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THE BLACK HOLE

Academic scientists and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

To succeed outside the narrow career trajectory of "university professor," early career scientists must be exposed to the job market earlier.

By JONATHAN THON | FEB 02 2015

Today’s young academic scientists are trapped in the lab, which is not so different from a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is therefore a fitting analogy, and as a young academic scientist I have often felt that I was facing a blank wall where shadows of things passing in front of a fire behind me were projected. It is only by leaving the cave that I have come to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all.

The analogy is not perfect. While Plato argues that only those who have ascended to the highest level of knowledge (whom he calls philosopher kings), must then return to share in their labours with the masses, I believe that public intellectuals, regardless of academic standing, should become the rule, not the exception.

Academic culture, far from promoting new perspectives, implicitly encourages a low regard for those who work in the “public” eye. This was described best by Melonie Fullick, a fellow blogger in her article “‘Public Intellectuals’; A Losing Game.” Here she laments that knowledge dissemination to non-specialist audiences “means ‘dumbing down’ one’s message. This is part of why, in spite of the push for more ‘engagement’ with publics beyond academe, these activities are not professionally recognised in the same way as more traditional activities like peer-reviewed publications.”

Like Plato’s freed, scientists who ultimately leave the lab to see the world outside inevitably begin to question their previous beliefs. This “ascendance” is hard won. Plato’s freed are dragged in pain and irritation up and out of the cave, whereupon the discomfort only intensifies as the radiant light of the sun overwhelms the eyes.

“Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. He is first able to see only shadows of things. Next he can see the reflections of things in water and later is able to see things themselves. He is then able to look at the stars and moon by night and finally he is able to look upon the sun.

 

He is then able to behold the sun and deduces that it is the “…source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing.”

– Rouse, W.H.D., ed. The Republic Book VII. Penguin Group Inc. pp. 365–401.

Plato would have the freed return to the cave, but communication of knowledge goes both ways. Those living in the larger world know nothing of the cave, and while the freed may not always be the most knowledgeable, charismatic, or eloquent, who better suited to speak of its reality? The knowledge of abstract things is no less valuable than the world of forms, and scientists who can bridge this gap must do so. This is an important point to make because it establishes a critical link between the conventional academic career dichotomy of “academia” or “industry” where young scientists can flourish.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Jennifer Polk / February 4, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Yes! Useful metaphor and completely agree. Bridging that divide is key, and there’s absolutely no reason why there should be a gap at all, but simple a long, connected line from basic theory & research to TED talks, op-eds, and k-12 classrooms (etc!).

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