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Thomas Sowell Takes on ‘Intellectuals’

Sowell's Intellectuals and Society examines those troubling folks with an allergy to fact and an addiction to preening.

by
William M. Briggs

Bio

May 15, 2010 - 12:00 am
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What separates intellectuals from the brilliant is the standard of verification. Physicians, engineers, rocket scientists, and other such folk bursting with gray matter submit themselves to the harsh judge of reality. Prescribe a patient the wrong pill and he craps out; screw in the wrong bolt and the bridge collapses. The mistake-prone in these fields aren’t awarded lucrative book contracts or chairs at universities.

But an intellectual can agitate for minimum-wage laws, and then ignore the reality of increased unemployment rates. He will say he is appalled that so many are imprisoned, yet the subsequent decrease in crime “baffles” him. On Tuesday, he shouts “Free Mumia!” — and by Friday he is penning an op-ed condemning excessive force by the police:

The utterly un-self-critical attitude of many intellectuals has survived many demonstrably vast, and even grotesque, contrasts between their notions and the realities of the world. For example … [intellectuals] were throughout the 1930s holding up the Soviet Union as a favorable contrast to American capitalism, at a time when people were literally starving to death by the millions … and many others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

For the self-anointed, what counts is not fact but esteem. Intellectuals look to the mirror and to the soothing cooing of their coterie for confirmation of their convictions. “Does my position make me feel good?” is their driving question. “Does it work?” or “Could it cause harm?” are never asked.

The glow from their halos blinds. To cushion the inevitable blows caused by stumbling into unseen reality, the intellectual wraps himself with the warm blanket of self-righteousness. But this suffocates and creates fever and hallucination; it causes the intellectual to imagine he is soaring.

The “ruthlessness with which the anointed assail others” is astonishing. Those who oppose them are condemned as immoral, thieving, baby-seal-clubbing, rapacious, toxic-chemical-spill-loving, war-mongering, hate-filled maniacs.

The arguments used against them are irrelevant: it is the act of dissent which enrages. Intellectual shibboleths are anyway not constant and have undergone, as Paul Johnson tells us, a “shift in emphasis from utopianism to hedonism.”

We know this because a century ago intellectuals were telling us that the white race was the most eugenically pure; now they insist it is the least among equals. As Wilsonians we were assured that war and conquest were noble and just; now it is evil and motivated by filthy lucre. Once dissent was the highest form of patriotism; now it is one step shy of open rebellion.

Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it.

But there are limits beyond which the infestation becomes a menace. So if you see an intellectual in the wild, do not approach him! Do not attend his lectures, or read his books; neither subscribe you to his paper nor comment on his blog. Intellectuals feed on attention: the only way to eradicate them is to starve them of it.

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William M. Briggs is a statistical consultant in New York and San Francisco. He is an American Meteorological Society member and serves on their Probability & Statistics Committee. His specialty is on the philosophy of evidence, forecast evaluation, and marketing.
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