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 kids, art programs, music, all because we are trying to find a way to make kids who are not very scientific 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.