On Geeks and Humanity

There has been a fair amount of self-disclosure on OT blogs in the last couple of weeks. Most recently fellow blogger Cromercrox described his painful battle with depression; over the past couple of weeks on my own blog many people have held their hands  up to agree that they suffer from impostor syndrome . Both these aspects of humanity are nothing to do with us being scientists; they are sad facts of the human condition. It would be nice to think that the world at large ‘out there’ does indeed recognize that scientists are human, but by and large I fear that is not the case. Somehow we are a race apart, variously labelled as dorks, dweebs, nerds and geeks. Some scientists may wear the geek word with pride, but it is a word derived (as Wikipedia usefully informs me) from the German word for freak (geck) and it is usually used by those outside the community, such as tabloid journalists, in a pejorative way.

Recently Alice Roberts, newly appointed Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham, took exception to the term in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Her specific objection to it arose because she thought it was divisive, separating out the aspiring scientist from the rest of the world.

I hate the word geek,” she said. “It is being divisive. It is creating labels that are really unhelpful when what we should be aiming for is much more of a renaissance person idea.

You can be someone who thinks of themselves as an artist but be interested in science, engaged with it and understand it. I think it is possibly unhelpful from the outside that you can’t be a scientist unless you are a geek in the first place.

Her particular beef, and one I share, is the narrowness of our school curriculum in the UK; it means you have to decide at far too early an age whether to specialise in science or not.  But it seems to me the danger of the word geek lies in the fact that it makes us ‘different’ from the rest of the world in ways that a historian or a social scientist is not. No one (as far as I can tell) greets a historian with the words ‘you must be awfully clever to do that’ or ‘I never could do history at school’ – or at least not with the monotonous frequency that a scientist, and particularly a physicist like myself, seems to meet with these comments. I am not sure there is an equivalent pejorative noun for workers in these other disciplines, albeit there may be for individual practitioners in each. I would like to feel that tabloid readers and Joe Public in general was prepared to grant that scientists were human like them, suffering from, amongst other things, depression and impostor syndrome. Or, in Shylock’s words (albeit in a very different context):

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

I am bored with being tarred with the implicit brush of insanity. Gerald Warner, writing also in the pages of the Telegraph about 2 years ago, threw much abuse in our direction – with particular vitriol directed at those scientists who advise the Government. He claims, one hopes without foundation, that

the status of the white-coated prima donnas and narcissists has never been lower in the public esteem….. After a period of priest-like authority, the pointy-heads in lab coats have reassumed the role of mad cranks they enjoyed from the days of Frankenstein to boys’ comics in the 1950s……The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the nineteenth century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening any more.

I know there has been much personal animosity directed at academics individually. One could cite as an example the opprobrium with which David Starkey is often greeted, but I’m not sure his status as a historian is his primary sin, nor is his profession and his colleagues in it reviled en masse. No, there is something that the likes of Gerald Warner find particularly disturbing about scientists.  I suspect it is the fact that, either due to a failing of education or motivation, they have no hope of understanding what we say, nor any desire to do so, hence all they can do by way of disagreement is to imply we are loonies who can’t be trusted and so sweep everything we say under the carpet.

George Monbiot, responding in the Guardian to Gerald Warner’s attack on scientists in the context of climate change said

There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us.

This makes it all the more important that school children are not turned off and turned away from science at an early age, as Alice Roberts highlights – whether they are aspiring historians, lawyers or journalists like Gerald Warner or, onthe other hand, the scientists of tomorrow. They need to understand what evidence is, and how to think about it critically. The art of ‘critical thinking’ seems sometimes to be linked in people’s minds with the humanities, but at its most basic it appears to me to be remarkably similar to the scientific method. Unfortunately, school science as currently taught seems much more hung up on the rules of what makes a ‘fair test’ than with thinking about what the evidence is actually showing. Knowing whether you are introducing systematic errors into an experiment is of course crucial for a practicing scientist, and a schoolchild should be appropriately aware of the dangers. But it is unfortunate if rote learning about whether a test is ‘fair’ or not, and the expenditure of much time and effort in discussing this, removes the possibility of understanding whether the data is meaningful in other ways – such as whether it confirms or refutes a hypothesis, or whether the statistics are robust enough to conclude anything at all.

