Intellectuals and Society - Thomas Sowell / Интелектуалците и обществото - Томъс Соуел: Chapter 2 Knowledge and Notions

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Chapter 2


Knowledge and Notions


From an early age, smart people are reminded of their intelligence, separated from their peers in gifted classes, and presented with opportunities unavailable to others. For these and other reasons, intellectuals tend to have an inflated sense of their own wisdom.


Daniel J. Flynn1


Like everyone else, intellectuals have a mixture of knowledge and notions. For some intellectuals in some fields, that knowledge includes knowledge of the systematic procedures available to test notions and determine their validity as knowledge. Since ideas are their life’s work, intellectuals might be expected to more thoroughly or more systematically subject notions to such tests. Whether or to what extent they do so in practice is, of course, itself a notion that needs to be tested. There are, after all, other skills in which intellectuals also tend to excel, including verbal skills that can be used to evade the testing of their favorite notions.


In short, the various skills of intellectuals can be used either to foster intellectual standards or to circumvent those standards and promote non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual agendas. In other words, intellectuals—defined as an occupational category—may or may not exemplify the intellectual process. Indeed, it is possible for people not defined as intellectuals—engineers, financiers, physicians—to adhere to intellectual procedures more often or more rigorously than some or most intellectuals. The extent to which this is true is another empirical question. What is important here is that the mere word “intellectual,” applied to an occupational category, not be allowed to insinuate the presence of intellectual principles or standards which may or may not in fact be present.


However important rigorous intellectual principles may be within particular fields in which some intellectuals specialize, when people operate as “public intellectuals,” espousing ideas and policies to a wider population beyond their professional colleagues, they may or may not carry over intellectual rigor into these more general, more policy-oriented, or more ideologically charged discussions.


Bertrand Russell, for example, was both a public intellectual and a leading authority within a rigorous field. But the Bertrand Russell who is relevant here is not the author of landmark treatises on mathematics but the Bertrand Russell who advocated “unilateral disarmament” for Britain in the 1930s while Hitler was re-arming Germany. Russell’s advocacy of disarmament extended all the way to “disbanding the army and navy and air force”2—again, with Hitler re-arming not far away. The Noam Chomsky who is relevant here is not the linguistics scholar but the Noam Chomsky of similarly extravagant political pronouncements. The Edmund Wilson who is relevant is not the highly regarded literary critic but the Edmund Wilson who urged Americans to vote for the Communists in the 1932 elections. In this he was joined by such other intellectual luminaries of the time as John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Lincoln Steffens and many other well-known writers of that era.3


Visiting the United States in 1933, George Bernard Shaw said, “You Americans are so fearful of dictators. Dictatorship is the only way in which government can accomplish anything. See what a mess democracy has led to. Why are you afraid of dictatorship?”4 Leaving London for a vacation in South Africa in 1935, Shaw declared, “It is nice to go for a holiday and know that Hitler has settled everything so well in Europe.”5 While Hitler’s anti-Jewish actions eventually alienated Shaw, the famous playwright remained partial to the Soviet dictatorship. In 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, Shaw said: “Herr Hitler is under the powerful thumb of Stalin, whose interest in peace is overwhelming. And every one except myself is frightened out of his or her wits!”6 A week later, the Second World War began, with Hitler invading Poland from the west, followed by Stalin invading from the east.


The list of top-ranked intellectuals who made utterly irresponsible statements, and who advocated hopelessly unrealistic and recklessly dangerous things, could be extended almost indefinitely. Many public intellectuals have been justly renowned within their respective fields but the point here is that many did not stay within their respective fields. As George J. Stigler said of some of his fellow Nobel Laureates, they “issue stern ultimata to the public on almost a monthly basis, and sometimes on no other basis.”7


