The Trouble with Intellectuals

Is economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell merely a “secure inhabitant of the right-wing think tank world,” one who has no “genuine vitality,” who “learns nothing that does not confirm what he already knew,” and whose “main idea is the hatred of ideas”?

That’s what Alan Wolfe, a Boston College political science professor and a contributing editor of the New Republic, claimed last January in a review of Sowell’s 2009 book, Intellectuals and Society. He said that he could not find “a single interesting idea in its more than three hundred pages.”

That last statement says a lot more about Wolfe than it does about Sowell. Sowell has always been about big ideas—and they apparently sail completely over Wolfe’s head. Perhaps that is because Wolfe epitomizes the intellectuals who are the target of Sowell’s criticism. How sad—Wolfe has spent a lifetime immersed in scholarly pursuits, but when he encounters a truly important contemporary thinker he is too full of himself to recognize Sowell’s originality and value.

Central to Intellectuals and Society is the concept that the academy is different from most of the rest of us—and that its impact is frequently detrimental to society. The book is full of evidence showing that many prevailing claims, assumptions, and nostrums favored by intellectuals are wrong. Yet intellectuals such as Wolfe (and their allies in the press) ignore that evidence. Of course, the term “intellectuals” is very broad and ropes in people who don’t fit the precise definition. So let’s proceed with some background.

For many years, Thomas Sowell has written about the problems caused by elites who have high opinions of themselves and impose their beliefs on the rest of us. These elites include academics, “opinion leaders” (such as editorial writers and pundits), and politicians who implement the elites’ “solutions.” Sowell’s books Conflict of Visions (1987) The Vision of the Anointed (1995), and The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999) addressed the nature of the ideas held by elites and some of the harms those ideas caused when they were applied in real life.

In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell returns to those elite groups, but concentrates on the intellectuals, most of whom live and work in our colleges and universities. Here he explains why the Ivory Tower should not be the source of most of the ideas that are implemented to improve society.

Some clarifications are in order. Sowell is not describing all academics, but rather those often called “public intellectuals.” An intellectual who studies Shakespeare, but does not use his or her prominence as an intellectual to promote changes in society, would not be an intellectual in the sense that Sowell is using it. In contrast, an economist who recommends how taxes should be levied is acting as an intellectual.

Furthermore, “intellectuals” aren’t just “smart people.” Physicians, engineers, financiers, and others are smart but not intellectuals. They work directly with concrete facts or situations, or with people who give them real-world feedback. In Sowell’s lexicon, “intellectuals” is an occupational category. Intellectuals are people who produce ideas, rather than inventing machinery, curing diseases, or managing corporations. Intellectuals often articulate ideas better than other people do and if their ideas turn out badly they can employ their rhetorical talents to obscure those consequences.

The fundamental thesis of Intellectuals and Society is that many intellectuals, aware of the breadth and depth of their academic knowledge, ignore or disparage other kinds of knowledge that may be far more important to the way society operates. They recommend actions to fix society’s problems, but fail to take other kinds of knowledge into account.

Much of the information that enables society to function is not intellectual knowledge; it is what Sowell calls “mundane” knowledge. Even though intellectuals have enormous facility with ideas and language and much specialized “intellectual” knowledge, no one person, however smart, can have more than the tiniest portion of relevant information about particular social behaviors and situations.

For example, consider the Titanic. What destroyed it was lack of mundane information. “No doubt those in charge of the Titanic had far more expertise in the many aspects of seafaring than most ordinary people had, but what was crucial in its consequences was the mundane knowledge of where particular icebergs happened to be located on a particular night,” Sowell writes.

“In the aggregate, mundane knowledge can vastly outweigh the special knowledge of elites, both in its amount and in its consequences,” writes Sowell.

But intellectuals, having great faith in their own “special” kind of intellectual knowledge, dismiss this “intellectually unimpressive” information. They may even fail to deem it knowledge, which could explain why Alan Wolfe, mentioned above, couldn’t find a single interesting idea in the book.

Because intellectuals dismiss mundane knowledge (and its importance) they blithely override it if they can. Elites disdain Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), which are used to select freshman classes; instead, they want people to be judged as “whole persons.” But accurately judging a “whole person” could take a lifetime, Sowell says, and people actually making “real world” decisions need shorthand methods to do so. But many intellectuals don’t consider the real world in their calculations.

In a similar vein, intellectuals often reject the “first-hand experience of others [i.e., their mundane knowledge], in favor of prevailing assumptions among themselves.” Sowell cites the Duke lacrosse case, in which female lacrosse team members (one of them black) defended students accused of raping a black strip-tease dancer. Because the women players had spent a lot of time with the male lacrosse team and knew them well, their statements should have been taken seriously; instead, they were “not merely dismissed but denounced,” says Sowell, citing attacks in four newspapers.

As some readers will recognize, the idea that important knowledge is dispersed among many people encapsulates F. A. Hayek’s most important contribution to the history of ideas, one that Sowell has championed in many of his books. Sowell quotes Hayek:

Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct.

An illustration (mine, not Sowell’s) may clarify how such knowledge and the incentives intertwined with it affect people’s actions, and how ignoring them can lead to disaster. Many years ago, prominent people, including court judges, recognized that the racial integration of schools was not proceeding the way the Supreme Court had intended in Brown v. Board of Education. School enrollment generally reflected neighborhood settlement patterns, which tended to be racially segregated.

Those who felt something should be done about this decided to solve the problem by requiring school districts to put children on buses and transport them to different schools. This caused bitter friction, harsh words, and demonstrations—even in northern cities like Boston where black-white relationships had previously been fairly good.

The elites didn’t understand that the busing “solution” created hardships for parents, both black and white. Parents didn’t want to send small children on long bus rides; they wanted to be close to their schools so that they could meet with teachers and attend school functions; they wanted their children to have friends in their neighborhoods rather than in distant ones.

The people behind the busing simply ignored those concerns. They saw a problem, which they could articulate better than others, and they assumed a solution, which they could articulate better than others. But their abstract analysis had little to do with the actual day-to-day experience. Eventually, busing of this sort was dropped in most of the country because of its negative impacts on everyone involved. 

The intellectuals about whom Sowell writes think that because they have used their intellects to develop the “right” solution, society will welcome it. But their solutions often rely on extremely limited, abstract knowledge and they often filter out real-world feedback. The results can be disastrous. Those results range from increasing rapes in prisons (because money is spent on “rehabilitation” rather than on building enough prison rooms to allow privacy) to the appeasement that led to World War II (both examples taken from Intellectuals and Society).

I have only touched on the full content of this book. As with other Sowell books, every page can be a touchstone for exploring an idea or examining evidence that supports an idea—despite the disparagement by intellectuals such as Alan Wolfe. I have tried to clarify one idea: that intellectuals are wrong to assume that they have enough knowledge to determine the fate of others. Some humility is in order.