50 million intellectuals can be wrong

Every society has its intelligentsia. By definition, these are the “intellectual elite of a society,” the ones who are — or think they are — better thinkers than the rest of us. What they really are, I think, are people with a better verbal facility than the rest of us. That is, no matter how brilliant a physicist someone is, we don’t call him a member of the intelligentsia. That accolade is reserved for people whose trade is words. And not just the use of words to achieve a specific end. Lawyers, for example, no matter how intelligent they may be or how many words they use, are not the intelligentsia. They are merely professionals who use words as one of the weapons in their arsenal.

No, the intelligentsia use words as an end in themselves, to convey abstract ideas. Their headquarters are the Universities, where the dominant ethos is the “publish or perish” mentality that emphasizes the transcendent importance of verbal facility to maintain the distinction between intellectuals within the hallowed halls and everyone else. Of course, since relatively few ordinary people read the scholarly publications emanating from the academics, the intellectuals have staked out other centers for disseminating their thinking.

The premier outlying operations take place at magazines, with a descending scale of intellectualism starting at the top end with such magazines as Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Republic and The New Yorker, through to the middle ground, occupied by the easy access news of Times and Newsweek, or the snooty trash in Vanity Fair, and working all the way down down to fashion magazines and standard supermarket check out fare, such as People, Us and Self (with an interesting hierarchy of self-involvement showing at the downscale end). The daily burden of purveying the intellectuals’ ideas is borne by the major American newspapers, with the undoubted leaders being the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Since it’s inception, poor TV has never been able to muster the intellectual credentials accorded its written cousins, but it tries, oh how it tries, by aping the ideas and ideology emanating from the Ivory Towers, and disseminated through the lesser (and more accessible) publications for “ordinary people” (as opposed to scholars). And then there is Hollywood, which knows itself to be nothing more than entertainment, but keeps trying to overcome its Rodney Dangerfield identity (“no respect”) by churning out fare that will garner approval from the intelligentsia of the print world.

The omnipresence of these outlets for the intellectuals means that most Americans, heck, most people around the world, are regularly able to observe how bright the writers are behind all these publications. And they are bright, if we measure brightness by verbal ability. New York Times articles are invariably well written — lucid, elegant and interesting. The same goes for the articles in the high end magazines. Actually, it’s probably even easier to write for the New Yorker than it is for Newsweek. The New Yorker assumes its readers will stick around for a page or two, giving the writer time to develop and explain a thesis. Newsweek readers have to be caught in the first paragraph, and if they don’t understand what’s going on by the second, no more reader. Writing for that forum demands high verbal ability and intellectual dexterity. The same goes for a good movie or television script. If your words aren’t instantly accessible and interesting, show over.

The problem with this kind of verbal intelligence is that people involved in the trade begin to think it is the only intelligence around. The most obvious result of that thinking, of course, is the ridicule these intellectuals heap on someone inarticulate.

Just think of the way in which Gore and Kerry are admired as intellectuals, while Bush is regarded as a buffoon. The people who value this stereotype hold to it despite the fact that Bush did better at school (quite an accomplishment for an admitted party boy, as compared to the other two, who were already pompous swots as youths); despite the fact that Bush successfully held down multiple jobs in the public and private sector; and despite the fact that Bush’s achievements are consistently equal to or better than theirs. Once Bush said “nuke-u-lar” and “misunderestimate,” it was all over — he was obviously an idiot.

Of course, if verbal facility is the sole measure of intelligence, Moses was also an idiot. After all, Moses refused the Lord’s charge in the first instance: “And Moses said unto the LORD, O my LORD, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Exodus 4:10.)

What the Lord recognized, of course, was that it wasn’t Moses’ verbal skills that mattered, but his leadership abilities and his values. That someone may not have words trip daintily from his tongue doesn’t mean he isn’t a clear-eyed leader, who understands what is important, who is brave, and who is able to make things happen — the right things. Sometimes, of course, the world is blessed with a leader who is a visionary, who is brave, who has the right moral stuff, and who is blindingly articulate. Churchill and Lincoln spring to mind, but these men were rare beings, and stand out by being exceptional, not normative.

The distinction between intelligence, on the one hand, and values and abilities, on the other hand, is an important one. A friend of mine told me that she dislikes everything Bush stands for because he’s stupid, and the thinkers at the New York Times must be correct in all their conclusions because they’re smart. She was stunned to have pointed out to her that there was another way to view that intellectual ability, and it’s not such a complimentary approach: smart, verbal people have the unfortunate ability to use those skills to reason themselves into believing something they know is wrong. One who is less clever, and has to sit down and think things through carefully, may well be able to arrive at a correct conclusion, regardless of his personal or emotional desires. Or not.

The important thing is that any public discourse has to be infused, not just with intellect, but with a belief system. And the fact that someone is smart does not mean that he’s chosen the correct belief system. Nazi Germany, of course, would be the ultimate example of this obvious point, since Germany was renowned for the quality of her intellectualism — so much so that a generation was able to convince itself that it was the master race, and that it deserved to take over the world and enslave all other races (with the exception of the Jews, of course, a group that needed to be exterminated entirely).

