recognize now as undergraduates.

    Middle School: Officially, my school had two levels of classes. (1) Gifted and Talented (GT), and (2) standard. The GT teachers were outstanding and the standard teachers were, well, standard or sub-par. To those who looked hard enough, my middle school had a very clearly defined "unspoken honors" level class. Students whose abilities surpassed the level of standard students, but did not meet the requirements of the GT program generally got accellerated versions of the standard curriculum taught by the GT teachers. The problem: if something was amiss in the unspoken honors classes, there was no way to fix it.

    High School: Three official levels of classes: GT/AP, honors, and standard. The school spent most of its time breaking up fights in the halls and lecturing to standard classes about the benefits of going to community college. It completely ignored the needs of its top students. GT students received no college counselling. The administration tried to cut Calculus, among other AP classes, every year (thank goodness for an amazing math department chair that just wouldn't let that happen!) because only three to six students would register. The school did not initially support the creation of a Tri-M chapter (music honors society), and every year trimmed the music program more and more. I remember asking a guidance counsellor in the middle of junior year what SAT II's were (having just heard of them from a private school friend) and receiving a reply of "I've never heard of them." Over the years, I had very bright classmates get expelled, end up in rehab for alcohol and drugs, and completely lose focus and drop their goals.

    So, this turned into something I did not intend, but my point is in there somewhere. We need to teach to elite students' abilities just as much as we need to teach to lower students' abilities, they must be separated and identified, and we need to drop the assumptions that elite students don't need guidance or attention. Sorry for the long winded comment. I'll just end with 2 more points:

    First, my older sister was an elementary school teacher. She began teaching GT classes at my elementary school the year after younger my sister graduated. Sometime after she began teaching, No Child Left Behind (or as she calls it, "All Children Stuck in One Place") was passed. Every year, her GT classes became inflated with students lacking the skills necessary to be there. By the time she left the school, she felt like she was doing her students a disservice by teaching to tests and catering to the lowest common denominator that school administrators and high mantenance parents thrust upon her. She now works for a system of private religious schools ensuring that the academic needs of all students are met and resources are availible at each school for every student. For the first time she feels like she's doing something positive as a teacher.

    Finally, I want to make a point about the arts. Just because all students will not become elites in an art does not mean that training in them will not benefit them. Should we not teach all children math because only some of them will be great at it and go on to study it at higher levels? I disliked history, should I have not had to take it? The arts enrich everyone's lives. I personally produce terrible music, but I through years of strings lessons I've definitely come to appreciate what it takes to become great. It took me three autiditions to get inducted into Tri-M (once my friends got it approved), and I know I won't ever measure up to my classmates as a musician, but I worked hard and it made me feel accomplished to get in. I definitely felt like a reject on American Idol after my first 2 auditions, but I'm glad someone encouraged me and made me try again. And again. There's nothing wrong with encouraging a little mediocrity.

    Gerhard Adam
    "There's nothing wrong with encouraging a little mediocrity."

    Actually there is if it doesn't have the possibility of resulting in improvement.  There is a difference between being unprepared or not being as good as you could be, then there's the element of simply not having any talent.  Encouraging the latter is a waste of time and does nothing except foster fantasies in the individual being advised.

    There will always be people that are better than us in a variety of fields and we should certainly be encouraged to put forth our best efforts, but we should also be aware of areas that we simply lack the aptitude for.  The problem from the "American Idol" example is that if these people aren't capable of criticizing themselves, then they are incapable of improving since they can't see what they're doing wrong. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I disagree. I have no natural talent, and I his a wall in my strings lessons years before I gave it up. I enjoyed it, though, and it made me happy. But I suppose the difference is that I know I will never be an elite musician. I do think mediocrity should be encouraged in those that cannot achieve greatness, as long as they are aware of their limitations and we don't coddle them if they fail. In my example, I wasn't told that the judges made a bad choice when I didn't get in, I was told to work harder and perfect my audition piece (though I know it was a significantly easier piece than my classmates' pieces).

