Book Rec: Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell

Can you believe that Sowell turned 80 this year and yet continues his relentless assault on the groupthink and prejudices of the left? He is one powerful and vital personality – but I suppose bucking the tide in academia is bound to make one extremely stubborn.

Sowell studied economics at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; for decades, he has written books for popular consumption covering a host of topics, including the history of world cultures, the history of conquest, basic economics, and political ideologies. In short, he is himself an “intellectual” according to his own definition of the term. But unlike many others who make their living selling ideas (as opposed to products or services), Sowell is able to stand outside the academic milieu and trenchantly comment upon its dysfunctions.

Intellectuals, states Sowell, live in a world in which they are rarely forced to face the consequences of being foolish. As a matter of fact, in academia (excluding, of course, those departments which deal with practical specialties such as business administration, medicine or engineering), nonsensical thinking is incentivized. These people, claims Sowell, have been told all their lives that their intellects make them quite unlike ordinary men; thus, they experience a strong psychological pull towards ideas and ideologies that emphasize their status as special snowflakes. Leftism, with its dramatic propositions and identifiable villains, contains all the self-congratulatory rhetoric most academics need to feed their sense of superiority; traditional conservatism, with its emphasis on systemic processes that by their nature can’t be centrally controlled, offers nothing similar.

Here, Sowell covers much the same material he covered in his 1996 tome, The Vision of the Anointed (which SABR Matt should remember, as I read huge swaths of that book to him back in the late 90’s). For example, he once again explains the core differences between the “tragic” vision held by most conservatives – a vision that emphasizes the world’s fallen condition – and the “vision of the anointed” held by most leftists – a vision that assumes perfection can be achieved on Earth if only people of sufficient compassion and conviction take the reigns. For those who are familiar with Sowell’s earlier work, such passages will probably feel a little repetitive.

There is also one glaring flaw in Sowell’s analysis: he explicitly excludes scientists from his indictment on the assumption that scientists receive sufficient external validation from the publicity their discoveries receive and thus feel no need to venture beyond their narrow specialties and cut a flash in the wider world. That may have been true back when the discoveries scientists were making could be comprehended by the general public, but science nowadays is far more esoteric. For example, from what I understand, SABR Matt is attempting to discover how waves in the atmosphere might influence the development of systems that are thousands of miles away from a particular atmospheric disturbance. His work may lead to better models which can subsequently be used by weather forecasters, but I doubt the average Joe on the street is going to understand exactly how Dr. SABR Matt made the local weather report more accurate, as the math involved certainly isn’t ordinary Algebra. And similar gulfs open when you start discussing neuroscience, quantum mechanics, or, God help me, quantum mechanics in neuroscience. Does the average American know who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year? The prize was awarded to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki “for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis.” What the heck is that? I don’t know because I’m not a chemist — and neither are most Americans.

The point I’m trying to make here is that public appreciation for scientific achievement is starting to dwindle because science has now moved well beyond the typical layman’s education — and as a result, some scientists have in fact drifted beyond their specialties in search of fame and fortune. In other words, these scientists have wholeheartedly adopted the habits and attitudes of Sowell’s “intellectual” class. How many scientists, for example, have earned notoriety for advocating sweeping economic changes to combat global warming despite their utter lack of education in economics? How many scientists have earned notoriety for attacking traditional religion despite their utter lack of education in philosophy, theology, and Church history? In my observation, the list is pretty extensive and is only getting longer.

Still, Intellectuals and Society contains many sections that are absolutely worth the price of the book. Anyone who is concerned about our national defense should, for example, appreciate the two chapters in which Sowell draws parallels between the pacifism that was in vogue in the years between World Wars I and II and the anti-war prejudices of today’s intellectual elite. Anyone who is sick of the left’s seemingly unshakable belief that an Ivy League degree automatically qualifies someone for a position of leadership should thoroughly enjoy Sowell’s discussion of knowledge and its sources. (Millions of brains in the aggregate are far smarter than 1000 brains, declares Sowell, even if the average IQ of the 1000 is higher than the average IQ of the millions.) And anyone who is alarmed by the behavior of our current president should love Sowell’s attacks on what he terms “verbal virtuosity” – the ability to peddle pleasant-sounding but ultimately empty soundbites. (“Change,” Sowell thunders, is not automatically good. The specifics of your change matter more than your ability to weave a web of pretty phrases.) Bottom line, Sowell gives the thinking conservative plenty of ammunition with which he or she can fight today’s political battles. For that reason alone, you should pick up this book.

One thought on “Book Rec: Intellectuals and Society

  1. Actually, your comments on science and its' practitioners reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who recently got his Ph.D. in physics. I was grumbling about my utter lack of respect for the way in which climate science is done, particularly the problem of groupthink that dominates climate journals. A small cluster of perhaps no more than 46 powerful men control the editing process for over a dozen journals, all of which form the “accepted” basis for the current scientific consensus on global climate change and those 46 men all agree with each other so forcefully that when one of them stepped out of line (an editor for Geophysical Research Letters) and dared allow skeptical articles to see the light of day, they threatened to boycott that journal and forced him to resign. Peer review under these conditions is MEANINGLESS.

    Anyway, I was complaining about how my field was hopelessly ruined by a single cabal and ignorantly proclaimed that my friend in physics was lucky he didn't have to deal with this crap. At which point he laughed hysterically and said “you're not a physicist, are you.”

    All of the hard sciences…ALL OF THEM…are now dominated by perilously few people, because perilously few people understand what's going on in any of the hard sciences well enough to reach heights in academia. What we have in the world of science today is a thousand Napoleons who feel small in a world that doesn't care about the virtuosity and power of their genius (which is undeniable) and therefore lord over their fields like kings…it is the only power they have.

    And when a few of them smell an opportunity to get on TV and bellow about something people DO understand and have it seem like an authoritative position – the link between quantum physics and religion, for example, often SEEMS potent enough…they're trying to discover the mysteries of the universe and they think it gives them a special perspective on God's existence (or lack thereof) and on free will (or determinism) – they jump all over it. It gives them a chance to lord over billions with the same influential power that they wield over their field of research.

    Medicine, too, is filled with Napoleons. My sister excluded that field, and she is largely right when it comes to the doctors who are simply on the ground treating patients, but who does Steph think are the primary voices arguing that abortion can be a kindness or a necessity? Who does she imagine is communicating the need for safe sex education rather than the need for abstinence education? Who is behind all of these drives to hyper-tax sugar and processed food to fight the “war on obesity”? Doctors are. Well…doctors and the NEA, but you get the idea. When they get a chance, health scientists will grab the megaphone too.

    Science is now just as bad as philosophy or language or history. The decay of the search for objective truth in science can partially be blamed on the media's inability to report on scientific fields in a balanced manner and partially on the incomprehensible level science has reached to the average person, and partially on the inherent nepotism that occurs in tight, closed communities when they get control of an entire field in an age where competition is thought of as a great human failing and self-esteem is more important than real productivity.


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