Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Are Academics Irrational?

My main nerdiness is philosophy. "Why study that?" is a popular question. Typically, my answer is, "I'm wired weirdly; I just like it." I rarely defend it further.

SPACE AGE TECHNOLOGYLike a good self-doubting philosopher, I wonder whether I could defend it further. Yes, I can offer reasons to think that philosophy is important and valuable. But that might just be rationalizing NASA with Tang: while there are benefits to the space program, it's not clear that they warrant the resources devoted to it. Likewise, perhaps the effort I spend on philosophy just isn't worth it.

The opening quote of the documentary The Linguists got me thinking about this: "Around the age of eight or nine, I discovered I had a somewhat irrational interest in the world's languages." At first pass, this sounds right. Devoting one's life to the study of dying languages isn't obviously more important than devoting it to the study of, say, penguin digestion, or the antebellum South. Why choose linguistics, then?

It seems, then, as if academics face the same charge of wasting their lives as nerds do. Is academic specialization nothing more than the illogical passions of a group of nerds?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are Nerds Irrational?

How much do nerds have to defend their nerdy ways?

The standard response is: "Not at all!" There's nothing wrong with being a nerd. In fact, as I've said before, I tend to think of "nerd" as a compliment. Nerds care about something enough to get obsessed with it. This passion isn't bad, it's just socially unacceptable. And social acceptability is a poor guideline for just about anything. Why would someone let society dictate her interests? "Um, I like top-40 radio, and summer blockbusters, I guess..." It's not just that mainstream stuff sucks. It's that non-nerds live so passively. Nerds take control of their lives. They have souls.

Oh, I've Wasted My LifeHowever, this only addresses some of the criticisms of nerdiness. After all, passion isn't good if it's misdirected. Someone obsessed with feeding homeless people isn't wasting her life. But someone who devotes his life to comic books...

This suggests a stronger definition of "nerd": someone who cares about a topic more than is reasonable. Under this usage, it's not just that nerds are social misfits. They're devoting too much time and energy to topics that just don't deserve it. A nerd isn't merely obsessive; she's stupidly obsessive.

There's a standard response to this, too: "Screw you, I'm interested in it!" So what if nerds like Star Trek? Others like windsurfing, or quilting, or celebrity gossip. It's perfectly reasonable for someone to pursue whatever makes her happy. Nerds are just wired differently to desire quirky nerd stuff.

This is OK, I guess, but I suspect some nerds want a stronger case. Based on personal enjoyment, all hobbies are equally valid. So devoting one's life to windsurfing is just as reasonable as devoting it to film. This thought would upset some film nerds. Sure, windsurfing is enjoyable, but it's mindless and fleeting. Film is clearly more valuable.

This is what I'm interested in: the nerd who wants to defend her choice of obsession as better. This is a tougher row to hoe. At least, it opens nerds up to the criticism that they might really be wasting their lives.