But Not Simpler

But Not Simpler

Thinking way too hard about science and pop-culture

What's in a Nerd: A Treatise


In honor of YouTube’s Geek Week, and my geekiest posts and videos, I present to you a personal treatise on what I think it means to be a geek (or a nerd, we’ll get to that).

I have a save file in Final Fantasy XII that is 125 hours long. I have gotten into legitimate arguments over the rules governing the tapping of mana in Magic: The Gathering. I don’t like hugs or parties, high school sucked for me, and Nathan Fillion deemed something I wrote his “Favorite Firefly fanboy rant to date.” What do these things make me, a geek, a nerd, a dweeb, a dork, or simply different?

Most people would put me firmly in the nerd/geek category. It wouldn’t be a change from where I’ve been put my whole life, but my place now has standing. Nerds are inexorably cool again. Geeks are chic. The cultural resurgence of the nerd is so strong that we fight about who is a “fake” or “real” nerd, thick-rimmed glasses with useless lenses adorn people with perfect vision, and prime-time television has a show about physicists, engineers, and their obsessions. We’re bringing geeky back.

I want to find out what being a geek or a nerd actually means in a rapidly evolving social landscape. What’s in a nerd? Any answer has to begin with proper definitions.

Nerdy Enough to Know the Difference

Close your eyes and picture a total nerd. You will probably envision a scrawny white male, bespectacled and pocket-protected, with a poor sense of style and a shy demeanor. Like it or not, this is the stereotype, it’s who would pop-up in The Matrix as a nerd’s “residual self-image.”

Now give this vision some attributes. He or she probably likes video games, computers, and science or math. He or she has a particular set of obsessions involving science fiction or fantasy. In your mind, how would you properly describe this person? Which set of attributes makes “geek” or “nerd” more applicable? One way to find out would be to pour over how they describe themselves.

In an analysis that I have to describe as nerdy, one clever blogger looked at the content of tens of thousands of tweets relating to “geek” and “nerd” attributes. Here’s a graph of what he found (via Slackpropagation):

The graph suggests that “geeks” are more collection-oriented, valuing trendiness, memorabilia, and obsessions over particular hobbies or mediums. “Nerds” seem to be more intellectually motivated, valuing science, math, and studiousness. Of course these definitions cross through each other–a chemistry teacher (nerdy) can collect plushes of tribbles (geeky)–and are not hard and fast delineations. (You can read the rest of the analysis here.) But an analysis like this does make the larger point that nerds and geeks are different dimensions of the same variable, to put it nerdily.

A variable can have many dimensions to it that together fully explain the complexity of the variable. Take intelligence as an example. It is not one-dimensional. What is basically just an IQ score has roots in education, socioeconomic status, genetics, and environmental factors. Looking at any one of these roots doesn’t give you a full picture of the tree, but it does tell you that a tree is there. The differences between nerds and geeks are the roots, so what is the tree?

In the spirit of philosophical treatises of old, I present a maxim: That which is considered “nerdy,” “geeky,” or any other similar adjective, is a product of personality traits that conspire to direct an active passion towards some activity. In other words, nerds and geeks are the labels we give to those who are actively passionate towards science, fiction, gaming, technology, etc. We simply don’t have labels for the other geeks. What would you call someone who obsessively cans pickles, attends canning conventions, and has a t-shirt depicting some inside joke among pickle canners? Aren’t they still “geeky”?

I say nerdiness or geekiness is active, rather than passive, passion because involvement seems to be a prerequisite. You wouldn’t call someone who has seen every episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians a nerd until he or she starts a fanclub, moderates a forum, or starts swapping tapes of the show on Craigslist.

Being a geek or a nerd usually involves science or mediums that heavily feature science, but again I think this is only one flavor of nerd rather than a defining quality. It just so happens that science lends itself to nerding-out. Science is a highly technical and intellectual endeavor. Any theory or fact or discovery has an ocean of depth to it. You can always go deeper with science, and you can always ask a new and interesting question. That’s what makes a topic nerdy: depth. It’s impossible to get geeky with a story or an activity if it has no depth, no universe, no canon. Going beyond what is simply on screen makes you a nerd. When I refused to accept the death of my favorite Firefly character, using NASA data to calculate the kinetic energies of Reaver spears, I was being a total nerd. Science and science fiction are deep and therefore able to touch more corners of life than a story without any richness. As long as there is depth, we can obsess and collect and discuss and debunk and debate. It applies to everything.

