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[twenty twenty-four day thirty-eight]: nerds and geeks

centaur 0

What the heck is a nerd, anyway?

I’ve learned a lot about neurodiversity in the past months – first, after having the crazy idea of launching yet another anthology, this one about neurodivergent people encountering aliens, and second, after coming to grips with my own neurodivergence (social anxiety disorder with perhaps a touch of undiagnosed autism). We want The Neurodiversiverse Anthology to land well with its intended audience, and need to get it right!

But it struck me that there’s a lot of unhelpful cross-stereotyping between autistic folks and nerd and geek culture. Sure, there are autistic people who become intensely interested in “special topics”, but sometimes that special topic is a sport or other “socially acceptable” activity, making it easier for autistic people to mask. And as Devon Price points out in her book Unmasking Autism, autistic people have specific bottom-up processing styles which are different from the top-down, “allistic” style of so-called “neurotypical” people. So just being obsessed with a special topic doesn’t make you autistic, nor vice versa.

In fact, speaking as a proud member of “nerd” and “geek” culture, my social group had our own definitions of what “nerd” and “geek” meant, which indicated a difference in thinking styles, but didn’t necessarily map to an actual neurodivergence. Geekdom in particular meant a certain kind of out-of-the-box thinking that doesn’t align with what I read about the processing styles of autistic folks – not to say that these styles couldn’t overlap, or even that they might frequently co-occur, but that “geek” had its own meaning.

That made me think back on conversations with a friend who was once called a “geek” by someone who meant it as an insult. HIs response? “Yes, I am – and you’re not. Ha, ha, ha!” To him, it was a badge of honor, as it signified a deeper understanding of certain systems of the world and a different way of thinking – not neurodivergent, per se, but just different. We had a long conversation about different words and their nuances, and it led me to think about how these words have lurking meanings in my head.

So here’s my attempt to unpack that terminology a little bit:

  • Nerds: A nerd is someone who has strong interests that someone else finds socially unacceptable. Calling someone a nerd says way, way more about the source than the target: it’s a group identification play, designed to ostracize the person who’s not into the currently approved interests. Now, to some folks, nerd can mean someone who is “socially awkward” – the stereotype is big glasses, pocket protectors, and high-pitched voices – but, really, that’s just stereotyping, as judgmental people can and will ret-con someone into being a “nerd” as soon as they find out they’re into something that isn’t “cool.”
  • Geeks: A geek is someone who uses out-of-the-box thinking to build up expertise in a given topic. Geeks can geek out about anything from computers to philosophy to football, just like their close cousins, “fans”. But unlike “fans”, a geek’s expertise is weaponized. A great fictionalized example are the protagonists of the movie Moneyball, loosely based on a couple of real-life geeks who used their deep knowledge of baseball and statistics to turn around the Oakland A’s. This is what my buddy meant when he said “Yes, I’m a geek, and you’re not: ha ha ha!” – geekdom is something to be celebrated.
  • Wonks: A wonk is a geek about public policy. Al Gore is the quintessential wonk. Wonks tend to be paid lots of money to run very complicated systems in the public policy arena, though they don’t tend to do quite as well when running for elections. Perhaps voters mistake them for nerds.
  • Cranks: A crank is a geek about a nonstandard scientific theory. Typically cranks are smart, well-educated people with a large body of perfectly normal beliefs, who become convinced of some off-the-wall theory that they’ve encountered in their broad reading or developed through their out-of-the-box thinking. Unfortunately for many scientists, cranks want to geek out with other science geeks about their theories, which can go badly when scientists try to explain all the ways their ideas don’t work. I remember one fellow getting angry with me when I was trying to agree with him that his theory was possible – but had to point out that one of his claims was stated more strongly than the evidence supported. I wasn’t even saying he was wrong, just that scientists need to be careful about their claims. The conversation did not go well.
  • Nutter: A nutter is a crank who has warped his view of reality to fit his nonstandard theory. For example, once a fellow attempted to cajole me into coming to work for his “company” where he was working on a “warp drive” (and no, I’m not joking). Now, I know a thing or two about the actual science behind so-called “warp drives”, and this guy wasn’t talking about his project in any way that convinced me he knew what he was talking about. I politely declined on the grounds that I was a very busy author and roboticist and preferred to spend my time bringing my own projects to fruition, and he proceeded to tell me how if I saw his plans for the flying saucer he was trying to build I’d abandon my own projects in favor of his. I did not.
  • Genius: A genius is a nutter who warps reality to fit his nonstandard theory. Fun fact: reality was classical before Einstein invented relativity, and light was just an electromagnetic field before Richard Feynman invented path integrals and showed that photons really go everywhere all at once. More seriously, a genius applies his out-of-the-box thinking at a very deep level, geeking out about all of reality. To some people, geniuses look like nutters … and you never really do know which one you’ve got when a nervous looking man steps up to your front porch holding only a suitcase and says, “My brain is open.” Turn him away, and you get nothing; take him in and help him tackle his questions, and you get an Erdős number.

So one point I’m trying to make here is that nerding out about something can take you places. Sometimes it takes you to a deep understanding of a subject matter, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable; sometimes that turns out to be very lucrative, and sometimes that turns out to be ostracizing. But, even then, sometimes the people we think are the nuttiest turn out to be the most brilliant people.

But another point I’m trying to make is that nothing about geeking out really has anything to do with neurodivergence – it’s a pattern of behavior which occurs in neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike. Perhaps an autistic person might geek out about something, or perhaps they might not. Perhaps a geek might have autistic tendencies, or perhaps they might not. Perhaps some of these traits are often found together, or perhaps, even if that co-occurrence is actually real, it can distract us from looking sincerely at the unique and whole human beings we are interacting with, and collapsing these different ways of looking at people into a single all-encompassing category is unnecessary stereotyping.

Or, put another way, if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person, and if you know one geek, you know one geek, and there’s no guarantee that knowing one tells you much about the other.

-the Centaur

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