About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Saturday, October 01, 2011
Engineers vs intellectuals? How Timothy Ferris gets it spectacularly wrong
a recent piece Ferris penned (okay, keyboarded) entitled “The world of the intellectual vs the world of the engineer.” It is a quasi incoherent rant about the evils of intellectualisms and the virtues of applied science. Ferris writes, I would argue as an intellectual, in one of the most intellectual of contemporary publications, about how the battle between intellectualism and science-engineering has been waged since the beginning of the printing press. The results are in - science/engineering won hands down - time to close the curtain on intellectualism.
Ferris engages in such a stereotypical piece of anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter (the sociologist who authored the classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life) could have used him as a poster boy. Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” Indeed, Hofstadter even identified the precise category of anti-intellectualism to which Ferris’ rant belongs: instrumentalism, or the idea that only practical knowledge matters and should be cultivated. In America, the attitude traces its roots to the robber barons of the 19th century, as exemplified by the attitude of Andrew Carnegie about classical studies: a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.” Of course this is the same Andrew Carnegie who established a university in Pittsburgh, donated money to public libraries, and founded the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City — all bastions of intellectualism of a high caliber.
But back to Ferris. He makes his case by cherry picking examples, distorting history, and simply ignoring what is not convenient for his thesis. We discover that Rousseau, one of the most influential philosophers of modern times (particularly when it comes to his analysis of the social contract, as well as his writings on education) was less than useless because, ahem, Robespierre, Hitler and the anti-vaccination crusaders are his “disciples.” You know a guy is short on arguments when he has to invoke Hitler to make his point, and that happens shortly after the beginning of Ferris’ “essay” (I use the term loosely because Ferris probably wouldn’t want his writing style to be compared to that of the inventor of the form, the French intellectual Michel de Montaigne). Things go rapidly down the drain from there.
Ferris’ complaint is becoming standard fare among scientistically inclined people: all the good stuff about modern society has been delivered to us on a silver plate courtesy of science and engineering (health care, mobile phones), while all the useless and even pernicious theories (Freudianism, Marxism) have come from armchair intellectuals. Time to throw the bums out and embrace our only savior, let’s close down humanities departments and give cart blanche to the scientists to help us achieve paradise on earth.
For Ferris, intellectuals only churn up destructive ideologies (communism, fascism), and he doesn’t forget to bring up the postmodernists, who hypocritically dismiss science as just another social construction while happily typing away their nonsense on the latest Apple computer.
Except, of course, that five minute of serious reflection should have made Ferris realize that he created a straw man with precious little correspondence to reality. To begin with, capitalism and democracies are also the result of “armchair speculations” by intellectuals, from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, not to mention the founding fathers of the United States of America. And part of the reason science is so well regarded these days is because of the preparatory groundwork work laid out by the intellectuals of the French Enlightenment, including some of Rousseau’s strongest critics, like Voltaire. While science has without a doubt made our lives more comfortable and last significantly longer, it has had relatively little directly to do with the development of the above mentioned ideas, which are the true backbone of the progressive society that Ferris praises so much.
Moreover, science itself has been the handmaiden and enabler of much pernicious ideology, beginning with the technological efficiency with which fascism and communism were able to kill tens of millions of people during the 20th century. Science is a tool in the hands of human beings, and it is our thinking about values that determines whether that tool is going to be employed to save millions of lives from smallpox or to weaponize the very same disease into a lethal carrier of death. And where are those values going to come from, if not through reasoned, “intellectual” reflection about what we care about and what we ought to do (or, perhaps more importantly, not do)?
I am certainly no friend of postmodernism, but even that somewhat misguided enterprise should not be dismissed out of hand. True, postmodern critics of science as a way of knowing do make fools of themselves, and they should rightly be chastised for that (though, let’s also remember plenty of instances in which scientists have said really silly things, as in the case of the astronomer who in 1957 predicted with confidence that humanity will never be able to put an artificial satellite in orbit around earth — a few months later Sputnik went up). But postmodern critique of power structures, both within science and in society at large, is spot on. Only a naive outsider could possibly imagine that the hall of science departments — where I have spent a good chunk of my life — are idyllic havens devoted to the search for truth. Yes, truth is being sought, but petty vendettas, systematic gender and ethnic discrimination, power plays, vanity plays, and other wasteful or destructive behaviors go on all the time, just as in any other human social activity.
No, Mr. Ferris, it is only in the misguided minds of anti-intellectuals like you that there would be a war going on between C.P. Snow’s two cultures, and it is your destructive type of anti-intellectualism that risks undermining our best efforts to build a better society. To put it as Kant (another giant of intellectualism) did, “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.” And he wasn’t talking just about scientific theories.