1 2 3 >  Last ›
 
   
 

Public intellectuals: entertainment or edification?

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
Avatar
 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
Total Posts:  390
Joined  13-02-2017
 
 
 
24 June 2018 13:38
 

With the New York Times article “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” I think it is safe to say that public intellectuals of the Sam Harris variety are a now public fixture.  A cursory examination of their statistics and demographics suggests they often command audiences larger than mainstream news anchors.  They tour and speak on a “speaking circuit” that commands prices equivalent to a monthly cable subscription.  They publish widely in non-traditional media outlets (podcasts, YouTube, non-academic online journals or magazines), and to a lesser extent in traditional media outlets as well (television interviews, books, and academic or professional journals).  When considered in these lights they hardly represent a “dark web,” except in so far as they are not traditional news or television personalities.  Instead, they are the brightest denizens of the intellectual and social media that is the rise of the Internet.  Whatever their diverse commitments and affiliations, as the New York Times opinion indicates, they are here to stay, and their stay is only growing in popularity.

This raises a question: what function do they serve?  Not that they have to serve one; their existence can be as sua sponte as anything else.  But rather, what function are they de facto falling into, if not stepping into by stated intent—entertainment, meaning celebrity figures who speak and write to what audiences already prefer and believe, or edification, meaning thought leaders who shape what audiences prefer and think and believe?  While this question can be asked of any traditional media figure, I think it is particularly appropriately asked of them.  For by stated intent, they are doing more than entertaining.  But are they?  Should they be?  If they are, what are we to make of their rising influence?  I ask this because I really don’t know, but as an casual consumer of their work and an amateur observer of their rising popularity, I have more than a passing interest.  So what say you forum?  What do any of you get out of them?  What do you think they represent?  To turn it into a media horse race, are we better off with them or without them?  Are they contributing positively to the transformation of the public sphere, or just making money by promoting themselves and their own ideas while the rest of us are entertained? 

 
nonverbal
 
Avatar
 
 
nonverbal
Total Posts:  1238
Joined  31-10-2015
 
 
 
24 June 2018 19:02
 

The most brilliant luminaries seem to have figured out something important about how to communicate with people. That’s their primary skill, it seems to me. Some of them self-promote strictly for profit while others perhaps don’t need to. It seems that anyone with a sizable online audience can make a very decent living, but maybe I misunderstand that world.

Their function, if we imagine that they have one, is to inspire the masses, of course. That they do, no?

 
 
GAD
 
Avatar
 
 
GAD
Total Posts:  16551
Joined  15-02-2008
 
 
 
24 June 2018 20:02
 

People are social and they like teams and they like celebrities on their teams.

[ Edited: 26 June 2018 06:59 by GAD]
 
 
Twissel
 
Avatar
 
 
Twissel
Total Posts:  2475
Joined  19-01-2015
 
 
 
24 June 2018 20:23
 

At a time when the ruling politicians consider “Intellectual” and insult, listening people with some erudition is more important to ever.

 
 
Jan_CAN
 
Avatar
 
 
Jan_CAN
Total Posts:  2389
Joined  21-10-2016
 
 
 
25 June 2018 05:51
 

Of course, with the good, also comes the bad.  The ‘bad’ also now have an increased audience and influence, and even a sort of cult following, that they would not have had previously through traditional news media.  There are those who know how to manipulate by tapping into people’s fears and prejudices for their own purposes.  In my opinion, this is cause for concern.

 
 
sojourner
 
Avatar
 
 
sojourner
Total Posts:  5970
Joined  09-11-2012
 
 
 
25 June 2018 06:44
 

I think in some ways public intellectuals have become a focal gathering point for starting and engaging in conversations that used to take place in town halls, pubs, at family dinners, and so on. I can honestly say that I almost never discuss politics with anyone in daily life. It just isn’t something that people really talk about. My parents will still share their political views sometimes as a remnant of those ‘family dinner’ times, but increasingly even they will avoid the topic as we have a younger generation with different views and everyone wants to get along for the sake of the grandkids.


I think there is a huge difference in what you pick up and learn when discussing something in a back and forth context vs. seeing it passively, and in isolation, on the news. If I’m posting something here, I have to think about what I think, consider why, maybe search for some background data to support what I’m saying, and so on. If I see it on the news and I don’t have to express what I’ve just seen because I’m going to discuss it with precisely no one, it’s hard to maintain interest. For the Twitter and Reddit crowd, I think having central figures serves as a sort of starting point around which to organize conversations on various topics.

