Scientists and “Being Smart”, part 2: “Geekery” and What Happened to Technical Knowledge

For the purposes of this article, I’m treating “nerdiness” and “geekiness” as the same thing. If that bothers you, there’s millions of other pages on the Internet that care about this difference. Also, I’m sort of abusing “technical” here, but bear with me.

I loved Chad Orzel’s quote from last time, and I wanted to dissect one part a bit more:

We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

In particular, I wanted to point this out in the context of a sort of backlash against the idea that nerdiness/geekiness should be embraced as some part of science communication. Here’s the thing that bothers me about those pieces: while our society views specialized knowledge of STEM as less cultured than equally specialized knowledge in the humanities, then it will probably always be seen as intrinsically nerdy just to have studied science and engineering. For argument’s sake, I actually do have something in mind based on comparing courses in different departments at Rice and UVA. As an example of some basic idea of specialized scientific knowledge, I’m thinking of a typical sophomore modern physics class that includes a mostly algebra-based introduction to relativity or single variable quantum mechanics. For a roughly equivalent idea of specialized humanities knowledge,  courses at a similar level include a first course on metaphysics in philosophy and English courses focused on single authors. Quote Chaucer at a cocktail party? Congrats, you’re culturally literate! Mention that quantum mechanics is needed to describe any modern digital electronic device or that GPS requires relativistic corrections? I hate to disagree with someone doing work as cool as Tricia Berry, but sorry, you will almost certainly be considered a nerd for knowing that.

Should we care about this? Yes. It’s the same impulse that lets Martin Eve write off science and engineering open access advocates as just some corporatist movement or maybe just useful idiots of some other cultural force, and not some meaningful aspect of how scientists and engineers themselves want to approach the broader culture. And I don’t think this is new. CP Snow wrote about the “two cultures” over 50 years ago, complaining about the increasing division between literary culture and science and technology. I just think that now instead of ignoring scientists, which was what worried Snow, we now laud them in a way removed from mainstream culture by putting it in some geek/nerd offshoot. We see this in media about science. Scientists in movies are almost never full people with rich emotional and social lives, because, as this review of the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game points out, the convention is nearly always that they are more like machines trying to get along with humans. (I also feel sort of justified in this idea when an English PhD at least partially agreed with me when I argued that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs might count as “Renaissance men” today but culture seems uncomfortable applying that label to contemporary people whose original background was primarily technical.)

As I was writing this, I realized this may be a broadening trend that seems to separate technical knowledge in areas outside of science and engineering from their own related fields. Consider the distinction between how people discuss politics and policy. I know they’re not equivalent, but it seems interesting to me that readings of some theorist mainly approached in senior-level political science or philosophy makes you cultured, but trying to use anything beyond intro economics to talk about policy implementation seems to be unquestionably “wonky”. And I say that as someone with virtually no econ or policy training. Heck, Ezra Klein practically owns the idea of being a wonk, and he’s not an economist.

Over winter break, I got the chance to see a friend from high school who is currently working towards a master’s in public administration. We’re both at about similar stages in our graduate programs and we both talked about what we studied. She had her own deep technical knowledge in her field, but she commented that people often didn’t understand the idea of scientific management as a discipline and didn’t seem to appreciate that someone could actually systematically study team hierarchies and suggest better ways to organize. I think part of that is what I touched on in the first part of my rant and Orzel’s idea that people just seem to think of humanistic studies as just “extensions of normal”. But I also think part of that is some cultural lack of interest in, and understanding of, technical knowledge.

I don’t want to fall into some stereotypical scientist trap and write off ideas of fundamental truths or downplay the importance of ethics, culture, and other things generally considered liberal arts or humanistic. I just think that if Snow were writing today, he might say that intellectual seems to be an even narrower category that now no longer recognizes the idea of doing something with that intellect. And that seems like a real problem.

Public Health Involves Science Communication, Too

This tweet has been making the rounds on social media lately.

I actually think the tweet is funny, but I’m really tired with the way media seems to be considering actual policy concerns with it. Cutting off flights would have seriously hampered the Ebola response. But there is in fact a different policy used for traveling to/from regions with vaccine-preventable outbreaks: it is often recommended that you go and get the vaccine before travelling there or if you are from a region with an outbreak, you may be asked to prove you have been immunized. It would be perfectly reasonable for Nigeria and other countries to demand American travellers prove that they are vaccinated against measles as part of obtaining a visa. That policy isn’t possible with diseases without vaccines that we don’t have effective, standard treatments for.

