Are scientists geeks and/or nerds like in The Big Bang Theory?

The Big Bang Theory
Image: CBS

In one of those rare moments where I get to evaluate my social visibility, I got invited to come join a party – a night out, if you will. Not much thinking went on in considering the invitation, so I went. Fresh shirt. Pressed pants. Just bathed. Here we go.

It was a big mistake.

My friend who invited me knows how I feel about the whole thing, so the report in this article is with consent – and might I add without malice. But before I explain why, let me first tell you that the party was, neglecting the bad things, a really damn good organized party. The wine was flowing. The food was excellent. And the music adequately good (a playlist without Joy Division or Depeche Mode is always mediocre). What dampened my opinion of the event was a conversation with a newly introduced acquaintance, prefaced with an introduction I find extremely disagreeable in large social events: “and here is my friend, he is a scientist.”

It was all downhill from there.

To be fair, things usually start to go downhill for me after hello or hi. That’s just probably my standard default mode. But this was an altogether different beast. When you are introduced as a scientist (or any other profession for that matter), all the stereotypes associated with being a scientist will be up for verification using you as citation.

“Oh, so you’re a scientist? You must be like Sheldon Cooper.”

Now, if you enjoy The Big Bang Theory, that’s fine, it’s all good. Have fun! But no matter how one enjoys it, it is without a doubt a terrible show. Enjoyment derived is not a reliable barometer for something’s worth. I enjoy the instant holiday brought about by incoming typhoons, but one has to admit, storms are pretty shit. So I went on a rant on how puerile the show’s humor is. I explained that the show’s main gimmick revolves around a wrong notion that scientists are always condescendingly out for blood to correct all unscientific statements being heard. Take this exchange between Sheldon and Penny for example:

Penny: You know, I always say, “when one door closes another one opens.”

Sheldon: No it doesn’t. Not unless the two doors are connected by relays or there are motion sensors involved. Or if the first door closing creates a change of air pressure that acts upon the second door.

Penny: Never mind.

***laugh track***

Or take this other exchange between Sheldon and Penny where the running gag is Sheldon being intelligent. It’s as if being intelligent and smart is funny, something to be laughed at:

Sheldon: It’s a spoof of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation.

***laugh track***

Penny: So you’re like one of those Beautiful Mind genius guys?

Sheldon: Yeah.

***laugh track***

If we send this dialogue to Geneva and have CERN run it through their Large Hadron Collider to unravel its elementary components, they won’t find be able to find a single amount nor any slight hint of humour, simply because there is none.

Notwithstanding the other badly conceived contrivances the show seem to employ on an unforgiving regularity, there just isn’t that many interesting and genuinely funny things going on in the show even if it dispenses crude comedy at the expense of science. With that, I ended my rant, but my interlocutor was in disbelief. A question followed (not in verbatim): How could I, a scientist, express contempt towards something made specifically for nerds and geeks?

Hearing the question made me want to big bang my head with a gun.

To associate scientists as nerds and geeks is in vogue. In this nouveau form, it is meant as a positive identity to be embraced – a banner waved proudly. Though both have pejorative origins used to denigrate socially inept people, nerd and geek have found new meaning and are now sprinkled to color the portrait of scientists (and science enthusiasts) as upstanding citizens, albeit with a few quirks here and there. Its subtext aims to emphasize the domain where the practice of science resides, i.e. in the intellectual sphere to excuse the perceived gauche sociability of scientists. Like a misplaced pork sausage in a bowl of green salad. Initially unsolicited, but eventually desired. So Sheldon the nerd (or geek, what have you) in the TV series appears to be a most socially awkward fellow, but on the bright side he is damn smart. Problem is, Sheldon is not a sausage lost in a sea of cabbage. He is a doughnut marinated in a tub of vinegar and ice cream. Interesting to some, but a unanimous recipe for disaster.

Stereotypes function as an essentialism that attach a fundamental and inescapable character to a particular subject. In this instance, it is essential for scientists to be nerds and geeks and that comes with living the lifestyle of that perceived category.

If that’s the case, what do the words nerd and geek even mean today?

There isn’t a universally agreed definition for each’s meaning to clearly demarcate one from the other. Some people use it interchangeably, while others argue that there is a huge difference between the two so usage should be done with care. Fortunately, Big Think ran an article that investigates this problem to rescue inquiring minds from the bog of confusion. What they found was rather interesting, but not at all very helpful: geeks are mainly collectors while nerds are primarily practitioners. Really? The article suggests that geeks are eager to collect the newest techno-gadgets released, objects that nerds probably came up with since they are more into skill and knowledge application. What this actually says about scientists: nothing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Indeed, nothing. Nothing in the sense that it doesn’t really separate scientists from people of other professions. Nothing in the sense that it doesn’t really say anything about the actual lives of scientists. Nothing in the sense that it doesn’t really come close to an appreciation of human life. Nothing at all.

