Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders

“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”

That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.

My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.

Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.

Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.

More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.

I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.

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As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.

I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.

In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick ShenkmanPaul BloomKenan MalikCris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.

Denialism: Science and Public Debate

I’ve just come across the name of Michael Specter.  He has received some attention lately because of his book Denialism.  In the following video, Specter explains why he didn’t include the Global Warming issue in his book.  He said that it’s too complex of an issue and so requires more than just a chapter in a book.  I’d argue back that complex issues are precisely where his argument is weakest.  The allegation of “denialism” implies that it is always or usually clear who is doing the denying and that some people are intellectually above such cognitive weaknesses and failings.  Basically, what Sepcter leaves out is the psychological insight about how and why people think the way they do.

I noticed this review of Michael Specter’s book Denialism.

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Battling the Skeptics by Darshak Sanghavi

Science utopians can be touching in their naïveté, much like high school chemistry whizzes who try to figure out why the popular kids never pay them any attention. But they fail to appreciate a salient point: scientists may get how the atoms of the universe combine, but they’re often dweebs in the real world. In any event, there are two ways to deal with scientific illiteracy: take a long, hard look at the forces that repel so many from science, or throw up your hands and write people off as fools.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti-­vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

[…] But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused.

[…] Specter used to be a denialist himself. […] Here, Specter could have explored how even a prestigious science writer like himself was seduced by the highly unlikely possibility that coffee enemas might cure pancreatic cancer. (After all, the flip side of denialism is faith, which isn’t always bad.) But rather than attempting to ­understand his former fellow denialists, he pushes them out of reasoned conversation, declaring, “Denialism is a virus, and viruses are contagious.”

[…] In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. What we are seeing is the democratization of science, not the rise of denialism. […] The list goes on. Specter has written a frustrated book about “denialism” but could just as well have described the hopeful signs of a new era.

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Specter sounds like he might be in the same camp as the new atheists.  My problem with this type of writing isn’t that some intelligent points aren’t made but rather the author’s attitude.  Calling someone (or a group of people) a “denialist” seems more polemical than helpful.  If used carefully and sparingly, it could be a useful term.  However, using it to dismiss those who disagree with you just contributes to the conflict.  The fact of the matter is that science is never black and white.

For example, I’m fine with labelling as a denialist someone who entirely denies Darwinism because they believe the Bible has greater authority than peer-reviewed science.  But I’m not fine with labelling as a denialist someone who argues against Darwinism by pointing out a scientifically plausible alternative theory.  Questioning Darwinism doesn’t a denialist make.  Intelligent public debate demands that people point out the weaknesses and unanswered questions of the prevailing paradigm.

Also, I’m not in favor of science being used to dismiss the everyday experience of people.  Scientific consensus shouldn’t be used to bludgeon people for disagreeing and to keep the public in line.  There are many things science can’t answer and scientists and new atheists should be more humble in the limits of present knowledge.  Most people have weird experiences such as UFOs and ghosts.  Even though science isn’t able to research such phenomena, doesn’t mean science can deny such experiences because then scientists would themselves fall into the trap of denialism.  Many things exist in the world that can’t be controlled in a lab that don’t happen on a regular enough basis to be predictably studied.  However, respectable people including scientists have observed many things that they can’t explain.  Anecdotal experience doesn’t prove anything, but many scientific discoveries begin with anecdotal experience.

Unsatisfying as it may be, there are always more questions than answers.  Some questions may seem stupid.  But if it weren’t for seemingly stupid questions, there would be a lot slower pace to the gaining of new scientific knowledge.

Anyways, scientists are as easily swayed by ideological beliefs and paradigmatic assumptions as the rest of us.  The power of science is in the overall scientific view that evolves over generations.  The underlying complaint that I sense from the new atheist types is that scientific progress is too slow, but I’m doubtbul that it can be speeded up to any great degree.  Scientific progress is dependent on even larger trends of social development.  And for scientific knowledge to develop science itself along with scientists will have to develop as well.

Some other related pieces: