It’s Not Anti-Intellectualism, It’s The Fallacy of the Individual

In a BBC article, Rory Cellan Jones asks why the UK doesn’t produce more computing companies. One issue raised is the low profile of STEM industries. The current highest rated comment claims the problem is an “anti-intellectual culture”. Quoth the poster:

Anyone who is good at academic things (including computing) gets labelled a nerd, whilst we fete footballers etc whose only “skill” is to kick a bit of leather around a square of grass.

Oh noes! My wonderful nerdy intelligence is being overlooked in favour of a lunkhead overpaid footballer, or a pretty auto-tuned pop star! Anti-intellectualism as the source of all our woes — I don’t buy it. I think the problem of the low profile of technical industries in the UK is being mis-diagnosed.

The Fallacy of the Individual

I believe the problem is that the media — and people in general — focus on individuals, not teams. I couldn’t find a term for this on Google, so I’m going with the “fallacy of the individual”. Probably for simplicity in our thinking — or insert your favourite evolutionary psychology theory involving tribes and monkeys here — people focus on individuals as being responsible for good work, and seem to overlook the large teams that those individuals are usually part of. In STEM fields, good work tends to require a team, and thus there are few notable outstanding individuals. (And no, your favourite silicon valley thought leader ninja guru evangelist doesn’t count.) Thus, STEM workers get less media attention than fields where it is easier to pick out talented individuals or obvious figureheads. Journalists interview individuals, not teams.

It's not just about the person holding the microphone.  (Photo by Katie, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
It’s not just about the person holding the microphone. (Photo by Katie, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Everyone fetes the pop-star, like Britney Spears — or whoever is a more suitable current reference (I’m old!). But they are just the figurehead for a larger , unheard-of team — the songwriters and producers and technicians and dancers and manager and all the others that clearly contribute to the success of a record. Pop is primarily treated by everyone as being about an identifiable figurehead. It’s not as if more nerd-friendly areas are immune, either. How much do the media like reporting on Tim Berners-Lee when — no offence to the guy — he is only a very small part of what the web has become? Valve have a huge amount of goodwill in many gaming communities, but how many times do you see Gabe Newell (their head) mentioned as synonymous with Valve? Or Zuckerberg as synonymous with Facebook? They may lead the company, but it’s not like it’s Zuckerberg who’s responsible for building and running one of the largest websites on the Internet — it’s a large team of engineers that does that. Further nerdy examples abound: Linux as belonging to Linus Torvalds, Warren Spector as responsible for Deus Ex, Stan Lee as the figurehead for Marvel and so on.

Zuckerberg is an example STEM figurehead. (Photo by Guillaume Paumier, CC BY 2.0)
Zuckerberg is an example STEM figurehead. (Photo by Guillaume Paumier, CC BY 2.0)

Sports and acting are a slightly special case because everyone sees the star at work, and enjoys watching them. No-one enjoys watching me code. C’est la vie, but it’s not some bizarre anti-intellectualism. If anything, the fact that sports is looked down on is a form of intellectual snobbery. Sports stars are a combination of natural talent and hard work, just like any other line of work, so why should they be looked down on for “kicking a bit of leather around a square of grass”? You could equally look down on me for sitting here and “banging a few keys on a keyboard”. It helps no-one to tear each other down or complain about undue high wages. (Where’s the complaint that Gabe Newell is wealthier than any footballer, just for “making a few silly games and a digital storefront”?)

The Way Forward

So what can be done to improve the image of computing or STEM? I think some people give too much importance to traditional media, and I don’t see that grooming respectable faces to put on the TV is necessary or suitable. I never see superstar lawyers shown on TV — and doctors only usually turn up in the newspapers in cases of malpractice — but I don’t see that that damages their recruitment much. And when scientists appearing in the media become less than exemplary (hello, Baroness!) it can hurt more than it can help.

Everyone can see what a footballer or a doctor does — who knows what a computer scientist or civil engineer does, day-to-day? We should try to show what it’s like to be engaged in our profession when we can, and be mindful that we naturally face more of a struggle than other fields. (Putting computing into schools should help with this public awareness.) But that’s no reason to declare war on other fields and whinge about anti-intellectualism. If you’re so intellectual, don’t just sit there complaining — help to work out a realistic solution.

One thought on “It’s Not Anti-Intellectualism, It’s The Fallacy of the Individual

  1. Hi Neil. I noticed no one had commented on your blog post so I wanted to point something out that is obvious to me.

    At the beginning you say the problem isn’t anti-intellectualism, and that people don’t focus on teams when judging why there isn’t more success. In the middle you say that individuals are more apparent because of media attention and how people treat individuals as figureheads (the role of media vs people treating individuals over teams when deciding success you don’t explain as being either the fault of media or just how people see things so issues of media bias could go either way), and that sports or figureheads are focused on because what we see is enjoyable. Then at the end you say that we shouldn’t put down sports but rather work out realistic solutions.

    I’m not sure if you noticed, but if anyone has to work out a solution to there not being any mainstream media coverage of technical details of coding it’s because that culture is anti-intellectual. If people focus on the individual rather than the team because they’re more interested in a details-lite or news-lite version of reality, or they like simplicity and physical aspects of sports over coding, it isn’t because coding isn’t interesting, it’s because those people are anti-intellectual. Let’s face it, the quote you picked about leather and a patch of grass is really referring satirically to how things that actually take some intellectual effort are referred to as “boring tapping on a keyboard” by the same people who think that talking all day about a single sport isn’t repetitive and dull.

    If you want to solve anti-intellectualism you do so in a way that also ends up solving the individual vs team focus. While complaining satirically obviously doesn’t help crystalize an answer, it does highlight the issue. There is nothing beautiful about sports that isn’t also beautiful about any intellectual tradition like coding, and that’s not how the media represents things, or how most people treat things, and that’s part of the essence of anti-intellectualism.
    The only solutions we have are having media treat the details of intellectual traditions (science, math, technology, philosophy, politics) with the same style and bravado as more popular topics (tragedies, drama, comedy, sports, emotion led material, other media like movies and music) without losing any of the complexity, and to do that we have to ourselves be able to represent these issues well so that the national or global discussions can turn towards how everyone should be interested in learning the complexities of above-average topics.
    Besides, you’re not to blame for people seeing coding as boringly tapping on a keyboard any more than people are to blame right now for the more beautiful examples of popular topics like dance and other elements of culture that take a time to master don’t show up in the mainstream media. We can’t blame everyone for failing to change the locus of their interests as a team, or to have the media represent complex topics using some expert knowledge without it always seeming strange the few times it will happen, when we haven’t even had a strong movement of intellectualism like this yet to fail in the first place.

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