The fatal misstep of such intellectuals is assuming that superior ability within a particular realm can be generalized as superior wisdom or morality over all. Chess grandmasters, musical prodigies and others who are as remarkable within their respective specialties as intellectuals are within theirs, seldom make that mistake. Here it is sufficient to make a sharp distinction between the intellectual occupation and intellectual standards which members of that occupation can and do violate, especially in their roles as public intellectuals, making pronouncements about society and advocating government policies. What was said of John Maynard Keynes by his biographer and fellow economist Roy Harrod could be said of many other intellectuals:


He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.8


What many intellectuals seem not to understand is that even being the world’s leading authority on a particular subject, such as admiralty law or Mayan civilization, does not confer even minimal competence on other subjects, such as antitrust law, environmental issues or foreign policy. As British writer Lowes Dickinson said of scientists, “beside being prejudiced, they suppose that the fact that they are men of science gives their prejudices value.”9




The way the word knowledge is used by many intellectuals often arbitrarily limits what verified information is to be considered knowledge. This arbitrary limitation of the scope of the word was expressed in a parody verse about Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol College at Oxford University:


My name is Benjamin Jowett.


If it’s knowledge, I know it.


I am the master of this college,


What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.


Someone who is considered to be a “knowledgeable” person usually has a special kind of knowledge—perhaps academic or other kinds of knowledge not widely found in the population at large. Someone who has even more knowledge of more mundane things—plumbing, carpentry, or automobile transmissions, for example—is less likely to be called “knowledgeable” by those intellectuals for whom what they don’t know isn’t knowledge. Although the special kind of knowledge associated with intellectuals is usually valued more, and those who have such knowledge are usually accorded more prestige, it is by no means certain that the kind of knowledge mastered by intellectuals is necessarily more consequential in its effects in the real world.


The same is true even of expert knowledge. No doubt those in charge of the Titanic had far more expertise in the many aspects of seafaring than most ordinary people had, but what was crucial in its consequences was the mundane knowledge of where particular icebergs happened to be located on a particular night. Many major economic decisions are likewise crucially dependent on the kinds of mundane knowledge that intellectuals might disdain to consider to be knowledge in the sense in which they habitually use the word.


Location is just one of those mundane kinds of knowledge, and its importance is by no means confined to the location of icebergs. For example, the mundane knowledge of what is located at Broadway and 23rd Street in Manhattan, and what the surrounding neighborhood is like, may not be considered relevant to determining whether a given individual should be regarded as a knowledgeable person. But, for a business seeking a place to open a store, that knowledge can be the difference between going bankrupt and making millions of dollars.


Enterprises invest much time and money in determining where to locate their operations, and these locations are by no means random. It is not accidental that filling stations are often located on street corners, and often near other filling stations, just as automobile dealers are often located near other automobile dealers, but stationery stores are seldom located near other stationery stores. People knowledgeable about business have cited, as one of the factors behind the spectacular rise of Starbucks, the Starbucks management’s careful attention to choosing the locations of their outlets—and one of the factors cited in Starbucks having to close hundreds of outlets in 2008 has been their straying from that practice.10 It is a cliché among realtors that the three most important factors in determining the value of a house are “location, location, and location.”


Location is just one of many mundane facts with major, and often decisive, consequences. A nurse’s mundane knowledge of whether a particular patient is allergic to penicillin can be the difference between life and death. When a plane is coming into an airport for a landing, the control tower’s observation that the pilot has forgotten to lower the landing gear is information whose immediate conveyance to the pilot can likewise be crucial, even though such knowledge requires nothing more intellectually challenging than eyesight and common sense. Foreknowledge that the D-Day invasion of Europe would take place at Normandy, rather than at Calais where Hitler expected it, would have led to a wholly different concentration of the Nazis’ military forces, costing thousands more lives among the troops hitting the beach, perhaps dooming the whole operation and changing the course of the war.