Scientists like Alice Roberts, with her very public face shining out from our TVs, along with those other media personalities who have done much to bring science just that little bit further into the public’s eye and sitting room – Brian Cox, Robert Winston and Jim Al Khalili for instance – have a vital role to play in reminding people that we are human after all. That Brian Cox was in D:Ream and is prepared to go on chat shows has done a great deal to reassure people that here at last is one human scientist (though these are actually things that most people would never have the opportunity to do, they seem like ‘normal’ activities to many). They need to realise that many more of us do indeed bleed, have depression and feel anxious much of the time, even if they very occasionally also sport a white lab coat.


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11 Responses to On Geeks and Humanity

  1. It’s a small start, but I’ve been enjoying this new blog:

    Ordinary folk with a range of hobbies, and rarely a lab coat in sight!

  2. beckyfh says:

    The attempts to ‘reclaim’ geek have intrigued me and I’ve been unsure what it achieved – it is hardly an analogy with gay or black rights unless the assumption is that all scientists are inevitably geeks.

    I’m wondering if there is an equivalent for other kinds of scholars – I think pedant, snob, swot, elitist etc have all been thrown at historians, reflecting a sense that this is ornamental stuff of no real meaning to real life. When explaining sn area if research to people the response is less ‘you must be clever, I could never do that’ and more ‘that’s totally tiny, obscure and insignificant, I’d never waste my life reading about that’! The art, of course, is to find ways of explaining why it might be interesting, useful and relevant.

    Finally, many thanks for your description of one of the problems with school science – I now understand exactly what I didn’t like about my science classes. I don’t know if you saw my post on science and history teaching (https://teleskopos.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/the-place-of-science-in-history-and-history-in-science/) but this is something I was reaching for there.

  3. Spamlet47 says:

    I don’t think geek is really a pejorative term any more and I don’t think it ever applied to the plainly Rennaisance multitalents like Alice Roberts with her penchant for knocking off water colours just in passing as it were. She is not alone, and we see many a TV archaeologist, architect, geologist or historian sketching and painting their subject as if they could easily drop into the profession of artist if they weren’t already occupied as author, lecturer, presenter, film maker as well as scientist. On top of this our popular scientists also seem to have to be expert scuba divers, rock climnbers and speliogists! It fair takes one’s breath away!

    I think it is primarily the computer and maths buffs who get labelled as geeks, and I think even then it is largely an affectionate usage.

  4. Rachel says:

    My team and I were once referred to as ‘boffins’ in the local newspaper, which amused us. ‘Boffin’ is at least more quaint than ‘geek’, and vaguely affectionate, not to mention, British. Even if scientists are reclaiming ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ in the media, I have only heard these words used to tease (at best) or bully. But aren’t the ‘pejorative nouns’ ‘tabloid readers and Joe Public’ just as bad as ‘geek’? They are condescending and suggest a divide that does not really exist. I have seen plenty of scientists, geeks and boffins alike, read tabloids and venture out and about in public.

  5. Sorry, but for once I disagree with you. As a digital humanist I see both sides of this, and I do still get the ‘you must be awfully clever’ or the odd looks when you tell people what you do, even if I stress the humanities bit. But it’s as much because I am a female, youngish, professor at a top university as the subject I study. There are plenty of clichés about that irrespective of field. My husband, a historian, and Cambridge admissions tutor finds that prospective students find it very reassuring that Cambridge likes people who are self-confessed nerds- because they are like the academics (of all subjects). Finally here is a space where they can, if they wish, just work, and don’t have to be sporty or musical or a great actor or whatever (although, as you know, many of them are). He is happy to describe himself as a nerd, although a humanities scholar, but he gets fed up of people joking about how America (his field) has no history to study. So I think it’s endemic to being an academic- most people find it hard to understand what we do and are intimidated by us, irrespective of field.

  6. Eva says:

    One of the discussions at last year’s SciBarCamb (which you might like to attend this year, by the way – it’s in Cambridge!) revolved around the use of the word “boffin” to negatively portray scientists (in the Daily Mail and similar places). We were at the Cambridge Union, and ended the day in the debating chamber, having people leaving the room by voting for either of these option: “Yes, we should reclaim the word ‘boffin’ and make it our own” or “No, we should try to get rid of it” (or ignore it, I forgot the precise wording). About 90% of the audience voted in favour of reclaiming “boffin”.

