IT’S hard to get agreement on the origin of the word ‘boffin’, but let me Google it for you.
Ah, yes, the word became popular during the Second World War, when scientists, engineers, or technical experts were referred to as ‘boffins’.
The term had a number of literary incarnations before that, and etymologist, Eric Partridge, made the keen observation that a Charles Dickens character, a Mr Boffin, in Our Mutual Friend, was “a very odd-looking old fellow, indeed”.
That sounds about right, because the word is rarely complimentary.
Sometimes, yes, there is a smidgen of begruding admiration when we label someone a ‘boffin’, but, more often than not, it’s a putdown, a jokey, blokey sort of putdown, but a putdown nonetheless.
It’s a hard time to be a boffin, or an expert of any type, for that matter. We members of the Googling public now have so much information at our fingertips that we think we know just about everything.
And it’s not just ordinary folk who have taken to downgrading scholars with gusto. Remember former UK education secretary, Michael Gove’s pre-Brexit attack on ‘expert’ economists?
He said people “had had enough of experts” and that their apocalyptic warnings should be taken “with a pinch of salt”. Cue throaty cheers down the back.
He repeated the attack last November, but clarified that he didn’t think all experts spouted nonsense, just a “sub-class” of experts that included economists, pollsters, and social scientists. That’s all right, then.
On the other side of the world, US president-elect, Donald Trump, hasn’t even taken office yet, but it was clear from this week’s press conference that we’re in for a ride and it will be, in equal parts, tragic and comic.
In one way, it’s refreshing to see a man question his own intelligence agency, the CIA. After all, that was the very agency that sold us the lie, in 2002, that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Then again, to hear the man who is about to hold one of the highest offices in the western world use words such as “crap” is, to put it mildly, unedifying.
All the same, it’s not okay for news outlets to publish unverified reports about him, just because he’s been a bit casual with the truth on more than one occasion himself.
Oh, it’s getting to be a very confusing world.
If it had been showing, I’d have switched to the Channel 4 show, Embarrassing Bodies. It’s less cringe-making and more research-focused.
No wonder there’s talk of the death of expertise. In an article a few years ago, Tom Nichols, an American… ahem… expert on public policy warned of the dangers of giving everyone’s opinion equal weight.
He has since written a book (The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters), to be published this spring.
Yes, Google is wonderful and so, too, are all those democratising blogs that have given expression to people in every corner of the world.
But knowledge is not created equal.
As Nichols warned, thanks to the opening-up of comment (a good thing) there has been a total collapse in the division between those who simply wonder and those who actually know (a very bad thing).
Professionals, laymen, students, teachers, ‘knowers’ and ‘wonderers’ are all now lumped together. There is no division between “those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all,” Nichols says.
And how right he is. It’s not that there aren’t experts — there are many — it’s just that our willingness to recognise the value of years of study, experience, and work in a particular field has been sadly eroded by the rise of Wikipedia, the clickers, and the have-a-go commentators.
That’s not to say opening up discussion is not a good thing. It is, but not everyone is an expert on everything.
However, there is hope and it’s flooding through the darkness of an Irish January at this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition. It’s that wonderful time of year when the ‘snowflake’ generation strikes back.
We’re been scratching our heads trying to label them — millennials, snowflakers, Gen Z — and trying to chart the catastrophic course of the future they face.
None of that, however, counts for very much during these few days of blessed optimism, when our young scientists show us what they can do.
Over 1,100 students are exhibiting 550 projects at the RDS, in Dublin, this week.
And what projects: how to turn used coffee grounds into a fuel source; the use of banana peel for eco-friendly nylon; the development of a non-electric fridge; a scientific investigation into the cures of the Irish Traveller.
It’s heartening, too, to see that 61% of entrants are female. And that increased participation is set to continue.
Next month, 4,000 young women are expected at the Science Foundation Ireland-backed ‘I Wish’ conference, which is designed to encourage more women to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and maths.
And yet, there’s room for improvement. This week, we heard of the need for more physics teachers in Irish schools; there are three times more biology teachers than physics teachers at second level.
But even more important than that is the need to ensure our bright young sparks know how to apply the rigorousness of scientific thinking to the world around them. In this Twitter-drenched society, we’re depending on them to start questioning again.
This generation seems to have forgotten what critical thinking is. Evidence and hard facts appear to have gone out of fashion. We used to ask questions. Now, it seems, we take to social media to ‘comment’ (ie, harangue, heckle, and harass).
I don’t know about you, but I’m pinning my hopes on the up-and-coming young boffins to change that.