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Perceived elitism

  1. Apr 1, 2005 #1
    Hi all,

    Here's a kind of unusual question for all of you, but I guess this is a good forum to ask. How do you respond when you mention Physics (or Math) in a conversation and others accuse you of trying to show off how smart you are?You know that if the subject mentioned was Art History the reaction would be less passionate (defensive)?.

    Here's my situation: I have a grad education in both Physics and Math. I'm no genius, just love the subjects. When non-colleagues (who often happen to have college degrees themselves) see me read Physics/Math books or mention the subjects in any context they react as if I'm trying to show off how smart I am. Other than read these books in private and not mention anything about "work" to outsiders how do I deal with it? (For the record, I have many other interests and don't bring up Math/Physics all that often in conversations.)
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  3. Apr 1, 2005 #2


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    A lot of people have a gigantic cognitive dissonance about math. Fact: it is widely supposed to be something only highly intelligent people are good at. Fact: They were not good at it. Preference: They would like to think of themselves as highly intelligent. Result: Dissonance.

    1) Brag about being too smart to be bothered with math. "Oh I always slept though math class!"

    2) Find ways to have debasing thoughts about mathematicians "They're all crazy", "They all have Aspergers", "They're intellectual snobs", "They can't get girls". Whatever works to reduce the internal dissonance.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2005
  4. Apr 1, 2005 #3
    Here's my philosphy:

    The majority of people are not worth the oxygen they expend. By extension, neither are the people saying such things. So i have no problem ignoring them.
  5. Apr 1, 2005 #4
    It has always amazed me (with a BS and an MS in physics/astronomy) that some people think I'm a genius just because I'm good at manipulating numbers and variables. I try to convince them that I'm mediocre or lame at everything else in life, but then they just shoot me back a skeptical look. When you think about it, the manipulation of numbers has to be one of the most stupid tasks we humans can do. I mean, calculators can do it! Brainless zero-IQ calculators! On the other hand, it's true that mathematicians and scientists (as opposed to number-crunching fakers like me) are typically very intelligent and include a disproportionally high number of geniuses. So maybe the public's perception of elitism in people like you, da615, is not so askew. You are elite and that's nothing to be ashamed of.
  6. Apr 1, 2005 #5
    In all objectivity, I know that I have a high I.Q. relative to the population at large. I also realize that my mathematical ability categorizes me as marginally competent among my colleagues i.e. those with Ph.D.s in Physics/Math. :redface: So I'm pretty realistic about where I stand on the Gaussian of Math ability.
    Actually the issue is more of a Mrs. Manners social etiquette query. How do I deal with the typical reactions (often from quite literate and otherwise well thought-out) people? It's getting to be irritating and frankly, exhausting to strike a balance. On one hand I do not like to resort to being obnoxious, dismissive or abrasive (which is not my style anyways) and I don't want to deny what is close to my heart.
  7. Apr 1, 2005 #6


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    It's never possible to really know unless you've witnessed how someone interacts with others, but from what you've described, I don't see much you can do. If you're really not bringing it up often, and aren't doing it to show off, then it seems it's their problem, not yours. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate your friendships if you can't talk about the things you enjoy without them thinking you're being elitist.
  8. Apr 1, 2005 #7


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    I find that funny to some small extent. I don't generally bring up anything relating to physics or math in general conversation, but I constantly bring up little trivia factoids that I've managed to pick up somewhere. It's probably far more elitist of me to intentionally absorb as much knowledge as I possibly can regardless of its utility, but no one ever seems to mind. It's funny how a person with a deep knowledge of a limited subject can be perceived as elitist, but someone with a working knowledge of just about every subject isn't. At least what you do has a practical purpose.
  9. Apr 1, 2005 #8


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    So I met my highschool math teacher the other day in the bank. It was a long line. He built a house out of metal, roof and all and asked what I was doing these days. Oh Jesus. I made the mistake of telling him I took a class in PDEs. He started talking heat equations, you know, the metal house and all, and asking me about the course. Man I felt odd with all those "common" people around me listening to us talk about differential equations. Just show-offs I suppose we looked like. Sure wouldn't give a s*** about their petty interests . . . let's just all get drunk at Reds . . . how about that one?
  10. Apr 1, 2005 #9
    Ok so you've kick someone in thier inferiority complex and it hurts. While they were nursing a hangover every morning in class, you actually paid attention. Does that mean you should feel bad? Don't think so. If you were rubbing it in thier faces, that would be one thing. But it seems this is just another case of green monster. I've seen in before in certain people myself.

