Historically, Progress has Usually Begun in Academic Sectors and Spread to the People

Scott Deshefy


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At Padua University, west of Venice in Italy’s Veneto region, there is a magnificent anatomical theater, a dissecting arena holding up to 250 students and faculty. It’s the first permanent structure of its kind, a conical space with six concentric, elliptical rings circling upward. Designed without a bad seat in the house, the woodwork is an impressive combination of crafted larch, spruce and walnut. The theater has no windows because, when it was built, autopsies only took place in winter when cold temperatures preserved cadavers the 3-6 days needed for dissection. Under the main entrance, a 16th century Latin inscription reads “This is a place where the dead are pleased to help the living.”

Founded in 1222, the prestigious University of Padua in northern Italy is the world’s fifth-oldest surviving university. For 18 years, which he considered his best, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was professor there, chairing mathematics until 1610. Notable alumni include astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), who postulated the heliocentric solar system, and anatomists William Harvey (1578-1657), who described the heart and circulatory system functions, and Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562), a priest after whom Fallopian tubes are named. He primarily studied inner ear, head and reproductive organs. Philosopher-friar and Catholic saint Albertus Magnus and noted seducer-writer Giacomo Casanova were also Padua students, as were 17th century Transylvanian humanist and historian Istvan Szamoskozy and Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564).

Vesalius, considered the first modern human anatomist, corrected a lot of erroneous thought about how our bodies worked, some based on long-held surgical procedures dating to the Roman Empire and 3rd century writings of Galen of Pergamon. Despite violating graves to examine corpses and skeletal remains Vesalius was offered a professor of medicine position at Padua in 1537. Insisting that his students perform dissections to learn human anatomy, he was eventually allowed by church and government to use cadavers of convicted criminals born outside the country but executed in Italy. That special dispensation enabled Vesalius in 1543 to publish his seminal work, “De humani corporis fabrica libri septem” (On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books). In it he provides complex illustrations and detailed diagrams of numerous dissections, discovering human body parts previously unknown. To assure accuracy, drawings of musculature and skeletal formation were made by professional artists, who were not only numerous but world class in 16th century northeast Italy. Many consider it the first empirical textbook of modern medicine, a “practical,” illustrated guide to human anatomy. Completed three decades after Vesalius died and inaugurated in 1595, the dissection arena at Padua University still stands, serving medical students and wowing tourists and future surgeons alike, as a monument to biological expertise. It’s an edifice to the value of shared knowledge, a place where throngs of future experts could assemble, observe, and learn from elite instructors, paying their skills and wisdom forward, benefiting humanity.

Today, contrary to Scientific Revolution/Age of Enlightenment attitudes, social media have created a dangerous cult, advancing fallacies that everyone’s an expert and everybody’s opinion is equally valid. Stupidity, inflated by the internet, has taken that tutorial tower at Padua and flattened it, erecting in its place a digital conduit for “sound and fury’s” political babble. As a result, those who actually do have comprehensive knowledge, skills and authoritative wisdom are distrusted in growing numbers, a subset easily manipulated by demagogues. That makes the idea of referendum votes on complicated matters (ecological, medical or otherwise) about which most people not only have limited knowledge, but resist being educated, extremely perilous. Historically, progress has usually begun in academic sectors and spread to the people, who, inspired by new and better visions of the future, demanded political actions to achieve them. Thirty-five years ago, when global warming and anthropogenic climate change were already scientific fact, accepted by scholarly consensus, major steps to curb carbon emissions might have begun in earnest had more college degrees been awarded at the time. Probably twice the number of Bachelor’s Degrees would have gotten it done because fewer politicians could have held office without acknowledging and proactively addressing global warming. Instead, we’re in its climatologic crosshairs.

Knowledge deserves power; ignorance invites disaster. Bees, octopi and other nonhuman animals learn, judge and base decisions on the credibility and experiences of others, weighing costs and benefits of problem solving alternatives. Many birds, mammals and other organisms, even some fungi, pass that learning on to succeeding generations (what we ethologists call “culture”) to deal with reality’s day-to-day nuances. When a bee colony selects a new hive location, for instance, it evaluates options offered by a number of scouts, who emit constant, modulated electric fields while waggle dancing information, eventually choosing the one with the best supporting reconnaissance. Scouts with dissenting “opinions,” whose nest locales seem less desirable, are gradually denied further consideration in the “debate” and pushed from the colony’s brood chamber (that is, the forum where all this occurs).  Compare bees with the U.S., where “anti-elitism” has become tightly interwoven with fractious individualism, disdain for institutions and attempts to bolster flagging self-esteem. Some politicians, acting only for perceived self-interest, have quickly exploited that trend, actually getting away with labeling distinguished scientists and medical advisers “elitists” to discredit them and perpetuate conspiratorial delusions to string along their obsequious base. Anti-vaxxers, global warming deniers, insurrectionists, mass shooters and election gainsayers show how monstrous their creations can become.