 
 
icehorse
 
Avatar
 
 
icehorse
Total Posts:  6689
Joined  22-02-2014
 
 
 
25 June 2018 08:08
 

I think they tend to discuss and debate in good faith. This means a couple of things:

- they avoid trying to reduce complex topics into sound bites
- they tend to avoid slurs
- they try to implement critical thinking

They don’t do any of these things without error. But I think they are trying.

 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
Avatar
 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
Total Posts:  390
Joined  13-02-2017
 
 
 
26 June 2018 03:28
 

Thanks for all the replies.  In order….

Nonverbal,

Yes, it seems that one can make a good living as a public intellectual, which seems to add a host of incentives that might affect the type and quality of the work, no?  Like any monetized activity, these incentives can be beneficial or perverse, and I wonder in the case of public intellectuals which applies.  Or it may be that even if not monetized, nothing would change.  Off the cuff, I think the desire for a reputation to be both creditable and right—with emphasis on the latter—has a dampening effect on the quality of public intellectual work, in that it demotes the status of honest, exploratory inquiry into problems in favor of partisan advocacy for frameworks of or solutions to those problems.  By this I mean putting oneself out in the possibility of being wrong, as solving any problem risks in some of the trials, takes a back seat to working out in private a solution and promoting it.  I think this incentivization toward pre-made solutions threatens the public spirit and interchange of science, where peer-review acts as an intrinsic check over private rationality (itself prone to irrationality).  For public intellectuals who make a living in being “right on the issues” instead of as a “participant in solving them”, the incentive not to change one’s mind is too great, hence the function you mention—inspire the masses.  As long as those masses are “inspired,” they will pay to hear, but the question remains: what is the nature of that inspiration?  Are they inspired to new ideas or bucked up in the ones they already have?  I just don’t know, nor do I know if anything particularly hangs on this issue.

GAD,

Yes, as a rule this happens.  But is it a problem, and if it is, what, if anything, can be done about it?  Could it not be said that public intellectuals could use their celebrity status for good, meaning for purposes of solving problems, much like a Hollywood star uses their name recognition to bring attention to a charitable cause?  In the case of public intellectuals, the “charitable cause” could be collaborative efforts to solve social problems, causes they could lead on by example…  In any case, it’s the germ of an idea…

Twissel,

Agreed.  So are you saying that public intellectuals are offering beneficial erudition that politicians are lacking?  That they are assuming the mantle of public “discussion” out of which “truth”—read solutions—will emerge?  On that idea, should politicians be listening to them?  Do they?  Murray was a guest on the podcast.  He writes to gain the ear of policy makers.  He, however, seems to be a subset of whom I have in mind here.  None of the “dark web” intellectuals specifically do this.  Should they, like Murray, be doing this?

Jan_CAN,

Yes, any tapping into fears and prejudices is a cause for concern.  Do you have specific examples in mind?  And what about those doing the good?  What are they doing differently than tapping into the fears and prejudices?  Are they really appealing to and cultivating reason, as Harris intends and advertises?  Is Harris right that his audience is critical thinkers who hold him to an account of logic, evidence, and reason, while Klein’s is merely one that wants to hear him score confirmatory political points (he said this in his Rogan podcast with Nawaz)?  This would be a difference in tapping into an audience…one catering to prejudices, at least, with the other offering stimulus to the critical faculties….

NL,

That’s an interesting idea—that public intellectuals have become a starting point for conversations; that their appeal lays precisely in the back and forth nature of their work.  I think this applies to the podcast genre in general and to Rogan in particular.  He gives his guests three hours.  Three whole hours of engaging question and answer.  On this model, Rogan’s podcasts strike me as a good example of erudition and reason at work—a beefed up, less tendentious “Socratic” dialogue where the contours of an issue get explored.  It may not be ideal.  Perhaps it could be better in some cases.  But as a starting point—as an exemplary beginning—some of them strike me as quite good.  So perhaps this is a good description of their function: acting as a stimulus for conversations, offering not solutions to problems but stimulus and context for discussing them amongst ourselves.  But don’t they, for the most part, seem more engaged as proposers of specific views or policies than participants in this constructive process of illumination that admittedly sometimes takes place?  Harris, for instance, usually comes across as having pretty entrenched opinions, and it gets a little stale hearing the same thing interjected—his platform repeated over and over again on various platforms.  But perhaps this is part of the process, hearing one view repeated in multiple contexts to see, perhaps, that it does not apply…