    I don’t think we’ve quite reached that goal yet, though :)

  7. Katielase says:

    Really interesting post, thanks.

    I can’t agree with people saying that the word geek isn’t used pejoratively anymore, it is. My 8-yr old cousin was bullied at school last year for supposedly being one. I’ve been described as being “a bit of a geek” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that this is considered a social disadvantage. Last week I was told by a charity volunteer on the street that I was “surprisingly personable for a science geek” as if liking science should make me inherently unsociable, or isolated from normal society. I am endlessly told I must be extremely clever to study structural biology, when I am not excessively intelligent, just hard-working, interested and motivated to learn.

    I think the problem stems, as you say, from a misunderstanding of science and what it is, and what it requires. And this in its turn stems from the problems that you mention about science in schools. It would be helpful for children to know what science is really about, the joy of discovery, rather than focusing so much on the regulations of fair testing.

  8. I carefully did not include the word boffin in my list. Although personally I hate it, it does have a slightly warmer, tweed coat sort of feel to it, as Rachel says. I don’t really understand the need to coin a phrase beyond the formally correct ‘scientist’ or the more discipline-specific labels such as ‘physicist’, ‘structural biologist’ or whatever. Pedant and snob are also generic words that could apply as much (although definitely in a pejorative way) to any discipline and so I don’t think convey the same message, although also unpleasant.

    Perhaps geek is now going through the same confused connations and attempt at rebirth that ‘slut’ has in totally different contexts. Some people want to reclaim it, whereas for many others (such as Katielase) it is straightforwardly seen as objectionable and painful. But if we do attempt to reclaim it as a community, we are agreeing that we are ‘different’ from the rest of the world, and I reiterate I think this is unhelpful and dangerous.

    Rachel picks me up on the use of the terms Joe Public and tabloid reader. I would defend both in the sense that instead of Joe Public it would have been long-winded to say ‘those members of the public who don’t have at least an A level in some science subject’, which I suppose was the category I was referring to. As for ‘tabloid reader’ the implication was meant to be that it is the tabloids where the word geek crops up by and large; I don’t think it often crops up when a journalist writes in the broadsheets (although that is clearly an oversimplified divide).

  9. ToriHerridge says:

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines, at least in terms of how people perceive me, science in general and also my own feelings about being a scientist (including a healthy dose of imposter syndrome).

    For me, I suspect they are linked. I grew up with only the stereotypes of scientists (or more broadly academics) mentioned above to use as a yard-stick for what a scientist was. I still can’t quite shake off the fact that I don’t fit that stereotype, and so sometimes feel like an impostor as a result.

    With this in mind, and following on from the #iamscience twitter exchange, I want to blog about people’s route to becoming a scientist, but from a starting point that pretty much everyone can identify with: old homework school work from senior school, complete with teacher’s corrections.

    The premise being that this offers a humanising, accessible and rather levelling way-in for people (adults and school children) to understanding the diversity of people who become scientists, and the multiple pathways to becoming one.

    I’m gathering content at the moment to see if there is enough material to make it worthwhile, so if anyone is brave enough to offer up their old school work (any subject, can be work you are proud of, or work that makes you cringe), and tell a little story attached to it, please contact me:

    @ToriHerridge on twitter

    or victoriaherridge [at] me [dot] com

  10. Yewtree says:

    I frequently get comments expressing surprise that I write poetry and enjoy arty stuff when I am also technically competent at web and IT stuff.

    This reaches back at least as far as the 1950s with the Two Cultures problem pointed to by C P Snow.

  11. Sara K says:

    I think the Brian Coxes and Robert Winstons are all very well but it is a shame that they and other scientists are only brought out in front of telly cameras to comment on their own specialisations, while the news presenter practises their puzzled look, and in effect says it is all above their heads. It seems to me that it is not enough to have presentable scientists talk about science, but to have them do newspaper reviews, or talk about financial issues, or movies, or what not — and show the relevance of a scientific and/or mathematical outlook, not only to talk neutrinos but also about sport and whatever else happens around us.