    Best bet, as moon said, is to reevaluated these "friends" of yours. If they are intimidated by you, it's not your job to set them at ease. But if you feel so inclined and value thier friendships, make an effort to pet thier ego. Accentuate a skill they have that you lack. Ask them for advice on thier area of expertise. No matter how smart you think you are, someone is bound to come along one day and deflate you- happens to just about everyone at one time or another. It's a growth experience, and a valuable one. We men need our fragile egos stroked regularly :biggrin:

    "it's only when one realizes he knows nothing that he can truly begin to learn"
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2005
  11. Apr 1, 2005 #10

    I disagree completely. its their problem.

    If i decide to discuss the merits of a Hollingdale translation versus a Kaufmann translation (moot point really, because there is no debate there) of Nietzsche, and the people around me don't like it, too bloody bad. If i want to discuss the philosophical implications of a scientific mindset, or the statistical rarity of one, and they don't like it too bloody bad. If me and a friend are discussing tensor calculus and the solutions to Einstein's field equation, writing the answers on napkins at macdonalds and they don't like it, too bloody bad. They can go to hell.
  12. Apr 1, 2005 #11
    I wasn't saying dumb yourself down. I'm simply saying that you could emphasize to them that they have thier talents just as you have yours. This is something you could do in the context of friendships. If this static is coming from an aquaintance or someone you barely know and you don't care what they think of you, then rattle off equations until they have a schizoid embolism. It's your call.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2005
  13. Apr 1, 2005 #12


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    Are you really sure you're not coming across as a "highbrow"? I know some incredibly intelligent people and I've never seen anyone react negatively to them, quite the opposite. If you really aren't being pretentious, then you are surrounded by some unusually insecure people.
  14. Apr 1, 2005 #13

    Ummm.... people tell me that I'm friendly and approachable. I may come across as somewhat bookish. Pretentious? no, I don't think so! (No one has told me that I sound condescending or anything like that.) : :!!)
  15. Apr 1, 2005 #14
    I usually end up teaching my classmates and others around me stuff about math and physics anyway, and i'm pretty sure its common for all of us in this path. Whenever they say this to me that i'm making them feel stupid, I reassure them of their own abilities and say that if I am making them feel inferior, is not my goal/intention. Rather, I am showing them the reasons why I find math/physics so interesting (and trying to show them what my world is like). As long as they listen, I am capable of explaining everything I know to them in a non-hostile manner.

    This usually works suprisingly well, because no longer am I presenting a superiority complex, but showing a genuine passion towards the subject that they would normally despise.

    I would think that by graduate level people would be more accepting of such a major, but I guess the pettyness inherent in much of the population that negatively views the mathematics and sciences will always exist, even in other tiers of academia. It's a shame though, because I don't want to be labeled myself as a stuck-up "genius" snob who knows more than everyone else before people even know my nature and look at my path and immediately draw conclusions.

    I really hope that the majority of physicists don't propagate these snobbish tendencies and further the elitist attitude towards physics in general, and rather would be trying to advocate their field through positive assertment so that others may learn and perhaps gain a passion for this field as well.
  16. Apr 1, 2005 #15
    I get your point, but trying to explain the applications of Physics/ Math doesn't seem to alleviate the situation.

    The comments about avoiding such people is not always practical either, as they may come as one component of a bound pair (with my friend being the other component of the pair).
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2005
  17. Apr 1, 2005 #16


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    Then you needn't worry. :smile:
  18. Apr 1, 2005 #17
    Personally, I don't think about it much. It's really just a sign of their insecurity.

    On the other hand, I take every opportunity to explain something to an person who's willing to learn. That's lots of fun.
  19. Apr 1, 2005 #18
    Deep knowledge of any kind tends to alienate people. If you understand some topic deeply, it is not possible to carry on a conversation about it with someone who understands it much less deeply. Whereas if you understand some topic shallowly (e.g. trivia facts, or broad factual knowledge in art history), the other person can immediately grasp and handle whatever fact you bring up. Science and math knowledge is relatively "deep" knowledge compared to most other knowledge. To have a two-sided conversation, the depth of understanding on both sides must be about even, and the breadth can vary more.

    To people uninitiated into science, scientific ideas (because of their necessary depth) can seem like the strange mutterings of a secret yet powerful cult. They don't know what's going on but whatever it is seems strange and foreign.
  20. Apr 1, 2005 #19
    Sure, there are still some people that won't even get near the subject with a ten foot pole, and may have been affected by past experiences so much so that they refuse to associate themselves with it at all. The only thing I can do then is just acknowledge it and be as polite as possible so I dont end up inevitably hitting a particularly nasty chord. As Zantra said, don't let the misconceptions ruin a friendship or their perceptions of you. Just be receptive and try to explain your point of view (I know in some cases even this is a difficult thing to accomplish).

    Yeah, humans are social creatures. It is next to impossible to avoid it in many cases, and it sucks when a friend has these viewpoints and its impossible to explain your situation becuase your profession broadsides it.. ugh.
  21. Apr 1, 2005 #20
    I agree. I used to share my enthusiasm with a wider category of people. But now I've become more discerning.
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