Icehorse,

I tend to shy away from normative descriptions like “good faith” and “intellectually honest” to characterize other people’s discussions, but I take your point, I think.  But what, operatively, does “good faith” really mean?  It certainly struck me that Turkheimer et. al. and Klein were acting in good faith in that recent debacle, but Harris certainly didn’t think so.  So was Harris, then, actually the one in “bad faith”—i.e. the one who knew, for certain, both the truth of the matter and the truth of what was transpiring, so much so that he saw no possibility of changing his mind? As an outsider who knows the science very well, Harris came across as the one who preached all about “good faith” and “intellectual honesty” when in fact these were really just buzzwords that he used for assuming that he was right and Klein et. al. were not just wrong, but knew they were wrong but arguing as though they weren’t anyway (an astonishing claim to anyone familiar with the actual controversy).  Is it “good faith” to go into a conversation convinced of one’s own rectitude, convinced that there is no possibility of changing one’s mind, as opposed to going in on the presumption that the truth will emerge from the conversation, not that it was brought there by oneself; that one’s mind might change based on what the other person brings to the table?  By the latter definition of “good faith,” I am not so sure how often public intellectuals engage in it.  Based on his own Monday quarter-backing on Rogan’s podcast of his podcast with Klein , Harris all but admits be wasn’t engaging in “good faith” conversation by my operative definition.

Also, as a side but related note, in the same podcast, Harris commented on the “mind reading” tendency of the left in politically charged conversations; that interlocutors against him claim to read his intentions and motives better than he himself supposedly can or does.  But does the same not apply to using “bad faith” and “intellectually dishonest” to characterize views you don’t agree with fall into the same trap—projecting in principle externally unverifiable mental states and dispositions into an interlocutor?  How, for instance, does Harris know Klein was acting in “bad faith”?  Is Harris so right in such an irrefutable and obvious way that anyone who disagrees must be being disingenuous; that they see he’s right, but act as though he’s not?  That tendency toward intellectual sanctimony troubles me in anyone who uses “good faith” and “intellectual honesty” as rhetorical devices to characterize a debate.  Not that I think you are doing this, mind you.  I’m just expanding into an observation in general that jumps off the idea you bring up, one that’s admittedly a pet-peeve of mine as it applies to public intellectuals in general and to Harris in particular.

[ Edited: 26 June 2018 03:54 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
icehorse
 
Avatar
 
 
icehorse
Total Posts:  6689
Joined  22-02-2014
 
 
 
26 June 2018 06:20
 

Hey TAP,

To me, one easy indicator of debating in bad faith is the use of the word “you”. The word isn’t totally avoidable, but its excessive use sets off alarm bells. So phrases like: “you think” or “you are a…” are suspect. As I said in another recent thread, I think Harris is wrong to think that he can both moderate and participate in the same podcast. He does this all the time, and I think it usually works poorly. In those podcast cases, I think it’s quite likely that Harris is sometimes guilty of bad faith.

Another indicator of bad faith arguments is the use of slurs. Yet another is the use of fallacy arguments. So, I would agree that determining bad faith or good faith isn’t a simple black or white determination, but I do think it’s a skill one can get reasonably reliable at.

 
 
Jan_CAN
 
Avatar
 
 
Jan_CAN
Total Posts:  2389
Joined  21-10-2016
 
 
 
26 June 2018 07:10
 

TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher, thanks for your thoughtful and well written OP and responses.

On the upside, I agree with NL who said that “in some ways public intellectuals have become a focal gathering point for starting and engaging in conversations ...”, and with your response that they are perhaps “acting as a stimulus for conversations, offering not solutions to problems but stimulus and context for discussing them amongst ourselves”.  But the downside, as you pointed out, is that they can have “pretty entrenched opinions”.  Discussions and debate are good, but these individuals can also attract ‘fans’ who choose to support those who say what they want to hear.  Also, an academic degree is considered as providing credibility, regardless of whether that person has expertise in the particular field that they are addressing.

I think there can be negative affects when there is a monetary incentive and when peer-review is absent.  Also, an ego may become affected/inflated and come into play once a following has been established.

Yes, I do have specific examples in mind, of those who have achieved fame and manipulate by tapping into people’s fears and prejudices for their own purposes.  I was reluctant to name names as I don’t want to distract from your topic which I interpreted to be aimed at a more general discussion.  But since you ask, in my view Jordan Peterson falls under this category, as one who uses academic rhetoric to further his negative attitudes towards transgender people and women/feminists.

I agree with your statement “That tendency toward intellectual sanctimony troubles me in anyone who uses “good faith” and “intellectual honesty” as rhetorical devices to characterize a debate”.

