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Anti-intellectualism in American Life (wikipedia.org)
86 points by hhs 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 113 comments



I truly believe this is a substantial part of the reason why there's such a shortage of top talent domestically in the USA. https://www.zdnet.com/article/u-s-companies-continue-to-look... . There could be much more talent unlocked if mainstream culture promoted intellectual pursuits.


People keep parroting this urban myth, but I just don't see it. The best engineers I've worked with (by far) have been US-educated. Yes, mostly from the upper strata of academia (Stanford/Berkeley/UCLA/MIT/Caltech/etc.) but I'd say that the "average" US developer is significantly more capable than the average off-shore developer.

I mean, the great majority of the main technological advances of the past 20 years have generated by American companies (and more often than not by US-educated entrepreneurs).

Anti-intellectualism might indeed be a problem (maybe?) but to say that tech has been adversely affected is, imo, untrue.


A lot of outsiders can agree that American tech has been vibrant, but what about America outside of tech? Do the other parts of American society smell intellectually vibrant? Other jobs outside of tech appear extremely de-skilled, so I wonder what motivation a person has for furthering their mind -- to impress their peers?

Modern thinking on financial optimization has destroyed the spirit of work.


Yes, it's interesting to me (but not surprising) that the comments are focusing on just the tech industry. This is more widespread IMO.


> there's such a shortage of top talent domestically in the USA

>> The best engineers I've worked with (by far) have been US-educated

GP's statement does not preclude your experience. For example, all US engineers could have great expertise but there could be only a few of them.


I'm confident that's the case -- the model of US higher education is widely known to disproportionately prioritize the top tier of schools. We focus on the best in the world, but not the highest median quality in the world.

Also, top schools emphasize athletics and other aspects beyond intellectualism. Not saying that's a bad thing, but the emphasis on extracurricular activities seems greater than other parts of the world -- something also observed by Hofstadter.


57% of silicon valley tech workers and 43% of New York tech workers are immigrants, so advances made by American companies are not necessarily made by domestic American workers.

I'd argue that USA has lots of high quality tech workers mostly thanks to brain drain and its size.

https://www.newsweek.com/h-1b-visa-row-foreign-workers-make-...


Tech is cyclical. I got punched in the face financial-wise by the dot-com crash of the early 00's. I have little reason to believe such crashes won't happen again.

For example, our web standards are ill-fitted for productivity-oriented business applications, creating a lot of wasteful busywork. If new standards came along to address that, many coders would be let go.

And I'm sure there's an AI bubble at play. The PE ratios of AI companies are not realistic: they can't carry themselves from revenue alone. When the crutch of investment money dries up, they'll fall like dominos. If you are in AI, have a Plan B career.


I'm not so sure. I heard (second-hand anecdote, sources welcome) that primary education in the US is of poor quality - that seems like a more likely cause. Unless we blame anti-intellectualism for that poor quality.

Edit: dlp211 inspired me to find a source, and it confirms his suspicions - US education seems reasonably good: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-...

Even so, a few doubts remain. Could the US have good students on average, but fail to fully utilize its more talented students?


It’s a educational quality distribution problem. States/regions with good education rival the best in the world, but that’s balanced against states/regions that have middling and poor education. The US is a big country, and it has a shaky history when it comes to providing high quality education for ALL citizens.


"Math class is tough" Barbie is a byproduct of this attitude. It directly feeds into under-performance in academics. The education system itself isn't broken so much as expectations are low to let the less studious scrape by.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_Talk_Barbie


If you want to get elected, you don't propose to expel the students who are performing below average. They have parents who vote and/or cry on the TV news.

It was funny and sad to see standards getting set, then reduced. We know what is required. Various states set graduation requirements at that, with a test to be passed, and then backed off when they realized that many would not graduate. Since it isn't politically acceptable to deny graduation to anybody, we have no standards.


I think that might not be approaching it form the best angle? Perhaps the best question is: how to motivate students to excel academically, and give them opportunity to study to match their motivation? (instead of having poorly performing students be punished)

If you look at it that way, I think the solutions are much more akin to better motivating students, creating better environments (if they don't have them at home).

Motivation is both from showing better job opportunities to be had (higher salaries, employability), the practical value of intellectual and scientific education (to daily life decisions, participating well in democracy -- which cannot work without well educated citizens), and finally an intrinsic value of education -- showing how beautiful intellectual fields are, from a fun approach to mathematics education, to literature, etc.

Environments is making sure the school and classmate interactions are positive, possibly making available study spaces outside regular class time, elective extracurricular activities (programming classes, etc), etc.

