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

by Massimo Pigliucci

Timothy Ferris is a writer over at Wired magazine, and his byline boasts that he has been “called the best science writer in the English language” as well as “the best science writer of his generation.” Perhaps, though such virtuosity was hardly on display in 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.


  1. I read The Science of Liberty last year (by Ferris) and thought it was excellent; and found his notion that the difference between the American democratic revolution and France's failed attempt being Rousseau inspired Romanticism interesting, but find the dichotomy he draws between intellectuals and scientists/engineers in the Wired article puzzling.

    Maybe I missed it somehow when I read the book, but it seemed there he did a much better job of drawing a distinction between the democratizing effects of science vs. the need/desire of authoritarian regimes and closed systems of thought to prevent open inquiry.

  2. Haha, I knew this would get you all riled up, Massimo.

  3. Speaking as a mere lawyer, but on point I think, my experience with engineers as clients, experts and as clients of other lawyers is that they are absolutists, and have no sense of nuance. They live in a black and white world. As a consequence, they tend to entertain and indulge in false dichotomies.

  4. Ferris IS a good science writer; I've got some of his stuff. That's why nonsense like this from him is sad, but then, revolting, to see.

  5. Massimo,

    Bravo! A well-tempered clavier of an essay.


  6. I'm your fan Massimo, because your not married only with intellectualism or science, instead you manage to get the best from both worlds. I think that's the way to go.

  7. Ferris rails against those who would deny objective facts and others whose pronouncements seem to ignore the real world, and hence fall within the province of blind intellectualism. But what of it? I have not heard of anybody who claims science is a social construction or that the world is composed of 'text' also advocating an end to civil engineering. Ferris rightly demonizes extreme ideologies, but for him to tar intellectualism with the same brush is wrong.

  8. "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 let's add to that eugenics, shall we, a horrible misuse of science and engineering if ever there was one. I also like how Ferris makes the sleight-of-hand switch from intellectual to ideologue, as if the two terms are synonymous.

    He also seems not to realize that before the age of the full-time specialist and technician, almost every scientist was also an intellectual, Einstein as much as anyone.

  9. Not saying that Ferris makes any sense, but...

    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.

    Strangely, I rarely meet this kind of anti-humanist, but very often their counterpart, the embodiment of anti-scientific animus and science-envious inferiority complex. Apart from nonsensical phrases like "materialistic ... inevitably rules out the human (matter cannot explain humanness, it is just matter)" and "quasi scientific, and so at once intellectually hollow and subject to the kind of scientific materialism that easily leads to letting machines rule over people" (both taken from a recent post by what I assume to be a centrist economist, as they are bashing both Marxism and neoliberalism) one of their first claims is usually that it is in fact science that has produced all the bad stuff (bombs, pollution, etc.) while the humanities somehow have nothing to do with that. It is fantastic how both scientism and this quasi-postmodernist anti-scientism make the same mistake: both think that you can, nay have to jump immediately from is to ought! Only the first celebrates it, while the second concludes that we have to avoid finding out what is.

    Recently I had a heated discussion with an elderly lady who was against all genetic and prenatal diagnosis research because she feared that if that information was available, it was completely unavoidable that we would soon find ourselves in the world of Gattaca and worse. She could not really grasp the concept of simply finding out about things, and that actually putting them to use was a completely separate decision process. But the point here is, as I said, I seem to run into people who think like that fairly regularly, but you really have to search quite some time before you come across somebody who honestly believes that all language and literature studies, all philosophy and history should be discontinued because it is useless.

    Admittedly, I don't count mere arrogant belittling, as this happens even between different branches of the natural sciences - as childish as it is, it is not eliminatory, more akin to feeling superior to workers in waste disposal, which not even the most cluelessly arrogant intellectual would consider superfluous.