And this has become an increasing concern of mine with so much of the coverage about the measles outbreak. There is actually a well-documented literature about effective science communication, but based on news articles, you wouldn’t know it exists. The idea that science communication is only about filling people’s head with scientific knowledge (the “bucket model”) has been discredited for over 20 years. Treating your audience snarkily like they know nothing (or really, treating your actual, narrow audience like they’re geniuses and everyone in the outgroup like they’re insane) has never really been shown to be effective in technical matters despite half the business model of Mic and Gawker.

Scientists and “Being Smart”, part 1: Relating to “Normal”

The always wonderful Chad Orzel has just written a new book and New York magazine published a fascinating excerpt that’s been resonating a lot with my friends, science-minded and non-science-minded alike. Orzel relates how people often tell him that he’s so smart when they learn that he’s a physicist. While it is incredibly flattering to have other people say you must be smart, Orzel points out it comes with an unacknowledged downside:

There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

A bigger problem with this awkward compliment, though, is that it’s just not true. Scientists are not that smart — we don’t think in a wholly different manner than ordinary people do. What makes a professional scientist is not a supercharged brain with more processing power, but a collection of subtle differences in skills and inclinations. We’re slightly better at doing the sort of things that professional scientists do on a daily basis — I’m better with math than the average person — but more importantly, we enjoy those activities and so spend time honing those skills, making the differences appear even greater.

A friend in law school argued that this can be a benefit: people seem to have fewer uninformed opinions that they’re compelled to share regarding fluid dynamics than philosophy. I think that’s true to a point, though people also have lots of uninformed opinions on issues that are more controversial, like GMOs, ecology, and climate science. What I think is useful to consider is the nature of how all these fields relate to their people’s lives. People use the end results (whether that’s a tangible product or knowledge) of scientific and engineering research, but they don’t need an understanding of those systems to be able to use their products. People are in sociological, cultural, and political systems everyday and so they have at least a folk or commonsense understanding of how those things work, and so they react when people in these fields tell them their knowledge is incomplete, if not often wrong.

But you also see this a bit in misunderstanding of science: part of the reason people have strong opinions on things like food, ecosystems, and the climate is that they also interact with those systems everyday, and so they have a folk understanding of those too. The discrepancy between someone’s folk understanding and that of a scientific observer is why we have the”this winter is cold so global warfming is a myth” meme. There’s a reason this meme is so resonant to some, though. It’s common in science communication to just treat non-scientists as empty buckets waiting to be filled with scientific information that they’ll appreciate (or maybe even “f***ing love” it), and to assume the major limit in public understanding of science and scientific issues is that they just don’t know enough. This is called the deficit model, and what’s key to know about it is that it is typically wrong. It’s true that a random non-scientist won’t know as much about a given scientific field as someone actually working it. (There is a good chance they know something about it and you should engage that, though). What’s really important, though, is that people don’t engage with science in a vacuum. Everyone brings their own baggage, in the forms of folk knowledge, cultural assumptions, moral values, and more. Scientists, and science communicators more broadly, need to engage with those issues beyond just pure scientific knowledge to truly engage with the public, otherwise people think you’re treating them like idiots.

It’s also generally more interesting to approach science communication this way. Sure, I like informing people of the latest trends and results from research (and studies show people are interested in science news) or other neat concepts that come up in my work and as someone in the field, I’m more aware of this information. But I’m not going to have an equal back and forth about the topic of my old research with most people at UVA, except for the dozen or so people working on similar projects, because it took several years to get to that point. And that can be fine! I know I listen to law students, history majors, sociology majors, philosophy majors, policy students, biologists, and more have incredibly deep conversations on their areas of expertise all the time and learn a lot just from listening.

Even without finding someone who studies the sociology of science and technology, though, I can probably have an interesting conversation with almost anyone about social or ethical implications/questions related to my work. When I did work on the CO2 converstion project, lots of people right away grasped at the implications for climate change work. And that’s the kind of conversation that’s probably most helpful in grounding science and engineering into normalcy.

This is also why I tend to hate saying I “dumb down” things if I’m talking to people outside of my fields. There’s 11 schools at UVA and over 100 academic programs and I know people in all those are “really smart” and they are also all smarter than me in several things. (And of course, as Orzel points, this extends way beyond other people in academia or even college graduates; it’s just that my life is still mostly school.) The reason I change how I talk isn’t because these other people outside my lab and department are dumb; it’s to acknowledge that they all have expertise in different areas than I do and I want to share some of my expertise with them (without forcing them to also have all my training) in a way they can appreciate. Meeting people where they are is generally just good practice and science communication is no exception.

A Nobel for Nanotubes?

