Science, Engineering, and Uncoolness; Here and Now, Then and There

post by Ritalin · 2012-12-08T19:52:17.556Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 41 comments

[Feel free to read this poor little unrigorous and unsourced post in JK Simmons' voice. That is entirely optional and you are of course free to read it in any voice you like; I only thought it might be interesting in the light of what is mentioned in the edit at the bottom of the text]

Nowadays, it seems that the correlation between sciency stuff, social ineptitude, and uncoolness, is cemented in the mind of the public. But this seems to be very era-specific, even time-specific.

As a lesswronger, I find what follows ironic: In Islamic countries, "scientists" are called with the same word use for religious leaders and other teachers, "olama", literally "knowers"; historically, there's been a huge overlap between the two, and, when one of these folks speaks, you're supposed to shut up and listen. This is still true to this day. There might not be much wealth to be gained from marrying a scientist, but there was status; amusingly enough, it's in modern-day materialism that is pushing them into irrelevance as money becomes, more and more, the sole measure of status.

In the West, in the XIXth century, Science and Progress were hip and awesome. Being a scientist of some sort was practically a requirement for any pulp hero. In the USA, an era of great works of engineering that had a dramatic impact on life quality made engineers heroes of popular fiction, men of knowledge and rigour who would not bow down to money and lawyer-cushioned bourgeois, or to corrupt and fickle politicians, men who would stand up against injustice and get the job done no matter what. Everyone wanted to call themselves an engineer, and the word was rampantly abused into meaninglessness; florists called themselves "flower engineers"! That's how cool being an engineer was.

In the Soviet Union, as long as they didn't step on the toes of the Party, scientists were highly acclaimed and respected, they got tons of honour and status. There was a huge emphasis on technological progress, on mankind reaching its full potential (at least on paper).

Nowadays, nearly the entire leadership of China is made of technicians and engineers. Not lawyers, or economists, or literati. These people only care about one thing, getting the job done - and that's what Science does.

So, I've really got to ask, when and *how* did Science and Engineering become "uncool", and why are they termed "geek", the term used for sideshow circus performers whose speciality was eating chickens alive (or something like that), and which, before that, used to be synonymous with freak and fook? When and how did we become worse than clowns in the eyes of society?  Most importantly: how can the process be reversed?

After all, from a utilitarian standpoint, Science being cool and appreciated and respectable is kind of important.


EDIT: There's also the strange relationship, in the public mind, between science and dangerous, callous, abusive insanity, with a long tradition in popular fiction from Victor Von Frankenstein and Captain Nemo to Tony Stark and GLaDOS, and some Real Life counterparts, especially in brutal totalitarian regimes. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the topic, and how the characterization and prevalence of the Mad Scientist related to time-pertinent perceptions of Science.

For some reason, that aspect is often treated as cool and dramatic and impressive (besides being characterized as repulsive), perhaps because it involves displays of power over others, which is a high-status thing to do. Is that one of the existing paths to social prestige? Achieving power, and being inconsiderate about flaunting it? I'd like to hear more constructive alternatives, because that one doesn't seem viable, from where I stand.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-12-08T22:17:05.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some possibilities:

Visibility effects —

  • Bullying of nerds always happened; but it's less shameful for successful adults to talk about having been bullied now; so we hear more about it.
  • Scientists have always been weird, but until recently one didn't talk about others' eccentricities. (See, for instance, how treatment of mental illness has gone from locking the crazy person up in an attic or sanitarium, to a matter of public identification.)
  • You're young; it looks different when you're older (which doesn't mean either position is more accurate).

Generational effects —

  • Going to university once meant that you were both smart enough to pass, and that your family was rich enough to afford it. But the post-WWII boom in public universities (and the GI Bill) meant there were now enough college-educated people for there to be greater intellectual competition for scientific and technical jobs, which favored the more abnormal minds.
  • In the 1960s US, being in higher education was a way to avoid the Vietnam draft. Middle America tended to regard draft-dodgers as cowardly, and this emphasized the nerd/jock distinction.
  • The rise of college sports as a big-money institution created a nerd/jock dichotomy in colleges which propagated into mass media (especially via popular comedies) and thus into the culture.

Nerds really are uncool (and new) —

  • Home computers in the 1980s provided massive intellectual rewards for kids who got into them … at the expense of keeping them home and indoors.
  • Differentiation between students headed for science & technical careers has happened earlier and earlier in life, impairing social development.

