Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals
Pigliucci, Massimo, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
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.
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. …