What Makes Nerds Nerds, and Why Do Adults Still Care?

Bhakti Ashburn, philosophicating again, responds to a long and fascinating essay by Paul Graham. The topic, nerdhood, is a well-trodden one, at least among nerds. But this is a good essay, full of insights and new connections; it's important reading for anybody who proposes to raise a child in the US. It's not just another recapitulation of another author's undeserved miseries. Well, not mostly that, anyway.

There are two stages to Graham's discussion. The first half of the essay sketches the nerd lifestyle and argues, persuasively, that nerds' minds are on things outside of the high school pecking order, truer concerns that will still matter in adult life; from there he moves on to outline the motivation for the kids that pick on nerds, draw good parallels with social systems among prisoners and Renaissance courtiers ("the craziness of the idle everywhere"), and re-examine the bromide of teenage depression--pointing out that he has never heard any evidence that anyone prior to the twentieth century thought of this as a natural stage in human development.

In the second half, he moves into a broad cross-examination of our educational system, not just teaching techniques but the whole institution of teenagers rounded up together. Here he is on fire, suggesting that education was never the real purpose of high schools, challenging parents and bureaucrats who see drugs as a root cause and social dysfunction is a symptom, and generally raising a righteous ruckus:

If life seems awful to kids, it's neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It's because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do.
This stuff is great, and has revitalized my desire to raise my own kids outside of that system by whatever means necessary. By all means read it for yourself.

I am driven to backtalk, however, by the first half.

Bhakti gently dismisses intelligence from the discussion and addresses a couple of Graham's better points. I cannot bring myself to be so forgiving. For a guy who's put such careful examination into the rest of his discourse, the eagerness with which he takes as a given the superior intelligence of a certain group (to wit: himself and his friends) is embarrassing.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.
This is the first occurrence of the word "smart" in the article, but it will play a prominent role from here on in. This is also the closest he will ever come to grounding, defending or exploring the proposition that nerds are smart (and that this has something to do with their social standing), even though it quickly becomes plain that he sees this as axiomatic.
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular?
A better question would be: why are unpopular kids so consistently smart? Answer: because the unprofessional self-evaluation of those same kids is the only evidence you're checking, you unbelievable doofus. You might as well ask their mothers. Of course nerds believe that nerds are exceptionally smart. Most people attribute unusual intelligence to themselves, singly or in groups. Just like nine out of ten people are above-average drivers--if you're just going to take their word for it.

(It may be, of course, that Graham has done more homework than it seems. Maybe, out of the famously insoluble morass of intelligence measurement, he has chosen some arbitrary standard, be it his favorite IQ test or whatever, and applied this to himself and all his friends and the popular kids from his high school to whom he is comparing them. But if so, he makes no mention of this great labor.)

Bhakti says her nerdiness was a matter of priorities more than of native intelligence. I'll edge one teeny step further out: intelligence itself is not as much native as a matter or priorities. Intelligence is mostly a habit.

Here, maybe accidentally, Graham comes closer to the heart of the matter:

Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart.
Just so. I wanted to be smart. In fifth grade, when asked my favorite music group, I would say "Beethoven." Not because I knew a note of Beethoven, certainly, but because I believed myself to be smart and I had bought into the idea that classical was a higher order of music. I thought I should like Beethoven. I knew well enough that it was an answer designed to worsen my social status, but by then I took this for a lost cause. I was playing the part of the prodigy as best I could. I was able to produce, on demand, the behaviors that made people call me smart. That remained the case to the end; I always scored highly on tests even though my classwork was falling to pieces by graduation. I could perform on tests, I could summon trivia to mind, I could write a good story for my age, and I knew better than anybody else around how to act the part of the eccentric.

But outside of school I spent my own nerd years, not in contemplation of rocket science, not in deep meditations over the natural world, not even volunteering somewhere, but doing precisely nothing. I played cassette tapes and paced fitfully in my room, my head spinning through a constant stream of lurid daydreams, to be honest. Daydreams about the improbable hero I would grow up to be, about beating up tougher kids from school, discovering supernatural powers, inventing a perpetual-motion machine, traveling the world, writing symphonies, all of these things at once. I knew nothing more at the end of all these than I had before. I wasn't devoting myself to concerns more real than the social workings of high school: I was wrapped up in wishing I were the sort of person who would have done that. "Superior intelligence" was my image of myself, not my true state.