Other historical effects —

  • It's tied to suburbanization. Science was (and is) cool in successful booming cities, but not in conformist suburbs or in socially collapsing cities.
  • It's tied to class mixing. Science was (and is) cool among the productive rich, but not among the productive working class, the idle rich, or the lumpenproletariat.
  • As science has accumulated more knowledge, there's simply more to learn — and thus a bigger gap between the worldviews of scientifically literate people and everyone else.
comment by David_Gerard · 2012-12-08T20:24:45.651Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This may be an American thing: the particular American flavour of anti-intellectualism. I am told it doesn't work nearly like this outside the Anglosphere.

(The Australian variant is related and tends more toward "poofter: someone who likes music more than football therefore must be beaten up.")

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-08T20:58:12.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Weird, "poofter" sounds like some kind of cushion or something.

It's true that every document I read about "Immigrate to Australia! It's the coolest place ever!" mentions something along the lines of "if you're not interested in team & spectator sports sports you're gonna be missing out on a lot of fun". I always suspected it was an euphemism for something much worse, so I sort of made a mental note to avoid the place. Am I right?

comment by gjm · 2012-12-09T10:15:32.452Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Weird, "poofter" sounds like some kind of cushion or something.

A pouf is a small cushion for sitting on or using as a footstool.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T18:34:19.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How does that relate to sexual preference and/or conformity to gender roles? Also, why is it bad? Cushions are nice.

comment by gjm · 2012-12-09T22:58:59.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that similar-sounding words mean "footstool-y thing" and "homosexual man" is pure coincidence. Well, very nearly pure; both are related to the word "puff".

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-10T00:04:27.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you'll excuse me going off a tangent, I'd like to ask one (not so silly) question: why is it that every time I hear people talking about Hufflepuff (literally or figuratively), it's always in a dismissive way, followed by a remark to the effect of "not that there's anything wrong with them, wonderful people, salt of the earth"

Seriously, what's wrong with huffing and puffing and being meek and loyal?

comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-14T16:29:57.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seriously, what's wrong with huffing and puffing and being meek and loyal?

The scientific literature I've read says that about half our species evolved to find those traits extremely unattractive for mate-searching, and low mating priority should spill over into other judgments of the person as per the affect heuristic.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-12-19T15:25:19.209Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the real world, people like that may be a crucial part of society. In fiction, I don't think they're likely to be very interesting. Any examples of popular and/or respected Hufflepuff-centric fiction?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-08T21:59:27.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This may be an American thing

Not exclusively; that also happens with a sizeable fraction of the population in Italy and Ireland. It may depend on what teachers one has had -- people who were made to study sciences at school with poor teachers and struggle to understand it might be still be resenting that -- and I guess that science education in the US, Italy or Ireland is particularly awful (compared to, say, Scandinavia).

(This effect also seems to be at work -- when someone my wingman and I have just cold-approached asks what we do and we say we study physics, most of the times they seem to all but untranslatable 1, whereas if it's someone who's already seem me sing/dance/whatever and already thinks I'm cool, they usually swoon.)

Also, ISTM that plenty of laymen outside America have never heard of Feynman.

EDIT: OTOH in Italy and Ireland IME this only affects “pure” sciences; engineers and medics are usually seen as high-status.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T00:24:06.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, ISTM that plenty of laymen outside America have never heard of Feynman.

I had never heard of Feynman until I read Methods of Rationality. Even Carl Sagan only vaguely rang a bell. And I only knew about Hawking before of a computer-game version of A Brief History Of Time.

So, yeah. On the other hand, you guys probably never heard of Herbert Marcuse, or Ortega y Gasset.

comment by blogospheroid · 2012-12-09T05:36:15.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Engineers, doctors and technocrats have high status in the eyes of middle class India, but actual scientists, not very high, but definitely not low status. Mainly it is due to them being relatively high paying careers.

Among the middle class, a steady high paying job has higher status than a risky business. The business castes in India have almost their own parallel status hierarchy.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-08T22:24:12.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"poofter: someone who likes music more than football therefore must be beaten up."

Does that apply only to certain genres of music? In my home town, rock musicians are very popular (at least in the rock music subculture, which comprises a sizeable fraction of the teenage and twentysomething population anyway); so are deejays in the disco music subculture. Hell, even people who sing karaoke and are good at it are usually seen as cool. I'm very surprised there's a culturally western country where musicians are unpopular -- unless it only applies to classical music or something.

EDIT: the “spectator sports” bit in Ritalin's comment makes me guess you meant ‘likes listening to music more than watching football’, rather than ‘likes playing music more than playing football’ as I had interpreted it at first. I would be a little less surprised if this is right, but still somewhat surprised.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T00:12:57.206Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The whole point of spectator-sports is to roleplay war-of-the-tribes. You can't do that as easily with music; even a music battle requires cooperation and harmony on some level, otherwise it's a cacophony.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-09T11:46:42.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Er... have you heard the lyrics to certain metal songs?