Both of those probably go through investing heavily in teacher salaries and adequate teacher education. It's a societal commitment, really.


It's of very poor quality since we've had Prop 13, Howard Jarvis and all the same in the lesser states


I feel like this is one of those things that everyone knows but just isn't true.


I wonder if a poor level of civics education could also be a factor?


There isn't a shortage of top talent domestically in the USA. US tech companies import workers so they can drive down wages.

This isn't controversial and it's not xenophobic. The NYT has many op-eds covering this issue:

1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/06/us/outsourcin...

2. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/15/opinion/workers-betrayed-...

See also the criticisms on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H-1B_visa#Criticisms_of_the_pr...


There is definitely a shortage of top tech talent domestically in USA if you consider that USA has more top tech companies than the rest of the world combined. The only way to reasonably distribute top talent to those companies is to either accept lots of high quality immigrants or to move some of them abroad to spread out the competition for talent.


Honest question: which societies are considered "pro intellectual"?


I’m seeing a range of answers that seem to betray individual value systems more than anything.

I’ll play along. I’d say Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Japan. Societies of continuing celebration of poetic, philosophical, artistic, and scientific achievement.

(That’s a short list, and a fast-thought out one that is shorter than it should be. Don’t crucify me for it. There are entire ranges of the planet I’ve skipped)


I don't think that celebration of the arts and science is a good metric of pro-intellectual culture. The US does all these things, too. It has a shorter history, though, so it has a smaller amount of cultural works (but you said celebration, anyway).

I think pro-intellectual culture is one that values thoughtful questioning, including of the status quo. Opinions are required to have a good argument; dogma (religious, political, technical, or otherwise) is not acceptable. It's G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis instead of fundamentalists; it's The Federalist Papers instead of "the free market fixes all problems"; it's original Agile instead of process-Agile; it's real Hungarian notation instead of MS-docs-"Hungarian" notation.


> The US does all these things, too. It has a shorter history, though

An important point that is being almost universally ignored here.

The history of a modern, organized US is about 150 years old at this point. Anything prior to the Civil War is a baby-level of development, hopeful, maybe, could be, nation just learning how to crawl. It's rather absurd that the US is being browbeaten in this thread against cultures that have existed for many hundreds of years or more; in some cases a thousand plus years.

The US has shifted from being ~80% white European-descendant culturally to being 55%-60% (in real terms, as the US has ~25 million illegal immigrants that are never net leaving, and they contribute culturally to the pool) in the span of 40x years, with a massive injection of Asian and Latin-American-Hispanic cultures since the early 1970s. With the point being, the US isn't even remotely close to being a settled, well established cultural structure. Who knows what it will or won't become in 200 more years.


Your numbers are way off:

* The US is still 70+% white: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_Unit...

* The number of undocumented immigrants is much lower than that: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/us/illegal-immigrants-pop...


I believe the previous poster was talking about ethnicity and you are talking about race. Race=biology and ethnicity=culture. The census mixes the concepts of race and ethnicity. That is why if you total the census percentages in your wikipedia article they come out to 110%. Some people are double counted in two different groups in the census.


Perhaps -- it would be easier to scruitinize if the OP cited where their numbers came from. And given that the undocumented immigrants number is still off by more than a factor of 2, to me it reads more like it's just reactionary nonsense heresay rather than having any actual basis in reality. I'm open to being wrong though.

Also:

* I don't see any reason to believe nobody has more than one "cultural identity."

* Race is really more about culture than biology too. Maybe less so, but if for some reason you were motivated to come up with some categorization of people based on their biological ancestry, the races that we talk about wouldn't make a ton of sense. When you hear people saying that race is "socially constructed," this is what they're talking about. The Irish weren't considered white a century ago, and it's not like the change came about due to some scientific breakthrough.


Yep. I was also pondering this point. I have always found the whole Hispanic / Latino question in the census confusing. What are people trying to do with this information? Why not call out other ethnic groups?

The history of the Irish is a good example of how ethnic groups change and assimilate over time.


Race is not really biology. At least, not in a way that isn't arbitrary. It's kind of like the concept of "music". There's no good way to put tight bounds around it, because it's ultimately a social concept.


I agree. My answer needed more qualifiers.


Ancient Greece, too.


And the Jewish nation.


Jews have contributed so much to the intellectual life of other countries that one gets the impression that the Jewish people as a whole is like that. Going to Israel for the first time was a shock because there I was swiftly disabused of that notion. In Israel, one meets the whole spectrum of people from extremely intellectual to anti-intellectual as you might find anywhere.