In short, much of the special kind of knowledge concentrated among intellectuals may not have as weighty consequences as much mundane or intellectually unimpressive knowledge, scattered among the population at large. In the aggregate, mundane knowledge can vastly outweigh the special knowledge of elites, both in its amount and in its consequences. While special knowledge is almost invariably articulated knowledge, other kinds of knowledge need not be articulated to others nor even be consciously articulated to ourselves. Friedrich Hayek included in knowledge “all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated.” He added:


Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.11


Concentration and Dispersion of Knowledge


When both special knowledge and mundane knowledge are encompassed within the concept of knowledge, it is doubtful whether the most knowledgeable person on earth has even one percent of the total knowledge on earth, or even one percent of the consequential knowledge in a given society.


There are many serious implications of this which may, among other things, help explain why so many leading intellectuals have so often backed notions that proved to be disastrous. It is not simply with particular policies at particular times that intellectuals have often advocated mistaken and dangerous decisions. Their whole general approach to policy-making—their ideology—has often reflected a crucial misconception about knowledge and its concentration or dispersion.


Many intellectuals and their followers have been unduly impressed by the fact that highly educated elites like themselves have far more knowledge per capita—in the sense of special knowledge—than does the population at large. From this it is a short step to considering the educated elites to be superior guides to what should and should not be done in a society. They have often overlooked the crucial fact that the population at large may have vastly more total knowledge—in the mundane sense—than the elites, even if that knowledge is scattered in individually unimpressive fragments among vast numbers of people.


If no one has even one percent of the knowledge currently available, not counting the vast amounts of knowledge yet to be discovered, the imposition from the top down of the notions in favor among elites, convinced of their own superior knowledge and virtue, is a formula for disaster.


Sometimes it is economic disaster, which central planning, for example, turned out to be in so many countries around the world during the twentieth century that even most governments run by communists and socialists began replacing such top-down economic planning by freer markets by the end of that century. No doubt central planners had far more expertise, and far more statistical data at their command, than the average person making transactions in the market. Yet the vastly greater mundane knowledge brought to bear by millions of ordinary people making their own mutual accommodations among themselves almost invariably produced higher economic growth rates and higher standards of living after central planning was jettisoned, notably in China and India, where rates of poverty declined dramatically as their economies grew at accelerated rates.d


Central planning is just one of a more general class of social decision-making processes dependent on the underlying assumption that people with more per capita knowledge (in the special sense) should be guiding their societies. Other forms of this general notion include judicial activism, urban planning, and other institutional expressions of the belief that social decisions cannot be left to be determined by the actions and values of the less knowledgeable population at large. But if no one has even one percent of all the knowledge in a society—in the larger sense in which many different kinds of knowledge are consequential—then it is crucial that the other 99 percent of knowledge, scattered in small and individually unimpressive amounts among the population at large, be allowed the freedom to be used in working out mutual accommodations among the people themselves. These innumerable interactions and mutual accommodations are what bring the other 99 percent of knowledge into play—and generate new knowledge in the process of back and forth bids and offers, reflecting changes in supply and demand.


That is why free markets, judicial restraint, and reliance on decisions and traditions growing out of the experiences of the many—rather than the presumptions of an elite few—are so important to those who do not share the social vision prevalent among intellectual elites. In short, ideological fault lines divide those who have different conceptions of the meaning of knowledge, and who consequently see knowledge as being concentrated or dispersed. “In general, ‘the market’ is smarter than the smartest of its individual participants,”12 is the way the late Robert L. Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, expressed his belief that systemic processes can bring into play more knowledge for decision-making purposes, through the interactions and mutual accommodations of many individuals, than any one of those individuals possesses.


Systemic processes are essentially trial-and-error processes, with repeated or continuous—and consequential—feedback from those involved in these processes. By contrast, political and legal processes are processes in which initial decisions are harder to change, whether because of the high cost to political careers of admitting a mistake or—in the law—the legal precedents that are set. Why the transfer of decisions from those with personal experience and a stake in the outcome to those with neither can be expected to lead to better decisions is a question seldom asked, much less answered. Given the greater cost of correcting surrogate decisions, compared to correcting individual decisions, and the greater cost of persisting in mistaken decisions by those making decisions for themselves, compared to the lower cost of making mistaken decisions for others, the economic success of market economies is hardly surprising and neither are the counterproductive and often disastrous results of various forms of social engineering.


