Anti-Intellectualism

When I was 16 years old, my history teacher asked the class if any of us were anti-intellectual. I was the only one who raised his hand, and for my troubles got a combination of dirty looks and disbelieving comments. I was not only the smartest kid in the class, I was also the one most interested in and curious about history – by some measures, you might have said that I was the most intellectual. And in the circles in which I have moved, this viewpoint has tended to set me apart. Of course, I’m normally not the smartest guy in the room, and then my anti-intellectualism has sometimes made people think me jealous or stupid. Politically, I believe it is the biggest difference between conservatives and libertarians: libertarians, like progressives, tend to worship at the altar of “rationality,” intellectualism, and (at least in theory) academia. Ask a libertarian to identify their libertarian heroes, and they almost always name academics and writers. Ask a conservative to identify his conservative heroes, and he will likely also name heads of state, politicians and generals.

This temperamental difference often results in libertarians and progressives alike looking down on conservatives as being stupid or at best ignorant. See for example this post on conservative anti-intellectualism. However, I do not associate anti-intellectualism with stupidity, but with intelligence – and specifically, the ability to distinguish between science and scientism. Basically, an intellectual is someone who can’t call himself a scientist without failing the giggle test, so he settles for saying he’s an intellectual. Physicists call themselves scientists, criminologists call themselves intellectuals. The distinction is clear.

A moderate anti-intellectual position is outlined here: essentially, that what keeps research honest is the rigour of empirical feedback, and the less feedback you have from that, the more other feedbacks can dominate. So when there are no fruitful lines of attack or the subject matter is swamped with ideology, anything except the hardest of sciences turns into junk. Indeed, why would you expect it to be otherwise? What incentives are there to be a truth-seeker in such a situation?

The counter-position is taken by Robin Hanson, who argues that even though experts aren’t perfect, they still know much more than us, so we should defer to them anyway. But this is to miss the whole point. Exactly what are these intellectuals expert in, if their academic fields are full of junk? I completely agree that the rationally ignorant outsider should generally defer to expert opinion, but the anti-intellectual position is that the experts are often not the abstract thinkers, but the the practical doers. In other words, if you want to know how to solve crime, the expert is the police chief, not the criminologist.

Obviously all this links into my belief that most rationality really isn’t, that what looks like good evidence to one person is obviously biased to another, and that 99% of the time, it’ll turn our that your grandmother was right all along. Note: validity may vary with grandmother.

The alternative position, to me, just looks sloppy, complacent and absurd. I don’t want to draw a strawman, but it really does appear to be that we should care who Nobel Prize winners vote for, that there exists an intellectual elite who know better than the rest of us, and essentially that the world should be governed by the Harvard faculty. But if they knew anything about anything, why would they be on the Harvard faculty? Surely they’d do something useful with their lives!

Although I do think that the public are often wiser than their masters, I do not want this mistaken for crude populism. Not only do the people have the right instincts, such as to trust the police chief over the criminologist, but I regard their thinking as generally more rational, in the true sense, than that of the academy. However, popular belief is no substitute for hard fact, which is the reality before which we must all bow down. The foundation of my anti-intellectualism is not that I believe in populism – it is that I believe in science.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. “if you want to know how to solve crime, the expert is the police chief, not the criminologist.” I didn’t mean to take sides in a dispute like this. Both those groups can count as “experts” for the purposes of my post.

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  2. There seem to be a variety of minor problems with this piece but they together add up to enough to undermine the thesis.

    You write:
    “See for example this post on conservative anti-intellectualism. However, I do not associate anti-intellectualism with stupidity, but with intelligence – and specifically, the ability to distinguish between science and scientism. Basically, an intellectual is someone who can’t call himself a scientist without failing the giggle test, so he settles for saying he’s an intellectual.”

