Editor’s Note: The following piece is adapted from an article that appeared in the July 21, 2014, issue of National Review.
‘My great fear,” Neil deGrasse Tyson told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in early June, “is that we’ve in fact been visited by intelligent aliens but they chose not to make contact, on the conclusion that there’s no sign of intelligent life on Earth.” In response to this rather standard little saw, Hayes laughed as if he had been trying marijuana for the first time.
All told, one suspects that Tyson was not including either himself or a fellow traveler such as Hayes as inhabitants of Earth, but was instead referring to everybody who is not in their coterie. That, alas, is his way. An astrophysicist and evangelist for science, Tyson currently plays three roles in our society: He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the New York Science Museum; the presenter of the hip new show Cosmos; and, most important of all perhaps — albeit through no distinct fault of his own — he is the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up “nerd” culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.
One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox’s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman; the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.
The pose is, of course, little more than a ruse — our professional “nerds” being, like Mrs. Doubtfire, stereotypical facsimiles of the real thing. They have the patois but not the passion; the clothes but not the style; the posture but not the imprimatur. Theirs is the nerd-dom of Star Wars, not Star Trek; of Mario Kart and not World of Warcraft; of the latest X-Men movie rather than the comics themselves. A sketch from the TV show Portlandia, mocked up as a public-service announcement, makes this point brutally. After a gorgeous young woman explains at a bar that she doesn’t think her job as a model is “her thing” and instead identifies as “a nerd” who is “into video games and comic books and stuff,” a dorky-looking man gets up and confesses that he is, in fact, a “real” nerd — someone who wears glasses “to see,” who is “shy,” and who “isn’t wearing a nerd costume for Halloween” but is dressed how he lives. “I get sick with fear talking to people,” he says. “It sucks.”
A quick search of the Web reveals that Portlandia’s writers are not the only people to have noticed the trend. “Science and ‘geeky’ subjects,” the pop-culture writer Maddox observes, “are perceived as being hip, cool and intellectual.” And so people who are, or wish to be, hip, cool, and intellectual “glom onto these labels and call themselves ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ every chance they get.”
Which is to say that the nerds of MSNBC and beyond are not actually nerds — with scientific training and all that it entails — but the popular kids indulging in a fad. To a person, they are attractive, accomplished, well paid, and loved, listened to, and cited by a good portion of the general public. Most of them spend their time on television speaking fluently, debating with passion, and hanging out with celebrities. They attend dinner parties and glitzy social events, and are photographed and put into the glossy magazines. They are flown first class to university commencement speeches and late-night shows and book launches. There they pay lip service to the notion that they are not wildly privileged, and then go back to their hotels to drink $16 cocktails with Bill Maher.
In this manner has a word with a formerly useful meaning been turned into a transparent humblebrag: Look at me, I’m smart. Or, more important, perhaps, Look at me and let me tell you who I am not, which is southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past. “Nerd” has become a calling a card — a means of conveying membership of one group and denying affiliation with another. The movement’s king, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has formal scientific training, certainly, as do the handful of others who have become celebrated by the crowd. He is a smart man who has done some important work in popularizing science. But this is not why he is useful. Instead, he is useful because he can be deployed as a cudgel and an emblem in political argument — pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.
“Ignorance,” a popular Tyson meme holds, “is a virus. Once it starts spreading, it can only be cured by reason. For the sake of humanity, we must be that cure.” This rather unspecific message is a call to arms, aimed at those who believe wholeheartedly they are included in the elect “we.” Thus do we see unexceptional liberal-arts students lecturing other people about things they don’t understand themselves and terming the dissenters “flat-earthers.” Thus do we see people who have never in their lives read a single academic paper clinging to the mantle of “science” as might Albert Einstein. Thus do we see residents of Brooklyn who are unable to tell you at what temperature water boils rolling their eyes at Bjørn Lomborg or Roger Pielke Jr. because he disagrees with Harry Reid on climate change. Really, the only thing in these people’s lives that is peer-reviewed are their opinions. Don’t have a Reddit account? Believe in God? Skeptical about the threat of overpopulation? Who are you, Sarah Palin?
First and foremost, then, “nerd” has become a political designation. It is no accident that the president has felt it necessary to inject himself into the game: That’s where the cool kids are. Answering a question about Obama’s cameo on Cosmos, Tyson was laconic. “That was their choice,” he told Grantland. “We didn’t ask them. We didn’t have anything to say about it. They asked us, ‘Do you mind if we intro your show?’ Can’t say no to the president. So he did.”
One wonders how easy it would have proved to say “No” to the president if he had been, say, Scott Walker. Either way, though, that Obama wished to associate himself with the project is instructive. He was launched into the limelight by precisely the sort of people who have DVR’d every episode of Cosmos and who, like the editors of Salon, see it primarily as a means by which they might tweak their ideological enemies; who, as apparently does Sean McElwee, see the world in terms of “Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the Right (Cosmos, Christians, and the Battle for American Science)”; and who, like the folks at Vice, advise us all: “Don’t Get Neil deGrasse Tyson Started About the Un-Science-y Politicians Who Are Killing America’s Dreams.”