Jokes aside, I think you're talking about a different side of the evolutionary-cognitive boundary than I was. (It seems very unlikely that what you say affects Australians differently from other people.)

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-12-08T23:53:50.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stop complaining, you nerd! You people... you have the high IQs, you can go and work in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, or end up on TV as some famous geek scientist, or you can even be paid to spend your life studying the mating habits of the lesser crested wallaby or whatever weird shit you're into. But no, that's not enough, you want to be regarded as heroes, and you want everyone to bow down to whatever world-smashing or social-engineering scheme catches your fancy this week, and you want your chess club to be the centre of all social activity. Well, get in line, everyone else wants to be the centre of attention too. The difference is that you geeks are the ones who really might blow up the planet while trying to make your rocket, or your robot, or your sex potion. So of course the grown-ups have to keep you in line, until you can grow up yourselves.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T00:02:41.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But it's the "grow-ups" who tell us to build world-burning death-tipped up-goers for great justice and [insert favourite ideology here].

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-09T12:02:40.665Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your point appears to be “nerds are just as popular as everyone else, they just aren't contented with that and want to be more popular”. But, at least if one uses getting laid as a proxy for being popular, that doesn't seem to be the case.

comment by juliawise · 2012-12-09T14:23:43.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read a novel published in 1905 which has a comic scene with a scientist going on a date:

"Professor Frisbane asserted the other day, during a brief conversation with me," he remarked learnedly, "that, in his opinion, direct communication with the planet Mars was a mere matter of time."

" Indeed?" returned Christine vaguely, and silence ensued.

"I have been deeply interested in a series of articles now appearing in the Scientific American," volunteered Mr. Marks with renewed animation, "which discuss the subject of ossification in all its bearings. I will be glad to lend them to you."

"No, please don't," replied Christine hurriedly.

It also makes fun of his unfashionable clothes and his need to write conversation starters on notecards rather than talking informally with a woman. So the "scientists are socially incompetent" trope has been going for at least a century.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T14:50:38.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, at least for this scientist. Then again, given the education standards of the era, it could have been "women are feather-brains" just as easily. :P

Seriously, though, I don't think it was universal. See, for example, Professor Aronnax VS Captain Nemo; the first is such a nice guy he can't believe enemy ships are actually shooting them on purpose, while Captain Nemo is a super-charismatic genius in the position to be an übermensch who is, in fact, so cool and awesome that people fail to notice how he slowly breaks down under the pressure of having so much power and no rules but his own.

Or Professor Challenger, who's basically Brian Blessed the Paleontologist. Or the nigh-perfect Doc Savage. Or the very evil Invisible Man. Or, you know, the Bat-Man.

Really, the only consistent thing you can say about scientists and engineers in pre-WWII literature is that they were outliers; strange, unusual, and exceptional, and otherwise all over the place in terms of morality, character, and attributes. Also, they got stuff done and effected huge changes.

comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-12-08T23:03:51.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know what it was like in the 70's and 80's, but smart people seem to enjoy plenty of coolness today. I've seen people bullied for being gay, having poor hygiene, being poor, being opposed to pornography, and being too religious. But never for being smart.

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-12-24T01:40:45.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Never for being too "nerdy?"

comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-12-26T01:18:53.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mmmm.... I can't remember any instances.

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-12-26T02:03:40.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't recall anyone being bullied for being nerdy at my high or middle schools, come to think of it, but I don't really recall any bullying period. On the other hand, being nerdy was certainly associated with being lower down on the popularity totem pole.

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2012-12-09T12:17:25.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is your premise true? My impression is that being a nerd/geek has increased in acceptability over the last decade or so (perhaps due to the popularization of the internet).

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T13:44:02.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Complete with happy, fit people with good fashion sense calling themselves "geeks", and people complaining that those aren't real geeks. "It's Popular Now It Sucks!"

comment by SoftFlare · 2012-12-09T11:23:55.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that how "connected to reality" scientists are has to do with this trend.

In older times, being a scientist or an engineer meant being able to exert real, measurable, almost magical force upon your (and people around your's) surroundings. You made a bridge come to existence, you created a vaccine.

Nowadays, being a scientist or an engineer is associated with spending long days holed up in a room doing work which is incredibly complex and expensive, yet does not seem to create net benefit except in rare occasions. Furthermore, this isolation is considered to reduce social aptitude (which is high-status). Compare this to people with capital or social skills, who can almost magically navigate and cause things to happen in our modern very-social world.

