‘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 American Museum of Natural History; the presenter of the hip new show Cosmos; and, most important of all, perhaps, 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 — most of 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 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 speaking on television 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 deliver university commencement speeches and appear on late-night shows and at 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 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 a handful of others who have become celebrated by the crowd. But this is not why he is useful. He is useful because he can be deployed as a cudgel and an emblem in 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 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?
#page#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 at the Huffington Post, 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.”
Obama knows this. Look back to his earlier backers and you will see a pattern. These are the people who insisted until they were blue in the face that George W. Bush was a “theocrat” eternally hostile toward “evidence,” and that, despite all information to the contrary, Attorney General Ashcroft had covered up the Spirit of Justice statue at the Department of Justice because he was a prude. These are the people who will explain to other human beings without any irony that they are part of the “reality-based community,” and who want you to know how excited they are to look through the new jobs numbers.
At no time is the juxtaposition between the claim and the reality more clear than during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which ritzy and opulent celebration of wealth, influence, and power the nation’s smarter progressive class has taken to labeling the “Nerd Prom.” It is clear why people who believe themselves to be providing a voice for the powerless and who routinely lecture the rest of us about the evils of income inequality would wish to reduce in stature a party that would have made Trimalchio blush: It is devastating to their image. Just as Hillary Clinton has noticed of late that her extraordinary wealth and ostentatious lifestyle conflict with her populist mien, the New Class recognizes the danger that its private behavior poses to its public credibility. There is, naturally, something a little off about selected members of the Fifth Estate yukking it up with those whom they have been charged with scrutinizing — all while rappers and movie stars enjoy castles of champagne and show off their million-dollar dresses. And so the optics must be addressed and the nomenclature of an uncelebrated group cynically appropriated. We’re not the ruling class, the message goes. We’re just geeks. We’re not the powerful; we’re the outcasts. This isn’t a big old shindig; it’s science. Look, Neil deGrasse Tyson is standing in the Roosevelt Room!
Ironically enough, what Tyson and his acolytes have ended up doing is blurring the lines between politics, scholarship, and culture — thereby damaging all three. Tyson himself has expressed bemusement that “entertainment reporters” have been so interested in him. “What does it mean,” he asked, “that Seth MacFarlane, who’s best known for his fart jokes — what does it mean that he’s executive producing” Cosmos? Well, what it means is that Tyson has hit the jackpot. Actual science is slow, unsexy, and assiduously neutral — and it carries about it almost nothing that would interest either the hipsters of Ann Arbor or the Kardashian-soaked titillaters over at E!. Politics pretending to be science, on the other hand, is current, and it is chic.
Useful, too. For all of the hype, much of the fadlike fetishization of “Big Data” is merely the latest repackaging of old and tired progressive ideas about who in our society should enjoy the most political power. Much of the time, “It’s just science!” is a dodge — a bullying tactic designed to hide a crushingly boring orthodox progressivism behind the veil of dispassionate empiricism and to pretend that Hayek’s observation that central planners can never have the information they would need to centrally plan was invalidated by the invention of the computer. If politics should be determined by pragmatism, and the pragmatists are all on the Left . . . well, you do the math.
All over the Internet, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face is presented next to words that he may or may not have spoken. “Other than being a scientist,” he says in one image, “I’m not any other kind of -ist. These -ists and -isms are philosophies; they’re philosophical portfolios that people attach themselves to and then the philosophy does the thinking for you instead of you doing the thinking yourself.” Translation: All of my political and moral judgments are original, unlike those of the rubes who subscribe to ideologies, philosophies, and religious frameworks. My worldview is driven only by the data.
This is nonsense. Progressives not only believe all sorts of unscientific things — that Medicaid and Head Start work; that school choice does not; that abortion carries with it few important medical questions; that GM crops make the world worse; that one can attribute every hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave to “climate change”; that it’s feasible that renewable energy will take over from fossil fuels anytime soon — but also do their level best to block investigation into any area that they consider too delicate. You’ll note that the typical objections to the likes of Charles Murray and Paul McHugh aren’t scientific but amount to asking lamely why anybody would say something so mean.
Still, even were they paragons of inquiry, the instinct they demonstrate would remain insidious. Anyone who privileges one value over another (liberty over security, property rights over redistribution) is indulging in an “-ism.” Anyone who believes that the Declaration of Independence contains “self-evident truths” is signing on to an “ideology.” Anyone who goes to bat for any form of legal or material equality is expressing the end results of a philosophy.
Perhaps the greatest trick the Left ever managed to play was to successfully sell the ancient and ubiquitous ideas of collectivism, lightly checked political power, and a permanent technocratic class as being “new,” and the radical notions of individual liberty, limited government, and distributed power as being “reactionary.” A century ago, Woodrow Wilson complained that the checks and balances instituted by the Founders were outdated because they had been contrived before the telephone was invented. Now, we are to be liberated by the microchip and the Large Hadron Collider, and we are to have our progress assured by ostensibly disinterested analysts. I would recommend that we not fall for it. Our technology may be sparkling, but our politics are as they ever were. Marie Antoinette is no more welcome in America if she dresses up in a Battlestar Galactica uniform and self-deprecatingly joins Tumblr. Sorry, America. Science is important. But these are not the nerds you’re looking for.