I commonly meet … social scientists who will tell you about the implications of their latest research, yet if you ask them other questions they will respond in hushed tones of the most severe agnosticism. … Yet I find … these same people will hold very definite political views and act on them in their private lives. … This is one of my pet peeves. It is defensible to be truly agnostic. It is also defensible to … have “all things considered” policy views on matters we have not studied closely. It is not defensible to hold such views but, under the cloak of a not-really-meant agnosticism, refuse to put them on the social science table, so to speak. (I find that bloggers hardly ever suffer from this problem.)
I share Tyler’s peeve, because I just don’t see the point in being an academic who doesn’t aspire to be an intellectual – with coherent and informed opinions on many interesting and important topics. Oh I see the status-seeking point in the abstract, most academics are that way, but I just can’t relate.
Outsiders assume that if academics spend all this time discussing all those obscure questions, surely there must be armies of them discussing the big important questions. But in fact, most academics consider it presumptuous to speak there; such questions are reserved for very senior academics in their later “philosophical” years. Which, alas, means they mostly get ignored.
It is a true pleasure to talk with people smart and careful enough to become successful academics, yet willing to engage many big questions.