10-2-10 Hodgepodge

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sowell Wrong Again on Intellectuals

Jeremy Rabkin reviews Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society, distilling the economist's objection to intellectuals (as such) down to the following.

The ideas dispensed by intellectuals aren't subject to "external" checks or exposed to the test of "verifiability" (apart from what "like-minded individuals" find "plausible") and so intellectuals are not really "accountable" in the same way as people in other occupations.
In other words, Sowell appears to believe that normative ideas have nothing to do with reality -- a problem I have noted before.

Interestingly, this point of view, as well as the blurb for this piece at Arts and Letters Daily is tantamount to a type of dishonest argument I have seen from time to time.
Intellectuals tend to see what they want in the world, which is that their biases are confirmed. How does that make them so different from other mortals?
Having a definite point of view is not, ipso facto, an example of confirmation bias. Whether and how one deals with evidence in the process of formulating, refining, and defending that point of view may or may not be.

Weekend Reading

I got a good laugh out of this short, tongue-in-cheek piece by Paul Hsieh over at PajamasMedia.

A Meaningful Ink Blot

In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson completely obliterated a word he decided to change, rather than follow his usual practice of simply lining it out. Science has now unearthed what that word was, and mystery has become inspiration.

From the Vault

Nearly five years ago today, I wrote about a stupid bumper sticker. Those used to annoy me a lot more before I started blogging.

Intrinsicism and Tyranny

LB finds herself at odds with the law for (gasp!) helping her daughter grow up to become an independent adult.
According to these state guidelines, today, I have committed a criminal act. What's more, I have conspired with the inmate, I mean, my daughter, to systematically commit further criminal acts. Most egregiously, my act was done in defiance of the understood exception to the intramural education policies: I excused my daughter early from school today, and will continue to do so on a weekly basis because she wants to work instead of wait out the waning minutes of the day within the walls of the school.
Central planning is immoral and impractical because it removes our ability to act rationally on information pertinent to our own problems. Economists tend to focus on confiscation and mis-allocation of resources when criticizing central planning, but the problem is much, much worse than just that.

For more of the same from our nanny state, John Stossel details how another arbitrary standard to be enforced by a misguided law is defeating one company's efforts to provide its workers with health insurance.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

In other words, Sowell appears to believe that normative ideas have nothing to do with reality -- a problem I have noted before.

As Ayn Rand noted about conservatives, the "is-ought" prohibition is a fundamental and defining premise of all conservatives; it's their rationalization for religious faith.

I now consider it as a prohibition, as I find myself increasingly inclined to understand it as a willful measure to protect religion rather than a mere error.

The upshot of this, as I have found via direct experience, is that those conservatives who consider themselves secular, cut themselves off from their only means of addressing normative ideas. Thusly left without equipment, they find themselves completely paralyzed in the face of normative ideas. Secular conservatives have no choice but to be pragmatists.

Witness Clayton Jones in the comments on my blog here. Despite repeated prodding, Jones simply won't "go there"; he will not touch any sort of principled discussion about what *ought* to be in the Constitution.

As I noted there, to Jones:

I want to see how you approach normative questions, both in general and in regard to law. My epistemology predicts that a pragmatist cannot deal with normative questions rationally without ceasing to be a pragmatist — even if only briefly.

What I didn't specify was that "ceasing to be a pragmatist", in the context of conservatism, can only mean one thing: to invoke faith. All other ways out of that trap involve ceasing to be a conservative.

Jones could not escape the trap, and elected to escape the thread instead.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Secular conservatives have no choice but to be pragmatists."

That's the whole premise of the "secular" conservative movement, is it not?

Uniting with ideological adversaries against a common foe is sometimes okay on an ad hoc basis, but doing so permanently is a mistake. That's the folly of the conservative movement in a nutshell.

Thanks for including that link. The discussion looks interesting and I might want to go back to it later on.


madmax said...

Here is a link to a fascinating essay on the metaphysics of conservatism:


I think you will find it enlightening as the author (a conservative philosopher) discusses both the religious and the secular conservatives and where the differ and where they ultimately come out the same.

If you read the Secular Right blog as often as I do, you will see that secular conservatives usually rely on an evolutionary analysis to ground their conservatism; thus they fall prey to scientism. You will see arguments that evolution accounts for patriarchy, heirarchical societies, ethnic unity (the racialists stress this), and family units. The evolutionary conservatives just don't like the supernatural being bit, but they think that religion was an evolutionary adaptation that serves mankind well.

This is all over secular conservative thought. And they dislike Rand as much as the religious conservatives. Although to be fair no one hates Rand as much as the far leftist.

Enjoy the essay

Jennifer Snow said...

I enjoyed Sowell's book myself, but I enjoy it the most when he's demonstrating the facts than his particular evaluations, where he seems more enamored of creating a cute label than dealing with the actual complexity at hand.

You could make a drinking game out of the number of times he blames people following the ideas of those with (in his words) "the vision of the anointed" on their "verbal virtuosity" without ever providing any examples of said virtuosity or why anyone would be taken in by it.

I particularly found it annoying that he referred to the "other camp" of people who prefer to look at reality and make judgments that way rather than relying on some mystic imaginings of how things ought to be as people with a "tragic" vision of mankind--as though recognizing the fact, central to economics, that there is not enough of ANYTHING to provide ANYONE with ALL they would want if the cost were zero--is a TRAGEDY.

That right there is far more illuminating than his jaundiced view of "intellectuals", and ties right back to Christian notions of original sin and our existence on this earth (and the requirements for supporting that existence) as some kind of fallen state. You're not going to earn many converts to the process of looking at reality and making proper judgments by saying it's awful and hopeless and tragic that things should be this way, but that's the best we can do so just suffer.

Given the choice between grim "realistic" misery and absurd "idealism" people can hardly be blamed if they choose the idealism. This is why it's important to present the fact that this "alternative" is, in fact, not grim. You can't operate from the malevolent universe premise if you hope to get anywhere.

Gus Van Horn said...


"[T]hey think that religion was an evolutionary adaptation that serves mankind well.

In addition to scientism and the "adopting religion without adopting religion," you also have a smuggled-in collectivism, since natural selection works to perpretuate the survival of species.

Thanks for pointing to the essay. I'm looking forward to reading it.


Good call on the malevolent universe premise and where it will get you. I'd never thought about it that way, but Sowell practically demands that we all "grow out" of our idealism. What kind of a rallying cry could that be? And what else could that do than lead to the decline and extinction of our civilization as a self-fulfilling prophecy if it became the dominant view.


Andrew Dalton said...

Jennifer -

I suspect that even the secular conservatives have automatized the bad epistemology of dividing up ideas into "logically possible" and "empirically possible." Thus, we can imagine the Garden of Eden or some other utopian world, so it must be logically possible -- but the world that we happen to live in, in which facts don't bend to wishes, and values have to be obtained by work, falls short of that imagined ideal; thus the "tragedy."

I would say that both leftists and conservatives are Garden of Eden utopians in their basic premises; the difference is whether they think that we actually live in a world that bends to our imagination (or can be made to do so by government planning), or whether they think that we have to make do with the "imperfect" world we observe. Neither group accepts reality on its own terms, both factually and as a standard of judgment.

Gus Van Horn said...


That kind of thinking would also go a long way in explaining the common refrain caution I see among conservatives that people shouldn't go "too far" in upholding their ideas.