Unlike bees relocating a hive, Americans have ceased to weigh facts, preponderance of evidence or simply acknowledge reality itself. Contempt for arrogance and bloated egos, however much scholastically and professionally supported, is one thing; spiteful dismissal of singular expertise and well-honed, accumulated knowledge is another. After all, don’t we all value advancement from merit and proficiency instead of from nepotism, money or social connections? As passengers on commercial jets, don’t we all want elite pilots to fly them and elite mechanics to prevent engine failures at 10,000 feet? We want elite anesthetists and surgeons to perform even our simplest operations, elite players on our favorite teams, elite artists to exhibit and perform; elite epidemiologists to advise us on disease control. Why then do we elect ill-equipped leaders to ignore matters of national and planetary importance, such as anthropogenic climate change, mass extinctions, pandemics and peaceful transitions of power after certified elections? To the radical Right, elitism has become synonymous with acknowledging reality and existential threats. Our job is to ignore that propaganda, which makes “elite” a dirty word, and recruit and elect our finest intellectuals into leadership roles.

To succeed as a people, we must again respect elites in whatever fields and professions they excel. Otherwise, cogent problem-solving and building a sustainable future is impossible. This is especially true in government, where a dearth of elites now exists. In a world demanding scientific acumen, for instance, few if any American politicians have equivalent discernible skills. At a time when social media amplify and disseminate disinformation and an ex-president lies to us daily and is proud of it, most state and federal offices are held by lawyers, entrepreneurs, business majors and political hacks. A few are held by farmers, historians, philosophers, electricians and social workers, and that’s good.  But scientifically, most are unschooled. Some even have ties with heavily subsidized fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, meat and Big Ag industries causing most of our problems. At least, in representative, if not referendum, democracies civil servants, who are exemplary in their fields, can be called upon to provide expertise where it is lacking in federal and state legislatures. But their recommendations, once summoned by government, have to be acknowledged and acted upon, not merely used as show ponies and window dressing, then summarily unheeded. Too often judgments are clouded by economics and prospects for reelection alone rather than adhering to hard empirical evidence, ethical considerations and fact-based decision-making benefitting us all.

Given politicians’ powers to decide our futures, as well as the planet’s, scientists shouldn’t be limited to 21st century supporting roles, but actually hold political power themselves and run for office. One reason China and the EU outpace the U.S. in many respects has been their scientists in politically influential positions. Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher, quantum and food research chemists respectively, are examples of very effective leaders with science backgrounds. Thatcher’s knowledge made her chief advocate of the Montreal Protocol (1987), the world’s first global treaty to reduce pollution, on which Earth’s ozone layer’s recovery from deteriorative CFCs currently depends. Merkel was the backbone of the EU, and her initiatives, with support of the Green Party have made Germany a world leader in clean alternative energy production, including hydrogen technologies.

As rare as Thatcher’s and Merkel’s science backgrounds are in the halls of European government, American legislators, trained in objective analysis of empirical data and hard evidence, are scarcer still. Already, the quality of decisions made in the United States Congress, a republic-style representative body of government, is blatantly compromised. The influence of money and corporate lobbying is palpable. As a result, absence of term limits prevents the “untainted” from getting elected and new ideas from getting heard. And not everyone in the U.S. has the same weighted vote in the Senate, where each state, regardless of population, has two representatives. A vote cast in Alaska, Hawaii or Wyoming per se has more political clout than votes in more densely populated states like New York and California. Then, there’s the demeaning way in which those votes are solicited. This upcoming election, as every election, is already dominated by populism, issues of lesser importance made vote-seducing priorities, aggressive personal attacks, misinformation and out-and-out lies. Each election cycle repeats the same formula because we’ve become a politically pliable society, malleable to unsubstantiated suggestion, which readily accepts the implausible. In other words, we’re easily played for suckers. The result: a widening divergence between recognition of fact and adaptive, responsible behavior.

Throughout our species’ history, human development has shown repeating accelerated transitions from situations of scarcity to technological innovations which increase resource availability but ultimately lead to population growth, increased consumption, and wasteful despoiling. When bigger populations, consumption and pollution deplete or impede access to resources, conditions of scarcity reoccur and the cycle repeats, so long as technological innovations continue to bail us out. Upsala University’s Craig Dilworth calls this the Vicious Circle Principle, and each, successive iteration imposes new limits. From wearing clothing to thermo-regulate to discovering fire and burning wood, coal, whale oil and petroleum for heat, to generating electricity and internal combustion engines,  we keep moving further out of equilibrium with the biosphere. Nuclear fission seemed promising, until its inherent risks and radioactive waste piled up. Now, solar, hydroelectric and wind-generated energy seem keys to sustainability, provided the human population, once that transition is made, doesn’t exceed our energy- and food-dependent carrying capacities.

To achieve and maintain equilibrium, we must summon elite minds to break that vicious cycle, admitting that everyone’s opinion is no more equal than the average American can duplicate a Lebron James slam-dunk for the Lakers, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, or Aaron Donald and Stafford to Kupp for the Rams. Thankfully, the planet still has Greta Thunberg and streets still clog with students supporting various causes. But, it’s not the late 1960s or early 1970s anymore. The music and television coverage which encouraged, inspired and echoed that progress has been dumbed-down and made lightweight. The clarion bells that were voices of Baez and Dylan, Seeger and McGuire, Judith Durham, the Association, Mary Travers; Bev Bivens are pretty much limited to recordings now. But we can advance those same ideals, when environmentalism, civil and animal rights, peace and gender equality movements converged, finding common language in the music, literature and leaders of that time, when “elitism” was very much in flower.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.