    Of course at the other end of the spectrum, my sister, who is a truly talented musician and taught herself both the guitar and the harmonica in about six months, was denied admittance to Tri-M because the judges felt that the harmonica, the instrument she loved the most, was not a suitable instrument. They wanted her to audition on the oboe, the instrument she reluctantly played (though she played it well) in concert band. Now THAT's snobbery.

    Gerhard Adam

    No one ever said that you couldn't commit as much time and effort to whatever you fancy, but it would be unreasonable to expect that society commits resources to help you improve (in the absence of talent).

    We can also encourage and provide moral support, but it should definitely be followed-up with a reality check if there is no progress. 

    I'm not sure about the harmonica bit, since I don't know what the judge's reasoning was or whether there was a basis for restricting the choice of instruments.

    Mundus vult decipi
    This has me all tied up in knots.

    Anti-elitism isn't about people not being allowed to be smarter than other people. It's about those smarter people not considering themselves better. That's why we have no problem with elite athletes. We can accept that they're faster because it in no way implies they're better than we are. Think of it this way, if there were no connotations tied to being an intellectual other than knowing more about something or better able to investigate a topic there would be no problems. People would see a PhD the same was they see an Olympic medal: a sign of achievement. If they're looking for someone to run fast, they'll look to the person with the medal, if they want someone who knows something about something, they'll look to the person with the PhD.

    The reason they don't is because they've stereotyped intellectuals as a group of self-righteous, pompous dirt bags which is not always an inaccurate sentiment. That's why flaunting our elitism will do nothing to remedy this problem because it will only serve to confuse people more even if our intentions are good. While you tell them you know more about mitochondria than they do they hear you saying you are a better person. There's a way to talk to people in a way that doesn't elicit this reaction. It comes from an understanding that everyone is equal without being the same. It has worked wonders for me and I find myself having great conversations with everyone from college professor to that guy who is refilling my water. I find this to be most liberating because not only can I let my intellect run free regardless of the crowd, people actually listen (or at least I think they are!).

    The second problem I have is that academia is not the meritocracy we think it is. There are all sorts of studies done on low socioeconomic status (SES) kids and how their development is a lot slower than kids from high SES families. If being an intellectual elite is supposed to be based on merit, we should work to make sure everyone is starting from the same starting line. Otherwise people aren't just gloating about their abilities but about their good fortune as well...and that's not cool.

    Achievement is achievement regardless of the starting point. It's not about being "fair," that's what this article is about. We need to stop saying "your uninformed opinion is just as valid as any other opinion" just because you had a lower socioeconomic status growing up than the experts. Even if you did have a leg up developmentally, your achievements are still based on merit. It's ridiculous to say that you're gloating about your good fortune upon reaching an elite status. Also, to give you that leg up, other people had to work very hard. That developmental advantage is the result of attentive parents, teachers, and others who have worked hard to see you achieve. Plus, at some point you must have worked your ass off. You can't devalue a PhD, or any academic achievement, just because some other inner city kid went to a crappier elementary school than you did and had less attentive parents, and thus did not have the opportunity or ability to work his ass off and become an expert on string theory (or whatever).

    "Achievement is achievement regardless of the starting point."

    Achievement is good but achievement does not entail elite status. Elitism is a comparison and the only valid comparison you can make is to the people who had the same opportunities as you. Would you feel comfortable calling yourself part of the elite by comparing yourself to a kid that had parents did nothing to enrich his learning environment, not enough to eat and terrible teachers? I'll be willing to call myself elite when everyone starts from the same starting line...i.e. probably never. My point isn't that we should feel shame to be smart, but work to even out the starting line. It might not be "fair" right now but it should be and intelligent people are able to make a difference on this front.

    I in no way suggested that, "your uninformed opinion is just as valid as any other opinion" so I feel no need to rebut this.

    "Even if you did have a leg up developmentally, your achievements are still based on merit."

    Do want to come with me down to the local diner and tell the guy flipping burgers who was brought up in a low SES household and didn't have half the opportunities you did (and I'm not saying you didn't work to get what you have, but we're all given some opportunities, some more than others) that he could be part of the elite but didn't merit it? I really wish Tom Brady would have tried harder to get over his knee injury last year season so the Patriots could have won the Super Bowl too...

