What I Learned from the Geeks

You know how old I am? I’m so old I can remember when “geek” was still an insult.

Today, of course, it’s a boast. It has become cool to be a geek, precisely because so many people who had that insult thrown at them went on to do big, important things—and generate billion-dollar fortunes along the way.

So naturally enough, a bunch of the cool kids are now embracing the trappings of geek culture to make themselves look even cooler. Charles Cooke recently wrote a terrific dissection of this “puffed up ‘nerd’ culture,” and I was glad to see him note that many of today’s self-declared geeks are “stereotypical facsimiles of the real thing.” (For the short version, see this “Portlandia” sketch.) I particularly like the way he skewers the “nerd prom”—i.e., the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where slick politicians, glib political hacks, blow-dried television reporters, and Hollywood celebrities all pretend that they were once socially marginalized teenage wunderkinds, because that makes them feel like they’re smart.

While Cooke exposes the ersatz version of geek culture, I think it’s worth taking some time to think about what’s good about geek culture—the real version, not the simulacrum.

To a large extent, I consider the geeks to be my people. Rewind back, um, a few years, and you’ll find me at age 11 glued to the television watching “Cosmos”—the original version with Carl Sagan and without Seth MacFarlane, which explains why it’s so much better—and carrying around a well-worn copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (And yes, I also listened to the original “Hitchhiker” radio shows. Why do you ask?)

I don’t want to oversell my geek credentials, because there were aspects of that culture (comic books, Star Wars) that I did not delve as deeply into. And while I set out as a teenager to become an astrophysicist, I discovered philosophy and read Ayn Rand—which gave me the sense that there was another way to find rational answers to the big questions about life, the universe, and everything—before eventually being tempted away to write about the hurly-burly of politics.

But there are lessons I learned from the geeks that I think everyone could benefit from—not the superficial pose or the mainstreamed pop-culture trappings, but a few core convictions.

1) The value of science and technology.

We live in a world transformed by science and technology, and vastly for the better. (Consider just the progress in human longevity.) Someone has to get excited about this. And not just in a vague, gee-whiz kind of way. Someone has to get excited about how all of it actually works. We need people who are fascinated by the specific nuts and bolts of how we got where we are, who want to figure out how it all functions, and who set out to build the next generation of amazing new devices.

Geeks are particularly fascinated by the “what if” of what’s coming next: the Internet of Things, robotics, brain-machine interfaces that will turn us all into cyborgs, new sources of energy, space exploration, and so on. That’s why we’re such suckers for science fiction, which imagines this amazing future and challenges us to create it. (Check out how many devices in the old “Star Trek” series, from flip-phones to tablet computers, have become reality.)

The great travesty of the global warming crusade has been to capture this optimistic love of science and technology and harness it to a pessimistic Luddism. That’s why claims about global warming are rarely used to argue for nuclear power. It’s why environmentalists turn against any form of “alternative energy” that becomes even remotely practical. (I’m also old enough to remember back when hydroelectric dams and wind turbines were going to be the future.) And it’s why proposals for “geoengineering” to reverse the supposed impact of global warming are treated as anathema.

In effect, the science geeks have been told they have to climb onto a bandwagon originally started by a bunch of fuzzy-brained back-to-nature hippies. But that actually runs counter to their natural instinct, which is to celebrate technological progress.

2) The code of science.

There is an ethics to science that its most devoted fans take very seriously, and first and foremost it’s about honesty. It’s about following the evidence wherever it leads and acknowledging the truth in whatever form, even if it’s painful or inconvenient.

Some of the responses to my recent criticisms of Neil deGrasse Tyson have compared Tyson to Sheldon Cooper, the arrogant, condescending physics genius in the hit television show “The Big Bang Theory.” But the comparison doesn’t quite fit, because Sheldon really believes, deep down, in the code of science. This means that he’s willing to retract an error when someone points it out, no matter how unpleasant the consequences (whereas Tyson can’t even bring himself to retract an anecdote in his lectures).

The lore of science is filled with examples of researchers who persisted in demonstrating a theory that shattered the existing consensus, or that overthrew their own previous assumptions. The astronomer Johannes Kepler, for example, started out with the theory that the planets move in circular orbits whose proportions are determined by the perfect Pythagorean solids—which he eventually threw out when the data demonstrated that they move in elliptical orbits.

When your theory is proven wrong, that’s still a step forward, because you’ve learned something—even if it wasn’t what you set out to discover. This, again, is why I have a problem with the global warming theory: it’s pretty clear that for its advocates, the theory is too big to fail. (That, plus the fact that Al Gore takes a theory that’s oh-so-convenient for his agenda and bills it as an “inconvenient truth.”)

But as “Mythbuster” Adam Savage has famously explained, failure is always an option. For a true geek, no theory is too important to be overthrown by the dogged work of skeptics.