People on both sides of the ideological fault line may believe that those with the most knowledge should have the most weight in making decisions that impact society, but they have radically different conceptions of just where in society there is in fact the most knowledge. If knowledge is defined expansively, including much mundane knowledge whose presence or absence is consequential and often crucial, then individuals with Ph.D.s are as grossly ignorant of most consequential things as other individuals are, since no one can be truly knowledgeable, at a level required for consequential decision-making for a whole society, except within a narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns.


The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice, and groupthink—and for those with one percent of the knowledge in a society to be guiding or controlling those with the other 99 percent is as perilous as it is absurd. The difference between special knowledge and mundane knowledge is not simply incidental or semantic. Its social implications are very consequential. For example, it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.


Where knowledge is conceived of as Hayek conceived of it, to include knowledge unarticulated even to ourselves, but expressed in our individual habits and social customs, then the transmission of such knowledge from millions of people to be concentrated in surrogate decision-makers becomes very problematic, if not impossible, since many of those operating with such knowledge have not fully articulated such knowledge even to themselves, and so can hardly transmit it to others, even if they might wish to.


Since many, if not most, intellectuals operate under the implicit assumption that knowledge is already concentrated—in people like themselves—they are especially susceptible to the idea that a corresponding concentration of decision-making power in a public-spirited elite can benefit society. That assumption has been the foundation for reform movements like Progressivism in the United States and revolutionary movements in various other countries around the world. Moreover, with sufficient knowledge being considered already concentrated, those with this view often conceive that what needs to be done is to create an accompanying will and power to deal collectively with a wide array of social problems. Emphasis on “will,” “commitment,” “caring” or “compassion,” as crucial ingredients for dealing with social issues implicitly assumes away the question whether those who are presumed to have these qualities also have sufficient knowledge.


Sometimes the sufficiency of knowledge is explicitly asserted and any questions about that sufficiency are then dismissed as reflecting either ignorance or obstruction. John Dewey, for example, spelled it out: “Having the knowledge we may set hopefully at work upon a course of social invention and experimental engineering.”13 But the ignored question is: Who—if anybody—has that kind of knowledge?


Since intellectuals have every incentive to emphasize the importance of the special kind of knowledge that they have, relative to the mundane knowledge that others have, they are often advocates of courses of action which ignore the value, the cost, and the consequences of mundane knowledge. It is common, for example, for the intelligentsia to deplore many methods of sorting and labeling things and people, often saying in the case of people that “each person should be judged as an individual.” The cost of the knowledge necessary to do that is almost never considered. Lower cost substitutes for that knowledge of individuals—ranging from credit reports to IQ tests—are used precisely because judging “the whole person” means acquiring and weighing vast amounts of knowledge at vast costs that can include delayed decisions in circumstances where time is crucial. Depending on how expansively “judging the whole person” is defined, the time required can exceed the human lifespan, which would make it impossible for all practical purposes.


Armies sort people into ranks, colleges sort applicants into ranges of SAT scores, and virtually everyone else sorts people by innumerable other criteria. Many, if not most, of these sorting methods are criticized by the intelligentsia, who fail to appreciate the scarcity and high cost of knowledge—and the necessity of making consequential decisions despite that scarcity and high cost, which necessarily includes the costs of mistakes. The risks of making decisions with incomplete knowledge (there being no other kind) are part of the tragedy of the human condition. However, that has not stopped intellectuals from criticizing the inherent risks that turn out badly in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to military operations—nor does it stop them from helping create a general atmosphere of unfulfillable expectations, in which “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” become a thousand bases for lawsuits.


Without some sense of the tragedy of the human condition, it is all too easy to consider anything that goes wrong as being somebody’s fault.


