Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intellectual counterfeit fashionistas and the corruption of STEM and analytics

I have acquaintances who say they like classical music but never listen to it and can't tell Bach from Brahms. While this is entertaining to classical music aficionados, a similar disconnect happens in STEM and business analytics, where it has serious consequences.

I've observed many people who are always saying how important science is, who can name several recent Nobel laureates in the sciences, but can't compute the kinetic energy of a 2-ton SUV going 65MPH (766kJ), or, ironically, can't explain what the research of those Nobel laureates was about.

I know people who are always talking about Big Data™ and "the" Management Information Revolution™ (yes, they think the current one is the only one), but cannot write Bayes's formula and think that standard deviation is the same as standard error.

These are the signs of the rise of the intellectual counterfeit fashionista (ICF). The ICF wants others to consider him or her an intellectual (that's the I), up to date on the latest hottest intellectual topic (that's the F), but is not willing to do the work and the learning necessary to understand that topic (that's the C).

No matter how infuriating or entertaining an ICF can be on a personal level, their rise is a problem -- chiefly because of their effect on education, the practice of technical professions, and the general perception of STEM and analytics in society.

Education: by trying to recruit proto-ICFs into STEM/analytics, teaching institutions end up having to water down their courses, since the ICFs don't want to do the work needed for real learning. This leads to lower quality education for every student, even the non-ICFs.

In the mid-to-long term, this creates a number of credentialed ignoramuses and gives rise to the strange situation where people who hire engineers say there's a dearth of them, while engineering associations say there's a glut. I guess it depends on how you define engineer, by skills or by credentials.

Professions: the obvious effect of ICFs is the rise in average incompetence. The more pernicious effect is the destructive nature of internal politics, which always increase in organizations with large numbers of people for which appearances and narratives are more important than observable realities and hard work.

I wish nerdiness became unfashionable again, so that the ICFs moved on to corrupt something else and left STEM and analytics alone.