That’s the secret–everyone is a geek or a nerd about something. (And going forward I will use the terms interchangeably.)

Despite the fact that I think everyone is a nerd, we still cannot shake the stereotype. The obstinately intellectual, comic book loving, poorly dressed and awkward science enthusiast is still society’s punching bag. Or he or she was…

Revenge of the Nerds

The Mythbusters, The Nerdist, and The Big Bang Theory are undeniably leading the nerd charge towards cultural reinvention. And as new personalities like Cara Santa Maria, Phil Plait, and Joe Hanson, spring up, the old geek guard once again can lay the foundation. Notably, Neil deGrasse Tyson is now a science rockstar who fills auditoriums the world over and Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is the “Springsteen of Nerds“. All the while YouTube is marvelously filling the science niche with shows like Minute Physics, Veritasium, Smarter Every Day, It’s Okay To Be Smart, and Vsauce. Science writing is at its best with full networks of all-star and up-and-coming communicators at Wired, Scientific American, SciLogs, Discover, and National Geographic. New online magazines like Nautilus and Aeon are there to fill the traditional media gap.

Being a nerd is cool again, and there is no shortage of content for you to indulge in. It is as though an entire generation of young people has reached the end of that proverbial high school hazing and has space to let the geek flag fly.

But there is a dark side to acceptance. As I said above, being a geek or nerd has more to do with how you approach what you do, rather than a comic book collection or World of Warcraft account. I think this active passion stems from a slew of personality traits that allow for geekiness–summed up by so-called “introversion.” Exceptions to the rule abound, but the shyness, the hesitancy to be in large groups and to touch/be touched, and the drawing of energy from a wellspring of inner life rather than living in relation to the experience of others characterize the nerd. It seems like a good thing that these qualities are being recognized as equally valid or even cool. Introverts unite! Right?

Acknowledgement is wonderful–isn’t it what we have always craved?–but it can carry with it the same labeling that nerds hated all along. Books like Quiet: The Power of Introverts and articles such as Caring For Your Introvert are useful and sound empowering, but to me come off as a diagnosis. Consider if the opposite–some infographic on “How to Treat Your Extrovert” perhaps–was a popular way to discuss a social movement. How should we deal with these people who prefer intimate hugs to handshakes? How can we talk to those who need constant human contact? It all sounds like a diagnosis–another label replacing “geek” or “nerd” but without the empowerment. Cultural shifts can only embrace labels after they have been divorced from the damaging cultural baggage they carry. The term “gay” wasn’t always a rallying label for same-sex couples–it was a way for society to describe sexual and social deviancy without outright saying it. As each successive generation has been more accepting of homosexuality, the label shifted along with society.

I call myself a geek and I call myself a nerd. The terms feel empowering now. It’s true–I don’t like crowds or parties and I prefer to be alone most of the time (and even lie to friends to do so). But though a common set of personality traits may unite us, defining nerds and geeks by personality alone can be just as demeaning as the terms we wanted to change in the first place. Imagine extreme introversion and you think of autism or “being on a spectrum,” probably not the amazing talents or tendencies that person may have. Imagine extreme extroversion and you think of someone who if the life of the party or a blast to be around.

Though nerds are having a red letter day in terms of social acceptance, we are put again in the corner, looking lifelessly at our smartphones, when an acknowledgement of our personality divides us from “normal.”

The Fakers and the Geek Chic

Society’s embracing of the nerd/geek label draws a line–there are “true” and “fake” geeks. Sometimes this division takes the hipster tact. In a PSA to fake nerds from the show Portlandia, it’s explained that you must have the credentials, not just the thick-rimmed glasses and suspenders. You have to be ridiculed for your passion, spend hours playing Dungeons and Dragons, and know what a “loot ninja” is in Diablo III.

I won’t lie and say there isn’t a “you’re a poser” mentality to much of this. I feel it. For an avid Beatles fan I imagine it would be akin to hearing that the favorite album of another “huge fan” is a Greatest Hits CD. It is a tribal, prison-like devotion where you apparently can’t be a true geek without doing “hard time,” maybe sustaining a Counter-Strike-related injury.

