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why geeks suck at politics

Sometime in 2006, somebody conducted a poll measuring people’s perceptions of the Iraq War, essentially asking, “Do you think the war is lost?”

Unlike many polls, however, it broke down the responses based upon profession. You’d think that those most inclined to believe the war lost would be people in academic or media jobs (for largely partisan reasons) — and certainly for such professions the percentage was over 50 — but those who believed mostly strongly that the war was in Iraq already lost were actually scientists/engineers (it was around 80%).

In other words, it was the technical geek types who got it the most wrong, whose predictive abilities and sense of what’s going on were the most off-kilter. While this was only one poll, it nevertheless quantifies a pattern that I’ve seen repeated endlessly (I work in Silicon Valley, and have done so my entire professional life, to one degree or another). This is a surprise to no one but the geeks.

There is something about immersing oneself for decades in technical fields that insulates one from having a clue about the broader world. Part of the problem is provincial geek hubris — “I’m smart; engineering/technology is hard; therefore all I have to do is apply my superior brainpower to the silly little problems of politics and social issues and I’ll identify a solution in short order.” This sort of nonsense doesn’t mean much if the geek is just one or two years out of college, but the longer the geek spends NOT reading, thinking, or learning much outside of his technical field, the further behind he falls to those who are steadily accumulating knowledge and understanding of complex issues in the broader world (and God knows TV and the local newspaper are inadequate sources for this knowledge). In short, geeks have libraries full of technical books and little else. When such individuals fumble around with broader issues, they often look completely ridiculous, and are usually completely unaware of it.

Intellectual hubris and the wrongheaded belief that knowledge in one area is directly translatable into problem-solving ability in another area. Does this sound familiar? Which candidate demonstrates this tendency?

Perhaps McCain should be commended for knowing that an inclination to crap around with finicky, overly complex and buggy electronic devices is the sign of a small mind, not a great one.


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