Do scientists learn to ignore non-experts by learning to ignore grad students?

Reading through Robert Musil’s “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters,” I was struck by how closely the author argued that “Silent Spring” was heavily influenced by her network of colleagues throughout her life.

I couldn’t help but wonder why we are so reluctant to define scientists in this manner.  We find that popular accounts of scientists are often built around a “lone genius” stereotype of Einstein coming up with relativity on his own.  We do this even though we know that Einstein was swimming in a community of scientists questioning the limits of classical mechanics.

Does this model change how we perceive scientists and engineers interacting with non-experts?  We see discussion of the interaction of Marc Edwards and other experts with the Flint water crisis.  These obscure that Professor Edwards functioned as part of a team of researchers at Virginia Tech when looking at the lead levels.  We are writing out graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and technicians from the story.

If we are writing out highly trained people who work with the lead scientist on a project like this, doesn’t that make it easier to write out the non-expert as well?  Ignoring the narrative of a lab head sharing authority with his or her grad students makes it easier to embrace a narrative where non-scientists are passive bystander.

Does ignoring that scientists function internally with each other, with different levels of experience and expertise, make it easier to write off non-scientists as non-experts?

2 Replies to “Do scientists learn to ignore non-experts by learning to ignore grad students?”

  1. Interesting question.

    I too have been thinking about the potential links between a) the social hierarchies in the scientific community’s dominant culture and the marginalizing effects that these hierarchies can have on students, women, people of color, and other traditionally disempowered groups, and b) the ways in which the scientific community’s dominant culture perceives and treats non-experts. I do suspect the two are related and that addressing one would have an impact on the other.

    My guess is that some/most VT students would say that they have received extensive recognition and visibility, but then again does this recognition/visibility highlight original work/ideas on their part or being good/caring/productive/loyal students? In other words, does this recognition/visibility change their position on the scientific social ladder?

    Have you seen the National Geographic 2017 series “Genius”? It’s about Einstein’s life — your blog made me think of it.

  2. Your post made me think about graduate students who have a leadership role in change. Lindsay, who gave a presentation on the Null Curriculum of Sex and Gender in the Sciences at the Teach-In this past April in Blacksburg, asks why there was nobody in attendance who has power in creating and changing higher education policy. (See https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/habodah/2017/05/01/vt-grate-teach-in/.) The voices for change are being ignored by those in authority.

    There are other disturbing examples in higher education of certain narratives being presented by authority figures that diminish alternative views. The most timely and shocking example of this may be the current move by ABET to relax student outcome criteria in the forthcoming accreditation guidelines revision. This revision will undo decades of progress toward recognizing the importance of ethics, diversity, and a plethora of ancillary skills in the development of future engineers. Why is this happening? Apparently, because those in authority do not understand or appreciate values such as ethics and do not share a vision of their role in engineering education. The way the proposed changes were introduced deliberately seeks to silence voices of opposition.

    I learned about the work of Marc Edwards’ team first from graduate students who were on the team, but that is because I took classes with these students in which we had many class discussions, not because their work is highly visible to the public.

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