The Public Intellectual Plunge

A vicious review from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education:

Having written a number of competent academic books in his area of expertise – English political philosophy – he took the true public-intellectual plunge with Straw Dogs … unleashing a farrago of broadsides about utopianism, religion, free will, and more.  The rest is a case study of how a tenured intellectual, lured by the footlights, can toss away all academic rigor as he spouts off on radio, contributes one-sided tirades to newspapers, and becomes a pointy-headed hack for hire.

Today, at 60, Gray writes as an antipragmatist and nihilist critical of all sorts of politics to make a better world – in short, a crank. He touts a slightly green, Gaia-conscious passivism and favors an Eastern form of contemplation shorn of mysticism. Politically – that is, the kind of politics in which moving one’s mouth counts as activism – he’s a dyed-in-the-wool hater of Bush and the allegedly "utopian" project of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Gray makes Michael Moore sound like a polite assistant professor. … 

Most of the time, Gray simply ignores counterevidence. But it’s the quantity of nonsense, not just its quality, that makes Gray’s work distinctive. Ponder these persuasive declarations … They say he’s about to retire. Until then, some advice to LSE students: If you’re waiting with Professor Gray to cross Portsmouth Street and he announces that the light has turned green, get a second opinion.

Academics often have similar critiques of public intellectuals, who defend themselves as simplifying in order to communicate to a wider audience and become relevant to current policy debates.   Which side on average is right?   

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  • Timothy Scriven

    Well I know this much, in Gray’s case he’s certainly wrong. His works are a mass of logical fallacies and tendentious rubbish. I couldn’t even read Straw Dogs despite several attempts because I always ended up throwing it away in disgust. The simplification inherent in writing a popular work might contain a few glosses and white lies, but these relatively minor misunderstandings are outweighed by the knowledge you gain. When your simplifications create more ignorance than knowledge you’ve crossed the line.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Perhaps this is the wrong archetype to pick to ask the question?

    I have objections even to, say, Richard Feynman as a public intellectual, because when I read his nontechnical books as a kid, he made me think I knew more than I did; and when I read the Feynman Lectures later in life, it became very clear that Feynman used a very different voice for talking to his real students than to the general public that might have believed they were his students.

    If there is a besetting sin of even the competent public intellectuals, it is a reluctance to make clear to their readers how much a popularized understanding is really worth. This is understandable – they’d sell fewer books if their readers knew it was only an illusion of understanding; and I’m sure that the basic culture of anti-intellectualism masquerading as egalitarianism would interpret “But this really takes years of study to understand” as “I’m smarter than you; you’re stupid”. But it’s still ultimately a deception, that is tolerated or sometimes even promoted, even by the smarter intellectuals.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    I had the exact same experience with Feynman’s various publications. Same with Brian Greene. Now at least I know how little I know. It’s naive to think that you can jump that inferential gap by reading a layman-friendly book with no maths in it, but such is the human psyche.

    That said, we should distinguish books that simplify concepts for a wider audience (even brutally) from books that are simplistic and also nonsense. The former can’t do much lasting harm, the latter can do plenty.

  • http://citp.princeton.edu/about-us/dgr David Robinson

    Does it have to be the case that one side or the other is on average right? Maybe they are both right in the sense that although a popularized characterization of some piece of academic knowledge is, genuinely and in every case, less accurate and complete than the full monte, it is nonetheless of some value greater than the (presumably total or nearly-total) igorance with respect to its subject that it replaces.

    I think that, on average, experts in a field tend to stress the differences between popular and precise understandings of their work — and to advocate the latter rather than the former — without tackling head on the tradeoffs involved. That is, it’s easy for a string theorist to say that people who want to understand string theory should read the primary source materials. But he or she doesn’t, in saying this, have to consider the effect that such a “primary sources only” principle would have in the aggregate: It would greatly reduce the total scope of areas in which the posited lay reader has any knowledge at all.

  • http://apperceptual.wordpress.com/ Peter Turney

    Having written a number of competent academic books in his area of expertise – English political philosophy – he took the true public-intellectual plunge with Straw Dogs

    Academics often have similar critiques of public intellectuals, who defend themselves as simplifying in order to communicate to a wider audience and become relevant to current policy debates.

    What is the issue here? Is it academics who simplify for the public or academics who believe they are qualified to speak authoritatively outside of their area of expertise? In my opinion, the latter is a bigger problem.

    Who exactly is qualified to speak authoritatively about public policy? I believe that expertise in policy, as in anything else, must ultimately be founded on experimental and observational evidence. Here is a 2006 survey of The Growth and Development of Experimental Research in Political Science:

    http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/APSRNov06Druckman_etal.pdf

    It’s nice to see that experimental political research is gaining in popularity, but it’s sad to see how rare it is.

  • anonymous

    I loved Straw Dogs. I think it needs to be taken for what it is: a statement of Gray’s attitude towards the world. I think anyone who dismisses it because it contains errors or because it’s not well-argued is missing the point.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Political-science professor Robert Axelrod’s iterated-prisoner’s-dilemma experiment was a distinguished contribution to our civilization IMHO.

  • http://apperceptual.wordpress.com/ Peter Turney

    Political-science professor Robert Axelrod’s iterated-prisoner’s-dilemma experiment was a distinguished contribution to our civilization IMHO.

    I agree completely. To me, it is the paradigm of where political science needs to go.