Don’t underestimate the nerds

I’m a little nerdy. According to my wife, I even look like a nerd. I am not very big. I have a long resume posted online, and I’ll proudly post my follower count, but if you meet me in person, I am unlikely to come across as “impressive”. I don’t talk using “big words”. I have been told that I lack “vision”. Given a choice between spending time with powerful people getting their attention, and reading a science article… I will always go for the latter.

I’m not at all modest, but I am humble. I get most things wrong, and I will gladly advertise my failures.

I’m lucky in that I have a few like-minded colleagues. I have a colleague, let us call her “Hass”. She gave us a talk about power laws. (The mathematical kind.) Who spends their lunchtime talking about power laws and probabilistic distributions?

We do.

However, if you have been deep down in the bowels of academia… You will find another animal. You have “political professors” whose main game is to achieve a high status in the most visible manner. Academia rewards this kind of behavior. If you can convince others that you are important, well regarded and that you do great work for humanity, you will receive lavish support. It makes sense given the business schools are into: delivering prestige.

If you visit a campus, you might be surprised at how often computing labs are empty, no professor to be found. Because of who I am, I would never ask for space unless I really needed it. But, see, that’s not how political animals think… to them, having space is a matter of status.

Nerds are, at best, part-time political animals. It would seem that nerds are weak. Are they?

My view is that nerds are almost a different species. Or, at least, a subspecies. They do signal strength, but not by having a luxurious car, a big house, a big office, a big title.

I remember meeting with the CEO of a company that was doing well. The CEO kept signaling to me. He talked endlessly about his prestigious new car. He was sharply dressed in what was obviously a very expensive suit. He kept telling me about how many millions they were making. Yet we were in my small office, in a state university. He kept on signaling… and you know how I felt in the end? Maybe he expected me to feel inferior to him. Yet I lost interest in anything he had to tell me. He wanted me to review some technology for them, but I discouraged him.

Big titles, displays of money… those do not impress me. If you signal strength through money alone, I’m more likely to pity you.

If Linus Torvalds were to meet Bill Gates, you think that Linus would be under Bill in the nerdom hierarchy? I doubt it. I have no idea how much money Linus has, and the fact that nobody cares should be a clue.

What did my colleague Hass do? She came and presented a kick-ass nerdy presentation. The kind of stuff you cannot make up if you don’t know what you are talking about. She displayed strength, strength that I recognize. I think everyone in the room saw it. Yet she did not wear expensive clothes and she did not advertise big titles.

My wife recently taught me how to recognize signaling between cats. You could live all your life with cats and never realize how they broadcast signals and strength.

It is a mistake to think that the introverted nerds are weak. This is a very common mistake. I once bought a well-rated book on introverts, written by an extrovert. The whole book was about how introverts should face their fears. The author clearly thought that we were weak, in need of help somehow.

You are making a mistake if you think that my colleague Hass is weak. She could kick your nerd ass anytime.

Daniel Lemire, "Don’t underestimate the nerds," in Daniel Lemire's blog, February 5, 2018.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “Don’t underestimate the nerds”

  1. There is one thing that surprised me when entered academia. I thought that “the political professors” were only common in, like, economics or business departments. I assumed that CS and engineering profs were supposed to be nerds with values centered around intellect, as you describe. How amused I was (and still am) to find so many obsessively careerist political professors in CS.

  2. I hold dear the idea that you cannot assess the strengths of someone based on what they artificially expose. Rather, strengths should be assessed from what people accomplish. Your nerdy friend ‘Hass” is extraordinary and she really does kick ass.

  3. Please invite your wife to write a guest blog entry on the signalling between cats. I think many of us will be very interested 😀

  4. Nerds are really a strange subspecies … Appeared in 1951 in a strange zoo of Dr. Seuss alongside nerkles and seersuckers … It was believed at first that it was a fantastic animal… However later, according to Lioi (2016), this subspecies, because of its visual appearance, has been judged in North America as a “kind of prey, a loser in the social-Darwinian struggle for existence… a social garbage in American culture…” But at the same time, nerds aroused fears, for some, it was even pestilential threat to the health of American bodies and vitality of the US as the nation…

    This may seem odd, how could something weak threaten healthy communities?
    The assumption is that it is not because of their intelligence that the nerds have been rejected and despised (American society loves smart people: inventors, leaders, and entrepreneurs).
    No, it is because of their intellect, i.e. the critical, creative and contemplative side of the mind: “the intellect questions the purpose behind the activity, decides to create something other than planned and reflect on the value of the result. This behavior has been stigmatized in a mainstream culture. Smart then, is not the problem. The problem is the performance of intellect in public. To question, to create or to contemplate is the beginning of the deviance and treason” (it’s also what distinguishes nerds from geeks, who are more private).

    In short, it is a subspecies that threatens the usual organizational ecosystems, in which, “smart people are discouraged to think and reflect at work, and quickly learned not to ask too many questions or to think too deeply because fully using their intelligence would result in awkward questions that might upset their superiors as well as their co-workers” (that’s what Alveson and Spicer – nerds too ? – called “the stupidity paradox“).
    Is there any hope of survival for this subspecies? Yes, it seems that it goes through the creation of self-conscious nerds communities, often organized around specific interests 😉

    *Lioi, A. (2016). Nerd Ecology: Defending the Earth with Unpopular Culture. Bloomsbury Publishing.

    **Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2016). The stupidity paradox: The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work. Profile Books.

    1. Superiors? I assume you were joking.

      Brain trumps brawn. Brain trumps all.

      Pit every caveman that ever existed against Oppenheimer. I’ll take any bet and I’m offering 0:1 odds for the one who became death. The destroyer of world’s. Little Bobby the nuke nerd.

  5. Technical people also signal. They signal based on intelligence (cleverest/latest/obscurist algorithms/tech/ideas).

    This can sometimes be part of a good nerd cooperative culture or it can be part of a very competitive toxic culture … or some mix.

    Intelligence or wealth can both be flaunted.

  6. Different species? No, different social norms and values. The CEO you talked about was used to an environment and social values in which being successful mean to get big amounts of money, because it means your company is doing great. That is dominance signaling because in that environment dominance produces money.

    In more nerdy environments, like CS or hard sciences, dominance is about producing that kick ass presentation your colleague did, papers, discoveries and patents (even if the revenues of the patent goes to the CEO).

    Is any of those better than the other? Well, taken into account that being a nerd (a good one, having lots of knowledge and expertise) usually leads to a situation in which money is not a problem, not so much. It’s a matter of interests. We may be more interested in arguing some technical idea, or problem and we try to solve it before others. For a CEO the equivalent thing would be to get a business agreement that gives his company a lot of cash.

    P.S.> About introvert and extroverts. Based on my own experience, extroversion is a tool or a behavior that is extremely useful in life and work. So don’t underestimate it. I really think being introvert and not doing anything to “solve” it is a weakness, because we live in society and it is helpful to have contacts, knowing people, etc. You never know how or when you will need those contacts.

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