Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline

(Attention conservation notice: 2,000 words on another of the books that Richard Posner, widely respected judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, publishes “every half hour”. There’s so much about Posner to make you mad, but then so much that’s brilliant or at least deftly written. Like the rest of his books, I would recommend reading Public Intellectuals, even if it also drives me nuts. Even if Posner is your enemy, he’s more intelligent than any other enemy you will ever have. If he’s being an ass, he surely knows it.)

Cover of _Public Intellectuals_: a detail from Pontormo's painting _Monsignor della Casa_. The detail specifically is the portion of the painting from della Casa's sleeve up to his hand, which is holding a book.

I’ve read enough of Judge Posner’s work by now — The Economics of Justice, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law, How Judges Think, Frontiers of Legal Theory, and now Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline — to have picked up a pattern: the man will drive you absolutely insane. But he’s really very, very smart, and is right enough at the level of principle that you would need to spend a lot of time rebutting all the individual mistakes in his books; you couldn’t dispense with the whole work in one lump. Which is why I often think that Posner is a decoy for liberals to aim at. He draws so much fire that you’re left with little ammunition for anyone else.

Characterizing him as a conservative agent provocateur is unfair to Posner, though. Above all else, I want to be fair to him in this review, because he is deeply unfair to his enemies, often gratuitously so. As I’ve mentioned, one of the major premises of Public Intellectuals is that this type of scholar is unfair to opposing viewpoints. Posner clearly knows that he’s treading on risky terrain here. As he writes in the introduction,

[A]re not people often particularly acute at spotting their own weaknesses (of which they are unaware) observed in other people?

All true. I am aware that the arrows I shoot may curve in flight and hit the archer. The reader shall judge.

First, naturally, Posner is obliged to sketch what “public intellectual” means. If instead of “intellectual” we use “academic” — as in, “someone employed by a university” — we get at Posner’s main gripe. His favorite non-academic — “unaffiliated,” in his usage — intellectual is George Orwell, which narrows in on the type that he’s thinking about. An intellectual is someone who thinks more broadly than the case before his eyes, let’s say; he’s concerned with Big Ideas. A “public intellectual” takes those Big Ideas and presents them to a broader audience. He’s quite often interested in suggesting changes in government, in economic organization, etc. A biologist who explains natural selection to a non-specialist audience may be an intellectual, but he’s not necessarily a public intellectual. A public intellectual is most often advocating something. Public-intellectual work, in other words, is more than mere popularization.

Because today’s intellectuals are largely in universities, says Posner, they’re highly specialized, and are therefore mostly not in a position to weigh in on the complicated social issues of the day. Because they’re ensconced in universities, they have a job even if their public-intellectual work is shoddy (as, Posner says, it often is); an academic, to Posner, is a “safe specialist.” This safety means that public intellectuals can say whatever they want with little fear.

Within their chosen field, academics are hemmed in by disciplinary constraints: editors, peers, and tenure committees mean that they have to hedge every extreme assertion and back it with evidence. There are no such constraints for the public intellectual. In fact, Posner asserts that public-intellectual output is meant more for entertainment and solidarity than it is for actual information: we read public intellectuals who agree with us so that we can feel better about what we believe. And public-intellectual work is a classic “credence” good: like a used car, we can’t judge the value of public-intellectual work. The public responds by largely ignoring it as a source of information, says Posner.

All of these assertions about how we read public intellectuals, it seems to me, need to be hedged. Maybe we can’t always judge the details of, say, the economics that Paul Krugman teaches us, but we can judge it at the level of argument: do the pieces fit together like they should? Certainly the Internet has changed substantially how we consume arguments: I recall a big section in The Wealth of Networks where Yochai Benkler examines how often different cliques (liberal or conservative blogs, say) interact with one another, and finds that they actually do so quite often — pace Cass Sunstein’s assertion in that the balkanization of American political discourse is accelerating in the age of the Internet.

As for the public’s ignoring public intellectuals, it’s not entirely clear that that’s important. As far as their impact on society goes, is it important that the public read them, or that policymakers do? Posner does a modicum of statistical analysis, comparing public intellectuals’ media citation counts to their scholarly reputation, but doesn’t bother to analyze, say, how many public intellectuals go on to get careers in government. The fact that Henry Kissinger is the number-one public intellectual, as measured by media citations, makes this omission surprising.

Then there’s the “Decline” part of Posner’s subtitle. We’re supposed to infer that public intellectuals used to be less academic, hence less specialized and more engaged with the broader population, but Posner presents no evidence in this direction. This might partly be a relic of which data are easiest to collect: counting citations is easier, and only academics have citation counts, and Posner asserts that today’s public intellectuals are much more academic than they were previously.

To fix ideas on whom we’re compassing under the term “public intellectual”: Bertrand Russell was one. So was George Orwell. So was Charles Dickens: his literature was meant to make a point about the living conditions of London’s poor, push for reform of the poor houses, and so forth. Stephen Jay Gould was half public intellectual, half popularizer. His most famous public-intellectual work was The Mismeasure of Man. Here is where my rage nearly made it impossible to continue: Posner gets The Mismeasure of Man alarmingly, spectacularly wrong. I want to go into a bit of detail about Gould and Posner, because I think Posner’s failings here are especially illustrative.