So, let us by all means acknowledge how smart the people at the Times and the Post and Harvard University and Newsweek and Vanity Fair and the New Yorker are. They write well and they think well. But do we share their values? And if their values are the starting point for everything they write, do we really want to accept unconditionally the conclusions they reach? You, my readers, and I have already decided we don’t. But next time you talk to a friend who still clings to the liberal media, try a thought experiment with your friend. See if she can separate her values from the media’s conclusions, conclusions your friend probably parrots unthinkingly. She might be surprised at how often she doesn’t believe in the premises that underlie the media’s elegantly reasoned conclusions — and, if nothing else, might approach the media in future with a slightly more jaundiced and objective eye.

UPDATE: Entirely unaware of the post I did today, Mr. Bookworm rather gloatingly sent me a link today to this article, which he claims shows that liberals are smarter Here’s how the article starts, and it seems to support my theory that brighter does not mean more moral or more correct:

Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

That may be entirely true, but some situations don’t call for tolerating ambiguity. They call for clarity — moral or practical clarity. Outside of the halls of academe, intelligence may not lie in being able to parse a situation in a thousand different ways. It may lie, instead, in being able to recognize a core issue and then to work with that issue. This may explain why, since 9/11, conservatives keep saying “Islamic fundamentalism,” which is involved in 90% of the world’s hot spots, while liberals keep fumphering around with “poverty,” “alienation,” “imperialism,” “bad white men,” “America,” “Jews,” “Israel,” etc. — none of which are a satisfactory answer to most of the Muslim violence directed at just about everyone around the world.

UPDATE II: In a comment, JJ noted that the Times writing can be appallingly bad, and that is certainly true, especially when it’s trying to make a political point that even Times-niks, in their hearts of hearts, must know to be completely invalid. Otherwise, how can one account for this turgid, all-but-unintelligible sentence:

When Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, suggested the war was not integral to the anti-terror effort since members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, sometimes called Al Qaeda in Iraq, the homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led, is not part of the Qaeda network behind the Sept. 11 attacks, the general offered a quick retort.

Here’s James Taranto’s take on that verbal mess:

The news department of the Times has made a policy of requiring its reporters, every time they mention al Qaeda in Iraq, to editorialize that al Qaeda, which has nothing to do with Iraq, has nothing to do with Iraq, which has nothing to do with al Qaeda. But this sentence is so awkwardly constructed that it stands out even in the New York Times. Could it be that reporter Carl Hulse wishes he were allowed to give us the news straight, and wrote this monstrosity of a sentence as a protest? Whatever the case, Rupert Murdoch has to be smiling.

For the most part, though, the Times does have high quality writing, even if that writing is strangled by low quality virtue and morality.


19 Responses

  1. I am beginning to view several of the points you make very differently.

    First, I think academics and “smart people” of the academic genre are at a serious disadvantage in the current commercial world. They become academics, probably from an early age because they don’t understand the world around them, while excelling in school. They are making horrible mistakes these days as they have done at Harvard and Duke to foul their own nest with harsh long term consequences.

    Second, commercial for-profit colleges are thriving as are all the hundreds of smaller anti-elitist colleges. In less than a decade they could seriously damage the academic elite schools. As for the world of commerce, there is now a strong bias against MBAs from anti-commerce Ivy League schools.

    Third, the world of intellectuals is now populated by a rapidly growing contingent of anti-Lefties. Take a look at my list of public intellectuals. http://www.well.com/user/mp/pubint.html more than half are anti-Lefties.

    Lastly, we now have a new intellectual publishing genre ranging from the Weekly Standard to the Claremont Review of Books, Commentary, Azure and the weekend Wall Street Journal. Then there is the Internet with YOU, Contentions and the many others you list.

    I also want to suggest that G.W. Bush may well be considered in the category of Lincoln and Churchill when history gets a chance to survey the scene in fifty years.

  2. Michael, nice to meet you. I’ve bookmarked your blog.

    Interesting point you make about the for-profit colleges thriving. I had not thought about this but the assertion makes sense. Americans are primarily a practical, can-do people and are much inclined to innovate and go with what works. If the elite colleges and universities cease to fulfill a practical role and become provincial enclaves remote from the greater population of the country, they may well become an anachronism.

  3. The Liberal/Left confuses being glib-tongued with intellectualism. If that were so, our greatest intellectual class would be sales people (thank you for suggesting that point, Michael…nice blog!).

    One difference that I have observed is that (good) scientists, by nature, distill complex reams of information into underlying truths. This often makes them appear inarticulate as they struggle to arrive at conclusive statements.

    Conversely, people of letters like to take simple truths and fragment them into myriads of complexity…probably so they can talk and talk and talk about them and thereby stay employed. In France, for example, the greatest honor that one can bestow upon an idea is that it is “complex” and therefore worthy of endless discussion at a political salon.