I had a similar experience when I visited Finland for the first time after knowing of it only as a country with high achievement in schools and free university education. Most of the Finns I knew abroad came from these highly educated backgrounds. But when I visited the country, suddenly I came face to face with school dropouts mopping floors and alcoholic layabouts, just like in any other country on earth.


There is no such thing as a "Jewish Nation".

In Jewish religion, erudition is held in high regard, and in some Jewish communities that carries over to intellectuals as well; but - in some, it's the other way around, i.e. intellectualism is considered straying from focus on religious studies to pursuing Gentile (non-Jewish) thought and life.

... and that's not to speak about the anti-Intellectualism Israel is rife with, these days.


You said all the other answers simply betray personal value systems, and not to crucify your list, but your list is essentially one of (Northern) Euro nations, plus Japan. Then you cite poetic, philosophical, artistic, and scientific achievement as your criteria, but leave out countries like India, Russia, and China.

Could you explain your rationale here?


I jotted it down in seconds and have limited experience with some parts of the world.

India absolutely has one of the longest poetic traditions and it fascinates me endlessly.

I’d have been remiss to say that’s all that qualifies in my mind. That’s why I said it was not at all the end of what I’d consider an intellectual society.

I’m hesitant to bring present-day Russia into it as I qualified with “continuing”. I say this as someone who studied Russian literature when I was younger.

Again, please don’t discount my qualifiers above. It was by no means a survey list—just meant to illustrate my main point with societies I do have experience with.


India is a difficult country for outsiders to gauge its level of intellectual culture. I know India has an ancient tradition of religious learning and philosophy based on the study of texts. It has produced 20th-century novelists that are known the whole world over. And yet when I spent a year traveling all over India, there seemed to be so few bookshops even in upper-class districts, and so little reading in public.

I could only conclude that reading and the intellectual life was the pursuit of only a small minority, but because of India’s huge population, even that small minority was large enough to be self-sustaining and make its impact, even if it was rather hidden away from sight.


Thanks for the explanation. I realize that my post may have come off as antagonistic (the downvotes from others certainly seem to suggest that), but really I was just trying to understand your rationale. I edited my post to hopefully sound less antagonistic.


Don't worry about down votes. You can replenish all with a witty quip. You can also undo the replenishing with a witty quip. Don't worry about down votes. I look for the down-voted, as the controversial ones are where I like to start. I'll give you an upvote because I've been to India for academic purposes.


Do you think India, Russia and China have been notable for achievement in those categories on any kind of per capita basis rather than through sheer scale?


Well - I think that's an unanswerable question.

My gut says that "any country if given the same economic opportunities could produce equal achievement". Obviously, that's in a completely idealized world.

As it stands in actual, real life across human history, I do think that India, Russia, and China are more notable than most countries if we look at those criteria across history, but with "extra weight" given to modern day (e.g. Greece would not qualify with the "extra modern day weight" scale, but would be highly ranked if we only looked historically).

All 3 belong in an "unranked top 5". Just my personal opinion.


Obviously Western Europe and the US have achieved more on a per capita basis given they are areas where the Scientific Revolution and industrialization occurred. I would say intellectual achievements is driven by the number upper-middle class individuals instead of the entire population.

Rough guess of share of present day intellectual production by country (I like to make stuff up):

US: 30% Western Europe: 30% China: 15% Japan: 5% India: 5% CIS countries: 5%


I agree. If you have a billion people you should have 3 times the intellectual achievement as the US.


Yes, and if you are 3x older than your coworker you should make 3x their salary.


In France, there is still such a thing as a "celebrity philosopher".


Last time I was in Paris, in La Villette, there was a busker playing incredibly dissonant serial music. On an accordion.

He had an audience - admittedly not a huge audience, but he certainly wasn't being ignored. There aren't many places that would happen.

Francophone cultures - and especially in Paris and Montreal - seem more comfortable with people who are clever, thinky, maybe creative, and a bit unusual, than Anglophone cultures.

The UK and US have their own version, but access is controlled more by class rather than raw talent. France is hardly class-free, but it seems more open to blue sky philosophy than the US, which seems to be impressed primarily by thought leadership in a corporate context, or social and academic theories with dogmatic authoritarian overtones - even among progressives - than in knock-about philosophical experimentation for the sake of it.


Your point may be going over my head, but can you elaborate (re-elaborate?) on the connection between intellectual-friendly culture and the quality of street musicians?


He was playing something pretty obscure and avant garde, and still drew a small crowd.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serialism

The suggestion is that this is less likely to occur in an American city.