    Gerhard Adam
    "Elitism is a comparison and the only valid comparison you can make is to the people who had the same opportunities as you."

    So you're suggesting that there can be no such thing as an "elite" individual since clearly we don't all have the same opportunities.  But without splitting hairs, what constitutes the "same opportunity"?  Is it that my genetic makeup isn't as good as another guy?  Is it that I didn't pay as much attention but should have?  Is it that my parents were bad?

    All of these things are ultimately excuses and have no bearing on whether you should be considered "elite" or not.  Not everyone that has alot of money is necessarily an individual that earned it, yet they have "elite" status.  What about the opportunities there?  Do we each start over with zero?

    As for the guy flipping burgers, it isn't relevant to tell him anything.  If he's not happy with his lot, then the onus is on him to change it ... not me.  If it's a question of lost opportunities, then I'm sympathetic, but it changes nothing.  That's simply the way it worked out.  My own father was a victim of precisely such a situation and it was frustrating sometimes, but it was also a reality that he acknowledged.

    "It might not be "fair" right now but it should be and intelligent people are able to make a difference on this front."

    What do you mean that it "should be"?  How can it ever be fair?  I'm sorry but this sounds exactly like the kind of talk when parents consider wanting to biologically engineer offspring to gain them the best possible advantage.  Would that be fair?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam

    I still find it interesting that instead of dealing with "elite" skills we focus on bad social behaviors.  Is that sufficient reason to not foster skills in children, because they may grow up to be snobs?

    There are certainly enough snobs based on financial status alone, so the intellectual argument doesn't sway me much.  It's just that people are in awe of those with money, so they can be as snobbish or obnoxious as they like and people lap it up.  All one has to do is view the "reality" shows focusing on badly behaving individuals that are "interesting" only because they possess wealth. 

    Do you think Paris Hilton gets attention because she's "elite" in some fashion (beyond money)?  If people are intellectually insecure, then they are the only one's that can improve it.  However, it is wrong to deny the encouragement and opportunities for others simply because of such insecurities.

    Mundus vult decipi
    It sounds like your ultimate goal is to have intellectuals be as snobby as Paris Hilton and have the general public love it. I know that's not what you mean but that's what you wrote.

    You're right. There is a weird schism where we value financial elitism but not intellectual elitism. Maybe it's because people see money as power and not knowledge. I don't think the answer is to promote intellectual elitism though.

    "If people are intellectually insecure, then they are the only one's that can improve it. However, it is wrong to deny the encouragement and opportunities for others simply because of such insecurities."

    These two sentences are in direct opposition to each other. And adjacent I might add. In the first you're saying that people have full control over their intellectual development and in the second you're bereaving the fact that smarter people aren't given encouragement and opportunities. If our intellectual development is in our own hands, what do we need encouragement and opportunities for? Pick one or the other. Either it's in our own hands and we make our own opportunities and no one needs help or part of it's not in our own hands and everyone deserves encouragement and opportunity. I choose the latter because the former is clearly false.

    Gerhard Adam

    "In the first you're saying that people have full control over their intellectual development and in the second you're bereaving the fact that smarter people aren't given encouragement and opportunities."
    Yes, precisely so where is the problem?  It should be obvious that "control over their intellectual development" refers to the ability to apply oneself and to work as hard as necessary to achieve something (which a significant number of people simply refuse to do).  The second portion regarding "encouragement and opportunities" relates to the fact that these students and people should be given a vehicle by which their personal motivation can be used so that they can advance (whether by themselves or not).

    I don't know why you insist that it's an "all or nothing" proposition.  No one ever suggested that people should not be afforded encouragement or opportunities, or to be given chances.  The primary point is that this is already happening, but it is NOT happening for the gifted or "elites".  A significant part of the educational resources are being deployed in precisely that fashion to simply advance the mediocre or average instead of devoting some resources to people that would welcome the challenge and opportunity.

    I have no problem with people that want to learn, however I think we spend far too much time worrying about people that can't be bothered and are simply disruptive.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Could somebody please show me how to use Micrahard Winders Vister? It's on this little biddy box with the little biddy keys on it called a top lap. Okay?