    This doesn’t work and it especially doesn’t work given that multiple of the examples given in my piece you linked to are direct attacks on what you would probably call science. Research on fruit flies or on monitoring volcanoes are both examples of things that have been attacked. While I’m not completely certain of what your standard of science is, I suspect that both would be included. These aren’t the only examples. I can give many more examples specifically attacking science (see for example Don McLeroy’s wonderful “someone needs to stand up to these experts” up evolution, or Sarah Palin’s other anti-science comments in addition to the fruit fly example, etc. etc. ad nauseam.) (I have to wonder also if one issue that is coming in here is that in that essay I was talking about specifically American conservativism which is very different from British conservativism.)

    I’m also uncertain whether the distinction you attempt to make between scientists and intellectuals is as clear cut as you want. For example, engineers are generally not considered scientists, but they get empirical feedback. And in what category would you place mathematicians? Your distinction isn’t clear.

    I’m also confused by how at the one hand you think that anti-intellectualism is ok when it is a criticism of lack of empirical feedback when your linked to essay about hypothetical grandmothers specifically argues against making empirical tests.

    Your example about my comments about Nobel prize winning scientists also misses the mark. That piece is written primarily to contrast the level of attention given to comedians talking about whom to vote with the attention that given to Nobel prize winners talking about the same thing. I would think that you probably consider Nobel prize winners to tentatively as a group be be better to listen to than a bunch of professional stand-up comedians. Moreover, the specific context where I discussed Nobel prize winners was in terms of science policy issues.

    Your remark “But if they knew anything about anything, why would they be on the Harvard faculty? Surely they’d do something useful with their lives!” is also problematic. It misses a variety of points, including implicit assumptions about values of what is “useful” which you apparently disagree with them on. Moreover, many of those faculty members are doing science, which you think is the ok end of intellectualism. They are doing such useful activities as making cheap cancer diagnosis devices for use in the developing world- http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-23/harvard-scientists-create-hand-held-device-to-detect-cancer-at-bedside.html .

    Finally, I think your essay fails to discuss coherently what one means by conservative and liberal. Today, to a large extent, in the US, conservatives and liberals are not defined by coherent ideologies as much as a grab-bag of policies and claims that fit together for historical reasons more than anything else. Without more careful definitions of these terms there’s not much one can argue about other than essentially sociological claims about the groups.

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  3. Sorry, two other quick remarks:

    First, I’m not sure that there’s as much of a distinction as you make out about how the sort of people liberals and conservatives describe as heroes. For example, William F. Buckley was by many standards an intellectual, and Hobbes was a writer. Both are considered heroes by many self-identified conservatives. Similarly, in the US both JFK and FDR are often described as heroes by liberals. Meanwhile, libertarian focus on writers and academics may be due to simply to the general failure of libertarians to get elected or appointed to high positions.

    It should also be understood that in my own piece criticizing anti-intellectualism was limited to the modern conservative movement in America. Conservativism is not intrinsically anti-intellectual using either your definition of anti-intellectual or many others. Consider for example classic econonomic conservativism or the more general conservativism that can simply be described as being risk averse to new policies and changes which can cause harm. Neither of these is intrinsically anti-intellectual, using either your definition of intellectual or using other definitions.

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  4. Posted by I am not... on February 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Josh – thanks for your comments, I’ll try and deal with them.

    Firstly, neither Jindal nor Palin were “attacking” research on fruit flies or monitoring volcanoes in scientific terms. They were not saying that the results of those experiments were invalid, they were saying they shouldn’t be funded on the public dime. These are completely separate issues. Saying science shouldn’t be bloated by public funding is very different from being anti-science – see for example Margaret Thatcher, a former scientist who espoused exactly that position.

    I agree that there are some unclear categories between science and the rest. However, I have never heard an engineer describe himself as an intellectual. As a former mathematician I am going to be slightly biased.

