An intellectual is someone whose product begins and ends with ideas.

This quote by Thomas Sowell was among a pile of delicious nuggets in a recent interview of the great thinker posted at Reason. Sowell both defines what he means by “an intellectual” and condemns intellectuals by pointing out that their “product” is not subject to market forces or feedback. Untethered from such grounding elements, the intellectual’s ideas can deviate from reality without penalty.

As another quote, apocryphally attributed to George Orwell, observes:

There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.

Indeed, this seems to be what’s going on in academia, especially in the soft sciences, and even more so when it comes to societal matters, with fresh wackiness entering the zeitgeist on a regular basis.

Musician Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull, writing as Gerald “Little Milton” Bostwick, “lamented”:

The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other

This may have held more weight back in 1972, when Thick as a Brick was released, but today it seems that doers defer to thinkers, especially in progressive politics, where efforts to legislate and institutionalize (often radical) new social theories (as well as many re-treaded and re-branded failures) are of highest priority, no matter that real-world feedback suggests skepticism, caution, or more moderate adoption (or, in some cases, overtly refutes the theories). Indeed, this phenomenon seems a continuation and expansion of the idea, discussed in Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed, that “American thought is dominated by a “prevailing vision” which seals itself off from any empirical evidence that is inconsistent with that vision.”

An old joke goes “those who can, do. Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, administrate.” We seem to have lost the lesson of this joke: that people who haven’t implemented that which they claim to know aren’t as versed in the truth of things as those who have.

Yet, as a society, we’ve ceded enormous authority and control to the thinkers, especially the ones who are detached from the real-world feedbacks that are so necessary to getting things right: The “intellectuals,” per Dr. Sowell’s definition. Oftentimes, it seems we’ve done so simply because they’ve demanded it, because they’ve told us that they’re right and that they’re the most likely, by dint of their thinking, to continue to be right. Unfortunately, they too-often demonstrate a total lack of the humility required to admit when they’re wrong, even in the face of blatant evidence. And, typically, it’s because they’ve moved on – in their world (and as per Sowell), their work is done once they’ve established an idea and passed it off to others for implementation, with results and feedback treated as irrelevant.

We not only see this in modern social ideas, but in education, welfare, taxation, regulation, and countless other areas of public policy. It’s often noted that one shouldn’t take small business advice from anyone who hasn’t had to make a payroll, but small businesses are subject to countless controls from on high by just such people, or by people informed by by them. And, by and large, we find things just aren’t working as they should be. It took someone from outside that circle of thinkers, the orange-bull-in-a-china-shop Donald Trump, with a history of doing (successful and unsuccessful), to make changes that actually invigorated the economy last year.

Why have we ceded so much power and authority to the disconnected thinkers? I suspect many factors, including an education system that inculcates obeisance to authority and does a piss-poor job at teaching critical thinking and skepticism. I also suspect the long-term devaluation of doing, of making, of trades and manual skills. Someone unversed in or insecure about doing doesn’t have as much confidence to challenge the untethered thinkers.

I do not seek to condemn thinking here. Thinking is where the seeds of progress germinate. Thinking is what leads to doing, and the combination of thinking and doing, subject to evaluation, adjustment, correction, validation and/or rejection, is what makes things better. Even the most arcane thinkers, such as theoretical physicists, eventually subject their ideas to testing and feedback. It is thinking without doing, thinking isolated in a self-perpetuating and log-rolling cross-validation echo chamber insulated from real-world verification and feedback, that is the problem. It’s where the big-government dunces that infest our political sphere get their idiotic ideas, as well as the presumption that they need to manage our lives for us.

It’s at the root of William F. Buckley’s famous observation:

I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

Who is more likely to have received real-world feedback for his or her ideas? The highly educated intellectuals on the Harvard faculty or an amalgam of “average” folks whose surnames happen to start with A?

Our society places a high value on education, as it should. Education improves prospects and lives, and in the aggregate advances our society in countless ways. It must be remembered, however, that education is a means to an end, not something for its own sake or to exist apart from the real world. That which we purport to know should always be subject to testing against reality, and that testing comes from doing. And, when something has been done many times over, the lessons of that doing should carry more weight than the words of some ungrounded intellectual’s convoluted assertions to the contrary.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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