    When it comes to affirmative action and what not I hate to mention the 800lb gorilla in the room but what the heck....

    You see the reason is that affirmative action exist for African Americans and Native Americans is that for hundreds of years those groups were either disenfranchised, or actively oppressed.  Once that oppression had ceased these groups were not starting from where their white counter parts were.  It was like a 100 meter race where the other runners had a 30 second head start.... before a black man even got started the race was already over. 

    Even now with or without affirmative action it feels like....  I like to think of it this way.  When it comes to color based discrimination white people are like neutrons in an electric field.  While non-white people are more like electrons in an electric field.  We feel the force, you don't.

    Many comments here have assumed that the recipients of affirmative action are people who just weren't up to the task... Uh uhhh, no, they are members of groups who are assumed to be inferior because of prejudice.  Take me for exmaple.  I had A's in QFT and Particles physics a one university and from them I could not even get letters of recomendation to go elsewhere.... this after they gave me A's.  Tell me I did not work hard.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    "Take me for exmaple.  I had A's in QFT and Particles physics a one university and from them I could not even get letters of recomendation to go elsewhere.... this after they gave me A's.  Tell me I did not work hard."

    I can understand your point, but how does affirmative action help?  This would be injustice regardless of race.  Therefore it seems that instead of affirmative action we would need precisely a mechanism like Hank is describing where "elite" players can gain support because of their abilities. 

    As I said before, affirmative action is only about quotas and bears little resemblance to achieving the justice you're referring to. 

    I also realize that the problem is actually much bigger than has even been discussed since obtaining justice is one of those slippery concepts that always has alot of unintended consequences.  However, by recognizing the fact that some people may be in the "elite" category, it seems that we might have a chance to focus on that instead of superficial qualities like skin color.
    Mundus vult decipi
    How would affirmative action have helped me.  It would have given them an incentive over whatever problems they had with me to help me.  It creates a culture where people of color and women in general can succeed.  You don't have to take my word for it. Read Lee Smolin's "Trouble with physics"  Where he says that there are three kinds of people who have trouble finding a job in most physics departments, minorities, women , and people with strange new ideas.   ( I am a black transwoman with strange new idea's so I guess i'm screwed.)

    Basically affirmative action is in place to counteract deeply entrenched racism and bigotry.

    As for recognizing an elite group of people.  There is no problem with that, as long as who is part of the elite is determiend solely by the means of merit.  In an ideal world it would be.  In the real world it isn't.  
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand and I'm not trying to be naive.  My point however, is that while affirmative action may have been a program to help you, it is also a program that has been used to advanced people with less merit over others.

    There's no question that it isn't a good system and that there is much that needs to be addressed.  My only point was that until we recognize something like "elite" skills, we can't even begin to have the discussion about what constitutes merit. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I understand.  The way affirmative action is used it has to be with the idea in mind that the people receiving those opportunities are at least as good as any of their peers.

    Which leads to the problems you mentioned do we decide which minority person is the best candidate for an affirmative action position?  How do we decide who is the elite amongst that group when the very concept that some people are more mentally able than others is frowned upon.  (This goes moreso in the black you know there are still people who say "reading is fro white people."  Black people who have so internalized that kind of thinking.)  :smh: 

    We seem to see eye ti eye.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Dr Cornelius
    Couldn't disagree more with Hank and his article.

    Elitists are always far less 'superior' than they think because there is only one question to ask: What is our specie's optimum direction? That's only answerable from the perspective of having worked out all the universe's secrets, including its origin and ultimate destiny. To my knowledge, we're not even close to knowing enough. Ranking each other is an exercise in wishful thinking. (Sorry, gumby, but religion doesn't cut it.) 

    Short of that all these self-promoting narcissists making up our complacent elites are nothing but flashes in the proverbial pan, at best.

    A friend in our Institute of Education often complains of elitism.  I asked him precisely what he meant, and he replied:

    It is simply, in my view, focusing on and valuing only, or predominantly, the needs of the highly academic learners.
    To expand what I understand him to mean, it is that the physics syllabus for our A-levels (school years 12 and 13) is like a kind of strainer shaped to only let through potential PhD physicists - the rest are simply discarded as being "not the kind of fish we want".

