Saturday, October 07, 2006

Scientists as Elite?



Here is a conversation, with an arbitrary person whom I'll call Azelma, that occurs frequently with me:

Azelma: what do you do?
Me: I'm a graduate student at Virginia Tech.
Azelma: O, really? What are you studying?
Me: Mathematical physics.
Azelma: Wow! I could never do that. You must be brilliant.

Which forces me to be honest and exclaim against the compliment; I really have to do that, because I am quite simply not brilliant. The Lord has given me some intelligence, to be sure, but I'm no Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking.

What brought this conversation to my mind was a very interesting quote, supported by an interesting science fiction novel, which I wanted to share with you. In the book Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Gene Edward Veith, Jr., writes the following:


Even if the masses sink into illiteracy and drug themselves by "amusement," the influential and the powerful will still be readers, as they are today. In the ancient pagan world, reading was a zealously guarded secret for the priests and the ruling elite, who, because they had access to knowledge, had access to power. [Neil] Postman explores the paradox of a society increasingly dependent upon its scientists but undermining the literate thought-forms science demands. "It is improbable that scientists will disappear," he concludes, "but we shall quite likely have fewer of them, and they are likely to form, even in the short run, an elite class who, like priests of the pictographic age, will be believed to possess mystical powers."


I have no wish whatsoever to be thought of in this way, since it's thoroughly unbiblical. Unfortunately, I can see the beginnings of it already.

Interestingly, Veith and Postman aren't the only ones to see this sort of idea. Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest writers of science fiction, wrote the Foundation heptology, to coin a word. This was originally a trilogy, but then he added a prelude and three more books at the end. In any case, in the first book in the series that he wrote, called simply Foundation, he has the following interesting scenario. Suppose a group of people have the knowledge of nuclear power, and they are ejected from a mighty empire to the far edge of the known universe, among peoples who definitely do not remember the ideas of nuclear power. What would such people look like to their neighbors? They look like priests and magicians, and indeed, they set up a priesthood with all the trappings of a religion.

For Veith, the more immediate solution to the problem is to read, though he's not arguing that such is our salvation. Instead, he advocates the Reformation ideal: learning to read in order to read the Bible. That is the goal. But, as Veith also states, "Reading the Bible tends to lead to reading other books, and thus to some important habits of mind."

Veith's book is excellent; I'd highly recommend it! He explores all the major genres of literature, including nonfiction, fiction, poetry; tragedy and comedy, realism, fantasy; history; and the relationships between writers, publishers, and readers.

Veith's book is one of the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, all of which I can recommend (Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes are in that series.)

In Christ.


 
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19 Comments:

At 10/07/2006 07:49:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

The Veith bit reminded me of this excellent, short article by John Piper, on A Compelling Reason for Rigorous Training of the Mind.

Oh, and graduate work in mathematical physics is not the only schooling that has the "wow" fact - which of course you know ;). As an undergraduate in mathematics education I'd get comments like that. It was like I was some sort of a genius for majoring in something besides business or psychology ;).

 
At 10/09/2006 10:08:00 AM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Susan.

That was indeed an excellent article, thanks for the link. And yes, I'm sure your major got gasps as well. Whereas, we know in actuality that you're not a genius... ;-)] No, actually, you are very smart indeed, though not a genius. Neither am I.

In Christ.

 
At 10/09/2006 06:55:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

Whereas, we know in actuality that you're not a genius... ;-)]

That made me laugh :). Thanks for the overwhelming vote of confidence ;). Of course you're right. . . but that's beside the point!!!

 
At 10/09/2006 07:49:00 PM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

Glad you could enjoy that little tease. You're very welcome.

In Christ.

 
At 10/10/2006 09:09:00 AM , Blogger zan said...

I call my husband "brilliant" on a weekly basis. It started out as a joke (long story), but I think it is true. That guy is smart. I still don't know what he does at work!

Susan, you ARE a genius. I don't know what your talking about half the time...which means you must be really smart. Right? ; )

When people find out that I got my RN at 20 yr old, they think I'm brilliant. Nope. Just a girl who didn't like to waste time. ; )I've always considered my level of intelligence as nerdy-bimbo level. Some subjects I feel very comfortable with, but other things I just don't get. *deer in headlights look* (like my husband's job, for example)

Whenever I mess up a math problem my husband says, "Are you doing your Vermont math?" He blames my home state on my inability to do math (he has a point, if you guys knew how the hippie/public school taught me how to multiply you would be astonished). FTR: I am OK in math and got a very high score on my dosage calculations test for nursing which is a good thing. Nothing worse than a nurse giving the wrong dosage of heart med to human beings.

 
At 10/10/2006 01:49:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

Okay, Zan. Fine, I'm a genius if you say so ;). Actually, I think the difference between "really smart" and "genius" lies in originality. Newton was a genius for inventing calculus. I'm not a genius because I have the ability to do (or teach) calculus.

The "nerdy-bimbo" level of intelligence. I like the sound of that. That's funny. . . and I get the deer-in-the-headlights feeling also. Like when Brother Dear talks about computer programming or Adrian talks about physics. *smiles*

 
At 10/10/2006 02:12:00 PM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Zan.