A popular pastime on the science blogosphere is doing Nobel predictions; educated guesses on who you think may win a Nobel prize in the various science categories (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine). I don’t feel like I know enough to really do detailed predictions, but I did make one. Okay, more of a dream than a prediction. But I feel justified because Slate also seemed to vouch for it. What was it? I think a Nobel Prize in Physics should be awarded for the discovery and study of carbon nanotubes.

One potential issue with awarding a prize for carbon nanotube work could be priority. Nobel prizes can only be split between three people. While Iijima is generally recognized as the first to discover carbon nanotubes, it actually seems that they have really been discovered multiple times (in fact, Iijima appears to have imaged a carbon nanotube in his thesis nearly 15 years before what is typically considered his “discovery”). It’s just that Iijima’s announcement happened to be at a time and place where the concept of a nanometer-sized cylinder of carbon atoms could both be well understood and greatly appreciated as a major focus of study. The paper linked to points out that many of the earlier studies that probably found nanotubes were mainly motivated by PREVENTING  their growth because they were linked to defects and failures in other processes. The committee could limit this by awarding the prize for the discovery of single-walled nanotubes, which brings the field of potential awardees down to Iijima and one of his colleagues and a competing group at IBM in California. This would also work because a great deal of the hype of carbon nanotubes is focused on single-walled tubes because they generally have superior properties than their multi-walled siblings and theory focuses on them.

No matter what, I would say Mildred Dresselhaus should be included in any potential nanotube prize because she has been one of the most important contributors to the theoretical understanding of carbon nanotubes since the beginning. She’s also done a lot of theoretical work on graphene, but the prize for graphene was more experimental because while theorists have been describing graphene since at least the 80s (Dresselhaus even has a special section in that same issue), no one had anything pure to work with until Geim and Novoselov started their experiments.

In 1996, another form of carbon was also recognized with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Rick Smalley, Robert Curl, and Harold Kroto won the prize for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene (or “buckyballs”) in 1985 and further work they did with other fullerenes and being able to the prove these did have ball-like structures. So while the prize for graphene recognized unique experimental work that could finally test theory, this prize was for an experimental result no one was expecting.   Pure carbon has been known to exist as a pure element in two forms, diamond and graphite, for a long time and no one was expecting to find another stable form. Fullerenes opened people’s minds to nanostructures and served as a practical base for the start of much nanotechnology research, which was very much in vogue after Drexler’s discussions in the 80s.

Six diagrams are shown, in two rows of three. Top left shows atoms arranged in hexagonal sheets, which are then layered on top of each other. This is graphite.

Six phases of carbon. Graphite and diamond are the two common phases we encounter in normal conditions.

So why do I think nanotubes should get the prize? One could argue it just seems transitional between buckyballs and graphene, so it would be redundant. While a lot of work using nano-enhanced materials does now focus on graphene, a great deal of this is based on previous experiments using carbon nanotubes, so the transition was scientifically important. And nanotubes still have some unique properties. The shape of a nanotube immediately brings lot of interesting applications to mind that wouldn’t come up for flat graphene or the spherical buckyballs: nano-wires, nano “test tubes”, nano pipes, nanomotors, nano-scaffolds, and more.  (Also, when describing nanotubes, it’s incredibly easy to be able to say it’s like nanometer-sized carbon fiber, but I realize that ease of generating one sentence descriptions is typically not a criterion for Nobel consideration.) The combination of these factors make nanotubes incredibly important in the history of nanotechnology and helped it transition into the critical field it is today.

News Publications without Science Sections

Inspired by Dr. Danielle Lee’s recent Twitter musings that STEM coverage directed towards minority communities is rare, which is compounded by the lower recognition that black scientists, engineers, and technologists get in their professional communities and the lack of STEM-focused coverage in African American media, I was curious to see how other major “thought leader” publications fared.

No Science or Science-Related Sections

JET – Though the website seems more lifestyle-focused than I expected, so maybe this is unfair

The National Review – Okay, their website is confusing, because I see a “Space” tag that doesn’t actually lead anywhere and they evidently have a “Planet Gore” section that is devoted to what they view as climate change hypocrisy. “Human Exceptionalism” is probably notable as the only column that routinely talks about bioethics in mainstream political publications.

No Science Sections, but Tech(nology), Health, or Other Science-Related Sections

The New Republic – Has a Technology section, which mainly seems to exist chronicle technical developments as they relate to politics or the economy

The Atlantic – Has Health and Tech sections, with science stories kind of split between them

EBONY – Has health (subsection of Wellness) and tech (subsection of Life); tech seems more consumer focused

The Daily Beast – has a combined “Tech + Health” section

ABC News – Has Tech and Health sections, and strangely, in that order

CNN - Has Tech and Health sections

MSNBC - Has Health and a “Green” section

NewsOne – Has a Health section

Some surprises

In contrast to ABC, CBS News has a joint Science and Technology section and a separate Health section and NBC News has separate Health, Tech, and Science sections.

