Intellectual Status Isn’t That Different

In our world, we use many standard markers of status. These include personal connections with high status people and institutions, power, wealth, popularity, charisma, intelligence, eloquence, courage, athleticism, beauty, distinctive memorable personal styles, and participation in difficult achievements. We also use these same status markers for intellectuals, though specific fields favor specific variations. For example, in economics we favor complex game theory proofs and statistical analyses of expensive data as types of difficult achievements.

When the respected intellectuals for topic X tell the intellectual history of topic X, they usually talk about a sequence over time of positions, arguments, and insights. Particular people took positions and offered arguments (including about evidence), which taken together often resulted in insight that moved a field forward. Even if such histories do not say so directly, they give the strong impression that the people, positions, and arguments mentioned were selected for inclusion in the story because they were central to causing the field to move forward with insight. And since these mentioned people are usually the high status people in these fields, this gives the impression that the main way to gain status in these fields is to offer insight that produces progress; the implication is that correlations with other status markers are mainly due to other markers indicating who has an inclination and ability to create insight.

Long ago when I studied the history of science, I learned that these standard histories given by insiders are typically quite misleading. When historians carefully study the history of a topic area, and try to explain how opinions changed over time, they tend to credit different people, positions, and arguments. While standard histories tend to correctly describe the long term changes in overall positions, and the insights which contributed to those changes, they are more often wrong about which people and arguments caused such changes. Such histories tend to be especially wrong when they claim that a prominent figure was the first to take a position or make an argument. One can usually find lower status people who said basically the same things before. And high status accomplishments tend to be given more credit than they deserve in causing opinion change.

The obvious explanation for these errors is that we are hypocritical about what counts for status among intellectuals. We pretend that the point of intellectual fields is to produce intellectual progress, and to retain past progress in people who understand it. And as a result, we pretend that we assign status mainly based on such contributions. But in fact we mostly evaluate the status of intellectuals in the same way we evaluate most everyone, not changing our markers nearly as much as we pretend in each intellectual context. And since most of the things that contribute to status don’t strongly influence who actually offers positions and arguments that result in intellectual insight and progress, we can’t reasonably expect the people we tend to pick as high status to typically have been very central to such processes. But there’s enough complexity and ambiguity in intellectual histories to allow us to pretend that these people were very central.

What if we could make the real intellectual histories more visible, so that it became clearer who caused what changes via their positions, arguments, and insight? Well then fields would have the two usual choices for how to respond to hypocrisy exposed: raise their behaviors to meet their ideals, or lower their ideals to meet their behaviors. In the first case, the desire for status would drive much strong efforts to actually produce insights that drives progress, making plausible much faster rates of progress. In this case it could well be worth spending half of all research budgets on historians to carefully track who contributed how much. The factor of two lost in all that spending on historians might be more than compensated by intellectuals focused much more strongly on producing real insight, instead of on the usual high-status-giving imitations.

Alas I don’t expect many actual funders of intellectual activity today to be tempted by this alternative, as they also care much more about achieving status, via affiliation with high status intellectuals, than they do about producing intellectual insight and progress.

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