Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Normal" people vs. academics

I've noticed at least a couple of times in the past month that fellow academics sometimes refer to the general populace as "normal people." It carries the implication that we are fundamentally smarter or better than them, not just that we are a minority or odd. It is often a reaction to someone's story about a frustrating interaction with a stranger or non-academic.

This seems condescending, elitist, and narrow-minded. Many people have talents that do not lie in the academic realm. Are all talents created equal? Is a great, dumb athlete equal but different to a smart, ungraceful scientist?

I don't believe the people making these comments completely subscribe to the opinion, but I can't help but internally fight every casual mention of it. I feel a kernel of truth to it in some cases, but I've always tried to guard against blanket statements.

Is this a wider symptom of academia or relatively isolated? What bred this opinion?

I would hope that the majority of academia is enlightened enough to realize that they are only slightly extraordinary people who have chosen a somewhat uncommon career that explicitly pays one to create new knowledge. Many people of equal or higher intelligence or talent choose other careers.


  1. You're right, and I remember at least one occasion where this kind of statement was made by someone.

    It's really important to remember that everyone has different abilities. That student in your class that can't calculate an average or read a map has abilities somewhere else. He/She may be brilliant at language, or incredibly athletic, or good with people. The list goes on.

    As you move forward, you are going to see this all the time, and I think it's THE biggest problem with academics. Scientists go to conferences to meet other scientists. Scientists publish in journals that are only read by other scientists. The rest of the public doesn't have access to those journals or conferences. Even the rare public person that reads a journal has to win a fight against the obscure jargon that fills our articles.

    On top of that, many of the top research scientists feel like public outreach cuts into their work time. They see teaching as a necessary evil that threatens their ability to get grants. Outreach programs are usually volunteer, because scientific programs don't want to invest money in educating the public.

    Scientists might perceive themselves as better than the public. But, by isolating themselves, none of their work is ever truly important because society never knows about it. And that may make them the biggest idiots of all.

  2. See, I tend to enjoy celebrating my idiosyncrasies. I don't think they are all that different from non-academics, but I do think there is something about academics that non-academics struggle to understand. For example, academics DO NOT get summers off! Academics DO work incredibly long weeks but we do work from home and on a very irregular schedule. However, academia is a career zone that seems to be fundamentally distinct from other career zones. I think it strikes many people (academics and non-academics alike) that the other career zones generally outnumber the academic zones considerable, and therefore, these other zones constitute the majority of jobs.

    I guess I consider academics to be in a definite minority, which suggest that other people who are not academics are a bit more sane, hence "normal."

  3. Whether such designations are elitist, condescending, or not depends entirely on the speakers intention.

    The profession of "student," for example, attracts certain keinds of people and is really a sub-culture within all others. Generally speaking: a student from one country or field won't have a hard time getting along with a student from another, not because they're "better," but because they're like-minded.

    I do agree, though, that using the term "normal people" is a bit harsh if it isn't being used jokingly, as Academic suggested.

    Think about the word "geek" (or "nerd", depending on where you're from). For me and most students/scientists I know it is a word to describe ourselves and our quirks, but for "normal" people it often means "a socially inept book worm" and is a mockery.

  4. Mike: I agree that science needs to be communicated to the public. I'd like to say that it is primarily the scientists' responsibility to volunteer the information, but the public has to listen and learn to discern between consensus and an extreme minority of dissenters. I'm not sure which side holds more guilt at the moment.

    Academic: I'm also proud of some of my more distinctive traits. Academics are certainly a minority and we seem to share certain characteristics that make us fit the job. I think that the reality of our work could be better communicated to the public, but many people would still find it hard to understand that working from home and on a flexible schedule does not make our jobs easier. They have few or no comparable experiences, so only their imagination can show them what this looks like.

    Quish: It is true that the meaning of a phrase depends heavily on the intent of the speaker, but the words can sound condescending no matter the intent. I worry that speaking of "normal" people will make scientists sound aloof and snooty, and therefore not worth attention or respect. Regarding the use of the words geek or nerd, for many academics it holds a kernel of truth--many of us have at least a slight tendency towards social ineptness :). Of course, I still don't appreciate being called either of them if it is with malicious intent.