3) A belief in the power of reason and thinking to solve problems.

The history of science isn’t just about a series of exploded “consensus” theories. It’s also about problems that have always been considered unsolvable and a permanent part of the human condition, which end up being knocked down one after another.

The motion of the planets, the nature of the stars, the causes of disease, the history of the Earth, and (sorry, creationists) the origin of species—we’ve answered every one of these big questions. So you can see how natural it is to regard every question as answerable, every problem as solvable. All it takes is a sufficient amount of brainpower applied over a sufficient amount of time.

Of course, this can lead to a certain amount of hubris. When it comes to social and political issues, scientists have an unfortunate history of being too confident in superficial solutions and thinking about human problems in a way that is too reductionist, failing to heed the lessons of hundreds of failed experiments in “social engineering.” A lot of this, however, results from ignoring the true state of the art in the human sciences. Just as you can’t study physics while ignoring Newton, you can’t study political science without understanding the ideas of the Founding Fathers, nor can you understand economics while ignoring all of the free-marketers, from Hayek on down, and instead placing blind faith in your personal savior, Paul Krugman.

This reflects a weakness of geek culture. There is a tendency to shrink from and look down on the humanities, which are regarded as “soft” and subjective fields, which is what drove many of the geeks to the sciences in the first place. It’s an accurate description of how the humanities are often practiced, mind you. But look at it this way: if someone decides he doesn’t want to study science and learn its methods and terminology, he will be unable to evaluate scientific claims independently and he’ll end up being dependent on whatever scientific consensus trickles down to the popular imagination. (That’s the fate of all those humanities majors—or worse, actors—who think they’re being “pro-science” by parroting claims about global warming.) But the same thing goes the other way: those who don’t learn how to think rationally about the big questions of the humanities end up accepting an intellectual consensus they haven’t thought through independently. (That’s the fate of someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who dismisses philosophy as a discipline, then repeats nearly every ideological tenet of the modern “progressives,” hook, line, and sinker.)

And yet the core conviction that we can find answers and solve problems has inspired scientists and engineers to pursue the constant improvement of human life and to accomplish things that would have been considered impossible in any previous era.

4) Substance is more important than style.

On this issue, to be sure, geeks are making a virtue of necessity. If you haven’t learned how to make small talk or pick out clothes that match, it’s awfully tempting to say that these things don’t matter. Then again, it’s true that they don’t matter as much, in the scheme of things, as being able to come up with new ideas and invent new things.

Personally, I’ve never thought that you have to make a choice between the two, and that’s another weakness of geek culture: a kind of Platonic attitude which makes them more interested in living in a realm of abstractions or fantasy stories than in the real, physical world. So you get the kind of person who has memorized every line of dialogue from “Firefly” but has never fired a gun, if you see what I mean. They’re content to confine their sense of adventure and achievement to a world of the mind.

Yet if you look down on them for this, you miss how much they really do achieve in that intellectual realm—what they can do with numbers, with computer code, with their imagination.

Hanging around with geeks helps you realize that people who are not hip or on the cutting edge of popular culture can be on the cutting edge in much more important ways. It helps you look beyond appearances. These people may not be tall and handsome with blow-dried hair, they may not be athletic, they may be socially awkward, they may lack a lot of the traits that would endear them to the general public. But they’ve filled their heads with knowledge, they know how to think logically and creatively, and they end up inventing things that change the world.

That leads me to the last big thing I learned from the geeks.

5) A lot of important things are accomplished by outsiders.

Geeks—the real ones, not the hipster wannabes—have spent a lot of their lives marginalized and ignored. They don’t fit in. They like different things, they think and talk in different ways, they look at the world differently. And precisely because of this, they come up with new ideas that nobody else comes up with.

That’s why I don’t get why anyone would go to such lengths to show that some view is the “consensus,” as if that has anything to do with science. Most great science has been done by breaking through the consensus. Plate tectonics was considered a crackpot theory. Doctors told their patients ulcers were caused by stress. Those ideas persisted until someone decided not to defer to the consensus.

This is also why I don’t get how the political left thinks it can assert ownership of the geek demographic. Yes, I suppose they’re appealing to the scientific mind’s aversion to religious obscurantism. But shouldn’t we be equally averse to social conformity?

The eccentric inventor and offbeat thinker is one of the archetypes of American individualism. We’re outsiders, we don’t follow the usual rules, and we aim to misbehave. So why shouldn’t we be skeptical of a paternalistic state?

Many of us are, of course. Given my own interests, at least half of my friends with solid geek credentials are also Objectivists. After all, Atlas Shrugged is another book that appeals to intelligent young nonconformists. But we’re hoping for the day when the rest of our friends finally realize where they really belong.

In the meantime, we’re going to use these lessons the geeks taught us. May they live long and prosper.

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