What do Natalie Portman, Vin Diesel, Megan Fox and Leonardo Dicaprio have in common? They’re all apparently huge nerds. You find out some fun facts in that aricle – like that Vin Diesel has been into Dungeons and Dragons for years, Rosario Dawson speaks a few words of Klingon, Kate Beckinsale speaks three languages, and Natalie Portman studied Psychology at Harvard. According to Chris Rock, Selena Gomez, Jessica Alba and Bono, they’d all tell you that they’re nerds as well.
If you’re like me, you’re looking at that list and wondering what exactly makes a famous rock star, popular comedian, and former Disney Channel stars nerds. The article doesn’t say, but you read some of the interviews and you’ll have celebrities talking about their nerdy interests, like anime or 80s cartoons. Others talk about their hobbies, like video games or D&D. Maybe academic success comes up. Natalie Portman and Danica McKellar (from The Wonder Years) both have co-authored academic papers. At first glance yeah, these all feel pretty nerdy. But to me, when you’ve got Megan Fox saying she’s a nerd because she watched Sailor Moon when she was a kid, or one of the biggest rock stars on the planet saying he’s a nerd, something doesn’t quite match up.
Now we all know the challenge of being nerds, especially if you follow some of my earlier posts. Still, apparently, nerds are cool now. Even the goddamn BBC says so. We’re better to date. We throw ourselves into our interests. One of us was running the country until 2016.
Part of the problem with the nerd movement is that, like all popular things, everyone wants to be a part of it. Unfortunately, this has led to some backlash from people who think of themselves as “true nerds.” It’s another expression of the hipster “I was X before it was cool” movement, only now it’s directed against these same celebrities. Or athletes. Or, most prominently, women. Nerds have something that people suddenly seem to want, and some of us don’t want to share.
The weird part is that people are all starting to have this argument without even really knowing what it is we’re fighting about.
So What is a Nerd?
Looking back at that first article, those celebrity nerds are all over the god damn map. There are nerdy interests, nerdy skills, nerdy preferences. I mean really, Natalie Portman, are you nerdy because you studied a social science at a prestigious school?
Or Vin Diesel – does one nerdy hobby make up for 225 lbs of pure muscle?
The truth is, we have no fucking clue. Ask around and you’ll get some vague senses of general intelligence, maybe preferences for STEM, interests that range from the intellectual (philosophy, hard sci-fi) to the esoteric (children’s cartoons). It certainly seems like having a penis helps – you hardly ever find accusations of a fake gamer boy. Being at all athletic seems to count against you as well. And, like, glasses? Honest to god, some people think not having glasses means you can’t be a nerd.
Let me start by saying I am going to lump geeks and nerds into one category. This is already a pretty controversial standpoint, and I acknowledge there is a difference. I think the best review of that standpoint is this one, which used Twitter data and language processing methods and concluded that “The distinction is that geeks are fans of their subjects, and nerds are practitioners of them.” I think that’s an odd distinction, because I know very few practitioners of anime, and even fewer fans of poor hygiene, and I don’t think there’s a great umbrella term to encompass both. I picked “nerd” because it seems a little more general – one might be a “movie geek” or “computer geek,” and that’s specific to that one interest. Nerdhood is more intrinsic and broad.
Apart from that one article, you mostly have bloggers or magazines trying to define nerds based on broad trends. What most of them seem to do is start with some archetypal nerds – a single individual or group who becomes the perfect definition, and how nerdy you are depends on how closely you match that example – and work backwards from there. It’s not a bad way to define, as long as we can all agree on that archetype. Without that agreement, it mostly comes down to your opinion.
Beyond this, when defining a concept it’s important to consider the attributes which are individually necessary or jointly sufficient to capture the concept. That is to say, what attributes absolutely have to be present (intelligence? nerdy interests? social awkwardness?) and what attributes when taken together are enough to say “oh yeah, that person’s a nerd.”
It’s hard to say what single attributes might be necessary. Is it possible to have a dumb nerd? A cool nerd? And it’s nearly equally as hard to say where the cut-off is. Maybe you have an IQ of 141 and don’t know how to talk to the opposite sex, but you watch Nascar and shoot badgers with Cletus and Jimbo on the weekends. Can you be a nerd and enjoy listening to Kid Rock?
People smarter (or at least with more time to think about this than me) have proposed a solution.
The Nerdy Personality Assessment Scale
There are several things that I like about this scale.
- It defines nerdiness as a personality dimension, rather than an identity or skillset.
- It conceptualizes nerdiness as a continuum, from low nerdiness to high nerdiness.
- Looking at the items, they seem to match my definition of nerd.
- It’s derived from data, not just opinions.
- It’s valid – which is to say they tested their results.
There are also a few things I don’t like about this scale.
- It said I wasn’t a nerd.
- Seriously, I’m totally a nerd.
- How could it say I’m not a nerd?
Not to say I’m not totally a nerd, I scored just a bit above average (57), but far from the uber-mega-ultra instinct nerd I thought I was. And maybe this mini-nerd crisis is exactly the point. I want to be a nerd, because like Megan Fox and Mila Kunis, I can see that these days it’s the nerds sitting at the cool table and I want to sit there, too.
So go ahead and take it yourself. In a future post I’m going to dig into the data they’ve collected (and which they have helpfully published online) and see what it can tell us about what makes someone a nerd, and what that means.