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Becky Jungbauer

    like a kind of strainer shaped to only let through potential PhD physicists
    That's a fascinating point, Robert. Of course you want to prepare the kids that will go on to be physicists with a solid background in physics, whereas the rest of the population would likely be better off with basic knowledge. I think that's the idea behind interdisciplinary courses in college. But that brings up my other point - when do you start the "weeding out" or preparatory process? I don't know if 12-13 year olds should be strained through the academic colander - maybe wait a few years.


    I referred your comment back to my colleague, and he says:

    I would ask her two questions:

    1. What would be the best age to strain out the ones who will never make it to be academic physicists?

    2. What do you mean by basic knowledge?

    In Dear Old Blighty, year 12 means roughly 16 years old, at start.  Isn't it the same with Grade 12 in Uncle Sam?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Becky Jungbauer
    Oh! That makes a difference - I misunderstood and thought year 12 meant 12 years old. Nope, 12th grade here is 17-18 years old - on average we graduate from high school at 18.

    Your colleague posits two very good questions. I honestly don't know the answer to the first, which is why I was asking you! I suppose you don't want to "strain" kids out too soon, since people grow and change and may eventually turn out to be a great physicist. The overused example in this case is Einstein. But if you wait too long, you've mixed the potential physicists in with the rest for so long that the physicists will have lost high-level encouragement and challenge. Perhaps a compromise - we had to take aptitude tests starting in kindergarten and were placed accordingly into honors or not, but if people tested well as they aged they could move up to honors (and vice versa - I had a friend who willingly opted  out of honors, although I'm not sure why). This brings up the problem of testing, though, and how to fairly and accurately test someone's intellectual ability.

    As for the second question, my personal opinion is that to the extent possible people should have a basic working knowledge of the fundamentals of the core disciplines - science, math, art, literature, language, etc. I don't mean they have to be fluent by any stretch, but think about how much easier it would be to communicate science if everyone knew about the scientific method, and what "theory," "law," "uncertainty," "probability," etc meant. If everyone grasped that, we could have a different conversation instead of having to start over with the invention of the wheel each time. Our dialogue with creationists might change. Now, whether this is achievable or even a good idea, I don't know. But it would make it a lot easier.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think part of the problem is that we want to test abstract ideas (like intelligence) and then we want to direct individual's down a particular path.

    I think that too much of the school system is focussed on wasting time and is fundamentally incapable of providing even a reasonable basic education, let alone identifying skills.  Part of the problem is that too many teachers lack the technical skills to identify someone that would be considered "above" average.  Most science teachers don't actually know much science (with notable exceptions when people become teachers AFTER they've been scientists).  In the younger grades you often have teachers that are expected to teach topics for which they only have rudimentary knowledge, so it is difficult to create a sense of enthusiasm for topics like mathematics or science if the teacher doesn't actually feel comfortable with those topics.

    In addition, there should be far more time spent in allowing students to pursue their interests instead of forcing topics in some prescribed order.  Regardless of innate intellectual capabilities, often an area of interest can spawn a level of motivation that otherwise wouldn't exist.

    I realize that there will be some people that will howl in protest, but it seems that we should be developing a much more coherent method of providing a basic education and then provide opportunities for students to pursue extra activities based on their interests and skill sets.  That way we don't mix the unmotivated and mediocre with those pursuing higher levels of education.  We manage to find ways so that students spend extra time training and developing skills to toss footballs and baseballs around, I'm sure we could find a way to mentor students pursuing more academic interests as well.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    A teacher friend of mine - a fellow scientist - is a great example of the kind of person who should be teaching kids science. She can explain the nuances and hopefully engender passion in kids for the field. I like that she teaches at a charter school that follows "core knowledge" curricula, like montissori or waldorf, which is much more targeted to the individual student and to ensuring that people are well-schooled across the spectrum.

