On Anti-Intellectualism and Examining Both Sides

Since Al Gore made his premature concession to George Bush in November of 2000, there has been a steadily growing cry that a good half of the United States is comprised of anti-intellectual buffoons.   How else could the right simultaneously profess conflicting ideologies, decry technocratic rule, and plug their ears and close their eyes in the face of what simply amounted to settled science.

Ah, if only the world were so simple.  As with most things, it takes much more work to delve into the reasons behind someone’s actions or beliefs, but doing so allows a much greater understanding, both of the others’ ideas and your own.  Note that this isn’t really about right v. left.  The right, of course, makes eerily similar claims about the left, though couched in different terms.  The point, as usual, is to develop the habit of asking deep questions.

A great post from Hacker News, now nearly a year old, illustrates how you might examine the anti-intellectual claim from the reverse side:

Part of the problem is that the American distrust of intellectualism is itself not the irrational thing that those sympathetic to intellectuals would like to think. Intellectuals killed by the millions in the 20th century, and it actually takes the sophisticated training of “education” to work yourself up into a state where you refuse to count that in the books. Intellectuals routinely declared things that aren’t true; catastrophically wrong predictions about the economy, catastrophically wrong pronouncements about foreign policy, and just generally numerous times where they’ve been wrong. Again, it takes a lot of training to ignorethis fact. “Scientists” collectively were witnessed by the public flipflopping at a relatively high frequency on numerous topics; how many times did eggs go back and forth between being deadly and beneficial? Sure the media gets some blame here but the scientists played into it, each time confidently pronouncing that this time they had it for sure and it is imperative that everyone live the way they are saying (until tomorrow). Scientists have failed to resist politicization across the board, and the standards of what constitutes science continues to shift from a living, vibrant, thoughtful understanding of the purposes and ways of science to a scelerotic hide-bound form-over-substance version of science where papers are too often written to either explicitly attract grants or to confirm someone’s political beliefs… and regardless of whether this is 2% or 80% of the papers written today it’s nearly 100% of the papers that people hear about.

I simplify for rhetorical effect; my point is not that this is a literal description of the current state of the world but that it is far more true than it should be. Any accounting of “anti-intellectualism” that fails to take this into account and lays all the blame on “Americans” is too incomplete to formulate an action plan that will have any chance of success. It’s not a one-sided problem.

If you want to fix anti-intellectualism, you first need to fix intellectualism and return it to its roots of dispassionate exploration, commitment to truth over all else and bending processes to find truth rather than bending truth to fit (politicized) processes, and return to great, foundational humility that even the press could not overplay into hubris. And they need to drop their blinders whereby they excuse away the damage that intellectuals have done while ignoring these ancient precepts and only crediting themselves their successes, because it cuts themselves off from the very object lessons that could help them return to this time-tested approach to science, which they still flatter themselves that they follow. If you fail to fix the intellectuals first, then all your effort to fix “Americans” is going to fail; you’ll bend your efforts towards getting them to look at intellectuals seriously, but they’ll end up coming to the same conclusions they already have about the value of intellectuals and you’ll have wasted your shot.

I’m not holding my breath.

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