The Nerd-Off

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollSep 11, 2006 1:47 AM


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Dr. Free-Ride is trying to goad us into proclaiming our nerdliness. Various science bloggers are having a friendly competition to see who is the nerdliest of them all, and she wants to know why CV isn't represented. Regrettably, I'm going to pass on this one. (Not that I couldn't put up a respectable showing, since past indiscretions are apparently fair game; I loved my old RPN Hewlett-Packard calculator, and I'll put the glasses I wore in high school up against anyone's.) It's just that I'm not entirely on board with the program of reclaiming "nerdliness" as a badge of honor, as gays have managed to reclaim queer and so forth. Words like "nerd" or "geek" have two very different sets of connotations, and it's hard to evoke one without the other. One has to do with technical mastery and know-how, or even a more broadly-based appreciation for things academic and intellectual. The other has to do with social awkwardness, the inability to comfortably converse with strangers at cocktail parties, and a tendency to dress in the least attractive way possible. Roughly speaking, the first of these connotations is "good," and the second is "bad." But they're both problematic. Nobody would be happier than me if we could somehow increase society's appreciation for people with technical skills, and eliminate the defensive dismissal that so many people fall back on when confronted with math or science or computers. (There are only so many times you can tell people what you do for a living, only to hear "That was my worst subject in high school.") So in that very particular sense, I'm all in favor of celebrating nerdliness. But for me it's very much a part of what should be a general appreciation for intellectual endeavor, whether technically oriented or not. And as a matter of personal experience, I've found science and engineering types to be at least as anti-intellectual as the average person on the street, when it comes to non-technical kinds of scholarship. Naturally, there are plenty of pro-intellectual types, among people with and without technical backgrounds. That geek cred, however, lends a special kind of bite to know-nothingness when it rears its ugly head; someone with a Ph.D. in physics can not only dismiss philosophy or art or literature as airy nonsense, they can compare it directly and unfavorably to their own sphere of competence. And they do. But it's the social-backwardness aspect of being a nerd that is the biggest problem. You can protest all you want that you're really talking about technical competence, not lack of social fluency, but the latter comes immediately to mind whenever anyone hears talk about nerds and geeks. Wikipedia spells it out:

Nerd, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to somebody who pursues academic and intellectual interests at the expense of social skills such as: interpersonal communication, fashion, and physical fitness.

What is worse, there's a certain point of view (I won't name names ... some of my best friends are nerds) that actually celebrates social awkwardness for its own sake. (Trust me about this, I've been employed by both MIT and Caltech.) And that's just wrong. I'm not talking about principled eccentricity, letting your freak flag fly -- nothing wrong with that, in fact it's admirable in its own way. Nor am I saying that everyone should be scouring the latest issues of GQ and Vogue for fashion tips; superficiality is just as bad as nerdliness. And laughing at our high-school (and college) selves is always fun and healthy. All I'm saying is that there is much to be valued in an ability to relate to other kinds of people in a disparate set of circumstances, take care of your appearance, and function effectively in a wider social context. These are skills we should try to cultivate, not disparage. The point is that these two aspects of nerdliness operate against each other. If we want the rest of the world to appreciate technical skills, then we should work to eradicate the notion that they are necessarily associated with a lack of social skills. And that's the connotation of "nerd," like it or not. Celebrating knowledge and competence and intellectual curiosity is good, but celebrating nerdliness sends the wrong message, I would argue. There's no reason why someone who programs in assembly and is deft with a contour integral can't also be a well-rounded and engaging conversationalist who is at all the gallery openings and whom everyone wants at their parties -- that's the message we want to send. What a killjoy, huh? In my defense, if you'd been sleeping on a concrete floor for the last several days, waiting for your furniture to arrive, you'd be grumpy too.

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