I think it's difficult to define the word genius. I would almost say that a genius is someone who is exceptionally good (better than, say, 99% of everyone else in the field) at one thing, and very not-good at almost everything else (especially social skills). And you can easily see that by this definition, Susan is not a genius. While Susan is certainly good at math, she's too well-rounded, you see. She has social skills, and she's very interested in lots of things besides math: sewing, cooking, literature, theology, family, music. That's all to the good, in my opinion. In some ways, having those other interests makes you even better at math. Just ask professionals in industry: would you prefer to hire a total nerd who sequesters himself all alone in his cubicle and occasionally puts forth some great theorem, or would you rather have a competant person who can easily communicate with non-technical people? The answer is clear: industry wants the latter.

And this is a consequence of a change in the design process. It used to be, for example, that if you wanted to design a steering wheel, you just put six engineers on the project, and away they went. It's not done that way any more. Instead, you have one engineer, someone from finance, manufacturing, management, marketing, etc. You have a balanced team of people designing the wheel. Obviously, the engineer's job is still of paramount importance, because without him the project just won't work. However, he's got to be able to communicate his technical knowledge readily to non-technical people, or the team as a whole will fail. That's why extra-curriculurs are becoming so important in evaluating prospective new hires: they give an indication of the person's communication skills.

Anyway, all this to explain why my claim that Susan is not a genius is both good-natured ribbing in one sense, and a [somewhat] veiled compliment in another. :-)] Susan, I hope you don't mind all this talking-about-you-in-front-of-your-back. ;-)]

In Christ.

 
At 10/12/2006 11:51:00 AM , Blogger Susan said...

*blushing* Thank you muchly for the compliments, Adrian :). Attempting to apply your guidelines for accepting compliments, I will only say that any of what you said was true is only such by God-given ability, as you know :).

Also, really, I find it hilarious that you included "social skills" among my good points. How would you know? You've never met me in person. . . I could be a complete dweeb, you know ;). Maybe I'm just really good at typing! Hehe.

Also, I would still stand by my definition of originality being a requirement for genius, which still rules me out. But perhaps Mr. Adrian-C-Keister-in-Concert-Original-Compositions would qualify? ;-) I'm insanely jealous that you can write music (though I actually would have guess as much)! My piano background is not what I wish it was (only 3 1/2 years of lessons), but I do enjoy tinkering around on our piano.

I would say your definition of genius describes a savant instead.

 
At 10/13/2006 12:31:00 PM , Blogger zan said...

"...industry wants the latter."

Absolutely right. Nathan, my husband (note: I never use dh when talking about my husband because I think it is condescending and so does he, just fyi)is highly valued in his field because he can do the work and communicate well with customers. He describes engineers, who live at their computers and bathe weekly as bright, but terrilbe with people. Of course their job does not inquire good people skills. I think employers are looking for balance when hiring. Nathan's company just had a huge lay-off (10%, probably can guess which company that was)and a lot of the guys who were let go didn't have the balance of people and tech skills. Thankfully, Nathan is brilliant ; ) and he is still employed.

 
At 10/16/2006 04:56:00 PM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

You're welcome for the compliments. And you're right, I've never met you, and you certainly could be a dweeb. Mathematicians, after all, have a very good track record at being dweebs. However, I've usually found that the mathematicians that have other interests tend not to be dweebs. You strike me, perhaps, as being more like my sister (definitely not a dweeb) than, say, a stereotypical geek. That is, assuming your blog personality has anything to do with reality. ;-)]

Na, I'm definitely not a genius. Haydn was called the "father of the symphony." In order to be called that, he certainly did have a good deal of originality. He definitely was not a genius, though he was quite intelligent and worked hard. While the intelligence bit is not for me to judge, in the other ways, I'm very like him. Mozart, on the other hand, was a genius. I am not like Mozart at all. I'm not a genius. but don't you dare insult me by calling me a Renaissance man! I dislike anything have to do with that Age of Endarkenment.

Well, except that savant is really good at a very narrow category. Maybe I'm thinking more broad category, like math in general. A savant could be someone who is very good at calenders. I remember someone telling me about a savant who could calculate the day of the week for any date you gave him. Or like the guy in "Rain Man." That is a savant. But a genius is really good at a much broader category, in my mind.

Reply to Zan.

Thank you for the confirmation. It's pretty much what everyone's telling me.

In Christ.

 
At 10/16/2006 08:33:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

Well, I've obviously never met your sister, but I'll assume being like her is good. I try to balance my geekish tendencies with normal human behavior ;). Actually, do you know there is a difference between nerd, geek, and dork? A nerd is someone who is generally smart, a geek is someone who is particularly smart (in computers or math, for example), and a dork is someone who is socially inept. I hope I'm not the latter, at least, but it was fun to tease you :-P. . . and I try to keep a single personality throughout blogging and "real life." ;) It would be so confusing otherwise.

Okay, fine you're not a genius. Or a Renaissance man. It certainly wasn't a great age in many ways, but it did turn out some nice things in the fine arts. Just very smart, as we already covered.

