David Anderegg

David Anderegg Ph.D.

Young Americans

How I learned to hate cyberspace

Do intellectual exchanges need to be nasty, brutish and short?

Posted Feb 06, 2010

If any of you dear readers were following, you may have noticed a lapse in my blog postings. I was busy teaching for a while, and then, when I finally had some time to think about what well-crafted thoughts I wanted to hurl your way, I had a nasty tiff in cyberspace. So nasty, in fact, I thought about resigning completely from the hurly-burly of yap that we now live in. I am still considering it. But before I go, I thought I'd do a little more sharing.

The backstory: You may know that the American scientific/business community is engaged, every day, in trying to figure out how to get more kids interested in careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The unemployment story is everywhere the same: few people are hiring, but there are unfilled jobs. The jobs that are going unfilled are jobs for which almost no one in the labor pool has the requisite science/math/tech backgrounds. We're not talking a lack of PhDs. We're talking a lack of basic science/math literacy to support lower-level, but good-paying, jobs. Trade groups like the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), foundations like the Gates Foundation, military organizations like DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), everyone is trying to figure out how to get kids in high school and middle school interested in science and math.

Since I wrote a book on the subject, I get interviewed every once in a while. I was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times in December, and he wrote a lovely 2-paragraph story about our one-hour conversation, a story which, because it was so condensed, exaggerated a piece of my message. What I said to the reporter was the same message I said in my book. (You remember books: they're the things in which people lay out complex arguments over several, nay, maybe even a hundred or more pages). The NYT reporter was writing about yet another trade group trying to publicize the idea of "cool nerds," that is, to make STEM careers seem cool (which they are). But I said that for kids, the idea of a "cool nerd" is an oxymoron. For kids, whose abilities to handle cognitive complexity, irony, and layers of meaning are limited, compared to adults' abilities, the stereotype of a "nerd" is negative. For kids, it's bad to be a nerd. Kids think that expertise in science and math goes along with pimples, unpopularity, no hope of sex, and four-inch thick glasses. When they grow older (by the time they get to college), they see through the stereotypes and some ironically embrace the stereotype: look at me, I'm nerdy but I'm also cool. Fine, great. But my point was that kids make decisions based upon those negative stereotypes: many of them opt out of interest or course work in science and math as soon as possible in school because of the stereotypes which for kids are very negative. Most kids finally figure out that "nerds can be cool," but when they do, they are four or five years behind in math/science coursework. Oops! Too late to decide to become an engineer.

Okay. Now comes the tricky part. I also said to the reporter that I would like us to stop using "nerd" and "geek" stereotypes in front of kids. We, as cool adult nerds, can use them with each other, because we understand the irony, the layers of meaning, etc. But using them in front of kids is, I think, a bad idea. I said I would like us to get to the point where using these anti-intellectual stereotypes in front of kids is not done. Just like using racial or ethnic slurs is not done in front of kids, we hope, but sometimes can comfortably be used as in-jokes among members of a racial or ethnic community (the old rap group NWA comes to mind). So the NYT reporter picked up on this and reported that I wanted to "ban" the words "nerd' and "geek." This is true, in the spirit of my argument, although a little reductionistic (and what else could it be, reducing the arguments in a 200+ page book to a 2-paragraph article?)

The NYT piece happened on December 21. What I got for Christmas was an in-box full of vitriol, and that's putting it mildly. The free-speech junkies abused me for wanting to "ban" anything. But that was nothing compared to all the "cool nerds" who abused me for saying that "nerds aren't cool." I did not say, "nerds aren't cool." What I said was, for most kids, complex stereotypes are simple. And most kids do not think nerds, even "cool nerds," are cool. But many NYT readers didn't get the nuance, felt insulted, and responded accordingly. I got upset enough to respond to many of these jerks, mostly by reminding them, when they asked me for my evidence, that I am a developmental/clinical psychologist, and I talk to kids all the time. And I also said to many of them (furiously tapping away to total strangers while sitting under the Christmas tree...I mean, how pathetic is that?), and I say to you now, if you're still reading this, but since it's longer than two paragraphs you might not be: if you want to understand my argument, read the book!

The tone of the responses I got myself, and the remarks on blogs around the world, was, of course, appalling: obscene, nasty, and juvenile (by the way, for all of you who took the time to make fun of my "Swedish" name, it's Swiss. Sorry, Switzerland: I do my best but a lot of these "cool nerds" don't know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland.) I survived, of course, and expect to. But what do we learn from all this? Is there anyone to blame?

I could have not given the interview, although it is flattering when the Paper of Record shows a little interest. The reporter could have reported a little more complexity, but he has his space limitations, too. People who read the piece could have said, "Jeepers, that's interesting, I guess I'll read the book and learn more!" and maybe some did, but not the ones that contacted me. Indeed, some of them were insulted by the suggestion. I managed to be insulting back by suggesting to some that a really smart person would want to read the complex argument, not the quickie sound-bite, and maybe if you settled for the sound-bite you're not so smart after all. Some of my new correspondents indicated they could not read the book because it is not available in its entirety for free on the web. Nope. It's not. My publisher is not giving it away. If you don't want to waste a tree, buy it on your e-reader. I guess "freedom of information" now means, if you have to pay to acquire an argument, it's not worth acquiring.

So...is this now the world of ideas? Intellectual exchanges are nasty, brutish and short? It's enough to make me want to express myself only in the pages of The Journal of Pedantic Psychology. For now, I guess I'll hang on here, but beware. My blog posts may approach book length if they need to express something complex. And, to some of my new e-correspondents, I say: I am now using the extended third finger of my hand to push my nerd glasses up on my nose. Get the picture?

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