Nerd Alert, Redux

So last note I did I got kind of sidetracked by describing how comics aren’t quite as low-brow and ridiculous as they used to be. I was supposed to be talking about how smart characters are portrayed, but as I mentioned my attention span has gotten a little, ah, shorter or something. Anyway, I wanted to bring something up before jumping back into the four-color brainiacs.

Why is this important? Why should we care how brainy folks are portrayed in comics? Well, you could be into comics, that’s one pretty good reason. That’s what got me going on this subject. But there’s another reason why looking at the image of the smart guy is. In comics (and pop culture in general) smart people ‘do science.’

Since people don’t really understand that there isn’t any such thing as ‘science’ but rather a fairly fantastical array of different sub-fields, most of which have little overlap, one guy can field any and all ‘science questions.’ This image of the ‘singular scientist’ is all over the place in pop culture because people don’t really give a shit how their Toaster Strudel gets made, delivered or heated as long as each step along the way works. This has some really, really important consequences for social and political efforts.

Most people (I don’t count myself in this group) don’t really care about how things work. They just want them to work. That’s all fine and good, but when you’re dealing with a complex and nuanced piece of science (say global warming, stem cells, statistical analysis of security techniques, education and the like) it hamstrings the ability of the populace to react to the world around them. It often prevents them from determining what’s actually happening at all.

Now, science used to be shiny. We all laugh now about those ‘Science World’ expos with the nuclear cars and the like. In fact, we’re so damn comfortably cynical that we come up with whole belief structures that say ‘science is just another way of looking at the world, just like post-structuralist gender studies.’ I’m not shitting on gender studies here, it’s just the first thing that came up. You could apply it to a hundred different little tribes of ideologies. We bitch about not having flying cars, about how there’s no cure for cancer and about how science has somehow betrayed us, because we don’t remember what it was like before we understood the little bit that we do now.

Why did this happen? Well, science promised a lot. Those expos I mentioned really did over do it. We also let science become the province of companies, none of whom actually benefit from actual science, just the tools it creates along the way. And there’s the fact that we started to discover that each thing we learned lead to more questions. Look at cancer.

We bitch that there’s no cure to cancer, but most people don’t know that ‘cancer’ isn’t a singular thing. There’s no one thing called cancer, but a myriad of different conditions with different causes and different treatments. The tarnish on science is due to it doing its job too well. It got too hard and we stopped paying attention. Once that happened, public perception of the scientist was pretty quickly converted to a myth of science, which rapidly diverged from the actual science.

So looking at the mythology of our times (comics) can clue us in to the divergence between fact and fiction. Next time I promise I’ll actually talk about smart people in comics (specifically the smartest folks in the Marvel Universe).

I don’t care how hot Jessica Alba is, the movie never happened.


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