13 September, 2006

The curse of the nerd

There’s a lot of posturing at the moment over at Scienceblogs (follow the links here, for example) over who is the nerdiest of them all. In some ways, this is an encouraging affirmation of the universal characteristics of human nature. Change a few key terms, ‘slide rule’ to ‘alloys’, for example and you could be in the streets of Essex listening to teenagers showing off their latest set of wheels. We just can’t resist the urge to shout about what hot stuff we are, even if the requirements within different social groups are somewhat different.

Over at Cosmic Variance, where Sean has an interesting take on the whole exercise:

I’m all in favor of celebrating nerdliness. But for me it’s very much a part of what should be a general appreciation for intellectual endeavor, whether technically oriented or not. And as a matter of personal experience, I’ve found science and engineering types to be at least as anti-intellectual as the average person on the street, when it comes to non-technical kinds of scholarship.

What is worse, there’s a certain point of view… that actually celebrates social awkwardness for its own sake... And that’s just wrong. I’m not talking about principled eccentricity, letting your freak flag fly — nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s admirable in its own way. Nor am I saying that everyone should be scouring the latest issues of GQ and Vogue for fashion tips; superficiality is just as bad as nerdliness. And laughing at our high-school (and college) selves is always fun and healthy. All I’m saying is that there is much to be valued in an ability to relate to other kinds of people in a disparate set of circumstances, take care of your appearance, and function effectively in a wider social context. These are skills we should try to cultivate, not disparage.

How true. One of the more unpleasant aspects of working in academia is that bullying, petulance and general obnoxiousness is an accepted (or, at best, tolerated) way of progressing in your field. In my department, I find myself in the odd and entirely undeserved position of being at the high end of the social skills spectrum, which even my best friends in the real world would tell you is a little frightening.

But why is this? I think this actually does link back to the somewhat negative stereotypes at large in general society: scientists as bumbling, socially inept and desperately uncool loners; science students as all of the above with added spots, crooked teeth and thick glasses. This is not an image your average teenager, highly susceptible to the ebb and flow of peer approval, wants associated with them, thanks very much. Hence even if there is a genuine interest, many do not persist in science (or, more accurately, put in enough work to leave the option open). Those who do are either comfortable enough with themselves to follow their interests despite peer pressure, or lack the social awareness to perceive or care about it*. I would submit that the latter group is by far the larger.

So it’s all a bit circular really – through this process of self-selection, those on the path towards a scientific or technical career are on average more socially inept than the general population. Within the group poor social skills are the norm, so they persist, reinforcing the general cultural stereotype and keeping scientists 'uncool'. Additionally, within the group there is also a backlash against other parts of culture, seemingly the preserve of people who look down on the science geek; hence the apparently contradictory anti-intellectualism that Sean notes. Breaking that circle is not an easy thing.

*Or you're such a well-known swot that you can choose to do what you like, in the certain knowledge that nothing you do will change people's perceptions of you.

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