    Perhaps that is why their “truths” always seem so limited and shallow…because they only address small slivers of the truth at any one time.

  4. The article describing the study lacks statistics concerning the test. What was the frequency of the M’s and W’s, not just the ratio? What was the frequency of error? The standard distribution?

    Suppose there were 1000 M’s and W’s, and liberals made 4 or 5 mistakes, where conservatives made 5 or 6 mistakes. These statistics would make the conclusions of the study ridiculous!

    What if you did not press a key in time for an M? Was this a test where there was an implicit reward for pressing a key, as opposed to getting it right? Without a reward, what’s the motivation for doing it right… especially if boredom sets in?

    Also, instead of merely reversing the ratio of M’s and W’s, why didn’t they consider using a ratio of colors instead of letters for the “blind test” part?

    All that aside, I would STILL have predicted that conservatives would have done better on this test than liberals – given enough time to make a choice between the M and W, since I think we’re more fact-oriented – so I’m a little dumbfounded at the results. I think we lack information concering the specifics of the study.

  5. The other issue with academia is the intolerance of a view that differs from theirs politically. When everyone around you agrees with you, and you purge or repress the others, it’s a recipe for self deception and stagnation of thought.

  6. “Where there is clarity there is no choice! Where there is choice there is only misery.” japanese proverb.

    Oh! yes! Let liberals keep their bigger and better brains and their miserable lives! All those ambiguities, all those choices, all those confusions, all those frozen people, incapable of movement because they are sooo intellectual!

  7. “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” —Albert Einstein

    There is a huge difference between great spirit and a great mind just as there is between wanting spirit and a lacking mind. I think we must consider both. True intelligence coupled with spiritual daring beat the guy with the higher GPA and the follower of “the rules” every time.

  8. I disagree with some of your exemplars, most glaringly the NY Times. It’s generally possible to find at least one article on the front page that will offer the conclusion in the first graf, then spend the rest of the body being compelled to wallow in those annoying things called “facts” that do not support the foreordained conclusion, and then close with a graf restating support for the conclusion that the entire body of the story has refuted.

    That’s not good writing. That’s not even “glib.” That’s an idiot with an agenda and access to a word processor.

    Good writing, to be in fact “good” ought to somewhere along the way make sense.

    And I agree with Michael’s assertion: academics in particular preach to no one but the choir (or the captive audience), and have (apparently by choice) rendered themselves increasingly irrelevant.

    There is a reason why your forebears coined the saying: “those who can’t do, teach.”

  9. so–if were born this way, why do the tolerant liberals still blame us?

  10. As the ol’ Southern adage says, “Just ’cause I talk slow don’t mean I think slow.”

    Wonderful post, Book.

  11. […] Bookworm Room, “50 Million Intellectuals Can Be Wrong” […]

  12. […] place was an amazing four way tie, with votes to (1) yours truly for 50 million intellectuals can be wrong, in which I point out that all the smarts and reasoning ability in the world won’t help you […]

  13. You have a good point about intellectuals. I am a PhD myself and I know that we have a real tendency to believe that since we know a lot about on thing, we consequently know a lot about everything. It is, I believe, the result of normal human egotism. However, professors are told (by other professors and students who have little experience in the world) how intelligent we are and it leads to a real blindness towards the possibility that other are also able to reason and think.

  14. You’re absolutely right, Dr. T. It reminds me of a professor who was the expert witness on a case I was working. The case started with a narrow focus that was definitely within his expertise. However, as more issues arose, he kept coming back as the “expert” on those, no matter how far afield they were from his actual, original area of expertise. One of my colleagues commented that he’d hold himself out as an expert on car mechanics, plumbing, or astrophysics if we asked!

  15. The weird thing, Dr T, is that if Phds actually had 10-20 equivalent PHds in multiple subjects, they WOULD be deserving of wisdom and not just knowledge in a narrow field. Yet they wish academic credit for knowing about military history and science without the PhD work. Which violates their own standards, assuming they have.

  16. PhD professors of whatever field, don’t treat undergraduates or even post graduates with the same respect if the subject is one in which they have specialized in. If some student, not even post graduate, started talking about how the professor was wrong, would the professor tolerate such and treat the student as an equal? In public?

    Yet the Phd Professors of non-military studies expect to be given deference and equipment treatment when they open their mouth about subjects they have spent almost zero time researching. They violate the Meta-Golden Rule at its heart. They treat those without their equivalent standards much worse than they would expect their superiors in military science to treat them.

  17. Go to YourMorals.com for another lib-cons take. Take the survey, read the analysis to date. It could just be that cons think slower because they take more into account!

  18. […] 1. “50 Million Intellectuals Can Be Wrong” by Bookworm Room […]

  19. […] As for me, I addressed the question most recently in my post, 50 million intellectuals can be wrong. […]

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