Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Science Shmience

I had the privilege of listening to a guest lecture by a rather distinguished researcher in plant viruses (viri?) Monday, and I'll get to hear him again on Wednesday. He seems like a smart guy, but I'm starting to wonder how we're ever able to tell the difference between people who are genuine geniuses (geniui?) and those who can throw up a screen of BS like you wouldn't believe.

I'm not necessarily saying this guy was the latter. But we spent the better portion of an hour listening to him talk about research . . . sort of. Imagine a class that spends about half of its time telling you what is known about a subject, while the other half is a lengthy explanation of what is not known. You might walk away wondering whether you learned anything. Now imagine that you've spent the last year of your life researching a subject, and you have to justify your time and money to someone. How would you feel if that entire presentation was, "Okay, here's everything we now know we don't know about the subject that we didn't know we didn't know before."

This, to me, is the problem with the fine line between the people typically dubbed "smart" and those dubbed "geniuses." The label comes only as part of perception. If someone seems to have a lot of knowledge about a subject we find complicated and confusing, we tend to label them as some form of smart, depending on how much they seem to know. Other times, we might understand the subject to a similar degree, but we'll call someone smart because they agree with us about it and/or can talk about it very well.

I'd clump a lot of theoretical physicists in the first category. My grades in quantum mechanics were always hit or miss, so I'm just barely able to grasp what they talk about when it comes to things like string theory or the behavior of particles inside black holes or . . . or . . . zzzzzzzzz. When they throw around their fancy terms and their complicated mathematical processes, I have to admit that they're probably first class geniuses.

On the other hand, how much theoretical science has been tossed out the window umpteen years later because experimental science showed that the previous ideas were just science fiction run wild? That's the red light that flashes in my brain when I hear those guys talk, and I'm not sure how to tell the difference between the geniuses and the guys who wish they could write for Star Trek.

The other category can fall into the political, but the basic idea is that we tend to imagine someone as a genius if they can talk about a subject in "smart," flowery language that expends a lot of $10 words without really saying much. This was the worst part about being a philosophy minor; I was always listening to these people rambling on and on in vague, showy terms trying to show off how smart they are. Half the time it's ridiculous terminology that people hide behind, but other times access to a dictionary and a thesaurus reveals just how little they just accomplished.

Again, the real question here is how do you tell the difference between people who are smart and people who have just learned how to look smart?

I guess that's something we all have to deal with. With the primaries coming up soon, I guess we better get our act together, too.

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