Thursday, June 25, 2015

Celebrate the Nerd!

Here's my definition of a nerd:

A nerd is someone who loves an intellectual topic, for its own sake, to an unreasonable degree.

The nerd might be unreasonably passionate about Leibnizian metaphysics, for example -- she studies Latin, French, and German so she can master the original texts, she stays up late reading neglected passages, argues intensely about obscure details with anyone who has the patience to listen. Or she loves twin primes in that same way, or the details of Napoleonic warfare, or the biology of squids. How could anyone care so much about such things?

It's not that the nerd sees some great practical potential in studying twin primes (though she might half-heartedly try to defend herself in that way), or is responding in the normal way to something that sensible people might study carefully because of its importance (such as a cure for leukemia). Rather the nerd is compelled by an intellectual topic and builds a substantial portion of her life around it, with no justification that would make sense to anyone who is not similarly consumed by that topic. All passions drift free of reasonable justification to some extent, but still there's a difference between moderate passions and passions so extreme and compelling that one is somewhat unbalanced as a result of them. The nerd will sacrifice a lot -- time, money, opportunities -- to learn just a little bit more about her favored topic.

The secondary features of nerdiness are side effects: The nerd might not care about dressing nicely. She's too busy worrying about the Leibniz Nachlass. The nerd might fail at being cool -- she's not invested in developing the social skills that would be required. The nerd might be introverted: Maybe she really was introverted all along and that's part of why she found herself with her nerdy passions; or maybe she's an introvert partly in reaction to other people's failure to care about squid. Oh, but now squid have come up in the conversation? Her knowledge is finally relevant! The nerd becomes now too eager to deploy her vast knowledge. She won't stop talking. She'll correct all your minor errors. She'll nerdsplain tirelessly at you.

The nerd needn't possess any of these secondary features: Caring intensely about the Leibniz Nachlass needn't consume one entirely, and so there can still be room for the nerd to care also, in a normal, non-intellectual way, about ordinary things. But the tendency on average will be for nerdy passion to push away other interests and projects, with the result that uncool, shlumpy introverts will be overrepresented among nerds.

Innate genius might exist. But I don't find the empirical evidence very compelling. What I think passes for innate genius is often just nerdy passion. Meeting the nerd on her own turf, she can appear to be a natural-born genius or talent because she has already thought the topic through so thoroughly that she operates two moves ahead of you and has a chess-master-like recognition of the patterns of intellectual back-and-forth in the area. She has thought repetitively, and from many angles, of the various ways in which pieces of Leibniz might possibly connect, or about the wide range of techniques in prime-number mathematics, or about the four competing theories of squid neural architecture and their relative empirical weaknesses. She dreams them at night. How could you hope to keep up? She will also master related domains so that she exceeds you there, too -- early modern philosophy generally and abstract metaphysics, say, for the Leibniz nerd. Other aspects of her mind might not be so great -- just ask her to fix a faucet or find her way around downtown -- but meet her anywhere near her turf and she'll scorch right past you. If she is good enough also at exuding an aura of intelligence (not all nerds are, but it's a social technique that pairs well with nerdiness), then you might attribute her overperformance on Leibniz to her innate brilliance, her underperformance in plumbing to her not giving a whit.

Movies like Good Will Hunting drive me nuts, because they feed the impression that intellectual accomplishment is the result of an innate gift, rather than the result of nerdy passion. In this way, they are antithetical to the vision of nerdiness that I want to celebrate. A janitor who doesn't care (much?) about math but is innately great at it -- and somehow also knows better than history graduate students what's going on in obscure texts in their field? Such innate-genius movies rely on the fixed mindset that Carol Dweck has criticized. What I think I see in the nerdy eminences I have met is not so much innate genius as years of thought inspired by passion for stuff that no one sensible would care so much about.

Society needs nerds. If we want to know as much as a society ought to know about Leibniz and about squids, we benefit from having people around who are so unreasonably passionate about these things that they will master them to an amazing degree. There's also just something glorious about a world that contains people who care as passionately about obscure intellectual topics as the nerd does.

**** Celebrate the nerd! ****

[image source, image source]


Sean Landis said...

Great post! I'm similarly fascinated with this topic: I'm about to leave for six weeks to teach at a self-described "nerd camp" for teens, where we celebrate the merits of nerdiness. I wrote a critical defense of nerds a while back:

1. Are Nerds Irrational?
2. Are Academics Irrational?
3. Not All Nerds Are Irrational
4. Maybe Some Nerds Are Irrational

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Awesome, Sean -- thanks for the links and defense of neediness everywhere!

Matthew Gore said...

"There's also just something glorious about a world that contains people who care as passionately about obscure intellectual topics as the nerd does."

I have an experience where nerd may be a negatively defined negative character in the abduction of obscurity. As such, I would say: what isn't the nerd is not well known. You see, I've been held in reproach for using the term 'pseudointellectual' in philosophical company. Claims of pseudoscience and psuedoreligion score some points for the same vanity as our company's pseudointellectual cliche in philosophical dialectic. These claims are something which I would think is obscured when involving intellectual tropes of philosophical merit by way of vanity. Is philosophical vanity an agency to obscurity?

chinaphil said...

Yeah, nerds are good.

There's one danger which I think is worth mentioning. A nerd is, almost by definition, someone who doesn't do their thing professionally. I'm sure, for example, that Paul Krugman is an economics nerd, but it'd be weird to call him that, because he's an economics professor. Scientists are nerdish about their areas; I'm a nerd about comparative linguistics, but that's because it's my job (or vice versa). So nerds are always at risk of the problems that come from being self-taught, and out of the mainstream on their subject. 9/11 truthers are nerds. The recognition nerds get as nerds from non-specialists is simply ill-informed - it's that aura of cleverness that laypeople see; they're not in a position to detect actual cleverness. And there's always that suspicion: if you know so much about Napoleon, why aren't you teaching history? If you're such a big health nerd, is the reason you couldn't get into medical school because you think that crystals have healing power?

I guess I should create some terminology: there is a fine line between a nerd and a kook. A nerd is someone who loves one subject, but has failed to (or chosen not to) make that passion a driver of positive things in her life (e.g. career, reputation); often (but of course not always), that failure is because she is in fact a kook.

Callan S. said...

I've hypothesized similar - it's that passion shapes/forms intellect. Folds it over and over, like folding steel. It's the nuances of passion that eventually result in E=MC squared.

However, I also think it's escapism - the squid details are a world unto itself like any fantasy novel someone knows far too much lore about.

It's actually easier with the squid, because what occurs is lifting the ideas of certain facts on the subject as becoming important not because Jim, five minutes ago, said it was important but instead just important in and over themselves. Then every new fact about the squid gets coated (like some kinda ink? ;) ) with this important in and of itself.

An importance that can be far more rewarding than the world the nerd faces. Social or otherwise.

But as the 'importance in and of itself' calls, that bubble remains. Or if you can see it - well, it bursts and I use that as one excuse for my lousy accademic capacity. Passion all spills away without a bubble to surround it. And I'm not cool either, so worst of both worlds!