    My argument about “your grandmother knows best” was not against making empirical tests. FWIW my grandmother was a medical scientist. It was against DIY empiricism of the kind that Katja Grace was arguing for in her post. When people without enough grounding in the scientific method, proper use of controls, etc, do “empiricism” you wind up with garbage like the psychological experiments of the 1950s, etc.

    I do not agree that we should listen to Nobel Prize winners over stand-up comedians. They are experts in their field, but inexpert outside of it. Moreover, in terms of science policy, what they all argue for (unsurprisingly) is more money for their research programmes! Note that the question “how much public funds should go to science research?” is not a scientific question. If we had policy debates with strong scientific content, then I would agree that we should listen to eminent scientists. For example, in the hypothetical the Volokh Conspiracy blog has been discussing, an asteroid is headed towards earth and the government is trying to destroy it with a rocket. In such a situation the size and nature of the rocket might well be political issues, and in such a situation I would happily defer to eminent experts. However, such questions rarely arise in politics. I suppose the closest thing is the issue of AGW, where I do think we should defer to expert consensus as being the best guess we have – while recognising that it is only an informed guess.

    In terms of the Harvard faculty, I guess we have to agree to disagree. To repeat – science is great, publicly-funded science, not so much.

    I do not use the word “liberal” once in my post – why on earth should I be defining a term I am not using? The intent of this post was not to set up conservatist anti-intellectualism versus liberal intellectualism, but to write about why I, and many other conservatives, consider ourselves anti-intellectuals. There are intellectuals and anti-intellectuals across the political spectrum, for a variety of reasons. I am just writing about one small part and one set of reasons.

    If you re-read my post, you will note that the distinction I draw is not between conservative and liberal heroes, but between conservative and libertarian heroes. You are quite right that those on the left have all kinds of heroes, but this is irrelevant to the point I was making, which is to draw a distinction on the right. I disagree that the issue with libertarians is that they fail to get to the top. JFK and FDR are clearly flawed figures, but they are nevertheless seen as heroes by liberals. For the most part, they do not apply an ideological purity test and say “FDR wasn’t really a liberal because of his internment policies.” Similarly with conservatives. Yet libertarians do apply these ideological purity tests, which is why they have no practical heroes. I think this is a profound temperamental difference.

    I do not know what you mean by “classic economic conservatism.” Do you mean classical liberalism i.e. the old word for libertarianism? Your “general conservatism” sounds a lot like One Nation/High Tory conservatism. You are quite right that these movements exist and are often susceptible to intellectualism. Indeed, that is part of the reason that I find these movements deeply unsatisfactory. Politics is about coalition-building and so the modern right needs these movements inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in. But I don’t view them as mainstream at present.

    Were I an American, I would have many discontents with the modern conservative movement there – not least the religiosity, which leaves me cold. The anti-intellectualism, however, seems great.

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    • Btw, two quick notes: 1) I’ve added a sort of follow-up piece based on the GSS data which shows some interesting patterns in scientific knowledge levels. http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/2011/04/political-affiliation-and-scientific.html

      Second, when you say:

      Firstly, neither Jindal nor Palin were “attacking” research on fruit flies or monitoring volcanoes in scientific terms. They were not saying that the results of those experiments were invalid, they were saying they shouldn’t be funded on the public dime. These are completely separate issues. Saying science shouldn’t be bloated by public funding is very different from being anti-science – see for example Margaret Thatcher, a former scientist who espoused exactly that position.

      I think you may want to look at Palin’s and Jindal’s remarks in more detail. Jindal talked about “something called ‘volcano monitoring'” as if he didn’t know what that “something” was. Some of Palin’s remarks fall into a similar category. This isn’t a claim that “Yes, I understand volcano monitoring but I think that this would be better left to the states” nor is it some form of ideological libertarianism. This is an attempt to either pretend not to understand what the funding is for or a genuine inability to understand very self-explanatory titles. I suspect that in this particular case the first is what holds (given Jindal’s general intelligence). But it is clear that these remarks are not the product of some nuanced viewpoint.

      Reply

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