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The Faux-Jocks Hate the Faux-Nerds

The Faux-Jocks Hate the Faux-Nerds

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, August 5, 2014/Categories: climate change

"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!"  
-- from Charles C.W. Cooke's anti-"nerd" and (seemingly anti-science) screed.

This quote is the bottom sludge of a barrel of stupid in the conservative magazine National Review's cover story this week. Cooke is railing against the rise of "nerd culture" -- a culture that, in his view, reaches its apotheosis in Neil deGrasse Tyson and "Cosmos." Cooke is hating on them -- and their politics and their attitude and their alleged $16 drinks -- for reasons that may seem sophisticated, but aren't. 

He uses a lot of big words. They don't add up to much. 

Lots of people hated "Cosmos." Predictably, most of these people were religious. "Cosmos" is not political in any sense, but it did point out that the Bible cannot possibly be true -- the Earth cannot be 6,000 years old and life could not have been created in one go. This destroys Genesis, the first book of the Bible; religious people know there is often a domino effect.

But Cooke hates "Cosmos" for a different reason. Cooke is a thin-lipped English Atheist with a shit-eating grin who is clearly very smart. He brandishes his love of whiskey and gunpowder as way, you suspect, to make him lovable to conservative masses who tend to want to kick thin-lipped English Atheists in the teeth.

So he is doing, in his essay, what a kid in my high school who was not good at school did to a kid named Zack, who was: he draped his ball sack on Zack's shoulder. We all called him "Sack" after that. No one listened to him.

See, it's an ancient rule of the playground: if you beat up on nerds, you can't be a nerd. And, here, proving his bona-fides, Cooke holds the nerds down and curb-checks them. 

His attack on Neil deGrasse Tyson and "nerds" isn't very coherent. If I understand him right, he is not ridiculing scientists or actual nerds, he is ridiculing people who call themselves "nerds" and claim to love science. He thinks they're full of it. He thinks they're only using science as a cover to advance their political agenda, which he thinks is liberal, and which he hates.

He hates that the definition of "nerd" has changed. The Random House Dictionary has it as "a stupid, irritating, ineffectual or unattractive person." But Urban Dictionary has it as "an individual persecuted for his superior skills or intellect, most often by people who fear and envy him." 

All of life is high school. And, in life, the nerds are rising. You can see it everywhere. Free lectures series called "Nerds Nites" spreading across the country. Young people meeting in nature and science museums to find dates. Amateur entrepreneurs making stuff. And "nerds" are making the money, setting the terms of the debates and occasionally (still very occasionally) getting the girls.

And the jocks hate it. Even faux-jocks hate it.

They hate it because they know that if the nerds are allowed to gain respect and importance, they are going to change the world.

Global warming is the chief arena in which this nerd vs. jock battle is going to be important. What should we do about warming? The jocks -- the oilmen, the NASCAR drivers, etc. -- are going to continue to say that we shouldn't do anything, even if it means heat, floods, higher food prices and, perhaps eventually, abandonment of land that's too hot or islands that are too swamped. There's no doubt as to who's right on this (though there's still a lot of questions about how right). And, eventually, the nerds are going to win. But civilization as we know it depends on nerds making their voices heard on this, and quickly.

But they won't do it without the jocks putting up a fight. Interestingly, Cooke is not a global warming denier. "[T]he fundamental theory behind global warming is sound," he has written. But, like many apologists, he tends to bury those kinds of sentences in the ends of articles while, in the body of his articles, loudly giving the deniers ammunition in their battle to prove that global warming is a lie. Cooke has ...

- compared global warming worriers to a crazy religious end-of-times nut,  

- compared over-aggressive climate hawks to witch-hunters.

- did it again here.

- and here.

Thus, Cooke and the other faux-jocks have revived an age-old strategy against the faux-nerds. If you can convince people that self-identified "nerds" are posers, you  can convince people not to listen. Then, if you can make the debates about "values" instead of testable theories, then all opinions are equal in the Agora. It's just a matter of who can argue better -- and Cooke is an excellent arguer.

It's a point Tyson himself makes:

So I want to get back to Cooke's weird assertion above, that science is "slow, unsexy and assiduously neutral." He's saying that the "nerds" and Cosmos-lovers are ipso-facto posers, not because he has any evidence that they're hypocrites, but because no one who is hip or cool could ACTUALLY like science, because science is OBJECTIVELY unlikable. This is strong tea. He's not arguing that he, personally, finds science boring. He is saying that there can be no overlap between liking science and being cool. He is draping his ball sack over the shoulders of nerds.

Let's take a moment and look at "slow, unsexy and neutral." Is science slow, unsexy and neutral? Let's look at those assertions one by one.
Is science slow? Mostly, yes. The truths of science aren't instantly revealed on a mountaintop by a burning bush; they don't usually come in one creative flash in a poet's brain. Scientific insights are, these days, ground out by caffeinated grad students who gave up having a social life so they can prove, say, that newt sex is icky.

Is science assiduously neutral? Absolutely. This is perhaps its defining factor. Science starts from the proposition that we don't know anything. NOTHING. So we have to look at things from scratch, and question our assumptions at every turn. Even Descartes's starting point, "I think, therefore I am," is not accepted, since a few theorists speculate that we're living in an alien's computer simulation. How's that for neutrality? Science won't even take a firm position on whether or not we actually EXIST.

And what about Cooke's final charge, that science is "unsexy?" Hum. "Sexy," as Cooke means the term, is defined in the regular dictionary as "interesting, exciting or trendy." Well, "interesting" and "exciting" are subjective. But that third adjective, "trendy," is objective. We can track trends.

And science certainly seems to be trendy now.

You have T-shirts.

TED Talks

Parody videos

And more.

Those would seem to indicate that, based on its trendiness, science is "sexy."

What about all the products of science, like iPhones and Fitbits and Teslas? Aren't those high-tech, scienc-y things selling well? And what about the fact that eight of the top ten highest grossing films of all time are science fiction or fantasy? Surely, along with everyone else, a few hipsters went to see "Avatar."

It's true that these things are not "actual science," and so don't disprove Cooke's assertion that actual science is uninteresting and unexciting.

So lets look at just one bit of actual science and see how it plays.

Let's talk about plants, and what science has recently told us about them.

Plants aren't like rocks or dirt; plants are alive. What's more, they are alive in ways we can all relate to. They grow and eat and drink, like us. What's more, they have "senses." First, they can "see" -- they know where the light is and grow toward it. Second, they can "feel" -- if there is dirt around, they will send roots out into. And there is at least one more sense that was just discovered. Plants "talk" to each other. They "hear" each other. As they grow their roots, they send out little audible pings. If a nearby plant "hears" those, the plant will grow toward that plant. Plants don't just passively receive information about light or soil, they send out information. They "talk." They communicate.

Wouldn't even Cooke have to admit that talking plants is cool? Interesting? Exciting? Even ... sexy?

Maybe not. People can be stunningly indifferent to the majesty of the world around them. And Cooke might respond that that sort of discovery will be used in ways that are not, in the end, neutral, politically speaking.

And he's right, of course. A thinking, feeling person will read the news that plants can "hear" and be astonished. She will likely appreciate nature a little bit more. She might stare at a forest or a flower just a few seconds longer. She might go so far as wanting to save a rainforest or two.

And Cooke might hate this impulse. Suddenly, something slow and neutral creates in us a feeling that is stirring and moving.

But that's not science's fault. It's not the fault of the "nerds" or Neil deGrasse Tyson. It just is what it is. It's a scientific discovery and a natural human reaction to it, arrived at by anyone who isn't being willfully stupid. 



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