The Role of the Ivory Tower in Legitimizing Science

Anyone know how to get in touch with the Doxacon folks to get transcripts or whatnot from the conference events? I’d love to cull that material.

Here’s my latest thesis that I’m using as a mental punching bag:

Why does the academy seem to have a legitimizing effect on the work of science? Let’s start with perhaps two trivial examples by way of illustration.

Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s famous novel works alone, having explicitly left the University of Ingolstadt before beginning his work on animating a corpse. His work is perceived to be unnatural almost because it is done alone, outside the academy. The public at large is horrified by the results. By comparison, contemporary electro-bio-chemist Dr. V. Reggie Edgerton of UCLA does absolutely horrifying experiments on rats to study the interplay of the brain, the spinal column and the body systems which is not only accepted calmly, but is lauded as having potentially enormous medical benefit down the road. And yet, I have this nagging suspicion that if the images of his experiments as they’re done in the clean, institutional settings of his academic lab were transported to the basement of his home, our perception of him would radically change.

In Spiderman, the arch-nemesis Green Goblin, aka Norman Osborn, is a corporate industrialist. In various portrayals of the character’s development he specifically uses the corporate structure and legal system to gain increasing control over Oscorp. Control which allows him to avoid oversight of his work. His work which is designed to covertly develop the tools for his villainous alter-ego the Green Goblin. Osborn isn’t even a PhD. His motivation is always greed, not knowledge.

So what is it about the ivory tower that helps create the aura of validity around scientific work? Is it simply Scientism, the post-modern religion of our secular culture that preaches Natural Materialism as an assumed worldview, and the academy as the church of that faith? Or is there more to it than that? I have to assume that there is more to it. After all, more and more people, especially in the USA, are overtly anti-intellectual, anti-science, and deeply rooted into fundamentalist pre-modern and modernist religious structures — and yet the pattern remains. More to the point, Shelley was working in a radically different culture in which science was still highly suspect.

No, I think there is some kind of assumption at work that the structure and nature of the university somehow constrains scientific work to within the confines of some kind of socio-culturally acceptable ethical boundaries. The problem is, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close.

This is not an essay which is going to attempt to answer the question. This is merely a draft to get the idea on paper and to scratch off the obvious red herring. It is a call for comment.

Keep in mind, that this is part of a long running project to produce art which is some kind of contemporary investigation of human nature through both a science fiction and Orthodox Christian lens.


6 thoughts on “The Role of the Ivory Tower in Legitimizing Science

  1. Pingback: The Role of the Ivory Tower in Legitimizing Science |

  2. Hi, my name is Daniel Silver and I’m one of the chairs of the Doxacon committee. We have recordings of the events and will be putting them on our website for purchase in the near future.

  3. To address some of your thoughts in broad strokes, academic research is highly regulated (with federal, state and institutional regulations to mind) and quite open (via publication or patent routes). The former helps to keep research activities in line with prevailing ethical research norms, although not necessarily perfectly in line with the ethics or moral sensibilities of anyone one person or group. The latter disseminates knowledge and ideas, where these may be tested, verified, built upon and from there hopefully contribute to society in some positive fashion.

    I would not say the system in place is perfect, but it offers guidance that might be absent to varying degrees in other research settings.

    • Yes, that’s all true. But I’m not sure that’s why, in a popular culture sense, there is broad trust for the academy.

      For counter-example, there is a very popular trope in conservative circles that if you send your kid off to college, the very first thing that’s going to happen is some vehemently atheistic science or philosophy professor is going to get ahold of them and brainwash them. Now, that’s not research related, but it does have to do with the perception of the academy in general.

      Your mention of openness makes me wonder if this broad trust will fade as more and more academy research becomes patented, or patent-intended and so becomes less and less open.

  4. In the popular culture sense, I think the situation is pretty mixed. You raise an excellent example of the former — a concern that some had expressed to me and my compatriots back in the day, in fact. Where the ideas are not readily accessible, are ahead of their time or are contrary to an individual’s firmly established beliefs the academic might be mocked for living in an ivory tower where ideas run amuck undiluted by common sense, morality, respect for tradition, etc.

    Where the subject matter addresses practical concerns and the ends are uncontroversial, the academy is readily revered. Everyone one who has suffered loss at the hands of cancer wishes for progress on that front. Who wouldn’t love solar panels that out compete fossil fuels on price and environmental metrics?

    I think there may relatively greater trust for the academy than for other research settings on account of openness (needing to publish, reliance on public funds) and the support might be broad in the aggregate, but it is by no means uniform.

    I am not too concerned about patented research affecting public support, given the level of regulation I have experienced in my own work. Institutions are very keen to preclude the researcher from even the appearance of unethical financial gain via conflict of interest regulation, and thereby covering their own backsides. Besides, the patent system guarantees that the information gets out there and the ideas can be independently validated. Yes, for a time only the patent holder has rights to the economic exploitation of the patented information, but in time the ideas are fully free to all to use and to build upon. FWIW, I am aware of one project at my institution where the desire to patent and establish a commercial partnership pushed that group to clear higher and higher proof of concept hurdles, rather than merely publish the minimum novel finding and move on.

    I am not sure that this addressed your thoughts, but then again sticking to a single theme has never been a required in our conversations 🙂

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