Just because someone is a brilliant scientist, it does not necessarily follow that he/she is a brilliant anything-else. But our society misses this important fact time and time again. We turn to our premiere scientists, top technologists and successful businesspeople for their opinions on social issues. We ask them to speak at conferences on any number of topics unrelated to their fields of expertise. We call them when an important legislative issue is being deliberated, assuming that because they are so smart, they can help us.
The first time I started thinking about this was in 1998. I had just returned to Pasadena from Washington DC, where I set up an interactive media department in the then largest law firm in the United States. I am not sure exactly how or why I received an invitation to a luncheon at Caltech, where journalist and long-time presidential advisor David Gergen was scheduled to speak. But what I vividly remember was what David Gergen said about Microsofts’ Bill Gates during his speech.
Gergen had recently interviewed Gates, and admitted that he had been very excited about meeting and talking with the man many considered the smartest in the world. But, Gergen shared, he was stunned to discover that Bill Gates had less knowledge of social issues that any person he had interviewed in his entire career.
Think of that for a minute. This is the man who subsequently went on to start a foundation to save the world; the man who through his foundation is setting the world priorities for what gets fixed, and what does not. This is the man our legislators and news media call on all the time for his opinion about any myriad of topics: What does Bill Gates think of Net Neutrality? the Wars? Poverty? World Health? Education?
Yesterday I read in the New York Times how Gates has now teamed up with a history professor to rewrite the history taught in all our U.S. high school classes – after he took one course on history from Great Courses! Of course he loved that history course! Bill Gates was a college drop-out. He undoubtedly spent little academic time prior to college ruminating and studying anything more than computer science. This was probably his first actual exposure to history. And suddenly, because he is so smart, we think he should determine our country’s high school history curriculum? Oh, please.
Yesterday I sat out sipping an iced coffee at my favorite outdoor patio, and I listened to a Caltech astro-physicist telling his coffee companion all about what was the matter with this country: in a nutshell, he focused on the “illegals,” food stamps (“problem is you start a food stamp program and there is no going back”), welfare, etc. Case in point. And let me speculate here: all the while he trashed those who have immigrated to the U.S. from south of our border, one of those immigrants was meanwhile mowing his lawn back at home, and another vacuuming his house . . . . He may be the most brilliant astro physicist our country has (this is not actually an endorsement of his scientific acumen, I don’t know the man), but when it comes to social issues, he proved himself to me to be a socially uneducated racist bigot as I tried to eat my bagel sandwich and found myself quickly losing my appetite . . . . to be continued