(I came to this forum after reading one of Sam Harris’ published books, not from listening to his podcasts.)

 
 
GAD
 
Avatar
 
 
GAD
Total Posts:  16551
Joined  15-02-2008
 
 
 
26 June 2018 07:13
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 26 June 2018 03:28 AM

GAD,

Yes, as a rule this happens.  But is it a problem, and if it is, what, if anything, can be done about it?  Could it not be said that public intellectuals could use their celebrity status for good, meaning for purposes of solving problems, much like a Hollywood star uses their name recognition to bring attention to a charitable cause?  In the case of public intellectuals, the “charitable cause” could be collaborative efforts to solve social problems, causes they could lead on by example…  In any case, it’s the germ of an idea…

It’s not good or bad, nor do most people care, they just want to align with someone popular that supports their view. That said for every popular person who has the same view as me, for example, there are a 100 who don’t, so who is right, the ones who share my views or the hundreds who don’t. If the latter is that good or bad?

 
 
icehorse
 
Avatar
 
 
icehorse
Total Posts:  6689
Joined  22-02-2014
 
 
 
26 June 2018 07:24
 
Jan_CAN - 26 June 2018 07:10 AM

TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher, thanks for your thoughtful and well written OP and responses.

On the upside, I agree with NL who said that “in some ways public intellectuals have become a focal gathering point for starting and engaging in conversations ...”, and with your response that they are perhaps “acting as a stimulus for conversations, offering not solutions to problems but stimulus and context for discussing them amongst ourselves”.  But the downside, as you pointed out, is that they can have “pretty entrenched opinions”.  Discussions and debate are good, but these individuals can also attract ‘fans’ who choose to support those who say what they want to hear.  Also, an academic degree is considered as providing credibility, regardless of whether that person has expertise in the particular field that they are addressing.

I think there can be negative affects when there is a monetary incentive and when peer-review is absent.  Also, an ego may become affected/inflated and come into play once a following has been established.

Yes, I do have specific examples in mind, of those who have achieved fame and manipulate by tapping into people’s fears and prejudices for their own purposes.  I was reluctant to name names as I don’t want to distract from your topic which I interpreted to be aimed at a more general discussion.  But since you ask, in my view Jordan Peterson falls under this category, as one who uses academic rhetoric to further his negative attitudes towards transgender people and women/feminists.

I agree with your statement “That tendency toward intellectual sanctimony troubles me in anyone who uses “good faith” and “intellectual honesty” as rhetorical devices to characterize a debate”.

(I came to this forum after reading one of Sam Harris’ published books, not from listening to his podcasts.)

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find public debates that are rhetoric-free.  smile

 
 
sojourner
 
Avatar
 
 
sojourner
Total Posts:  5970
Joined  09-11-2012
 
 
 
26 June 2018 07:44
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher - 26 June 2018 03:28 AM

NL,

....

But don’t they, for the most part, seem more engaged as proposers of specific views or policies than participants in this constructive process of illumination that admittedly sometimes takes place?


To answer your question, I don’t know that the form of presentation matters so much. I should mention that at the family dinners I talked about earlier, the format was meant to be one of instruction, not debate. Perhaps in some family cultures that would have resulted in kids who meekly became indoctrinated into one opinion, I don’t know - in our case it often involved yelling, sulking, and occasionally stomping away from the dinner table.


Again, I think there’s probably a cultural element in there that one has to account for, as in some places, opinions can indeed become very authority-based, and if an authority figure says something you don’t dare challenge it. In those cases, no, I don’t know if a prominent public figure standing on a soapbox and proclaiming his or her view would be conducive to debate. If they’re surrounded by people who are going to just take notes and soak up every word without question, that’s probably not a good idea. That said, I think in our particular culture, walking up to a microphone and saying “Listen you! This is the way it is!” is pretty much an open invitation for people to respond “Oh really? We’ll see about that.”

 
 
bbearren
 
Avatar
 
 
bbearren
Total Posts:  3468
Joined  20-11-2013
 
 
 
26 June 2018 12:58
 

Trump is president, and someone assumes that “intellectuals” might have measurable influence?  Really?

 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
Avatar
 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
Total Posts:  390
Joined  13-02-2017
 
 
 
26 June 2018 17:34
 

Replying summarily with what comes to mind, and in no particular order…

I think there can be negative affects when there is a monetary incentive and when peer-review is absent.  Also, an ego may become affected/inflated and come into play once a following has been established.

