Serious Academics Are Full of Shit

By Maddie Stone on at

Last week, a Serious Academic™ exhausted hundreds of words denouncing the use of social media by his colleagues while insinuating that selfie culture poses an existential threat to academic life. The social media backlash from other serious academics was swift and on point, reminding us that many scientists are voluntary participants in the broader experiment of human society.

I have an opinion about this. It’s an opinion that’s guaranteed to bite me in the arse for years to come—sorry future self, yolo Senior Week—but here it is anyway:

Serious Academics* are full of shit. They are full of Serious Doodoo.

*I have many friends who I consider to be serious academics and yet who are not overheated sweater vests. This post is in no way a criticism of them. Sweater vests, you know who you are. #NotAllAcademics

These fun-hating, highfalutin’ smarties have fought to maintain an exclusive and exclusionary scholastic environment since the first Ivory Towers were built. This is an opinion I have formed through nearly nine years of higher education at R1 research universities, which afforded me ample exposure to the aggrandising affect and xenophobic tendencies of the Serious Academic. And if I hadn’t already decided to quit science because blogging is honestly much more fun than pipetting, the exhausting self-importance of Serious Academics would have made me jump ship eventually, I’m sure of it.

Which brings me to a confession: I have a PhD. I suppose that makes me a doctor? It doesn’t really matter—I wrote a dissertation on soil and microbes (technically “carbon biogeochemistry,” which has implications for understanding our biosphere as a holistic system and predicting future climate change blah blah blah), but as I have yet to meet another human being who openly identifies as a dirt doctor, I will continue to assume that this is not a thing one does.

Regardless, it is the truth. I may be a blogger/reporter/writer/occasional internet loudmouth today, but I also identify as a scientist, and to some degree as a serious academic. What that doesn’t make me is smarter, or more important, or more deserving of respect, than you. What that doesn’t make me is free from the responsibility to participate in society, or to explain how I am using your taxpayer dollars. And it sure as hell doesn’t absolve me of the obligation to treat my fellow human beings as equals.

And if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with academics rolling their eyes at other academics who take selfies with gators, I’ll tell you: scientists who engage with the public are put down, forced on the defensive, and labelled a “waste of time” by their Smarter, More Serious, and Definitely More Anonymous academic peers, pretty much all the time.

Here’s the thing about scientists: we’re all just a bunch of nerds. Like many of my peers, I was inspired to walk the path of science thanks to an excessive dose of science fiction as a child. My heroes were Ellie Arroway, Beverly Crusher, and even total dweebs like Wayne Szalinski. Scientists were go-lucky explorers who spent their days fearlessly charting the unknown and rescuing their peers from impossible situations, and I wanted to be one of them.

Of course, I got older and discovered that real science is not about fighting alien monsters or building interdimensional laser beams. It is about The Slog. In high school and college I worked in a behavioural neuroscience lab, a microbiology lab, a nutritional biochemistry lab, and a soil science lab. I spent countless hours feeding mice, breeding fruit flies, plating bacteria, running PCRs and enzyme assays. I learned that science is mostly boring, and I made my peace with that.

But scientists aren’t drawn to their profession because they love mind-numbing repetition and enormous spreadsheets full of meaningless numbers. They are drawn to science because they are inspired by big ideas, or because they are obsessed with a burning question, or because they can’t stop dreaming of an awesome technology. In other words, because they are nerds who love science. So why are scientists giving other scientists shit for live-tweeting conferences, writing op-eds, doing public outreach, and finding creative ways to share their passion with the world and make that day-to-day slog more bearable?

The answer is complex. It involves enduring cultural norms, weird academic incentive structures, and institutionalised fears about the democratisation of scholarship. It’s beyond the scope of this blog post, which I fear has already become a bit serious for Senior Week.

But I do hope the culture changes over time. When I was nearing the dissertation finish line, I remember telling a senior scientist who I admired that I wanted to become a science writer. I distinctly recall her gasping—gasping!—before imploring me to reconsider this aberrant and clearly incorrect life choice. I was, she told me in the most ass-backwards compliment I’ve ever received, “far too good for that.”

I’m not bitter about leaving science—I couldn’t be happier working with these freaks over at Gizmodo. But whenever I hear a Serious Academic opine that his Great Institution of Higher Learning is being sullied by the frivolities of Common Folk, I can’t help but roll my eyes and wonder how many other serious academics feel trapped on the inside.