Why do we deify or despise the unfamiliar?


I’m in the curious position of having met a great many Nobel laureates. I’ve had dinner with some, gone drinking with others, had long conversations with a few. I’ve gone to the Lindau meetings twice, where Nobelists are everywhere. Furthermore, I’ve known brilliant people who have done phenomenal work of Nobel quality who would never be awarded one because the Nobels only cover a very small, limited number of subjects.

And I realized that I’ve known more Nobel prize winners, and with greater familiarity, than I’ve known plumbers. I’ve probably known only 3 or 4 plumbers, and not well at all: they come to my house, they do a job, and they leave, and we don’t go out for drinks afterwards. So my knowledge base for plumbers is a little weak, but I can do a comparison anyway. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • Nobelists know some things very, very well, and you have to respect their achievements. But if you talk to them at any length, you’ll discover there are some things that you understand better than they do, and you may even find some glaring gaps in their knowledge. They are not paragons of all things, but they are very interesting to talk to. Plumbers, on the other hand, definitely have some arcane and practical knowledge that will awe you with its application. I’m going to call this one a tie.

  • People are people, and like all people, some Nobelists are appalling jerks, others are kind and generous. Some you want to spend more time with, others you want to flee and go puke in a bucket. In my small sampling of plumbers, the ones I’ve known have all been helpful and eager to solve my problems, although I do have to acknowledge in the abstract that there was that Joe the Plumber guy, who was in the puke-in-a-bucket category, so maybe some do exhibit the negative range of behaviors. Still, using my personal knowledge, I have to give this point to the plumbers (also, knowing Jim Watson may have skewed the Nobelists unfairly downward.)

  • There have been occasions in my life where I have desperately needed a plumber. I have never needed a Nobelist. Point: plumbers.

  • Has anyone made a popular video game starring running, leaping Nobel prize winners? I thought not. Point: clearly in favor of Mario. (not Capecchi, despite his great qualities).

  • I have respect for Nobelists — they’ve accomplished something great. But I also have a reasonable perspective on their work, and know that most often it was the product of huge numbers of people working together, and they are just lucky enough to be the figurehead representing a large team. On the other hand, that plumber who came to our house in the middle of the night when a water main broke and a surging waterfall was gushing into our basement…that man was like unto a god. A hero. I bow down before him. All the points: plumbers.

So please, have some reasonable perspective. I agree completely with this article that looks realistically at Nobel prizes. Stop with the hero worship and appreciate them for what they actually are. Look around you at all the other people who have skills and talents that don’t earn fancy gold medals and media adulation. I’ve been seeing a lot of over-the-top idolization of a few scientists lately, and it’s tiresome.

No more heroes. At least, not until we find a Nobelist who can fix a spewing toilet and makes house calls. Then we’re going to have to come up with a bigger prize than the Nobel.


  1. Lofty says

    No more heroes

    Some people grow out of the need for heroes, some clearly don’t, or haven’t yet.

  2. grendelsfather says

    I think a John Gardner quote is appropriate here:
    “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

  3. csrster says

    I love my College, but the fact that Jim Watson and Tim Hunt are both Honorary Fellows is probably not its greatest selling point right now, tbh.

  4. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    Has anyone made a popular video game starring running, leaping Nobel prize winners? I thought not. Point: clearly in favor of Mario. (not Capecchi, despite his great qualities).

    Now that seems a little unfair. True, I’m not sure how many actual Nobel prize winners video games feature (TVTropes could probably help me out with that), but science, especially mad science (both for good and for bad) features in a ton of games.

    More recently, obviously, games like Portal or Quantum Conundrum, but also older games like Fallout. If you want destructo-beams, two-headed cows, anti-grav packs or whatever, Scientist™ is there for you. Hm, although you’re certainly right that it’s more often than not in the role of antagonist, supporting character, mentor, friend or whatever, than as the actual heroic protagonist.

  5. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I can understand caring about a person, I can understand respecting the heck out of a person for something they’ve done… I really can’t understand this “everything this person does/says is perfect and infallible and don’t ever criticize them” bullcrap. It’s just weird.

