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American Nerd [Jan. 24th, 2011|11:46 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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There isn’t a single native-born American among the world’s top 250 chess players. The number for women is worse: none in the top 900 or so.[1]

Chess is by no means the only pursuit that Americans largely choose to ignore. As a computer scientist working in America, I know all too well that my field of research and many others that are stereotyped as ‘nerdy’ are utterly dominated by immigrants, and that the immigrant to native-born ratio for women is even more skewed. What is different about chess is that the stark results are clearly measurable.

Many fear that this severe disdain for mathematical/technical/scientific fields means that the loss of America’s competitive edge is imminent. I find these arguments unfounded — there is no reason why the supply of immigrants will dry up in the foreseeable future.[2] The only bottleneck is the bizarre policy of tightly limiting visas and turning away highly qualified workers.

If I’m not raising the economic argument, why am I talking about this? For two reasons: the first is that I find the stigmatization of nerdy behavior only slightly less morally repugnant than racism or sexism. I consider it a significant but largely unremarked blemish in the social progress that the country has made. The second reason is that I’m curious to know why America is uniquely and extraordinarily bad in this respect. I’d welcome any thoughts on this question.

[1] I’m using these two lists. Larry Christiansen is the top native-born American currently active, and Elizabeth Vicary the top female. And to be clear, I am comparing women with women. If you compound the paucity of Americans with the paucity of women, incomprehensible numbers result: not a single native-born American female among the top 25,000 players.
[2] While I recognize that there is room for different views, the economic question isn't the point of this post and I don’t feel like arguing about it. I merely wanted to state my opinion.

From: fixious
2011-01-24 10:42 pm (UTC)
I guess it's about what gives you social currency? In the developing world, and certain developed countries, academic achievement in technical fields is a ticket to upward mobility. In America, this isn't really the case. Of course, that doesn't explain why there should be any disdain towards scientific pursuits...

Also, until about a generation ago, it is my understanding that geekiness in women was not particularly valued in India. Again, this is because the assumption was that women would not work, meaning their social currency was more about whom they married than what they did.
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From: fixious
2011-01-24 10:53 pm (UTC)
Also, in big cities and the upper middle classes in India (at least in Bangalore), the stigmatization is almost as bad as it is here.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-01-25 05:16 am (UTC)
"I guess it's about what gives you social currency?"

That is definitely a huge part of it, but it doesn't explain the difference between America and Western Europe.

"Also, until about a generation ago, it is my understanding that geekiness in women was not particularly valued in India."

Oh, totally. That was a far more serious social problem than anything I'm talking about here; the prejudice against women wasn't limited to geeks. Thankfully those days are mostly over. And while a few problems remain, things are at least moving in the right direction. That doesn't seem to be the case in the US.

"Also, in big cities and the upper middle classes in India (at least in Bangalore), the stigmatization is almost as bad as it is here."

Wait, what? I find that hard to believe.
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From: fixious
2011-01-25 07:25 am (UTC)
Really? I guess Bangalore, or the schools I went to, were more or less unique then. You were routinely bullied if you did well academically, unless you balanced it out by doing something cool like sports or music. No one wanted to join the quiz team, for instance -- that was social suicide. They had to put together the few people who didn't mind being teased about it (including me, and we were horrendously bad). I don't think anyone wanted to admit they played serious chess. I remember there was one girl who was decently good, and she got ragged on a lot.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-01-25 07:30 am (UTC)
Holy fucking shit.

Pretty much the exact opposite of any school in Madras.
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[User Picture]From: btbytes
2011-03-31 07:40 pm (UTC)

I don't know what school he went to..

No schools I know of in BLR are "anti-nerdy" as he makes it to be.

My School (Vijaya high school) had chess, philately,quiz, english(among others) and a rocket club.

Of course, my school is nerdy. But, hey that's why we are the top school in BLR.
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[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2011-06-18 11:17 pm (UTC)
> That is definitely a huge part of it, but it doesn't explain the difference between America and Western Europe.

It also doesn't explain the difference between America now and a few decades ago, when Bobby Fisher was bigger than Jesus when he returned victorious as World Chess Champion.

Is the Cold War *really* all that that was about?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-06-18 11:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah I thought about that, and I think it might pretty much boil down to the Cold War. If I understand correctly, the public at the time perceived US military superiority as strongly contingent on technological superiority, and so we needed to signal that Americans were smarter. And what better way to assert that than bringing home the World Chess Championship?

But I wasn't even born at the time, so I probably have no idea what I'm talking about.
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[User Picture]From: paper_crystals
2011-01-26 03:08 pm (UTC)
So I spent a lot of time thinking about this. And I think fixious said about half of what I was going to say. And then some things which I wasn't because I don't know anything about living in India because I never lived there.

In the United States people don't look up to the Alan Turings as much as we do the Andrew Carnegies. Why be a nerd when you can manage them? Or to give another example why be the person painting the fence when you could be Tom Sawyer? When we talk about great American heroes we usually talk about their social and physical accomplishments even if their accomplishments were really academic. When we talk about Lewis and Clark we don't talk about them as anthropologists, naturalists or map makers. We talk about them as great explorers even though the country they were exploring was largely inhabited when they were exploring it. They were great people because they were management. Sacagawea was a footnote because she was the person who actually knew about how to navigate the area that they were exploring.

In the United States people admire the "self made man" and you can't self make yourself in the United States through doing well at chess. Even if you did do it yourself. You prove that you are a self made man through starting a business. Not getting a prestigious job in academia. People see Bill Gates as management not as someone who has obtained academic acheivement. They see him as one of the people that makes the United States what it is.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-01-26 05:29 pm (UTC)
Interesting perspective! Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: dandydand
2011-01-31 04:33 am (UTC)
I would add that in the music industry, we look up to lead performers and don't tend to think much about the composers, directors, and supporting musicians (orchestra, choir, etc.) that make the music possible. Admittedly, performing arts direct your attention to the spotlight (real or metaphorical), but I can't help but feel that we're drawn there too easily without appreciating or understanding what we're listening to.
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