It is common for intellectuals to act as if their special kind of knowledge of generalities can and should substitute for, and override, the mundane specific knowledge of others. This emphasis on the special knowledge of intellectuals often leads to the dismissing of mundane, first-hand knowledge as “prejudices” or “stereotypes,” in favor of abstract beliefs common among the intelligentsia, who may have little or no first-hand knowledge of the individuals, organizations or concrete circumstances involved. Moreover, such attitudes are not only disseminated far beyond the ranks of the intelligentsia, they have become the basis of policies, laws, and judicial decisions.


One small but revealing example of the social consequences of this attitude is that many company policies of establishing retirement ages for their employees have been made illegal as “age discrimination” because those policies are said to be based on stereotypes about the elderly, who can be productive beyond the age of “mandatory retirement.” In other words, third parties with no stake in the outcome, no direct experience in the particular companies or industries, and no knowledge of the particular individual employees involved, are assumed to have superior understanding of the effects of age than those who do have such experience, such a stake, and such direct knowledge, mundane though that knowledge may be. Moreover, employers have economic incentives to hang on to productive employees, especially since employers must pay costs to recruit their replacements and invest in bringing those replacements up to speed, while surrogate decision-makers pay no cost whatever for being mistaken.


The very phrase “mandatory retirement” shows the verbal virtuosity of the intelligentsia—and what a fatal talent that can be in obscuring, rather than clarifying, rational analysis. There has seldom, if ever, been any such thing as mandatory retirement. Particular employers had set an age beyond which they automatically ceased to employ people. Those people remained free to go work elsewhere and many did. Even within a company with an automatic retirement policy, those particular employees who clearly remained productive and valuable could find the retirement policy waived, either for a particular span of time or indefinitely. But such waivers would be based on specific knowledge of specific individuals, not abstract generalities about how productive older people can be.


Virtually all adverse conclusions about any ethnic minority are likewise dismissed as “prejudices,” “stereotypes” and the like by the intelligentsia. For example, a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt said, “During his years as a rancher, Roosevelt had acquired plenty of anti-Indian prejudice, strangely at odds with his enlightened attitude to blacks.”14 Here was a writer, nearly a hundred years removed from the particular Indians that Theodore Roosevelt dealt with personally in the west, declaring a priori that Roosevelt’s conclusions were mistaken and based on prejudice, even while conceding that racial prejudice was not a general feature of TR’s outlook.


It would probably never occur to that writer that it was he who was reaching a conclusion based on prejudgment—prejudice—even if it was a prejudice common among intellectuals, while Theodore Roosevelt’s conclusions were based on his own direct personal experience with particular individuals. Many intellectuals seem unwilling to concede that the man on the scene at the time could reach accurate conclusions about the particular individuals he encountered or observed—and that the intellectuals far removed in space and time could be mistaken when reaching conclusions based on their own shared preconceptions.


Another writer, even further removed in space and time, dismissed as prejudice Cicero’s advice to his fellow Romans not to buy British slaves because they were so hard to teach.15 Considering the enormous difference between the primitive, illiterate, tribal world of the Britons of that era and the sophisticated world of the Romans, it is hard to imagine how a Briton taken in bondage to Rome could comprehend the complex circumstances, methods, and expectations of such a radically different society. But the very possibility that Cicero might have known what he was talking about from direct experience received no attention from the writer who dubbed him prejudiced without further ado.


A much more recent example of intellectuals dismissing the first-hand experience of others, in favor of prevailing assumptions among themselves, involved nationally publicized charges of rape filed against three students at Duke University in 2006. These students were members of the men’s lacrosse team and, in the wave of condemnation that instantly swept the campus and the media, the only defenders of these students at the outset were members of the women’s lacrosse team. These particular women had long associated socially with the accused men and were adamant from the beginning that the three young men in question were not the kind of people to do what they were accused of. Since this case involved race as well as rape, it should also be noted that a black woman on the lacrosse team took the lead in defending these men’s character.16


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