  6. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    grendelsfather, that is a great quote :)

  7. danimal says

    And there’s Gordon Freeman in Half-Life… he didn’t win a Nobel though!

    +1 @grendelsfather :)

  8. leerudolph says

    Why do we deify or despise the unfamiliar?

    Why, indeed? From the viewpoint of my version of atheism, we (FSVO “we”) both deify AND despise; there’s no “or” about it!

  9. leerudolph says

    I haven’t met as many Fields Medalists as you have Nobel prize winners, but none of them (so far) have been at all assholish (in my presence, or by reputation). Small sample size(s), difference between mathematics and the sciences, or the (significant) difference in the recipients’ ages when they get their awards?

  10. Stardrake says

    Now, now PZ…”Joe the Plumber” was neither a plumber nor named Joe, so let’s not let him stain the noble escutcheon of Plumbing. (And speaking of Nobel winners–I recall that Einstein once sasid that he’s like to have been a plumber. The Plumber’s Union made him an honorary member!)

  11. hillaryrettig says

    #2 grendelsfather

    Another John Gardner fan! excellent! I use his work all the time in my classes and writing.

    pursuant to Nobelists, I think it was Fermi who, when asked what the Nobelists had in common, thought for a moment and then said, “Nothing, not even intelligence.”

    if you look at the top performers in ANY field, there’s probably a large quotient of assholery, since callousness, egocentricity, monomania, etc., are probably required.

  12. says

    Stardrake beat me to it on Samuel Wurzelbacher not being an actual plumber. However, the false branding is instructive. We think of plumbers as the archetypal regular Joe. But it’s a highly skilled craft with a lot of responsibility for public health and safety, and it requires keeping up to date with changing regulations and technology, as well as a certain degree of interpersonal skill, not to mention a high tolerance for yuckiness. I give plumbers massive props. Nobel laureates? Half of them seem to go crazy and turn into raving racists or crackpots.

  13. carlie says

    Plus, there’s the fact that the Nobel prize itself is awarded by… a small group of people who also aren’t deities. It’s not like who gets the prize isn’t affected by personalities, publicity, personal preferences, who the committee can compromise on, etc. The prize isn’t some objective measure of Greatness as scored by the One True Greatness Rubric.

  14. carlie says

    And having spent the better part of a day on a single “easy” plumbing repair, I appreciate the skill sets of plumbers.

  15. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    @#7 danimal
    “And there’s Gordon Freeman in Half-Life… he didn’t win a Nobel though!”

    In fact, wasn’t he a lab assistant? At best somebody else would get a Nobel for his work/him saving the world.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    During school, a close friend and I were crazy about the space program (this was during Apollo) and about astronomy.
    He trained as a plumber, and was soon making $$$. He used this to buy his family a nice house at commuting distance, but far enough from the city to have a dark night sky.
    Then he built himself his own goddamn observatorium, with a primary mirror so big few off-the-shelf components fitted. After years of teething troubles it is now operational, and he lets school kids make trips out there to experience what real astronomy with a real dark sky is.
    He is a living proof of the fallacy of stereotypes.

  17. speedwell says

    Plumbers are in business to solve concrete problems for money. If you want to make a comparison to plumbers, you should use design engineers who work for you to invent things, not Nobelists. The proper comparison to Nobelists you have over for dinner and drinks is probably lawyers and doctors you are not the client or patient of.

  18. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Poor Luigi always gets forgotten. It’s Mario BROS. Plumbing, y’all. Don’t forget. ;)

  19. Donnie says

    @8 leerudolph
    29 June 2015 at 9:15 am

    I haven’t met as many Fields Medalists as you have Nobel prize winners, but none of them (so far) have been at all assholish (in my presence, or by reputation). Small sample size(s),….

    There was that guy in Good Will Hunting who was a Fields medal winner, and he was a pompous asshole. Point: Mario :)

  20. anbheal says

    Actually, one Nobelist, Einstein, appears in a few different video games — Civilization, Command and Conquer, Red Alert, e.g. And if we ever actually find real evidence of Hawking radiation, well, then Black Hole Vortex will have a Nobelist in it, at least by implication.

