Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals

By Pigliucci, Massimo | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals


Pigliucci, Massimo, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is ironic that the United States should have been founded by intellectuals, for throughout most of our political history, the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant or a scapegoat.

--Richard Hofstadter

In this excerpt we will look at the alleged decline of the public intellectual, especially in the United States, as well as at the parallel ascent and evolution (some would say devolution) of so-called think tanks. I treat both as rather disconcerting indicators of the level of public discourse in general, and of the conflict between science and pseudoscience in particular. It is an area that is both usually neglected within the context of discussing science in the public arena and yet crucial to our understanding of how science is perceived or misperceived by the public.

Public Intellectuals in the Twenty-First Century: An Endangered Species or a Thriving New Breed?

Before we can sensibly ask whether public intellectuals are on the ascent, the decline, or something entirely different, we need to agree on what exactly, or even approximately, constitutes a public intellectual. It turns out that this isn't a simple task and that the picture one gets from the literature on intellectualism depends largely on what sort of people one counts as "public intellectuals" or, for that matter, what sort of activities count as intellectual to begin with. Nonetheless, some people (usually intellectuals) have actually spent a good deal of time thinking about such matters and have come up with some useful suggestions. For example, in Public Intellectuals: An Endangered Species? Amitai Etzioni quotes the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet to the effect that intellectuals are people who devote themselves to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." (1) Or perhaps one could go with the view of influential intellectual Edward Said, who said that intellectuals should "question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of class, racial or gender privilege" (2)

Should one feel less romantic (even a bit cynical, perhaps) about the whole idea, one might prefer instead Paul Johnson, who said that "a dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia." (3) Or go with David Carter, who wrote in the Australian Humanities Review that "public intellectuals might be defined as those who see a crisis where others see an event." (4)

Regardless of how critical one is of the very idea of public intellectualism, everyone seems to agree that there are a few people out there who embody--for better or worse--what a public intellectual is supposed to be. By far the most often cited example is the controversial linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. Indeed, his classic article "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," written in 1963 for the New York Review of Books, is a must-read by anyone interested in the topic, despite its specific focus on the Vietnam War (then again, some sections could have been written during the much more recent second Iraq War, almost without changing a word). (5)

For Chomsky the basic idea is relatively clear: "Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.... It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies." (6) Yet one could argue that it is the responsibility of any citizen in an open society to do just the sort of things that Chomsky says intellectuals ought to do, and indeed I doubt Chomsky would disagree. But he claims that intellectuals are in a special position to do what he suggests. How so? It is not that Chomsky is claiming that only genetically distinct subspecies of human beings possess special reasoning powers allowing them to be particularly incisive critics of social and political issues. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.