    To begin with, capitalism and democracies are also the result of "armchair speculations" by intellectuals

    Well, and that I simply don't buy, just like the related idea often implied on this blog that morals come from moral philosophers. Capitalism does not happen when Adam Smith sits down with a pen, but when entrepreneurs become powerful enough to lobby the monarch to change the laws in their favour. And democracies don't happen when somebody develops a nice little theory of the state, but when people get fed up with having decisions that affect them go over their head and (economically) powerful enough to do something about it. This is why ancient Germanic tribes could elect their leaders and dispense justice in a þing even though they may not have read their Aristotle.

  10. I don't think anyone actually thinks scientists are perfectly moral people and university science halls are havens of open-mindedness and gentility. They just think that the overall methodology of science--testing hypotheses with empirical evidence--is much more useful than the methodology of "the Humanities," which is mostly a matter of spinning anecdotes. It's not that scientists are so much better people, it's that their methodology is so much better. The end product of science is more intellectually honest than the end product of a lone English professor trying to connect "The Waste Land" with theories of gender.

    And while notions like Democracy sprang out of non-scientific intellectualism, today's most important social ideas are coming out of the social sciences (psychology, economics), not fields like Philosophy, Classics, or English. You'll find something in a Jonathan Haidt book you won't find in a Judith Butler one: evidence.

  11. Alex,

    I did not say that capitalism happens when Adam Smith sits down and starts writing about it. But Smith and others had a huge influence shaping our ideas abut capitalism, which in turn both enabled and shaped the practice. And the merchants lobbying the monarchs aren't examples of either science or engineering, pace Ferris. Similar reasoning and examples apply to democracy.

  12. Ritchie,

    you'll also find a lot of superficially thought out and badly researched stuff in Jonathan Haidt's work: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/05/jonathan-haidt-does-it-again.html

    And once again we are here comparing the methodologies of sciences and the humanities by the standards of science, even though the goals are different, and the metrics ought to be different. And let's remember that my argument is most certainly not that the humanities are "better," since I think that comparing the two is committing a category mistake. Sigh.

  13. Well, I am not saying that we owe democracy to a double-blind scientific trial either... nor that Ferris makes sense, as I said.

  14. Massimo--

    Yes, but of course Haidt's work at least purports to use evidence to support testable claims, which is not something any "theorist" actually tries to do, ever. In fact, those Humanities scholars who try to take a more scientific attack (like Franco Moretti) are kind of outre because of the anti-science sentiments that run through the Humanities.

    And you're right that I'm judging them "by the standards of science," but one of the things science gets right, in general, is that a "theory" should actually be coherent and testable. And the goals of the Humanities are not even that clear any more because of their internal culture wars.

  15. Ritchie,

    I'm certainly not about to defend Moretti, as I haven't even read him. But no, "theories" don't get necessarily judged by the evidence, witness the entirety of logic and math. Coherence, yes.

  16. Ritchie,

    Just to defend Butler a little here, what I found most useful to her work was her disrupting of norms that we take for granted and that shape our lives on a daily basis. She asks pointed questions about what it means to be a self, the ways we go about behaving in the world, and helping us to imagine different ways of being and different societal structures that would make us very different and perhaps better people.

    These kinds of topics are things that neuroscience (see Harris's attempt), psychology (cognitive behavioralism, evolutionary psychology, et al), economics, among other sciences and human sciences, are beginning to encroach on, but they are things that are quite impenetratable for those sciences at this moment (mostly because of the complexities of the brain/mind and social interactions, and because they require prescriptive statements that humans must give) and philosophy and theory are still the best tools we have for approaching these subjects, though philosophy and theory should constantly take into consideration the understanding, especially of humans, science is giving us.

    Certainly much of philosophy is embarking on this understanding of human lives in a different way than Butler and theorists do, but that is another subject. And this shouldn't discount the ways that literature and other aesthetics can help on these accounts as well.

  17. This kind of stuff is particularly pernicious in that it frames as opponents intellectual life and sci/tech so that one finds oneself tempted to choose sides, even if just a little. Even Massimo seemed to do so a bit when he talked about science as the handmaiden of power.

    Ferris' whole argument strikes me as simply a childish over-generalization such as one sees in bad high school essays. There might be something nearby in argument-space that makes some sense, like an exhortation to make one's theorizing empirical rather than armchair, but this ain't it.