P.Mean: The depths of anti-intellectualism (created 2008-09-05).

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My brother-in-law is an avid conservative and often sends me political commentary that would make Attila the Hun blush. That's actually a good thing, as it makes me think things through more carefully. He recently made a sarcastic comment about the lack of experience of Barack Obama ("the guy with the resume consisting of two good speeches"). It made me think a bit more about a topic of general interest to me and one that goes well beyond politics: the rise of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Here's what I wrote back to him in response.

I have to worry about the depths to which anti-intellectualism has sunk in America is someone can comment negatively about Obama's resume without even giving serious consideration to his work as the president of the Harvard Law Review. Not to mention his faculty appointment at one of the best law schools in the nation (University of Chicago Law School). These are not trivial positions. You or I could not come anywhere close to the intellectual firepower that would be needed to even be considered for these posts.

Somehow, being intelligent has become a bad thing, and this leads to all sorts of problems. We see parents who will trust a homeopath's recommendations about the MMR vaccine over the recommendation of the Surgeon General. We see politicians who override the opinions of prominent faculty members about how best to teach High School Biology.

We see politicians who pretend that they are not well educated. George W. Bush, for example, has an MBA from Harvard University, and even if his grades were not stellar, he did get admitted to and to graduate successfully from a very elite institution. This is an indication that he is a very intelligent man, far more intelligent than the average person. But note the quote from Peggy Noonan in 2004.

"Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. Hes not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world."

The media, of course, lets him get away with this (and probably does more to promote his "averageness" than Mr. Bush himself). Let's be perfectly honest. George W. Bush is a very bad president, but it is not because of any lack of intellectual capacity. He's very smart, smart enough to recognize that he can get more votes if he pretends that an MBA from Harvard represents the accomplishments of an average man.

Clearly some of this is an understandable reaction to the snobbery of some intellectuals (Mr. Obama himself has made some pretty snide comments). But I think it goes farther than this. There is a belief that reaching the highest pinnacles of intellectual accomplishment somehow makes you less trustworthy.

The smartest person in the room, of course, does not necessarily make them the best leader. Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein tells the story of how the newly formed state of Israel offered him the presidency. It almost had to be done because of all of Dr. Einstein's efforts to raise funds and build support for Israel in the Jewish community of the United States. But both he and the leaders of Israel recognized that the smartest man in the world would not be a very good president. To everyone's relief, Dr. Einstein turned down the offer.

We also don't want to cede authority to someone because they are very smart. Any intellectual who is truly worthy of the title of intellectual would welcome critical review of their ideas. And the hallmark of a true intellectual is the ability to explain complicated concepts using simple language but without talking down to the audience.

But we have to move past this belief that being smart is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Barack Obama may or may not be the best choice for President, but his service as the president of the Harvard Law Review is a good thing. It's worth bragging about, and it will make him a better president, should he be elected in November.

We are far too dismissive of the opinions of those who are smarter than us. We rationalize it with a comment that intellectuals are too liberal (or atheistic), or under the influence of drug companies, or they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. You can and should incorporate such reasoning in your evaluation, but you can't do this reflexively, and without carefully thinking things through. Everyone (including the intellectuals, themselves) needs to adopt an attitude of humility. If one of your cherished beliefs is questioned by someone who has invested decades of their life studying an area and who finds themselves in a highly regarded academic position, your first thought (not your last thought and not your only thought) should be "what do they know that I'm not aware of."

I disagree with Peggy Noonan. Intellectuals do have their failings and they have indeed sometimes caused a lot of trouble. But I would also argue that the world would be a better place if we had greater respect for intellectuals.

By the way, I don't want to turn my new website into a political blog. I just think that the political arena offers important lessons about critical thinking. I have to admit though, that it is liberating to have your own website. When I was writing pages for www.childrensmercy.org/stats, I wouldn't have touched this topic with a ten foot pole.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. This page was written by Steve Simon and was last modified on 2010-04-01. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Critical appraisal.