Sunday, March 23, 2008

From time to time, people ask me why so many math types are socially-awkward geeks. I suppose I ought to take this as a back-handed compliment, the unstated implication being that I'm at least savvy enough to appreciate the question.

So, first let me say that most of my colleagues are perfectly charming and witty. But I do appreciate the question: even a few decades in the business have not completely inured me to geekiness and the high incidence of space cadets in the math world is undeniable.

It would be a mistake, however, to seek some social-graces toggle gene that is either set to ON or to MATH. To understand how the correlation emerges, let's think about a vaguely analogous situation. Why are so many short-order cooks in New York immigrants from poor countries? Are poor immigrants naturally more skilled at short-order cooking? Of course not. The simple truth is that if you arrive in New York without capital, education and English language skills, your opportunities are limited. If you're a poor immigrant and you know how to cook, cooking is something you can do.

The analogy is this: people who remind you of Poindexter (for those who remember Felix the Cat) are not, on average, more skilled at math than anybody else. But if you have poor social skills, your opportunities are very limited. If you happen to know how to do math, math is something you can do. The result is that, even if social skills and math skills are distributed completely independently of each other, people with both math skills and social skills will choose from a wide variety of opportunities, while those with only math skills are limited to being math types.

10 Comments:

Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

this argument falls on its face. Take artists for example, who are notorious for poor social skills, even worse than math geeks. Why would one chose math other art if it is the only remedy for social dissonance?

I went to a math school and I have seen my share of the people you describe and I can tell you that a lot of them are better than me in both math and social skills.

You should be talking about inability to relate to people emotionally instead of social skills. The epidemic of undiagnosed Asergers in our generation is really in play.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So it's not that math people are socially awkward, rather that socially awkward people who are good in math do math.
where do all the socially awkward people who are bad at math go?

5:43 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Tzemach,
Nice to hear from you. I don't get your first argument. Some geeks are good at math and some are good at art.
As for your second argument, there are many reasons for undeveloped social skills and Asperger's, diagnosed or not, is certainly one of them. I had originally mentioned Asperger's but in the end chose to delete it since it might have detracted from my point.

Anon,
Your summary is correct.
The geeks who can't do math write blogs.

10:30 PM  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

Where I grew up explaining away one's geekiness through the use of a math formula was likely to get you slammed into a locker, tossed in the girls locker room (naked) or wedgied to within an inch of your young life. I'm just sayin'.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hey, you don't think I was talking about MY geekiness, do you? Do you?

6:08 PM  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

Of course not. Were you? ;-)

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you reference Poindexter and leave out Mr. Peabody and Sherman?

4:07 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Anon,
You are so right.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Ben, when a math geek tells me "you are so right" it just makes me tingle all over

5:27 PM  
Anonymous psachya said...

I dunno, Ben. My father-in-law is a math professor, and my wife is an artist, and they are two of the ungeekiest people I know.

But tell me this. Does the fact that I take pleasure in the ability to use the word "ungeekiest" in a coherent sentence make me, in turn, geeky? Probably does... (sigh)...

10:29 AM  

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