Graham himself may well have been doing real work, or the psychological groundwork for it, as he suggests: "We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world." Certainly his adult life is one to be proud of, and I don't mean to impugn him. Early achievers do exist and I'd be happy to believe him, but something nags at me about how vague he is on the point of what exactly his deep thoughts were. I cannot help but notice how similar this is to lies I have let slip past my own teeth too many times to count. Of course I wanted to believe I'd been engaged in the work of the real world all along (and who could miss the implication there of virtue, of intelligence?). That was the very essence of the daydream.

To say "smart kids are so consistently unpopular" is to make two mistakes. It presumes not only that nerds are always smart, but that popular kids (of whatever stripe) must not be. It's a crushingly total judgement to issue, and it's based on precisely nothing. Nothing but Graham's own notions about intelligence in general and about the people around him.

Later in the essay, these assumptions almost catch up to him:

Freaks and nerds were allies, and there was a good deal of overlap between them. Freaks were on the whole smarter than other kids, though never studying, or at least never appearing to, was an important tribal value.
It is as if he has forgotten (can he possibly have forgotten?) that this facile appraisal comes from nowhere outside his own head. Freaks were smarter than other kids, but not as smart as nerds? Who told him this? How might it be demonstrated? And why should it have been so? Perhaps they were smart enough to be moved to rebellion against a hollow system, but not smart enough to be captivated by the lofty pursuits of problem-solving?

All very tidy, that. I imagine, rather, that this is an exception being made--a prefabricated cosmology being wrapped around an empirical anomaly. What happened, I submit, was that "freaks" (a lot of slang lasted from Graham's graduation to mine, but not this) won the accolade of above-average intelligence simply because Paul Graham and his nerd friends got to know some of them. And when you get to know people, you learn a little about what goes on in their heads, and--surprise--you find out that there is indeed something going on there. A revelation in itself, for a kid whose personal narrative is set in a world where people are assumed to be pretty dim in comparison to himself. Is it really so strange that the people to whom he accords "intelligence" are just the same set with whom he is personally friendly? Haven't we all had this notion, more or less?

Surely he has some idea of the history of intelligence testing--the endless stream of refinements, efforts to cleanse the system of cultural biases. Efforts that have never yet succeeded. Somehow, bias always remains. And parallel to the struggles to refine the tests is the endless debate about what intelligence is, exactly. Everyone's pretty sure there's something there to test, but nobody can say what it is or how to test for it.

Maybe not surprisingly, I would offer that the bias can never be pried apart from intelligence testing. To me it seems all too likely that the whole idea of intelligence testing is an attempt to reify (and validate) what was never anything more than cultural bias to begin with. But that's peripheral here: for this article, the pertinent point is that a seat-of-the-pants evaluation of someone's intelligence, using one's internal, ineffable meters of character, is in itself a kind of IQ test. Far from being outside that history (let alone above it), those personal judgements are the oldest, crudest, and most wantonly biased generation of intelligence testing. And they seem to be the only source of hard data on the people profiled in the article. These blithe categories of smart and not smart are the world as it looks through the lens of Paul Graham's personal legend of self.

Mind you I am picking nits; apart from this nerd=smart premise, and a certain blindness to girls (they are discussed, fleetingly, as prizes for boys to win--never is a girl nerd mentioned, even speculatively--but someone else can write that up), this is a good essay, and again I recommend it. Everything I've discussed is tangential to what matters in Graham's essay.

But, see, that's exactly why I wanted to break it down. It's not needed. The whole idea of native intelligence, superfluous in the best of times, becomes useful only as a tool for discrimination, a justification for giving up on some people and not others. Can't we lay this dirty little fantasy to rest? Would it be so terrible to learn that people's capacities aren't much different, across the board?

It will never unwork any great work that has been done. It would lessen no one. What do we have to lose?