Sunday, December 12, 2004



I disagree with this rather intensely. Paul Graham makes the case that nerds are unpopular because they value intelligence above popularity. He writes, "most smart kids don't really want to be popular." They'd rather "build rockets than friendships" as the tagline puts it.

Where to begin? First, I believe there are plenty of smart kids who want to be popular. Like me in junior high, for instance. I desired popularity like nothing else, and approached it like a science. And you know what, it worked. I was pretty popular. And I doubt I'm the only one like this. Second, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time hanging out with both nerds and popular kids, I've never found nerds to be any smarter. I knew plenty of popular kids who were extremely smart, but they hid it. I think the main difference with nerds is that they don't receive (or ignore) the social cues that tell them to hide their intelligence and eccentricities. Popular kids might be just as smart, and have an equal capacity for eccentricity, but they suppress these things because they are looked down upon. Hence, I've always believed the essential difference is not one of intelligence, but of social denseness. It's flattering to believe that nerds are smarter, but really I think this is just people who were victimized looking for a consolation prize.

It is also possible that many nerds suffer from borderline cases of Asperger's syndrome, or at least have aspects of it, and this may be the genesis of their inability to understand what is strange about their behavior, and to inhibit it. Many Asperger's people are extremely bright but have extreme difficulty reading social cues. See the following: , and .
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I think that asperger's is overdiagnosed bullshit. Nerds are just plain dweebs -- 'nuff said. Seriously though, maybe 20% of every school are nerds, but could you really suggest that 20% of people have aspergers? I'm sure this description fits some subset of the nerd population, but I think it can't possibly account for the general phenomenon of nerddom.
Hey, have a little respect, man!

Seriously, though, some people (and I'm not necessarily among them) believe there are milder forms of Asperger's that are quite common, and which could account for a substantial subset of nerd-dom. Of course, most of the people who believe this are probably somewhat nerdy themselves, so who cares what they think?
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I agree: who cares what they think? Once someone is reduced to the claim that 20% of the human population has a "mild form of Asperger's," they're talking about a personality trait, not a medical disorder. Are there any tell-tale physiological differences of "mild Asperger's" people? That would be news. What characterizes the syndrome? Well, probably little more than the social denseness I've alleged the whole time, along with some associated quirks that would be familiar to anyone who's ever known a nerd, geek, or total dorkwad. Call it mild Asperger's or call it being a complete spaz, in the end you haven't said much except that some people are a little different, and richly deserve every swirlie they get.
Well, I don't know what a "swirlie" is, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know, but no doubt they deserve it.

Yes, "mild Asperger's" probably would be a synonym for "nerd." But can the world have too many synonyms? English is a rich language and a big tent. Let's be magnanimous.
Hey Alex,

I agree with your criticisms of the article as being overly simplistic, I don't think it's fair to blame the fact that kids are unpopular or get picked on at school because "they just can't pick up on social cues". I spent most of middle school and the bulk of high school tormented by the fact that I didn't have any close friends, and the "friends" I did have mostly made fun of me because I sucked at pretty much all the things we did together: video games, basketball, tormenting those slightly less popular than us. I was surpressing my intelligence and eccentricities, desperately trying to figure the angles and was still getting nowhere. Fact is, middle school (and to a lesser extent high school) in America are socially ruthless to an extent I haven't found as an adult out in the world, and even if you had a whole middle school of eccentricity suppressing social cue Sherlock's it would still break down into in-groups, out-groups, and free floating kids who sit alone at the end of the lunch table.
Hey Alex,

I'd just like to point out that you hardly get an accurate cross-section of the popularity castes from Exeter and Harvard. I think you're right to a certain extent, but my public high school experience was wildly different from my experience at Exeter. There most definitely was a stigma attached to intelligence, unless you were letting those terrible bitches copy off your grammar test. Grrrrr.

Keep up the bloggeriffic posts!

I would like to offer that I have never thought that nerds were smarter, actually. I think most social groupings tend to have their brains and their stupids, thus spreading intelligence out so every lunch table has
some. I don't think it's so much about "hiding" intelligence, but rather in not making schoolwork such a transparent priority--smart people can be cool, but someone who freaks about grades probably won't be. Also think about the types of stuff nerds are supposed to be better at--not social studies or language arts, but math and computers (no offense Alex). The less talky, more solitary specialties. Not that I was a humanities major.

I imagine this trajectory: Herman is not good at making friends. He is of average or greater intelligence. After school, instead of hanging out, he goes home and plays with the computer. By the end of high school, when the popular kids logged hours smoking pot and making out, Herman eventually learned how to program weird stuff and can recite lots of lame internet trivia, which looks smart, but I think the process
wasn't so much smart----> no friends, as possibly no friends---->learned stuff.

Having gone to possibly the majorest nerd capital of a college in the country, I can say with confidence that the biggest nerds (the gamers and the socially Martian fringe of the indie rock?) weren't any smarter
than the rest of us. They were also fucking annoying. None of this should be read as hating on nerds--I think I blended more than I ever got picked on or popularized in school, but I've dated nerds nearly exclusively since I first grew boobs, so I'm all in the club.

This seems like a semantic debate. It would help if you clarified the terms. I disagree with all of this because my definitions encapsulate the conditions you describe.

1) Nerds: people who like to learn, e.g., someone who will squeal in delight when a tour docent answers questions thoroughly. Nerds can be both socially inept or...ept? Is that a word? Adept. The term does not distinguish. Nor does the term make a distinction between "smart" and "not smart." In this sense, being a nerd is like being graded on effort; if you try, you succeed!

2) Dorks: socially inept people. Not necessarily smart or not smart, not necessary fond of learning or not. A flunkie can be a dork. A nerd can be a dork.

If I had more time, I would draw you two axes and label the four quadrants that result from the intersection of nerdiness and dorkiness. But instead, you will have to look at this chart ( and substitute the appropriate words on the appropriate axes.

The above was both nerdy and dorky. Apologies.
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