Mismeasure, if you’re not aware, covers the history of IQ from the 1800s to now. Gould explains that IQ measurement was initially intended to help those who might need some extra help, but that it quickly developed into a tool for locking races into preassigned castes: Asians on top, white people one step down, black people at the bottom. To establish that these castes are permanent and unalterable, it was necessary along the way to reinterpret IQ as a measure of what Gould calls a “thing in the head” rather than just a number: those with low IQ “really are,” in some sense, dumber than those with a higher IQ.

One must go further, of course, if one is going to assert that I and my children and my children’s children will be stuck forever in our benighted caste. One must assert the genetic basis of IQ. But one must go further than that — substantially further, in fact: one must assert that no human intervention can correct this. As Gould himself put it, I believe: no one doubts for an instant that poor eyesight is completely due to “nature” rather than “nurture,” yet a $10 pair of eyeglasses can completely correct it.

To sum up, then: to make anything interesting out of IQ, one must assert a) that it measures something real in the head, b) that it has a genetic basis, and c) that human intervention can do little to correct a low IQ. Gould attacks each one in turn. First, IQ is an outcome of principal components analysis — a statistical process that is often useful, but doesn’t represent any underlying reality. Indeed, Gould shows that the particular number arising from a principal-components analysis is largely arbitrary. Gould notes that, in discussing principal-components analysis, he’s one of the first writers to criticize the actual statistical basis of IQ.

Now, one of Posner’s biggest gripes about public intellectuals is that they too often venture outside of their areas of competence. Here he rails on Gould for having no business writing about IQ. But as Gould himself says in Mismeasure, he spends his professional career as a biologist performing statistical analysis, including principal-components analysis, on large datasets. He understands the statistics very well. One might gripe that Gould is in no position to discuss the history of IQ, either, not being a historian, but Posner doesn’t go there.

Still Posner descends to calling Gould, along with many other intellectuals, “false prophets.” That is, Gould is supposedly one who claims to know what the future will bring; in Gould’s case, Posner is pretty sure that Mismeasure is on the wrong side of the IQ debate. Posner claims that The Bell Curve had got the better of the fight with Gould, which I don’t understand: the evidence against Herrstein & Murray’s book had been overwhelming for years by the time Posner wrote. Public Intellectuals came out in 2001, whereas Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve — tearing H&M’s book to shreds from a number of angles — had come out in 1997. The Bell Curve was a public-intellectual work, not a work of scholarship; it was fairly obvious at the time that Herrstein and Murray wrote it to undergird their libertarian beliefs, among which was the uselessness of social spending. You’d think that Posner would count H&M as false prophets. In fact, you’d think that Posner would at the very least accuse H&M of the same sin for which he attacks so many public intellectuals: letting their ideologies guide them in public, even while they admit the true complexity of an issue in their scholarly work.

So the first place I found a subject I knew something about in Public Intellectuals, I saw that Posner was being viciously unfair. It’s hard for me not to think that this was deliberate, and rooted in Posner’s conservatism: Gould freely admits that his politics are liberal, and that he doesn’t want to see his disabled child consigned to a low caste in Herrstein and Murray’s world. In fact Posner takes the absolutely egregious step of suggesting that Gould and Eldredge came up with punctuated equilibrium because “Marxism celebrates revolution.”

To his credit, Posner does get around to spearing conservatives, as well. He takes down Robert Bork and Gertrude Himmelfarb in a chapter about the public-intellectual genre known as the “Jeremiad.” Jeremiahs fit into the “false prophets” category, specifically the brand of prophecy that asserts that the sky is falling, and that the only way to put it back up is to follow the author’s recipe for repentance. In Bork’s case the disease is cultural collapse, and the cure is a dose of old-time religion (which Bork himself doesn’t follow).

Public Intellectuals is, as you might have noticed, a purely destructive work, and I should say right away that I don’t count this as a deficit: destroying bad ideas is just as useful as, and maybe more so than, affirming good ones. When Public Intellectuals isn’t attacking academics for being safe specialists committed to principle, who scorn politicians for being stupid and who have no idea about the sort of compromises necessary to live in the real world (“They tend to be unworldly. They are, most of them anyway, the people who have never left school. Their milieu is postadolescent.”), it’s attacking the idea of measuring literature by its conformance to our current ethical standards. Literature isn’t there to teach us anything; it is there to be beautiful. If it’s trying to be didactic about an issue of contemporary concern, it will quickly sound dated — as, Posner notes, Dickens does if you read him ethically rather than aesthetically.

A lot of Posner’s arguments about, say, the misuse of literature sound right to me. But I know, from the little part of Public Intellectuals that touches on areas where I have experience, that Posner is hideously unfair. That colors the rest of his book for me. That said, you have to admire the breadth of intellect that would be able to touch on so many subjects, however shallowly. I’m not sure that’s how Posner would like Public Intellectuals to be remembered.

One thought on “Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline

  1. Andrew S

    “one of Posner’s biggest gripes about public intellectuals is that they too often venture outside of their areas of competence.”

    Coincidently, Posner recently wrote: Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations

    Nice of Posner to become a perfect example of his gripe.


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