Wednesday, February 13, 2008

David Anderegg's "Nerds"

David Anderegg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont, and has worked extensively with children and teens while practicing as a psychotherapist. He is also the author of Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy of Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety.

He applied the Ford Madox Ford-inspired "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, and reported the following:

I'm here to tell you that you're wrong, Mr. Ford. At least in my case.

I was initially horrified to discover that page 99 of my book contains not a word of original text. The entire page is an extended quote from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- the Bible of the American mental health industry -- giving the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome. I was trying to make a point, and it was a fussy point, but one that needs making. Here's the fussy argument (think of it as page 99a):

People labeled as nerdy are now often described as "Aspergy." This unpleasant adjective suggests that certain features of the nerd stereotype, like less-than-perfect eye contact or "excessive" interest in arcane subjects, overlap with the high end of the autistic spectrum. So nerd-labeled people are now seen as "sick" as well as undesirable.

But a mental illness is supposed to entail impaired functioning. If one's behavior falls within the range of normal, and if one's functioning is not impaired, then one does not have Asperger's syndrome, or high-end autism, or any other disorder. Freud's humane insight was that we, the well, should have compassion for the mentally ill because our underlying mental mechanisms are the same as theirs. But the current version of this humane insight is more sinister: only the perfect are well, and everyone who is not absolutely perfect is slightly mentally ill. And so people with less-than-perfect social skills are not only creepy, but sick. Thus the canard that nerd-labeled people are "Aspergy."

I know this is a fussy argument. But fussiness is another theme of the book: people with a passion for precision are also frequently labeled as nerds (that's why knowing the value of pi to more than three digits gets you extra credit on "Are you a nerd?" self-tests.) Writers who get too fussy are similarly punished: for an example, look at the New York Times review of Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought, in which the reviewer castigates Pinker for being way too geeky and nerdy when the book becomes a little too riotously detailed. Detail is for nerds, and so those who make detailed arguments become ridiculous.

Sorry, Mr. Ford. Sometimes it takes more than a page to make a point. In my case, try a range: pp. 94-104. That ought to give you the idea.

Read an excerpt and watch a QuickTime trailer for Nerds.

Take "The Last Nerd Self-Test You’ll Ever Need!" and learn more about Nerds and its author at David Anderegg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue