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“The presumption of wisdom and/or virtue causes intellectuals to personalize situations where contending ideas are involved.”

Mark Tuttle writes:

A friend recommended the book Intellectuals and Society, by Thomas Sowell. The book is from 2010, but before this recommendation I hadn’t heard of it.

Note the last paragraph, below, in the Wikipedia entry:

Ego-involvement and personalization

The presumption of wisdom and/or virtue causes intellectuals to personalize situations where contending ideas are involved. This often results in: (a) the demonization of opponents, and (b) personal fulfillment serving as a substitute for debate and evidence. Sowell does not make it clear if intellectuals acquired these traits from politicians, or the other way around.

It reminded me of some of your observations.

My reply: I hadn’t heard of this book either. I’ve read a few op-eds by Sowell over the years but not a whole book. Based on the wikipedia description, this one looks interesting.

The above-quoted paragraph reminds me of the defensive attitudes that have led leading academics to label their critics as Stasi, terrorists, second-stringers, data thugs, etc. Or you could say the description applies to me, when I make fun of Gremlin Man, Albedo Boy, Pizzagate, Weggy, himmicanes, and all the rest.

I think my name-calling is more legitimate than theirs, though.

When they call us Stasi, terrorists, second-stringers, data thugs, they offer no evidence, no reason for these labels. For example, none of these name-callers has ever given an actual example of Stasi-like behavior, terrorism, second-string work, or thuggery that any of us have done. When I laugh at their claims on albedo, or their misclassified data points, or their ridiculous claims from the statistical equivalent of reading tea leaves, or their disappearing data, or their unwillingness to correct or even admit their errors, I give clear evidence. Yes, I’m mocking them, but (a) I don’t think I’m “demonizing” them (I’m just pointing out what they did and expressing my frustration and annoyance), and (b) whatever personalizing is done is not “a substitute for debate and evidence,” it’s a dramatization of existing debate and evidence.

In summary: Not all mocking/criticism/name-calling is the same. Name-calling as a substitute for debate and evidence is not the same as name-calling that dramatizes debate and evidence.

That said, it’s possible that name-calling is a bad idea, even when it is legitimate, as it can lower the discourse, induce defensiveness, etc. On the other hand, a bit of name-calling can make a dry scientific debate a bit more entertaining.

I’m not quite sure what to say about “personalization.” I think the discussion should be about ideas and evidence, not personalities; but ideas come from and are presented by people. Sometimes both the ideas and the people are relevant. When David Brooks, say, refuses to correct an error, part of the problem is the error and part of the problem is that he is given a platform to make authoritative-sounding pronouncements to an audience of millions without any duty to check his facts. He gets to do this in part because of his status as David Brooks, New York Times columnist.

But, yeah, the personalities can be distracting, and sometimes we can do without them. For example, in our recent discussion of the criminology journal scandal, I used some humor, but I focused on the events, not the personalities involved. So it can be done.

OK, we’ve gone through this issue before on the blog.

But what about Sowell’s more general point, that the presumption of wisdom or virtue causes intellectuals to personalize situations where contending ideas are involved?

I’ll say two things here.

First, I think he’s right, I think it’s a real issue that pollutes intellectual discourse. People hold on to a position and just don’t let go. A bit of stickiness is fine—we need have a diversity of intellectual views, so it’s good that people have different thresholds for being swayed by any particular bit of evidence—but a lot of people take it too far, holding on to theories long after they’ve been deprived of whatever evidence was originally taken to support them.

Second, it’s not just intellectuals. In my experience, everybody personalizes situations where contending ideas are involved. No “presumption of wisdom or virtue” is required. Just consider any political debate at a prototypical bar or country club. Lots of over-certainty.

From this perspective, the problem with intellectuals is not that they’re worse than everyone else. The problem is that they’re not enough better than everyone else. It’s frustrating when tenured professors, with all their education, job security, and avowed ethos of openness, shut their ears to criticism and personalize disagreements as a way to avoid intellectual discussion and debate.

I guess I’ll actually have to read the book to see Sowell’s full take on this one. At this point I’m just engaging with the general ideas as summarized on that Wikipedia page; I’ll be interested to see the full argument.

P.S. Zad sent in the above picture of two adorable baby cats who would never demonize their opponents. They just want to play!

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