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.