And that's good how? It's just snobbish pseudo-intellectualism. If anything, it can be more corrosive because it produces a suffocating, toxic atmosphere of fraud. Groupies and scenesters.


I'm not sure I agree.

I can apply your statement to other celebrity academics: scientists, astromoners, physicists, etc. And for all of those professions I have a hard time believing that any "celebrity" (i.e. Steven Hawking, Brian Cox, Noam Chomsky) that emerges from them produces a "toxic atmosphere of fraud" or undermines the work of other professionals in the field. But it may depend on who you consider a "celebrity".


Pardon the pun but to be frank there is a point at least in the case of the French. I know the term best in the context of Bruno Latour's dribble. Given the sheer nationalism draped for why he was supported it seemed to be motivated reasoning as a desperate cling to superiority like their language board trying desperately to avoid loanwords, and insistence upon very narrow culinary definitions. There seems to be an isolationist complex about not wanting to have to compete. (Which as a national neurosis is not unique - see American exceptionalism.)

That aside Latour was infamously an originator of the "Post Truth" and his support for utter nonsense. It is true that social aspects affecting what science is considered, achieves mindahare, is funded, and catches on and progresses. It is undeniable as seen by the derth of statistics and genetics papers from the USSR when both were declared bourgeoisie pseudosciences. It affecting what is actually right? Hell no. Although at least to his credit he realized what a monster he had created.

Philosophy isn't neccessarily bad but it isn't neccessarily good either. Given that it is often defined via its independence from the real world there are many spaces to explore. Which includes the potential to be absolute pseudouintellectual or antiintellectual nonsense. That makes it different from the other examples - they are verifiable and it is possible to call bullshit and outright prove them wrong.

"Celebrity philisopher" may just mean that it flatters preconceptions without the ability to be countered via hard proof that "no the moon is not and cannot be made of cheese".


So what constitutes "real intellectualism" to you? What subjects or presentations are fit for "genuine" intellectual curiosity, which are limited to "groupies and scenesters"? Either you're being snobbish yourself, or you're doing exactly what anti-intellectuals have always done to cast intellectualism of any kind into disrepute.


Is that what really happens in France?


With "philosophers" like Bernard-Henri Lévy, who keeps getting invited to TV shows despite being considered a phoney by pretty much all his colleagues: yes.


You know this is tricky.

The CCP leadership is intellectual and is pro intellectual for its own cadres. But are they pro populace intellectualism?

Same for the Bolsheviks.

And to be honest, I think GWB's anti-intellectualism is as much a problem as is disconnected intellectualism who take it upon themselves to do what's "right" for the population at large.


Germany, Russia, China, Korea, and Japan come to mind.


Korea is excessively conformist. I don't know what kind of definition of "intellectualism" it could fall under.

While if we're giving more credit to historical influence than modern day, Germany would make the list, I think they fall off if you give weight to the modern day. Nothing wrong with them, they're simply no longer a remarkable, intellectual nation on 2019's leaderboard.

Russia, China, and Japan I'd agree with, although I am not a big fan of the "brand" of intellectualism the first two adhere to.


Conformity and intellectualism are not mutually exclusive. Intellectualism doesn't imply contrarianism, as there are a great many intellectual pursuits that involve studying and continuing traditional bodies of knowledge such as Confucianism, or Mathematics and Science.

Korean culture definitely venerates academic achievement, even if those achievements shouldn't include upheavals in social philosophy, and even if there is a strict social order for determining who is allowed to have creative license. Simply learning the lessons of the past, and skillfully transmitting them to future generations, is a more important social function than making new advances.

I would go so far as to say that one of the causes of American anti-intellectualism is the fetishization of groundbreaking discovery to the extent that being a skilled teacher is looked down on. An intellectual community can't survive across multiple generations without a respected class of specialized teachers who also deeply understand the topics they are tasked with passing on to children. The dominant attitude in America is that teaching is for failures; the saying goes, "those who can't do, teach."


Correct, conformity and intellectualism are not mutually exclusive, but they do approach orthogonality. I expanded on this point here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20992014


> I don't know what kind of definition of "intellectualism" it could fall under.

what about success within traditional academic institutions?


I'm not sure I understand your point. By the criteria of traditional academic success, Korea would not make a "most intellectual" shortlist of nations, at least according to a fair sampling of unbiased individuals.

In fact, your point about academic intellectualism only gives more credence to the point I was making in the first place.


