The Difference Between Geeks and Nerds

Artist Bob Eggleton has recently updated his Facebook status with an intriguing distinction between “Geeks” and “Nerds.” Yes, I know each term has a lot of possible meanings (often on an individual basis), and you can’t actually hammer them down to a specific definition. But let’s just accept these words for the moment as markers, convenient ways to distinguish between two modes of thinking.

Essentially, it’s a question of attitude. If people can tell you are obsessed with something because you love it, it endlessly fascinates you, and you don’t apologize for your passion, then that makes you a “Geek.” However, if your dedication to that subject is marked by disappointment, nitpicking at flaws, and approaching your interests with a cynical and dour attitude, then you are a “Nerd.”

I don’t mean to insult anyone who likes to think of themselves as a nerd (in which case you have a different meaning for that word anyway), nor am I saying we can never criticize or have negative feelings about our passions. Heck, for longer than I care to admit, I realize I have been a complete “Nerd” about my own writing, about movies I love, and any of a hundred other passions in my life. But it does help to be reminded that if something is a passion for you, it’s best shared with others in a positive light. Rather than spending all of your time pointing out mistakes or showing how not to do something, entice others into seeing things from your perspective.

Let’s pick a couple of examples in, say, the field of astronomy. I’ve always seen Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame as a Nerd. As the title of his blog implies, he makes a name for himself by going after the shall we say “astronomical” mistakes people make when it comes to the heavens, whether it’s a conspiracy theorist pushing the Apollo Moon Hoax idea, or picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in science fiction movies. Again, it’s fine to pick something apart, but when most of your effort goes to showing how other people make mistakes in your field, my enthusiasm considerably dampens. This doesn’t make Plait a bad person. He’s just not the kind of astronomer I’d be eager to share a taxi with. Plait is certainly knowledgeable about astronomy, and I’m sure he loves studying it and talking about it, but that pleasure is rarely communicated to his audience.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, would definitely qualify as a Geek in this respect. When you listen to him in interviews, you can hear him brimming with delight and optimism, and you know he was born to be an astronomer. A few years back, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, I had the tremendous honor of meeting him and having a prolonged conversation with him. Not only does he have an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the universe, but his attitude makes you share that excitement. Tyson is accessible and friendly, and when he does get negative, as he does when NASA’s budget got cut for the umpteenth time, there is fire in his voice rather than a condescending sneer.

There are other examples of this, of course. In my cherished field of dinosaur paleontology, world-renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker is quite possibly the biggest Geek there is. He shares Tyson’s enthusiasm and constant sense of wonder at what he studies. The fact that he’s an Ecumenical Christian preacher likely lends some fervor to his academic pursuits, as well. Listening to him, you know that he thinks dinosaurs are awesome, and wants to share that attitude with everyone. By contrast, Brian Switek from Smithsonian Blogs can hardly write an article without taking potshots at writers, movies, TV shows, or the general public for all the mistakes they keep making about dinosaurs. Some of which aren’t even mistakes. Hearing it from him, either they’re deliberately irritating him by not putting enough feathers on Velociraptor, or they’re just stupid for thinking soft tissue was found in a T. rex femur.

[Note: Actually, we did find original remains from the animal — blood vessels and medullary tissue and the like — but Switek still seems to have a hard time thinking of it as anything but a “bacterial biofilm” that grew on the bone’s interior. Switek leaves little room in his thoughts for the extraordinary or the unexpected, never mind the impossible.]

In this cynical age where few things are good enough and we are constantly setting ourselves up to be torn down, I submit to you that the world needs fewer “Nerds,” and a lot more genuine “Geeks.” If you feel like you can’t help being a “Nerd,” please remember that most of us are at least trying to enjoy ourselves. And remember that even if facts can’t be changed, your attitude can be. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s high time I go from glowering to grinning and hop back on the Geek train.

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5 thoughts on “The Difference Between Geeks and Nerds

  1. Oh, please. I regularly use mistakes or disagreements as launching points, but I also have a lot of fun geeking out about paleontology (see http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/dinosaur/2012/10/feathery-ostrich-mimics-enfluffle-the-dinosaur-family-tree/, http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/dinosaur/2012/10/dinosaurs-rule-at-svp/, http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/dinosaur/2012/10/long-live-the-king/).

    Sometimes I’m a paleo-pedant, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that I can hardly write anything without taking a potshot at someone for whatever infraction they’ve made. Hell, I just wrote an entire book reveling in how great dinosaurs are. Meanwhile, you set Bob Bakker up as the paragon of sharing enthusiasm and wonder, when much of his early fame came from telling scientists and others that they were doing it wrong. (Does ‘The Dinosaur Heresies’ ring a bell?) You can be enthusiastic and an insufferable pedant at the same time.

    I think it’s important to confront misinformation and oversimplification alongside expressing how we’re enthralled with nature. Not everything needs to be shiny and happy and give us the warm fuzzies. Science requires both skepticism and wonder, and finding the balance is something every science communicator has to cope with.

  2. Since you note “in which case you have a different meaning for that word anyway” I’ll forgive you for using the words wrong. ;P
    I’m a proud nerd, but yes, I have a different meaning for the word. It definitely fits your definition of a geek. I love what I do and I love sharing my enthusiasm with everyone. (Ask Faith about the time I explained the lymphatic system on a drive to Denver. 😉 )

    Since the meanings are individual to everyone, I’ll point out some of the features of the words themselves.
    “Geek” starts with a voiced velar stop has a prolonged, high pitched vowel ending in a harsh voiceless velar plosive; whereas “Nerd” starts with a uvular nasal consonant then flows into a deeper, liquid rhotic, ending in a more pleasant voiced alveolar stop. Thus, my preference for the word “nerd” aligns with my favor for deeper sounds that fits my low vocal range.

    Ok, so maybe that’s an example of a nerd (by your definition) ;P
    BTW, wikipedia is awesome. And did you know there’s a whole “alphabet” (based on Latin characters of course =P ) that uses letters for specific sounds that humans make, so it can be used to describe words from any language, no matter what the corresponding written form of the language. It’s called the International Phonetic Alphabet and it has 107 “letters”. Fascinating. =)

    • Love your deconstruction of the words! I suppose going off these arbitrary definitions, that’s the work of a true “Geek.” 😉

      Yeah, I think it’s Switek’s attitude when dealing with inaccuracies (scaly Velociraptors, etc.), or in saying that feathered dinosaurs are more awesome because they’re more aesthetically pleasing to him, personally. As soon as someone looks at dinosaurs in a different way than Switek, they’re apparently disrespecting the animals, to the point that it’s even a crime for the show “Terra Nova” to invent dinosaur species rather than borrow from the known Mesozoic menagerie. Because God forbid that we allow speculation or imagination to intrude into paleontology.

      Anyway, sorry for being a “Nerd” for a moment. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

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