Sunday, May 22, 2016

Nerds/geeks as an example of aggregation problem - A rant.

Aggregation problems come from the loss of information and detail from data reduction procedures. It applies to classifications of humans as well. The problem, that is.

Hi. My name is José, and I'm a geek.*

The classification of someone as a nerd/geek (used interchangeably throughout this post) has been on my mind recently. For clarity, I mean the old-style STEM-geek, not the new-agey "anything"-geek like food-geek or exercise-geek.

Here are a few things that get put under geekdom:

1. Playing video games

2. Reading comic books. I mean, graphic novels.

3. Watching science fiction television shows and movies.

(Huh, these read as "basic entertainment," with a notable lack of physicality. So far I score basically a zero. I watch some SciFi television and movies, but as a fraction of my [already minimal] media consumption, they are negligible.)

4. Reading science fiction books.

5. Solving logic puzzles.

6. Learning STEM for ludic purposes (as opposed to for school)

7. Watching science and engineering documentaries (including YouTube).

(Well, now I'm batting 1.000 on these last four.)

8. Applying math, engineering, and science to everyday problems.

9. Having a home lab, building mechanical, electrical, or electronic devices, programming computers (no, not just "using" computers), basically being an amateur scientist or engineer.

10. Choosing a career in STEM.

(Again, 1.000 in the last three.)

My point here is that 1--3, the most popular "geek" activities, represent a choice of entertainment that is mostly non-physical but has minimal intellectual involvement (SPARE ME YOUR BELLYACHING, GAMERS, I HAVE READ MOLECULAR BIOLOGY OF THE GENE FOR FUN, COMPARE THAT WITH YOUR PEW-PEW-BOOM), 4--7 represent more intellectually challenging choices of entertainment, and 8--10 are essentially having the mindset that leads to a career in STEM.

So, what's the point, really? Bragging?


There's a lot of buzz around the "rise of nerds" or some such idea, basically that because of the importance of technology and the enrichment of some entrepreneurial nerds, society is moving towards a more accepting attitude towards nerds.

That might be true, but the evidence I see for this is almost always from the rise of activities in the 1--3 points above. And that isn't what makes for a real societal change (except in the undesirable consequences of having young people who avoid physical exertion, something that I never did, mens sana in corpore sano and all that...)

People who really like machines (like I do), will easily spend hours watching Chris Boden "autopsy" equipment (someone give Mr. Boden a sandwich or twenty, please):

People who really like the science in "science fiction" will argue about different parts of the movies than audience members who are there for the spectacle or for the back story of the characters:

(If I were ill-tempered, I'd invite readers to compare those reviews, by an actual engineer who works in space exploration, with the generic comments by a science popularizer that plays a scientist in the media but who's an administrator in a museum in NYC. Just for comparison, before Carl Sagan became a popularizer with Cosmos, he had a long list of academic publications. Unlike this popularizer, who made a fool of himself trying to fill Sagan's shoes. But I won't name him, because that would be mean.)

Hardcore nerds might even spend some quality time with a textbook or two, learning new stuff in their middle-age, or taking in a lecture from a little technical school in Massachusetts, free!

I'm not saying that one thing is better than another, just that they're different. That science books that appeal to "mass market geeks" (1--3) are going to focus on different matters (events, people) than science books for the "hardcore geeks" (the STEM, the logic), but with this confusion between the first (and larger) group and the second (smaller but more dedicated) group, many popularization channels for STEM are becoming more like mass entertainment and losing their focus.

(Ranting? You bet. On top of my full-time quant job, I agreed to teach an MBA class, and even though I'm no longer an academic I still get refereeing requests; so I'm tired, I'm over-caffeinated, I'm fed up with people who "love science" like they "loved Armani" in the 1990s, and people who think that a biography of a physicist is a science book. And don't get me started on the people who try to crowbar the Arts into STEM to create STEAM, a steaming pile of... but I digress.)

It's nice that geeks are more accepted by society in general, but it's important to feed the hunger for knowledge of the "hardcore geeks" not just pander to the "mass market geeks."

(Seriously, I've worked about 70 hours since last Monday and now there's an unpaid referee report that I have to write. I'd much rather watch a few more equipment autopsies.)

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* Also a powerlifter, so watch your mouth. :-)