    I've signalled your reply to my colleague.  Incidentally, I think it might be a good idea if he and Carl Wieman were to get together electronically, but his work keeps him far too busy for that.
    ... if everyone knew about the scientific method, and what "theory," "law," "uncertainty," "probability," etc meant.
    This has sent me off on another track altogether.  I am an easily scattered particle, definitely a "lepton" rather than a "baryon", and I've just been reading something from Barfield how Bacon himself realized that transferring the word "law" from its traditional framework to the scientific one would transform its meaning out of all recognition.  I'll try and work that one up, but it'll probably take a couple of days ...
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Becky Jungbauer
    I look forward to reading it! I often think "out loud" when posting, so sometimes my ideas are refined as people such as yourself push back and force me to define what I actually mean. That's a great tidbit about Bacon.

    Actually, Bacon was trying to redefine the term

    "forms" and ended up redefining "law" instead. This is from A Barfield Reader, pp 723.

    2. ‘Although it is true that in nature nothing exists beyond separate bodies producing separate motions according to law: still for the study of nature that very law and its investigation discovery and exposition are the essential thing, for the purpose both of science and of practice. Now it is that law and its clauses which we understand by the term "forms" – principally because this word is a familiar one and has become generally accepted.’ – – – Novum Organum, ii. 2.

    The "forms" of which Bacon here speaks were none other than the Platonic ideas, in which Bacon did not very much believe. What he did believe in was that system of abstract causes or uniformity which we have long since been accustomed to express by the phrase "the laws of nature," but for which there was then no name, because the meaning was a new one. He therefore tried deliberately by way of a simile to put this new meaning into the old word forma; but he failed, inasmuch as the new meaning never came into general use. Yet at the same time, more unconsciously, and by way of metaphor, he was putting the new meaning into the word "lex" itself – that curious meaning which it now bears in the expression "the laws of nature." This is one of those pregnant metaphors which pass into the language, so that much of our subsequent thinking is based on them.

    If we consider Bacon’s position in the history of thought, it will not surprise us that the problem should have presented itself to him so clearly. Himself a lawyer, was he not attempting to do for science the very thing which Maitland tells us those old legal fictions were contrived for, that is, "to get modern results out of medieval premisses"?

       * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    As to legal fictions, in medieval times, feudal titles to land were strictly by inheritance only, and could only be transferred by contest. However, if you had a tenant called "John Doe", he could sell his lease to "Richard Roe". (Or similary, dispute a false claim). This last is a very simplified account of another part of the same reader.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England

    My colleague would like to ask these two (Phase 2) questions:
    1. Is the test for straining the same kind of test to accredit knowledge and understanding?

    2. He is not sure what you mean by scientific method, and how you understand "theory," "law," "uncertainty," "probability". He wonders if you could elaborate briefly on these points so he can see where you are coming from.
    As for me, it's time to sleep,
    So now to sleep with our pet Zeep.
    Today is gone, today was fun,
    Tomorrow is another one.
    From there to here, from here to there,
    Funny things are everywhere.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Becky Jungbauer
    Should I have one fish, two fish for dinner tonight? Or perhaps a red fish, blue fish? :)

    1. I think you could have both kinds of tests. For example, everyone in my high school had to the take the PSAT (pre-SAT). Something like that could be a test for basic knowledge and understanding (can you write a complete sentence, do you know how to add and subtract, etc). Then, in my high school honors courses, I took a kind of AP test that determined whether I had sufficiently mastered the material and could receive college credit. These were voluntary, so in a way if you took the test it indicated some level of interest and confidence in ability in these subjects - a weeding out of sorts.

    2. I am not sure why he is not sure what I mean by the scientific method. The standard list that everyone here learns: define the question, gather information, form a hypothesis, experiment, analyze, interpret, retest. I understand the terms above as they were taught to me in science in high school, college and grad school. For example, theory: theory of relativity. Law: Ohm's Law. Uncertainty: Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Probability: p-value. Nothing is ever 100% proven or certain, but we can be reasonably certain that given our observations and collected data, x will happen in y situation.
    Here are my colleague's replies two your two points:

    1. The response to the first question does not seem to explain anything at all. The 'basic' test mentioned does not refer to science at all, and 'sufficiently mastered' keeps the discussion rather obscure.

