Saturday, June 30, 2012

The plight of nerds


Why is it so difficult for nerds to relate to most people?

Just recently, some seriously misguided EU advertising fellows attempted to lure girls into science, and in the eyes of many (especially female) scientists, they failed spectacularly.


Look at one of the answers:

In the eyes of the response vid, being successful in science is perhaps not negatively correlated with cuteness, but definitely correlated with nerdyness. The science girl is portrayed as a social outcast. What is this thing about nerds?


If you know a nerd, you know what I am talking about: nerds are awkward to be around; they are clumsy in their relations to others, often offensive and annoying; in a word, they may be intelligent, but they behave stupidly.

Or, if you are a nerd, in all probability, you have noticed that while you have no trouble to engage in meaningful social relations with other nerds, a distinct majority of people does not fit into the same category. This is most pronounced at school, gets slightly better in Highschool, and almost disappears at university and most likely at your job (provided you take one that requires a higher education), which in turn is highly correlated with the the prevalence of nerds in positions of power above and around you.

Once nerds grow up, they are likely to remain nerdy, but since they flock to positions where they mainly interact with fellow nerds, their nerdhood largely stops to be a problem (even if the alienation with most of society remains). Thus, this is mainly an argument about nerd-kids.

Almost a decade ago, the serial entrepreneur (and self-admitted nerd) wrote a great essay about that phenomenon: Why nerds are unpopular. His main point is: Being popular is a hard, demanding, full-time activity, and nerd kids just don't attend to the job with the proper devotion. Yes, they may desire to be popular, but when facing the choice of doing either the smart thing or the popular thing, they go for smart. But wouldn't it be the smarter choice to do the popular thing? - Well, most people are not consciously aware that they constantly partake in a full-time popularity contest, even those that are successful at it. Young people (nerds as well as non-nerds) want to be liked for their innate talents and behaviors, not because they figured out a way to outsmart the psychology of charisma. Paul Graham has a point, but I think that there is one more interesting aspect to this.

I believe that nerds are biologically maladaptive deformities.
(Ok, the maladaptive trait can be seriously mitigated if the become dot-com millionaires like Paul Graham).

Before you punch me, please let me explain. Have you ever wondered how people form their beliefs? Obviously, there are many simple, straightforward ways: you may look at things, taste or touch them. But for complex, high-level things, outside the direct realm of the senses? What about politics, the workings of the financial system, the viability of Artificial Intelligence, the benefits of universal health-care?
Of course we have a strong tendency to believe what we think to be right, but that might be a tautology. What makes something appear to be right?

If you are a nerd, you might bring up criteria like consistency with observable facts, internal coherence, sparseness and so on. But if you are an evolution, these things are of lesser importance. The main criterion is: you should be able believe whatever is most useful to you!

If you are a computer programmer or a lab scientist, chances are that the most useful beliefs are exactly those that are consistent with observations, internally coherent and so on. But out there, in the "real world" of social relations, where careers are made, funds are assigned and kids are voted in soccer teams, the most useful beliefs are those that align you with your social environment. Specifically, beliefs should best be aligned with your social superiors and your direct peers. Sources for that alignment are direct conversation, imitation and, of course, media influences.

In fact, our mass media are the product of long history of alignment-creation: most people find those media more useful that do provide guidance to their opinions, and reflect the "permissible space" of beliefs. Awkward facts and media formats that require a constant re-evaluation of their own beliefs consistently attract much smaller audiences, which has led to the disappearance of investigative journalism in favor of opinion-reinforcing mainstreaming, with different outlets consistently catering to very narrowly defined opinion blocks of audiences.

Nerds are maladaptive, because they are physically unable to believe something just because it is (socially) useful. They will fiercely insist on their outlandish (or, if they are in a position of power: elitist) opinions, even if nobody else in the room shares them. At best, they learn to shut up, but they will never adopt the majority opinion with the socially motivated openness that they should muster. Well-adjusted people will correctly identify their opinions as deviant, and thus harmful or even offensive. The very same trait that makes nerds useful lab boys or code monkeys prevents them to engage successfully in politics and classroom popularity contests.

(Unnecessary disclosure: author is a nerd, of course.)