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May 11, 2011

Intellectuals and Society

Thomas Sowell - ISBN - 978-0465019489

"Intellect is not wisdom." Thus the master begins his latest tract on the deleterious effects of "intellectuals" on society. As in A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed, his lacerating observations are plainly explained in his characteristically acerbic style, and with such clarity that there can really be no argument with his conclusions--at least none that is rational.

He characterizes intellectuals (for the purposes of this book) as people whose work "begins and ends with ideas." Thus scientists, engineers, physicians, etc. are eliminated from the discussion: people who are subject to definitive proof of the effectiveness of their discipline and its facts. The principal difference is the intellectual's approach to virtually all problems. There are discussions of opinions, observations and feelings: conclusions are drawn from the groups of individuals who are privy to the determination. Scientific verification is never a consideration.

He discriminates between "notions" and facts; explains the necessity of studying the results of attitudes and policies in order to determine their impact, worth and relevance. Facts are determined by a scientific approach to problems, and are not subject to "feelings," "attitudes," or "hopes;" thus do they become notions. As well, these notions are oriented toward making the originator(s) seem more noble, moral, intelligent or creative. "The great problem . . . with purely internal criteria is that they can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality, and remain circular in their methods of validation. . . . If they are simply people who are like-minded . . . then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes--and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world."

People are considered knowledgeable when they have some special grasp of specific knowledge. More mundane crafts--auto repair, golf, plumbing--are not associated with knowledge by the intellectuals since what they don't know is not considered knowledge. Or even worthwhile. Yet there are many hidden truths in those things intellectuals cannot be bothered to know. And they impact in the real world. "The ignorance, prejudices and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink."

Intellectuals, having no other place to go and nothing else to do beyond creating ideas, are inclined toward careers in the media, academia and government, and not rarely in that order. Since they have few other skills, they are predisposed to rationalize that lack by delegitimizing, at least in their own minds, those without the facility to masterfully challenge such ideas with bonafide, real world experience. Worse, and unlike intelligent beings more fully engaged in their own particular professions (again, engineering, medicine, chemistry, etc.) they have no real world experience to prevent them from generalizing their knowledge of the arcane into a respect for those who do other things well. When a professional masters his real world craft he comes to understand how difficult it is to perform within his own sphere, and imputes to other specialists the knowledge they have accumulated to master their own field. This tends not to be so with intellectuals. They presume that their knowledge endows them with superior powers in all fields. Since their areas of expertise are rarely challenged by real world experience, they have nothing whatsoever to dissuade them from their presumed exactitude, even if they were so inclined.

With this background Sowell explores the reality of impact of the intellectuals upon government, war, philosophy, science (e.g. Gore on global warming), and a host of other spheres where their influence can be, and often is cataclysmic. Their "vision of society" is that there are many "problems" to be considered and "solved." This they do without the slightest nod to human nature, human experience, history or common sense. Those with the anointed visions simply declare how things are or ought to be, and prescribe the solution. They never inquire whether or not their ideas work. Consequently erroneous paths are repeated regularly, with the same results.

Take peace. It is presumed that war is the unspeakable atrocity. No one wants war! Hence we must just accept that we are to sit down and discuss our differences and work out a solution. Alternative opinions, even if supported by the facts, are not admitted into conversations. Worse, people who hold these positions are considered inferior, immoral, unfit, and even stupid.
• Bill Buckley opined decades ago that such people feel everyone has a right to his opinion, only to be shocked that there are opinions which differ from their own. Who knew ? !
• Several decades ago the New York Times headlined that even as crime in the city was declining, criminals continued to be incarcerated. Duh !
• One might now include the assassination of OBL in the discussion. It's altogether right and fitting that he was trapped and shot in the head: this is war! Yet water-boarding in the same endeavor is criminal and non-reflective of "our values." Go figure.

The book is a recitation of exactly where, when and why intellectuals have been wrong for decades--nay, centuries. They never consult history or common sense, and since the rest of the world is occupied with reality and survival, intellectuals have been left, unchallenged, to ponder what they will. They have taken over education at all levels and impact heavily on the media, government and politics, including intelligence agencies, police and prisons. Their nostrums survive by virtue of ineffective counter-forces, and the inherent willingness of many of the unwashed to accept and believe what they hope for, as wonderfully expressed by the anointed, rather than seeing things as they are. Worse, they've been "teaching" our young for several generations. As the world has become more prosperous there are more such intellectuals, and they are creating even more problems than they did in prior times.

It's not necessarily that the intelligentsia are mistaken or ill-informed on particular issues, though that is not unusually the case, but: "The more fundamental point is that, by thinking in terms of abstract people in an abstract world, intellectuals evade the responsibility and the arduous work of learning the real facts about real people in the real world--facts which often explain the discrepancies between what intellectuals see and what they would prefer to see." That is, their filtering and slanting can create fictitious facts and people, and when their story fits the vision, they do not always find it necessary to check whether it also fits the facts.

Read the book. It is fascinating as well as all-encompassing. Sowell is the greatest living philosopher-essayist; he writes with unsurpassed concision.

Posted by Curmudgeon at May 11, 2011 2:34 PM