Scientists are first and foremost human beings. With that comes all the blemishes, foibles, and weaknesses as well as the advantages, blessings, and strengths that are characteristic of that species. Homo sapiens can never swing from tree to tree like arboreal monkeys, but monkeys can never whip up words from one letter to another in a game of scrabble. If it were true that scientists, that is, all of them, act like Sheldon the archetypal nerd or geek, then their other potentials as human beings are discarded and flushed down the toilet as they are then thrown imprisoned in the cell of the hyper-intellectual nerd and geek. What this does is neglect the diversity of realities that scientists all over the world actually live and experience.

Modern science is a special division of labour in capitalism. Students who envision a career in science must spend long years for education and training so that the state and/or the private research companies (including the academe) will find them useful for their own purposes. But a college diploma in science is usually not enough. Nor is a PhD an automatic entry into the world of research. Tough luck. Fortune and politics are also vital.  There are grant proposals to be done and submitted. There are the stoic sentinels of academia that must be satisfied. There are old biases that need to be dismantled to allow women more freedom in research. In order to succeed, scientists must be many things. Frequently dropping science references and obnoxiously exclaiming bazinga at every opportunity won’t get you anywhere. In short, being a nerd or a geek does not make one a scientist, nor is a scientist an automatic nerd or geek.

This is not to say that scientists are not geeks or nerds. Anyone can be. You don’t even have to love science to be either. You can also be a scientist by being neither. What these mean is that this geek and nerd stereotype is pointless and must be done away with. To criticize it is of utmost importance, for the stereotype not only hampers understanding, but it also creates unnecessary barriers for science education and recruitment.

A study has shown that this stereotype enforces a less than pleasing picture of what computer scientists are (“thin, pale, and lacking in the hygiene department”) and discourage women from choosing computer science as a career option . But what is interesting is that the research found out that women were actually eager to choose computer science as their major after reading articles that debunk the stereotype. This result isn’t surprising at all when The Big Bang Theory, a show that is supposedly on the smart side of things, use women as comedic fodder for their cheap gags, revealing the show’s latent stupid sexism behind its scientific facade. There is one scene where smart geeks and nerds Sheldon and Leonard argue over their female partners’ relative worth by how much skin they’re willing to expose. Penny, Leonard’s wife and the show’s blond bimbo, takes off her jacket to emphasize the show’s point, to which Sheldon reacts by instructing his girlfriend Amy to take her breasts out. Everyone laughs at this scientific display of comedy! We couldn’t expect anything less from smartypants Sheldon, whose idea of a girls’ night out consists of nothing but “an evening talking rainbows, unicorns, and menstrual cramps.” Wait for the laugh track.

Science has had a long standing problem with sexism. Scientists, for all their intellect, aren’t exactly the most advanced human beings in terms of social and political outlook. Over in Hawaii, Alice Ball developed a technique to make the world’s first inoculable treatment against leprosy – a technique that Arthur Dean acknowledged to be his after Ball died at the early age of 24. Just a classic example of how predatory some men are to cancel and steal women’s legacies. Or how Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt favors sex segregated laboratories because women lab members tend to fall in love with the men, and then cry if they get criticized. These cases call for the absolute and immediate overhaul of the system and conditions that breed these beliefs and sentiments. Shows and stereotypes that use this lamentable state of affairs as platform for questionable content aren’t helping at all.

Aside from its asinine portrayal and treatment of women, this show also indirectly serves to expand the gulf between the public and the science establishment. There is a great big problem in science literacy nowadays, where living conditions and social positions abet conspiracy and pseudo-scientific beliefs like alien abductions, creationism, anti-vaccinations, etc.. Scientists will have to play a bigger role to bridge this gap, but then there’s the image of the socially challenged and awkward scientist to spoil all the fun. This is a problem that is getting out of hand, as suggested by a recent research, which found out that 81% of Americans can’t even name a single living scientist and those that are able to do so can only name those that have celebrity status.

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What then of the scientists who work behind the scenes to advance our collective knowledge? Do they have to gain media traction in order to have their work recognized and appreciated by society? Maybe it’s just so hard to identify who they are among the mass of people we encounter in our daily lives, probably because most of them don’t really fit the stereotype they are forcibly categorized in. Maybe they don’t behave condescendingly when someone sympathizes with their lot. Maybe they think women are capable of discussing things other than rainbows and unicorns. Maybe they don’t use every opportunity to affirm their intelligence, and instead, they listen to what others have to say then act accordingly – you know, like a lot of us do. The human side of scientists, without the stain of stereotypes, but with all the defects of humanity, should be presented and fully forwarded in order to address this problem of communication. Talk to your local scientists. You’ll be surprised to find out that they’re not so different from you. They might share your love for kebab, or they might follow the same obscure band that you’ve been listening to for years. Who knows, you might be lucky to find one who’s willing to share some funny science anecdotes.

After all, there’s no laugh track in real life to rescue us when things start to get awry. So why not enjoy real life comedy from genuine and interactions that are not token and forced. Flat-earth, you say? Hahahahahaha.

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