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Sex and the single scientist

Bette Flagler discovers the truth about sex and science

Like just about everything else, it all boils down to sex. Or, more specifically, it boils down to the likelihood that you will or won’t ever have it. A child psychologist and psychology professor at Bennington College in Vermont, David Anderegg puts it plainly: once kids realise that being a nerd equates to having slim chances of ever getting laid, they spiff up their wardrobe, ditch the oversized book bag and stop acting on any affinity they may have for all things numerical.

That may not be such a disaster if we didn’t live in a world that depends on engineers and scientists. In New Zealand, we bemoan enrolments in math and sciences going down but we can take odd solace knowing we are not alone; although we fear losing our smart class to countries like the US that have financially lucrative IT and biotech hubs, those places are also suffering. Anderegg quotes Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who says the US “is basically doomed because, in 2004, we graduated more sports-exercise majors from US colleges than we did electrical engineers.”

Sure, there are some kids who will follow along the science/engineering pathway, but as Anderegg points out: “The kids who will really be hurt by the nerd/geek stereotypes are the kids who will shut down parts of themselves in order to fit in. These are the kids in the middle, who could go either way, but don’t seem to be going the nerd way. As we have seen, math and science achievement in schools keeps dropping … it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to suggest that there might be a link between a virulently anti-intellectual, and especially anti-scientific, popular culture and the alarming diminution of science literacy among American kids.”

As with any prejudice it is, of course, the prejudice itself that is the problem, so Anderegg spends a lot of time discussing intolerance. Sadly, negative stereotyping doesn’t end when kids turn into adults even though we’re supposed to change; as adults most of us do not condone racial stereotypes, but we perpetuate nerd/geek intolerance. Anderegg notes how, for example, as the job of a car mechanic has morphed from tinkering to reprogramming faulty sensors and how as big, strong, robust mill workers are replaced by those who can troubleshoot production lines, kids of disgruntled parents (and not just those kids of tinkerers and robust mill workers) complain that geeks are taking over the world. “Many of the most anti-nerd kids,” writes Anderegg, “are kids whose parents are constantly anxious about their ability to keep up with more and more sophisticated workplace demands. Even if the kids themselves are tech-savvy, and their tech-beleaguered parents want them to be tech-savvy, the kids’ nerd-bashing persists as a way of avenging the family honour.”

While throwing more money at education and raising the pay rates for jobs in the sciences (including agricultural science) are often tossed around as answers to the dearth of kids enrolling in what even our educators call the ‘harrrrrd sciences’, the answer is not about money. It’s about changing a culture and that, of course, is much harrrrder.

It would be nice to believe that this is an American problem to which New Zealand was somehow immune. But we know that isn’t true. We value sports far more than we do science and, as a culture, we allow, encourage and even enjoy making fun of people who fit into a nerd/geek stereotype. It just takes one or two mornings watching breakfast television to realise that pre-pubescent behaviour is alive and well in the form of presenters like the ever-annoying Paul Henry who (among other childish behaviours) constantly picks on and criticises Peter Williams. Williams, in tidy dress, is well-prepared, minds his manners, behaves like an age-appropriate adult, and doesn’t buy into Paul’s shenanigans. This, of course, encourages Paul. Co-presenter Pippa Wetzell, on the other hand, has gone from an intelligent, confident woman who appeared willing to share her ideas, thoughts and beliefs, to a girl who giggles at Paul in a maddening and exasperating way. It’s like being 12 all over again.

Anderegg’s book shines a well-needed light on anti-intellectualism and should be read by everyone who cares about our future. Even if you don’t agree with his sentiments—or mine, for that matter—you will likely find yourself ashamed of your own prejudices and behaviours. I know I was.