The Norms of Public Intellectualism

Paul Krugman recently published an insightful post on his blog reflecting on the conditions in which intellectuals operate in a digital age. In what seems to be an oblique response to his recent spat with Niall Ferguson, he suggests that academics shouldn’t overestimate the normative weight of their credentials in the eyes of readers:

What a lot of people — academics, I’m sorry to say, in particular — don’t seem to understand are the limits to what credentials get you, in principle and in practice.

Basically, having a fancy named chair and maybe some prizes entitles you to a hearing — no more. It’s a great buzzing hive of commentary out there, so nobody can read everything that someone says; but if a famous intellectual makes a pronouncement, he both should and does get a listen much more easily than someone without the preexisting reputation.

But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them, there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.

Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.

One of the great things about the blogosphere is that it has made it possible for a number of people meeting that second condition to gain an audience. I don’t care whether they’re PhDs, professors, or just some guy with a blog — it’s the work that matters.

Meanwhile, we didn’t need blogs to know that many great and famous intellectuals are, in fact, fools. Some of them may always have been fools; some of them are hedgehogs, who know a lot about a narrow area but are ignorant elsewhere (and are, in many cases, so ignorant that they don’t know they’re ignorant — a variant on Dunning-Kruger.) And some of them have, for whatever reason, lost it — I can think offhand of several economists, not all of them all that old, of whom it is common to say, “I can’t believe that guy wrotethose papers.”

And let me add that believing that you can pull rank in this wide-open modern age is itself a demonstration of incompetence. Who, exactly, do you think cares? Not the readers, that’s for sure.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Higher Education

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