Scientists Are Not That Smart
The popular image of scientists is of a tiny, elite (and possibly deranged) minority of people engaged in esoteric pursuits. One of the three most common responses when I tell somebody I’m a physicist is, “You must be really smart. I could never do that.” (The other responses are, “I hated that when I took it in high school/college,” and, “Can you explain string theory to me?” This goes a long way toward explaining why physicists have a reputation as lousy conversationalists.)
While the idea that scientists are uniquely smart and capable is flattering to the vanity of nerds like me, it’s a compliment with an edge. There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.
He gives an apt analogy:
To turn things around a bit, I’m a decidedly mediocre carpenter. Not because I lack any of the physical or mental skills needed for the task — I can and have built things out of wood for home improvement projects. I’m not good at it, though, because I don’t particularly enjoy the process and so don’t seek out opportunities to engage in carpentry. I can do it if I have to, but my work is slow and plodding, and when I try to speed it up, I make mistakes and end up needing to start over. Professional woodworkers or even serious hobbyists, who do enjoy those tasks and put in the time practicing them, are vastly better at the essential tasks. This is not merely physical, either — they’re also better at the mental aspect of the job, figuring out how to accomplish a particular construction goal, which is where I generally fail most dramatically. But you’ll never hear anyone say, “A carpenter? You must be really smart.”
The big “but” in all this is that I believe that many, many scientists really do think this way, and play upon that to their own advantage. Which is the primary reason I hesitate to refer to myself as “a scientist” since, in my mind, a lot of scientists have gone off the rails in their pursuit of elite stature in areas other than their chosen discipline.
Good article; read the whole thing.