    2. There is more than one understanding of scientific method. The one given is a standard one often given by practising scientists but Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work about the real work of scientists indicates that the practice is often far from the idealised version quoted here. Simply giving examples of theory, law, uncertainty, does not constitute an explanation, and the Heisenberg example is not related to the broad view of uncertainty (generally of data measurement) that most scientists encounter. I suggest that physicists might expand their own horizons by reading material about the philosophy of science.

    Does that sound a little bit fierce?  I do agree with some of what he says, but perhaps a bit of moderation (like methane at 110 K for fast neutrons) is required.

    He also seems to assume that you are a physicist.  Is that anywhere near the mark?

    I will think carefully before continuing the three-way discussion, especially with myself being the pig in the middle.  However, D.V., I might come up with a few thoughts after I have done some peer-review that is looming, and if so I will probably put it directly under the main article, since this thread is getting rather indented.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Is this Brain Flu?

    British Olympic chief wants the word 'elite' banned from sport

    Perhaps G. Washington was right after all!
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Robert:  I'd like to teach PC idiots like Colin Moynihan the true meaning of the word 'elite' by sending in the SAS.  Or is that a tad OTT, d'you think?
    Kimberly Crandell
    At least you're not wearing a red Star Trek uniform.  Elite or not, your days would be numbered.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I'm glad you can be there to mete out necessary corrections in his behavior. We can abuse him verbally, but over the internet it's just an empty threat.
    I came across this blog randomly today and found it quite interesting. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts:

    Star Trek takes place in a society that political scientists would consider to be some sort of communist utopia - money, war (at least on Earth, or within the United Federation of Planets) and scarcity of goods have been abolished thanks to huge technological progress rendering these ancient history. We would assume under these conditions that children are given fantastic opportunities to excel (think about the Vulcan children learning in their pods). (Maybe some debate over whether these conditions exist in Kirk's time, but they are certainly achieved by the time of the Next Generation and must be close to this even in Kirk's day.) Under these conditions we have a high degree of equality of opportunity, if not equality of outcome (i.e., some people become starship captains based on merit, some become security guards based on presumably lower or different aptitudes). Under these conditions we might legitimately say that the formation of some sort of elite could be justified, but crucially, this elite does not benefit materially from their elite status (they don't get paid more as money has no meaning in a world without scarcity), although they do benefit spiritually perhaps through more excitement or more acclaim or more influence over "galaxy-historical" events.

    (As an aside, however, even in your Star Trek utopia, equality of opportunity does not exist, as people have different starts in life, different families and so on - Kirk with the influence of a father role model had different opportunities and therefore a different outcome than tearaway Kirk with no father in the new parallel universe version(!). And so on.)

    Anyway, back to the argument, Star Trek utopia: some justification for elites. Modern life: I'd suggest self-conscious elitism has a nasty tendency to come at the expense of the development of the mass. As old Spock says, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The question is, what contributes to the greater happiness and productivity of planet Earth the most, diverting extra resources to develop an elite or spreading the resources in order to develop the mass, if by a more incremental amount? Tough question. The talent that is squandered because of poverty and disadvantage must be huge – there is a huge untapped potential there waiting to be released, from everyone.

    Anyway, not saying I can provide any real answers and I’ve spent too long on this and need to work, but there are my random thoughts anyway. :-)

    Actually, you're describing a meritocracy. Elitism is the opposite of what you think it is.

    Looks like you wrongly assume you are the smartest person in the room.

    While I agree with you if only by force as my IQ and yours are likely in the top 2% of the population, I take offense with your implication that a proficiency in science synonymous with intelligence - period. I am not reading this because I have more than a passing interest in science. I found this blog because I was wondering if Michael Jackson was an autohebephile. I then followed a link to someone wondering if Michael Jackson had an endocrinological disorder that caused him to appear castrated which in turn had a link to this article whose title contained the magic words "Star Trek". I am not here due to anything more than a peripheral interest in science combined with a high level of interest in pop culture and an even higher level of intellectual curiosity.

