New Yorker & Times writers use verbal selfies to communicate myth that science & math are hard & not fun

The epidemic of verbal selfies used to begin feature articles continues unabated. It seems as if every other feature article begins with something about the writer—personal struggles with the problem under discussion, an anecdote from childhood, a favorite professor’s lecture on the topic years ago, how the topic reminds the writer of another subject, the writer’s enthusiasm in broaching the topic, the means by which the writer travelled to meet someone in the article.

These verbal selfies are often laughable, but none more so than Alex Wilkinson’s first few sentences in “The Pursuit of Beauty” in the New Yorker. In sharing his attitude towards and experience with the subject matter, Wilkinson disqualifies himself from writing the article at the same time revealing he is a dishonorable person not to be trusted. 

The article is about a math professor who solved a math problem open for more than 150 years. To entice us to continue reading, which is the function of the first paragraph of a prose piece, Wilkinson writes:

“I don’t see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x’s and y’s. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain—smart boys whose handwriting I could read—and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher’s eyes. Having skipped me, the talent for math concentrated extravagantly in one of my nieces…”

The article is about advanced math. To write it will require the writer to understand some fairly complicated ideas, at least conceptually, and to understand them well enough to be able to translate them into journalistic English for the reader. Wilkinson disqualifies himself because he admits that he couldn’t even do simple algebra. What’s more, he admits he cheated to pass his math classes. How do we know he hasn’t fudged some of the facts in the article? How do we know his explanation of the problem the mathematician solved doesn’t smooth over with rhetorical lies those concepts Wilkinson failed to understand?

In short, Wilkinson embarrasses and disqualifies himself within the first three sentences. And an editor approved his copy!

Charles Blow tries but fails to pull the same anti-science crap in his article, “A Future Segregated by Science,” in the New York Times. He starts the article, “Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.” But then Blow quickly admits he loves science (he just likes the arts more!) and even won a high school science fair with a research project. Blow continues his disquisition about his personal relationship with “science” with a shaggy dog story about an airline losing the winning project, preventing him from competing in an international science fair. All this personal stuff comes before a very good article on the racial and gender gap that currently exists in science and technology (STEM) careers.

At least Blow doesn’t disqualify himself from writing the article, since 1) he admits he’s actually pretty good at science and 2) the article is about analyzing statistics—his area of expertise as a writer—and not about science itself.

It’s rare for Blow to start an article with a personal anecdote, except for when the piece concerned Yale campus police stopping his son, a Yalie, without cause. He’s one of the most legitimately creative and interesting journalists with a regular column in a daily newspaper, one who rarely resorts to cheap, overused rhetorical devices.

Why then did Blow feel compelled to start the article by assuring us he’s “Not a science guy”? The article bemoans the fact that science work has become segregated and that few minorities have science and technology careers. He blames both schools for not producing enough STEM graduates and corporations for not hiring recent Hispanic and Black science graduates at the rate at which they do graduate. Blow ends his article with a call for more gender and racial equality in STEM careers.

Blow doesn’t realize that his beginning—“Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy”—is a small part of the problem. Week after week journalists interject snide asides about science and math: Science and math are hard subjects. They’re not fun. Those who like them are socially maladroit and unathletic. Science careers aren’t glamorous. Add to these articles the extensive coverage given to the truly small number of global warming deniers, those who would deny their children vaccines and opponents to evolution. No wonder so many kids don’t want to pursue science careers!

One weapon in this decades-long media war against science and math is for writers to distance themselves from the subject by saying they find it hard or they don’t like it. Some might say that the writers who express dislike or fear of STEM subjects are trying to establish rapport with their readers, who might not be adept at science or might be intimidated by it. But this hypothetical rapport is firmly based in the ideological premise that science and math are difficult and not enjoyable and thereby merely contributes to the anti-science mythology, which is part of the mass media’s larger anti-intellectualism.

Both the cheating poor student Wilkinson and the honorable good student Blow use this rhetorical device and put it at the very beginning of the article. In Wilkinson’s case, it disqualifies him from even writing the article. In Blow’s case, it merely postpones what turns out to be a fine discussion of a crisis.

The two writers are unified by their employment of the most overused rhetorical device in contemporary non-fiction to make a statement that contributes to the anti-science attitudes pervasive in the mass media. How American: narcissism in pursuit of anti-intellectualism.


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