I think the mixed incentives of money, lack of peer-review, and the need to establish a reputation as an authority in order to command an audience combine to diminish substantially public intellectual versus scientific (i.e. “rational”) discourse.  In the latter, money and reputation are involved, but all scientists now a days are academics, and tenure insures the steady income, so (ideally) focus turns to teaching and establishing scientific validity in the eyes of one’s peers, not to exploiting or relying on popularity for “being right” on a wide variety of issues.  In other words, in academic science there is no “audience” per se to win but those peers, and money isn’t really an issue because the paycheck is insured however right or wrong one is.  The very mechanisms of becoming an authority—something scientists often egotistically seek as well—are governed by a different set of incentives.

This difference I think explains why public intellectual discourse has changed so much from the academic moonlighting outside of one’s area of expertise in the public sphere that was characteristic of the “old media” to discourse from those who have no (or few) scientific/academic credentials on which to claim any expertise, yet have a financial and reputational need to speak as an authority, and that on a wide variety of topics (the “new media” denizens).  Like I said in another thread, public intellectuals are in the winning-an-argument business while scientists are in the problem solving and discovery business.  The operative rationality seems quite different in these two businesses, and I think this difference is a symptom of the different incentive structures.  In any case, in my experience what gets said and done reads quite differently in the two spheres, even after factoring in the rather vitriolic nature of some scientific disagreements (and for sure there are many).  Even considering those, I find most scientific disagreements far more civil than virtually all of the disagreements between the partisans of public intellectual life.  There you find predominantly “you”-like statements, what icehorse indicates as exemplary of “bad faith”—statements I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in my own experiences in the peer-review process, or in the professional literature.  The focus there is almost always on the topic, not the person.

Jordan Peterson is definitely someone who’s captured an audience after a rather dubious (if not delusional) claim to fame that started the snowball rolling, but I think his popularity is less a matter of catering to fears and prejudices than speaking to an existential need in listeners, particularly one felt in young men.  But any difference of opinion on that point doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s an example of the general phenomenon, and a particularly powerful one at that (but interestingly enough he was not included in the “intellectual dark web” write up).  And interestingly enough too he’s actually more like the older school of “academic” moonlighting intellectuals, though as a clinical psychologist dispensing life lessons he may arguably to said to be within his area of expertise, not outside of it.  But again, in any event, he’s one to consider, even if he’s an outlier in having an academic position from which to write, something rarely true in most public intellectuals now.

The contrast between public intellectual “rationality” and scientific “rationality” is not just interesting to me personally because I consume in one sphere and work in the other.  It seems intrinsically interesting when intellectuals like Sam Harris claim to speak for rationality as such (he even started Project Reason).  Any thoughts on how close his actual rationality comes in practice to the give and take, and self-correction of science—his stated model of emulation?  Just how possible is it to embody the virtues of peer-review and the incentives of scientific inquiry in real-time conversations between intellectual partisans, or even in the solo practice of forming authoritative opinions on issues outside of any established credentials or ostensible expertise, much less those outside the review of one’s peers (which in science is a necessary condition of validity)? 

(I have no idea what to make of your comment, bbearren.  It sounds to me like expressing surprise that aspirin helps headaches even if someone also has cancer.  But maybe I’m just missing what you mean…)

Thanks again for the replies.

[ Edited: 27 June 2018 01:45 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
bigredfutbol
 
Avatar
 
 
bigredfutbol
Total Posts:  5609
Joined  05-04-2006
 
 
 
27 June 2018 06:11
 
bbearren - 26 June 2018 12:58 PM

Trump is president, and someone assumes that “intellectuals” might have measurable influence?  Really?

Well hey, there are more than a few public intellectuals who see Trump as a potential “disruptor” or some sort of useful change agent no matter his own personal shortcomings, intellectual or otherwise. Gad Saad comes to mind as an obvious example.

Steve Bannon has a worldview grounded in fascist philosophy, etc.

My own two cents—reason and rationality are tools, nothing more. If one chooses to reject empathy, community, respect for others, etc., one can always find fiercely intelligent, articulate, and outspoken voices to validate those choices. That’s one reason I reject a politics based on “reason”. I’m with Winston Churchill on this one. Democracy often isn’t very appealing to intellectuals; it’s too messy and imperfect.

I was going to ask the OP—is the question about “public intellectuals” in general, or about the so-called Intellectual Dark Web in particular?

[ Edited: 27 June 2018 06:14 by bigredfutbol]
 
 
 1 2 3 >  Last ›