    When I was reading these articles or blogs, I noticed that the author of the article theorizing that Michael Jackson suffered from an endocrine imbalance had trouble either spelling or typing the word Michael. She repeatedly typed it as Michale. I do not think she is less intelligent because of this because her overall use of language was solid. I think she is either dyslexic or not a very proficient typist. Her bio says she is a PhD candidate in physics who has overcome quite a bit. I, on the other hand, have a graduate degree in communication and find physics confounding and algebra even more so. Why? because I likely have the reverse problem from that author: something called dyscalculia. I am not pointing these things out to make a case for "special needs" kids. I am intelligent enough to be able to test out of algebra and pass a standardized test by intelligent guessing. I am sure the same is true of an intelligent dyslexic and reading. I am arguing that intelligence comes in different forms and not all of it is manifested by a high degree of scientific acumen.

    Hank, I am going to demonstrate my elitism. 

    You wrote that "Conservatives cheered the sentiment, of course, yet they are most often the ones sneering at academics - apparently being the best and brightest is only good if you are starting an oil company."

    Followed by "...they were only chosen for the Enterprise because they were exceptional (which makes conservative types happy)."

    These two remarks appear to be in conflict and would perhaps cause a reader to believe that conservatives only have use for some smart person if he or she can generate income (as in the former case).  Yet you also imply that conservatives would be the first to applaud a system that rewards exceptional people for being talented or gifted (as in the latter reference).

    Now which is it?  We can't continue to demonize conservatives if they will reward us for being smart.
    Now which is it? We can't continue to demonize conservatives if they will reward us for being smart.
    Hank hates conservatives!  And he is one!
    And he hates irony!  :)

    I don't see that my statements are in conflict.  A subset of conservatives (or Republicans) seem to enjoy poking fun at the people with the most expertise in academia yet in the private sector they admire people who are the best at what they do - exceptional.
    Hank hates conservatives!  And he is one!
    And he hates irony!  :)

    I don't see that my statements are in conflict.  A subset of conservatives (or Republicans) seem to enjoy poking fun at the people with the most expertise in academia yet in the private sector they admire people who are the best at what they do - exceptional.

    Ok, we are talking about a subset of boorish conservatives then - and this I agree with.
    We can't continue to demonize conservatives if they will reward us for being smart.
    But of course we can!  :)

    If politics was logical it would be a science.  It isn't, and it isn't.

    But of course we can!  :)

    Recalling something about not [fill in the blank] where you eat, or biting the hand that feeds you.   :)   But I'm all for constructive criticism if it gets us to someplace better.   Checks and balances are necessary.  We are seeing right now what happens when those safeguards are removed, and I'm not liking what I see.
    Hello Hank.

    I agree with you in many ways here. It seems to me that intellect is looked down upon, with negative stereotypes about "Nerds" and "Geeks". The word "Elite" seems to have positive meanings when applied to athletes and so on. But an "Elite academic" is often someone who is looked upon with considerable derision. And because of this a lot of people who do have a lot of potential are essentially wasted. I think people are misreading what you are saying, because what you say does make sense to me and I am probably considered "Anti elitist". What you have said is actually very true, when people are made to feel as if intellect is a bad thing, there is something very wrong with society.


    I'm just an old corn-fed country woman, yet I see what you're driving at young man, and I believe you're right in what you say.

    Does this mean that I don't have to be a "closet elitist" anymore? I'M AN ELITIST AND PROUD OF IT! Boy! That felt good! Can we have an Elitist Pride day too? hahaha ;-)
    We wouldn't be elite if we didn't, though I confess I never thought of it.  Which makes you even more elite than me!
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think you can have an "Elitist Pride Day", since the only way you could truly show how elite you were would be to ignore it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    LOL Hank! ;-)
    I don't know about that, Gerhard. I mean, we're elitists, not snobs. Besides, some of us have been in the closet so long that we need a parade to boost our morale and self-esteem! LOL ;-)
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, I won't argue with that.  Obviously you're elite enough to have a well-stocked closet in which you've been hiding for years.

    Go for it! :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think the difference between admiring elite athletes and dumping on the elite academic is the false belief that anyone who works hard enough can be an elite athlete, but you have to be born smart.

    In a time of reality shows and the cult of the amateur, it will be a long time before smart becomes admirable again.