  21. anbheal says

    My point being that Hawking will win the Nobel the day after we find the evidence…..

  22. consciousness razor says

    My point being that Hawking will win the Nobel the day after we find the evidence…..

    It will probably be a long time before that happens, and Nobels aren’t given posthumously. Then again, betting that Hawking’s going to die soon hasn’t been working out very well for the past 50 years or so…. I suspect he might be a lich or a wizard or something like that.

    But Einstein is a good one. Plumbers aren’t looking so great now, are they PZ?

  23. carlie says

    I linked to page 1 in the OP.

    Dammit, carlie! Read all the links first, read all the links first, read all the links first, read all the links first….

  24. williamhyde says

    Perhaps that is why John Kenneth Galbraith never won the “Nobel” prize in economics. He could, and did, fix people’s plumbing. Just one of the advantages of doing your undergrad degree at an agricultural college

    William Hyde

  25. ijkcomputer says

    Two crucial points:

    – the plumber who stopped your flood was the figurehead above a huge number of plumbers (and others) working together, designing and building plumbing systems and tools and replacement parts and all

    – Joe the Plumber was not, in fact, a plumber. He never plumbed anything, other than perhaps the lowest abysses of our political discourse. So that doesn’t count.

  26. Cliff Hendroval says

    I will say that I’ve only encountered one Nobel Prize winner (Hans Bethe, Physics ’67, aka that nice old man down the street who’d wave when I walked past as he was puttering in his yard). I’d certainly take him over one of the plumbers we had who wanted me to pity him because all those damned hippies spit on him when he returned from Vietnam. One thing I do know is never to call someone a fucking liar when they’ve got a wrench in their hand.

  27. magistramarla says

    Thanks to daughter #1 we’ve had the chance to meet several Nobel prize winners and even Stephen Hawking at events held at Cal Tech. I’m totally unaware of most science, so I usually don’t even realize who I’m chatting with until my daughter informs me that the nice man that I was chatting with near the chocolate fountain was a Nobel prize winner in some aspect of science.
    Other than the great honor of meeting Professor Hawking, I simply think of those scientists as nice gentlemen whom I had the pleasure of meeting because of my daughter.

  28. grendelsfather says

    hillaryrettig @11 –
    Despite my nym, I was utterly surprised to find that there were any John Gardner fans out there. The John W. Gardener responsible for this quote was a member of LBJ’s cabinet back in the 1960’s. He went on to several academic positions, I think, but the only reason I know of him is because of this great quote. It comes in handy more often than you might expect.

    Still, I was puzzled to learn that he still has fans. A few minutes of googling led me to the John Gardner of Grendel fame, and all was clear. I suppose I have to add the new John Gardner to my summer reading list. Thanks in advance for the inadvertent lead.

  29. johnmarley says

    @oliversarmy (#36)
    Damn you and your ’80s pop references. You owe me a keyboard.

    @chigau (#39)
    because with no heroes she’ll be waiting ’til the morning light.

  30. wcorvi says

    @ #24 Donnie
    Good Will Hunting was a MOVIE. IE FICTION! I’ve never known an academic like that, in real life, let alone a mathematician.

  31. Timothy McGaha says

    @speedwell: Arguably true, but I think that even by that rubric plumbers come out on top. When your toilet blows up, you need help NOW. Hardly anyone ever needed immediate intervention by a design engineer. If it’s blowing up, just about all the engineer can do is take notes so the NEXT one won’t blow up.

    If you want a real conundrum, here’s one: Plumbers or HVAC technicians? That’s going to depend heavily on the season, weather, and nature of your particular emergency…

    (Full Disclosure: I’m an engineer by trade, and my dad was an HVAC tech.)

  32. MarkM1427 says

    There is only one Nobel laureate who even comes close to being a “hero”: Norman Borlaug

  33. oliversarmy says

    Hi chigau (#39)
    Johnmarley (#40) is right. And he’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast, and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight.

    In Dawkin’s case the fight to keep women in their place.