The challenge currently facing our scientists et al, fretting about their continued relevance in an age of expert fatigue, is how to persuade the population at large to defer to their opinions.

In a paper published in November 2016, the psychologist Lisa Scharrer argues that the popularization of science has inadvertently led the public to over-estimate the easiness of the work scientists do and, therefore, an unwillingness to submit meekly to scientific consensus on issues such as climate change and vaccinations.

In other words, the problem is that the science communicators have done their job too well: the flip side of the success of campaigns such as “I Fucking Love Science” is the popularity of the Food Babe.

Question: Is it even possible to spread a set of norms widely, but still maintain your status as the arbiter of those norms?

The history of the spread of Hindu-Buddhist ideas in Southeast Asia is instructive.1 Several thousand years ago, sans conquest, a set of norms from the Indian subcontinent took root an ocean away.

 

The process by which this happened, called localization, occurred not because a cabal of transnational agents converted so-called barbarian populations with the self-evident superiority of their message, but because of local initiative and adaptation.

 

This also meant that only those parts of the message that suited local needs were adopted. This could be because they did not contradict pre-existing beliefs or they enhanced the prestige of the borrower.

No ruler could expect to popularize norms that challenged the existing cultural practices and beliefs of his own subjects without incurring some sort of social and political cost.

The idea was not to replace existing institutions—seriously, who would be stupid enough to import a set of ideas that rendered oneself irrelevant?—but to somehow enhance them.

The resulting Southeast Asian Hindu-Buddhist culture looked quite a bit different than it did at the source. Rather than extinguishing prior cultural practices, it merged with and amplified them.

But that was religion, and we’re talking science. Still, even if we look at examples of scientific borrowing in history, such as the great Islamic translation project that occurred in the eighth century in Baghdad, or even the modern Hindu nationalist enthusiasm for science, we see that, in both instances, a selective borrowing took place.

The Caliph in Baghdad did not instruct his translators to tackle the great Greek histories and tragedies (and before you object that these were not sciences, recall that science did not exist as a discrete subject in this time). Had these aspects of classical knowledge been translated, too many questions might have been asked about the Caliph’s absolute power.2 Nor do the Hindu nationalists who launch hundreds of satellites into space today subject cultural institutions such as caste to scientific scrutiny.

The ancient Hindu and Islamic worlds have lessons for how to spread a message while retaining control: in India, of course, there is the famous example of the Vedas, transmitted orally only to members of the uppermost castes; in Islam, a refusal to translate the Quran from Arabic into any vernacular languages, thus allowing the Arabs the last word on the subject.

An Indian scientist once told me of being asked at an interview for an EU research grant whether or not she believed in a divine creator. Not wanting to jeopardize her chances, she answered in the negative. She did not reveal that that very morning she had prostrated herself before the brass gods in her prayer alcove, beseeching them for success.