Similarly, Fox News has separate TechScience, and Health sections, and I would have expected them to parallel CNN in structure. Also, I’m really surprised that they list Health as the last of those sections since if the stereotype of Fox News watchers/readers as being older holds true, I would expect them to be more interested in health and wellness articles.

Multiversal Fiction is Getting Dandy, Baby

I’m a bit slow to try to write this under the time crunch of beating the Space Dandy finale that premieres at 12:30 AM, so forgive any typos. But I just want to say I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way ideas of multiple universes have been getting used in fiction lately. True, the idea has been mainstream at least since the Star Trek introduced a “Mirror Universe” in the original series episode “Mirror, Mirror”. But typically they’re never a major part of the plot. Star Trek didn’t touch the Mirror Universe again until the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Although, as books go, I thought the His Dark Materials series was a really interesting take on parallel universes and I read that over a decade ago.)

But Space Dandy and two other recent pieces of on-screen fiction seem like a turning point in treating a multiverse as more fully realized setting, not just a plot device. If you’re fuzzy on the details of most episodes, you might wonder why I think the multiverse is an integral element of Space Dandy since it isn’t explicitly talked about much. But if you think a about how strongly the show seem to try to disrupt its own continuity, it makes a lot more sense if you think of many episodes taking place in their own (mostly parallel) universes. Consider the ways these episodes end:

  • In the very first episode, Dandy, all of the Aloha Oe, and the entire planet they were visiting is destroyed when they try to use a faulty secret weapon. The second episode explicitly mentions that the end of the first episode did happen and admits it gives a weak “handwave” about Dandy, Meow, and QT are still here.
  • In the fourth episode, the entire universe ends up zombified (even the narrator!) and it’s stated to be a kind of paradise. In the fifth episode, we go back to seeing a non-zombie Aloha Oe crew.
  • In the seventh episode, some combination of a bomb reacting with an incredibly questionable fuel supply ends up sending Dandy into the far future.  The episode ends with a confused Dandy landing near a giant statue of himself in the style of a Buddha.
  • In the eighth episode, nothing renders crew of the Aloha Oe permanently incapacitated, but the semi-antagonist Dr. Gel ends up sucked into a black hole. He reappears only a few episodes later, no worse for the wear.
  • In the eleventh episode, the being responsible for wiping the crew’s memories earlier reappears and evidently triggers an intergalactic war between various factions of storage media that seemed to heavily imply major disruption we never see.
  • Episode 14, the second season premiere, has Dandy, Meow, and QT meet dozens of their counterparts from parallel universes, and end up dragging them all to their home universe. This seems to result in weird distortions to their universe, and to fix it, they pull one of the cosmic strings to try to send everyone back to their respective universes. This mostly works, although the narrator’s closing mentions that the Aloha Oe crew with the depressed Dandy and the terrifying Meow and QT have now ended up in the universe of the Dandy, Meow, and QT we have been following.
  • In episode 21, it’s explicitly stated that Dandy has died. But the embodiment of strange purgatory like planet he is on sends his consciousness to a universe where hasn’t died yet.
  • Episode 24 introduces us to Dandy’s ex, Catherine, a being from a 4D universe who left Dandy to date Paul, the ruler of a 2D universe. Part of why Catherine left Dandy is that because he actually isn’t the Dandy she knew. It turns out that the nature of warp travel in Space Dandy is more like switching which universe you’re aware you’re in. While 3D warpers don’t realize it, higher dimensional beings like Catherine can see the different universes and know the difference.
  • Episode 25 has an expert witness explain a bit about the nature of Pyonium, which has come up several times in the series. He mentions that Pyonium can “cross dimensions”. It’s also noted that Dandy shows a Pyonium signal and forensics couldn’t detect his DNA.

It’s the reveal of the 25th episode that  seems especially important. We have been following Dandy and co. across multiple dimensions, and this seems to be a key part of who Dandy is, even if he didn’t know it. And it also explains why he may be so important to the antagonists of the show, who also keep reappearing despite their own canonical deaths or disappearances. But these all seem to be important. I bet the finale (which is just starting) is about to take us across the universes and I hope we’re going to deal with the ramifications of all the dimension-jumping we’ve been doing.

EDIT: Sounds like I may be wrong already. A character has already mentioned that using the Pyonium will help people access multiple universes, but it’s talked about as a way to basically control probabilities by choosing which universe you’re in. I hope they go over this more.