If the ideal function of the public intellectual is to exercise criticism, scientists are well-equipped for the job. In “The Decline (?) of the Public Intellectual,” Mack concludes that public intellectuals should act as vanguards against mindless demogogy to ensure a healthy democracy… And who better to explain the importance of reflective judgement and dialectical reasoning than scientists? Trained in the scientific method, and weary of having their research misrepresented, post-graduate researchers collectively appreciate the importance of suspending impulsive thoughts, weighing evidence, and tolerating the uncertainties surrounding “truth.” However, of course, a scientist’s job isn’t about writing for the public; it’s about writing for other scientists, adding their piece to the information pie. And writing outside of that realm is not part of the job. For this group, habitually communicating science directly to the public carries an unfortunate stigma among, a point that renowned neuroendocrinologist and public intellectual Robert Sapolsky sharply delineated at a writing conference for Stanford students:
Carl Sagan with his billions and billions of stars, he’s like the most successful
science writer of his time, and as a result of doing that, he totally destroyed his
scientific career. And the snotty term that’s used for it among scientists is, that
one gets “Saganized.” There’s a presumption that if you’re spending so much
time doing this that you can’t possibly do good, serious science any more.
Fellow neuroscientist David Eagleman’s 2013 “manifesto” in the Journal of Neuroscience attempts to convince scientists that they should adventure into the “public sphere.” He points to examples of inefficiencies that arise when public policy and public practice are out of touch with critical thinking, accurate research, or can’t tolerate uncertainty or complexity. He explains that scientists exercise the necessary skills to intelligently offer alternatives to and criticisms of common public thoughts, i.e., the purpose of a public intellectual, though he never uses the phrase. Sapolsky’s popular behavioral biology books (besides the fact he’s a professor at Stanford, where the conference was held) had no doubt gotten him an invitation to the aforementioned conference, called How I Write, due to his popular behavioral biology books. But given the above quote, Sapolsky himself might be wary about distinguishing himself as a Public Intellectual. He actually began his How I Write interview with, “You know, I’m basically a scientist; I don’t really think of myself as a writer and it’s something that I need to discipline myself to do less of, because it is much easier for me than doing the science a lot of the time, and just as much quickness.”
To his point about basically being a scientist, a brief overview of his academic trajectory: Sapolsky’s nearly four-decade career primarily concerns stress through the lenses of neuroendocrinology and psychosocial pressures. The foundation of his career began in the Kenyan field after receiving a B.A. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University. He measured the cortisol levels and immune system health of a troop of baboons while also observing their social lives and hypothesizing about the effects of social ranking on stress, and the body’s physiological response to stress. Besides a lifetime of peer-reviewed papers, his curriculum vitae includes a documentary film on National Geographic, and a handful of well-received popular books and articles in popular magazines –he sheepishly admits that as a scientist he’s not “supposed” to have articles in Men’s Health– concerning the intersections of biology and environment, and their applications to primates. Now, while he maintains professorship at Stanford University in the Biological Sciences and Neurology department, Sapolsky is developing a vaccine of sorts against stress via the herpes-simplex virus.
Forgetting his public writing for a moment, Sapolsky’s academic work has affected the public’s medical experiences today. During the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, Sapolsky’s research explored the deleterious effects of glucocorticoid, a stress-signaling hormone, in the hippocampus, a brain structure sometimes called “the gateway to memory” and critical for evaluating sensory information (i.e., learning what’s dangerous and what’s not, which is why this structure is particularly sensitive to stress hormones). The extent of a rat’s hippocampal damage depends on the length of exposure, Sapolsky wrote in a 1996 Science article, referencing older work. “Over the course of weeks, excess GC reversibly causes atrophy of hippocampal dendrites, whereas GC overexposure for months can cause permanent loss of hippocampal neurons.” Establishing a precedent for research on GC overexposure in humans, Sapolsky found similar results in a year-long study of four vervet monkeys injected with cortisol pellets, outlined in The Journal of Neuroscience 1990. At the time of death, individual neurons had shrunk, dendrites were atrophied, and Sapolsky’s lab had accumulated yet another piece of evidence that his hypothesis might apply to humans; that is, glucocortesoid over-secretions in humans due to long-term stress might impact how a neuron ages. Much of what we know now about humans and stress levels developed from the foundations he provided. When Sapolsky began his work with baboons, stress wasn’t regarded as particularly harmful. Stress today is accepted as a “long-term risk factor” for a large range of pathologies. “It struck most doctors as extremely unlikely that your feelings could affect your health. Viruses, sure. Carcinogens, absolutely. But stress? No way,” Sapolsky says in Wired’s profile of his work. Wired notes that anything from Alzheimer’s, to muscle atrophy, to adult onset diabetes, to the prognosis of recovery after heart surgery will owe itself in large part to stress levels, even more than smoking and genes.