The two castes of scientists or engineers which can still "make things happen" are the mad scientist (going against social rules) or the startupist (and his friend, the DIY Maker), and from my local zeitgeist, they are considered positions with status.

Also, this trend is supported by the fact that (As Mitchell_Porter pointed out) scientists get payed to research obscure subjects with questionable value to the world at large. I'm not saying this is bad, but I'm saying that it makes people correlate scientists with obscure subjects.

And how do we fix it? I have two ideas (both of which I actively pursue, and (I believe) let me enjoy a high status life as an engineer and science-lover (Given, I live in Tel Aviv, Israel, where engineers and scientists (I feel) are higher status than the US).

  1. Gain actual real-world power. (Either via capital, social skills, connections, or applicable real-world skillsets)
  2. Use your advantage as a scientist to make people's lives better in the real world. (Make stuff! Explain stuff!)
  3. PROFIT (Please! No! Not the lol tax!)

Yes, this isn't as rewarding as learning more about your favorite subject and requires taking risks, but (and sadly I can't find the reference for this right now) doing hard, risky, not very rewarding work is in itself a way to create status.

Or, in other words, go out and do stuff :) We'll all benefit from it.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-12-09T05:26:28.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Science and Coolness attract different types of minds, IMO. Science attracts those moved by epistemic truth, Coolness attracts those moved by social truth.

comment by beoShaffer · 2012-12-09T19:52:48.430Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, more or less why Paul Graham says nerds are unpopular.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-12-09T22:38:42.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's similar, although I'm also making a point about epistemic truth versus instrumental truth (and in this case, socially instrumental truths.)

comment by gjm · 2012-12-09T10:22:33.966Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you mean by "social truth" and why is it a kind of truth?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-12-09T22:48:53.805Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean a socially useful belief. I think it's reasonable usage to call reliably useful beliefs "true". Maybe some here would want to call them socially winning beliefs, but I think that insistence tends only to come from those who privilege and prefer epistemic truths.

comment by gjm · 2012-12-09T23:25:19.074Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eww, pragmatism.

Personally, I prefer a notion of truth that is closed under valid logical deductions, and is objective rather than subjective. You're welcome to use the word "truth" however you like, I guess.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-12-09T05:23:00.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a lesswronger, I find what follows ironic: In Islamic countries, "scientists" are called with the same word use for religious leaders and other teachers, "olama", literally "knowers"; historically, there's been a huge overlap between the two, and, when one of these folks speaks, you're supposed to shut up and listen.

A "shut up and listen" attitude is contrary to technical culture, and detrimental to it. In technical circles, it's what you say that matters, not your status or authority.

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-09T09:54:18.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First, I said "listen", not "believe". "Hear them out", if you prefer.

In technical circles, it's what you say that matters, not your status or authority.

And second, we both know that's not true. Else people wouldn't be asking for EY to have a doctorate as a precondition to even giving him a chance.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-12-09T23:13:09.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You didn't just say "listen", you said "shut up and listen".

Some people may ask EY for his doctorate, but many do not. I don't, and I've got one. In many fields, that would make me right, and EY wrong, about anything in the field. Not the case in technical fields.

But people do have limited time, and want to see some evidence that listening to some technical argument will be worthwhile. For some, that will be a relevant doctorate, relevant peer reviewed papers, etc. There is no point in getting huffy because someone's priors imply that it's not cost effective to listen to you.

"Shut up and listen" is a very different statement than "I don't think that looking at your work is a good investment of my time."

comment by Ritalin · 2012-12-10T00:00:34.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, sure they're very different. The former is a socially-acknowledged-as-wise man basically saying "there is strength behind my words", the second is the same man saying "what you say is not worth listening to". "I'm strong, watch and learn" is not the same as saying "I refuse to even accept your challenge".

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2012-12-08T21:51:33.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much does the perception that science and engineering became uncool come from bias in what gets recorded, and in particular the fact that most of us attended high school within the last decade or two?

comment by Kingoftheinternet · 2012-12-08T20:56:21.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My friends think science is cool. My guess for why some think science is uncool is they think people who like science are uncool, which (among other things) could be rooted in regularly being annoyed, confused, or humiliated by people smarter than themselves. Teaching the dumbest, most resentful portion of society to change their mind seems futile.

Also, is money the sole measure of status? Consider lottery winners, poetry professors, hipsters, oil rig workers, prostitutes...

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-08T22:14:46.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most importantly: how can the process be reversed?

I do everything I can to show people that a scientist can still be awesome, e.g. this, singing karaoke every week (and being very exuberant at it), etc.; also, I try to bring up Feynman and his awesomeness in conversation whenever I get a chance.