Zan, I don't know what I thought your husband's name was, but Nathan caught me off guard. I don't know why. That's one of my favorite guy's names, though :).

 
At 10/18/2006 11:03:00 AM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

Being like my sister is very good. Trust me.

Those are interesting distinctions between nerd, geek, and dork. Surely they are related, are they not? I can easily imagine a dork being both a nerd and a geek. Although actually, my Webster's Tenth Collegiate has the following:

geek \'geek\ n [prob. fr. E dial. geek, geck fool, fr. LG geck, fr. MLG] (1914) 1 : a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usu. includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake 2 : a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked - geeky \'gee-kee\ adj

nerd \'n(schwa)rd\ n [perh. fr. nerd, a creature in the children's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)] (1951) : an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; esp : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits {computer ~s} - nerdish \'n(schwa)r-dish\ adj - nerdy \-dee\ adj

dork \'dork\ n [perh. alter. of dick] (1967) slang : NERD; also : JERK 4

How about that?

Ja, my personality is the same privately as on the blog, except that I do not publish personal things like daily doings. For me, blogging is more about getting my opinions and beliefs out there, and seeing how people take them.

Thank you for not calling me so inaccurate a title as "genius." And thank you especially for not insulting me with... that other title. If you wish to call me "very smart," I suppose that's your prerogative, but not mine. ;-)]

In Christ.

 
At 10/18/2006 05:12:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

Actually, my categories of nerd, geek, and dork came from this amusing test. I can't remember who first pointed me towards it. And I would agree the labels are related. Rarely is someone one of them without tendencies of the others :).

. . . except that I do not publish personal things like daily doings

Is that a guy thing, or just a "you" thing? ;) I *like* to share my daily happenings with people, and whenever I do reader surveys, that is largely what people request. Now, I don't use the blogosphere as my diary - for obvious reasons! I think a mix of personal happenings, ideas, etc. is good. It gives variety and makes me more "real" to my blog friends. At least, that is my thought.

 
At 10/18/2006 06:12:00 PM , Blogger Mr. Baggins said...

Adrian, are you sure you aren't confusing Renaissance with Enlightenment? The two are not the same thing. The Renaissance was responsible for the cry "ad fontes," (back to the sources). In some ways, the Renaissance prepared the way for the Reformation by directing people beyond human tradition back to the sources of the Hebrew and Greek originals. In addition, many of the greatest artists who have ever lived came from the Renaissance. It should be noted that *Renaissance* humanism is not the same thing at all as *modern* humanism. Renaissance humanism was this drive to read the original sources, the desire that normal people should learn Latin and Greek, whereas modern humanism can be summarized in the dictum "man is the measure of all things." In fact, Adrian, I would be hard-pressed to find much fault with the Renaissance, though I would certainly find a great deal of fault with the Enlightenment.

 
At 10/19/2006 10:11:00 PM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

I think it's a guy thing. Lane ostensibly has a second blog that he uses for personal things, but he hardly ever publishes to it like he does with his main blog. And when he does publish to it, it's often chess problems from one of those Hungarian sisters' blogs. Guys are extremely interested in ideas; they tend not to be so interested in "What do we do now?" When you say, "People request," what sort of people? Ladies or gents? It wouldn't surprise me in the least if you borke it down statistically, that it's the ladies who like to hear those more personal things, and the guys like the more abstract stuff. Eh?

Reply to Lane.

Yeah, you're probably right. But how dare you say "Enlightenment!" You know it's much more properly "Endarkenment." So, I take back whatever evil words I threw at the Renaissance. Renaissance, will you please accept my apology for dragging your name through the mire? Thank you.

In Christ.

 
At 10/19/2006 10:28:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

Okay, well yes, "people" is primarily ladies, but then my blog circle is primarily females. I don't have a vast number of male readers. You, Lane, John, . . . hmmm, the only men who read my blog seem to be 28 year old reformed white guys. What's with that? ;) Oh, and Boy, occasionally. He's 23 and not reformed. Variety! But he's just as pale as his sister.

 
At 10/20/2006 02:50:00 PM , Blogger Mr. Baggins said...

I resent that! I do *not* steal my chess problems from the Polgar sisters' blogs! *turns away nose in disdain* To even *think* such a thing is absolutely scandalous! NO, I steal them from chessgames.com.

 
At 11/01/2006 11:26:00 AM , Blogger Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Susan.

It's not about being 28. It must be about being 6 (?) years older than you. After all, I won't be 28 forever.

Reply to Lane.

Hilarious. You sound like the newspaperman in the movie Spiderman arguing about the difference betwene slander and libel.

In Christ.

 
At 11/01/2006 04:21:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

I'm confused. So men who are 6 years older than me seem to hang around my blog? Whatever. *scratches head*

And yes, it is 6 years. I'm 22. My age used to display on my profile, but then I had someone anonymously comment to me concerned about my pagan ways because I displayed my zodiac symbol (it's automatic when you enter your birthdate). I was entreated to "pray about it and get myself clean from it" [exact quote]. I figured it wasn't a fight worth having, so I just removed my birthdate. *shrugs*

 

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