The “fake gamer girl” seems like an extension of this newfound ability to exclude. A girl can’t truly enjoy video games because she is pretty, hasn’t played enough Quake in her teen years, or because she isn’t a “hardcore gamer” and prefers mobile or casual games like Wii Tennis.

Clothing even matters. “Geek chic” has become a fashionable look. A young guy dressed like Bill Nye the Science Guy is now considered hip, as are suspenders, thick glasses, and graphic t-shirts with Marvel characters or faded emblems of old videogames on them.

There is a fake division here. “True” geeks and nerds are being unreasonably exclusive, as if wearing a pocket protector unironically is the password for getting into castle Geekdom. Maybe it’s a cultural reversal of power that has stirred the divide. A nerd was once something you never wanted to be called, let alone something you would freely identify as. Now that it is cool to be a geek, those who were ridiculed seek to impose the same standards that kept them out of the “cool group.” Those standards are artificially high–you can’t value your body as well as your mind, you have to have a deep knowledge of fandom that is probably outside of your generation, you need a degree in science or math to comment on anything technical. While there may be those who are just into being a geek for the fashion, the tribal mentality has to stop. It is not as if great fiction has stopped–there are other great novels than Dune, other great movies than Blade Runner, and other great games than Ocarina of Time. People new to geek culture can jump into today’s offerings and still be geek! And if active passion is at the heart of being a nerd, there was never a better time to be one. A ten year old today could blow Aristotle’s mind with what he or she knows about the world, and could easily out-nerd the great philosopher.

Geekdom should be the America of cultural movements–bring us your huddled Mass Effect players, your D&D dice-rollers, your StarCraft clickers, your board game painters, your cosplayers, your scientists, your hobbyists, your technicians, your gamers and your passion, and we’ll have a place for you.

It’s All Geek to Me

As a science writer/enthusiast/advocate/nerd, my view of nerd culture is biased. But it’s undeniable that nerds and geeks are synonymous with loving science and technology. The active passion that drives nerdiness, for me, has a perfect home in science and scientific thinking. Science provides a reliable way to think about the most astonishing questions in the universe, and reveals indescribable wonder in the answers it uncovers–the tip of the iceberg though they may be. Nerds are geeks are drawn to this way of knowing, this way of interrogating the universe, by the meticulous, curious, and tinkering nature that unites them.

To me, being a nerd–and being a science nerd specifically–means knowing that every atom in your body was burned or birthed in the broiling guts of a star that once fantastically exploded. It is knowing that you are breathing in the same air as the dinosaurs or Einstein when he made the last stroke on his blackboard completing “E-mc2.” It is seeing the Earth’s scarred visage on the top of a mountain and imagining the upheaval of an entire planet’s crust. It is realizing that you are the latest iteration in an ecological feedback loop going back billions of years–from bacteria to birds to Bob. It is seeing the look in someone’s eyes that triggers a veritable cascade of neurotransmitters making you weak in the knees and knowing why. It is having a dragonfly land on your toe on a sunny day and appreciating the unparalleled machinery in its wings.

Science is brought into nerd culture because it is the epitome of human questioning and delving. Whenever you have seen “The Science of ____” in books or articles (and I have written a few) that is nerd annexation. Science is so crucial to nerd culture because it helps us go deeper into our passions, as it is so successful in figuring things out. It is a way to go beyond the credits and add further to a tome of nerdy knowledge about Buffy or The Flash or Weekend at Bernie’s (seriously). Science helps nerd culture flesh out fictional universes with a real one.

And as far as science communication is concerned, filling a Trojan horse with nerds is a very effective strategy. A story about Superman can pull in an audience and make them stay for a discussion of kinetic energy and nuclear bombs. It’s something a bland news story can’t do.

Being a geek or a nerd means having a love for questioning and knowing that goes beyond where others stop. It could be in science or math or gardening or automotives or music. As Wil Wheton pointed out, it’s not what you love, but how you love it. That active passion makes you a geek, not the games you play or clothes you wear. Even if you do fit the bill for a Sheldon-like nerd, that does not mean you can’t be a good friend, lover, athlete, dresser, or leader.

Everyone has a passion and everyone is a geek, even if you don’t know how to complete this sentence: “Darmok and Jalad at _____.”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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