So Robert Sapolsky is an intellectual. He’s also in the minority group of scientists that are simultaneously “public,” and he bolsters Eagleman’s arguments that scientists are well-positioned for performing the services of a public intellectual (though he doesn’t call it that). Sapolsky’s essays deal with all of this. Take, for example, First off, his diction choices reflect a scientist’s aptitude for precise writing and to “to retain nuance when speaking about complex issues,” characteristics that Eagleman says make scientists essential to informing the public. Additionally, throughout the course of one of his essays, readers encounter many criticisms of “the norm,” another duty of the public intellectual as well as the scientist. His writing is also public because its style and content is practical, relatable, and relevant. He draws from multiple perspectives– the mundane and the erudite, hormones and social science, the human and the simian– to inform his musings on biological findings and social issues. All the meanwhile, his writing style reads agreeably: essays tend to be amalgams of research observation, poignant anecdotes, amusing speculation, and careful diction– jargon only in just the right places. His usage of humor and the kaleidoscope of intriguing research bits he explicates also soften the overarching didactic tone in his work while sharpening the piece’s scientific accuracy… he’s good.
Take, for example, how he crafts the argument that Western lifestyles can go wayward in non-industrialized countries in “The Dangers of Fallen Souffles in the Developing World.” This essay from his 1997 anthology, The Trouble with Testosterone, describes the grave hypertension problems of Joseph, a Kenyan tourist lodge manager, in context of Africa’s incorrigible inefficiencies (putting it lightly) and its partially Westernized middle-class. His argument relies on points of interest during a time when stress as a medical condition was still a relatively new thought in the public realm. “Fallen Souffles” proffers health psychology research on assuaging the pathological impacts of stress, that, while not being the point of the essay, are still hugely interesting to the reader, likely someone Westernized and at least somewhat familiar with long-term stress. While making his case about the causes of Joseph’s failing health, he’ll also devote a few paragraphs to light criticism of the norm. Evidence for his main point (that partial Westernization is dangerous) leads him to a didactic tangent about the different metabolisms of Westerners and nomads. The abundance of food in Western lands “allows for the survival of individuals with sloppy genes and wasteful metabolisms,” he explains, whereas nomads “have the same normal metabolisms that our ancestors did, and that nonhuman primates have.” Those are the genes of efficiency. “Have the first smidgen of sugar and carbohydrates from the meal hit the bloodstream and the pancreas pours out insulin, ensuring that every bit of those precious nutrients is stored by the body.” He continues his soft and informed chiding, adding that the Western world calls these ancestral metabolic feature “thrifty genes,” as if those are the anomalous ones. “A classic case of viewing the world through Western-colored glasses” he says of it. Typical Sapolsky writing. Informative, critical, engaging, and full of jump-off points for endless social discussions.
At the start of Trouble With Testosterone, Sapolsky explains why he writes:
When it comes to the biology of our individuality, issues are raised that should be fascinating to each of us for the simple reason that we are all asked to function as behavioral biologists on some occasion. Most importantly, those occasions matter: We serve on juries and decide the culpability of someone regarding something awful they have done. We are asked to vote on referendums about expenditures of public funds to try to fix some social ill, and we have to decide if we think it can be fixed. Insofar as we are forced to be practicing behavioral biologists, we might as well be competent at it. This collection of essays is meant to help a bit in that direction as it offers a tour of the field.”
So there you have it. Choose your favorite inefficiency. Are you exasperating about the arguments surrounding police brutality, gay rights, or the statistically unsound comments and brutal ad hominems recently promulgated by an infamous orangutan, I mean, fellow primate (a petty, petty pun intended to show even the most reasonable of us can shamefully deviate into logical fallacies)? A culture of eager public intellectual scientists might help.