> Russia

While under the Soviet Union intellectual pursuits were more appreciated among the general population than in other countries (though naturally there were significant restrictions on what topics could be breached in art and literature), a lot of that culture disappeared in Russia after 1991. You don’t see many commuters reading belles lettres on the metro any more, chess still has its fans but nowhere near like in the socialist era, and Russian television today is as garish and sensationalistic as anywhere else.

One of the reasons that there was such a book culture across the Eastern Bloc is because books were extremely cheap by local standards, but there was little other media to consume or few other products to spend one’s money on. After the fall of Communism, books were no longer as cheap because the state no longer artificially set their prices at low levels, and there was an explosion of new, free television, radio, and magazine media that the population could consume instead, and there were new consumer goods to spend money on (when one had money, as there were some rocky times).


Russia copies a lot of anti-intellectualism from US. (just watch russian television if you dont believe me)


Canadian society is quite a bit like American society minus a hell of a lot of anti-intellectualism. Not that it doesn't exist there, but the difference between the two is pretty stark.


I’d argue that in most societies that have existed, there is at least a caste or class that value and put their resources towards a form of intellectualism. How you measure its degree of new idea / innovative thought production or some such other intellectual endeavors realization, is really difficult, for example you could consider a religious leader position that shares moral or meaningful stories even if just historical stories, is someone in the society who inspires intellectualism if only for provoking the intellect to think about another perspective than their own.


Singapore and South Korea?


Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the definition, but I'd consider those to be excessively conformist nations and not the beacons of intellectualism.


The most celebrated historical ruler in Korea is mainly famous for his scholastic achievements, like inventing the current writing system. There are some K-Dramas that suggest the most popular students are the ones with the best educational accomplishments, in contrast to the cliche of the US football quarterback.


Perhaps I am misunderstanding the definition but why do the two have to be mutually exclusive? Is intellectualism intrinsically non-conformist? (genuinely asking)


That is a good question; I don't believe anyone including the OP comment defined intellectualism, so we all likely have our own definitions.

Personally I think intellectualism consists of a few components. The first is pure, raw "intelligence" or "brilliance", neither of which is particularly well defined, but it is my main criteria. For a nation, this is is essentially the power of science, invention, technology, etc.

Next would be something like "diversity of thought" and "beauty of art". This includes both how "free" the people are, as well as how meaningful the creative, artistic, philosophical works of the nation are. This includes art, poetry, scripture, books, TV, music, theater, etc.

Finally, I use a "modern day weighting" system. This means, if there was some hypothetical country that was historically a powerhouse, but was not remarkable in modern day, they'd be ranked equally to a country which was a world leader today, but inconsequential historically (or didn't exist until recently).

With these criteria, I believe a country like China has sheer intellectual power and the artistic contributions which outweigh the (quite terrible) conformity of thought; Korea, on the other hand, is "too conformist" given the weight of its contributions.


Similarly, given a gradient of anti intellectual to pro intellectual where would all societies rest?


It depends on how you define "Intellectual". If I define it as one with great knowledge of how to gain wealth then I would say the US is very pro Intellectual. I'm sure there are some people that think you have to be published in one of those journals whos results more often than not can't be replicated, to be considered intellectual, however. The definition of the word is up for interpretation.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual would be a good starting definition


I prefer a dictionary. There you will find that Intellectual comes from latin intellēctus (“understanding”). There is no qualification of what that understand must be about.


"there's no point for democracy when ignorance is celebrated" - NOFX


Fox news


Shades of Tocqueville[1] who wrote about the dangers of anti-intellectualism in America even earlier.

For instance, Kaledin says, to an extent greater than is usually emphasized, Tocqueville thought “populism would gradually lead to an anti-intellectual culture and to mediocrity in political leadership.”

I don't think you could come up with a better summary than "mediocrity in political leadership" to describe the current climate.

[1]: http://news.mit.edu/2011/tocqueville-1129


Please don't take HN threads into political flamewar.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Your comment is irrelevant, since I did nothing of the sort.


This sentence seemed like an obvious partisan shot:

> I don't think you could come up with a better summary than "mediocrity in political leadership" to describe the current climate.

But when I re-read it, it seems more likely to have been a "pox on all their houses" sort of comment. If that's what you meant, I'm sorry for misreading you.


No worries. I really do mean that, in general, our political climate seems dysfunctional in a way that I personally think reflects exactly what Tocqueville was talking about. I wasn't calling out any specific person or party or anything.

That said, "a pox on all their houses" does come pretty close to reflecting my views on many political issues. :-)


I’m not sure this is accurate, if attempting to compare US political figures with those of other countries. I don’t know if there is hard data on this, but I would bet the US Congress has proportionally just as many graduates of top universities as any other legislative body in the world.

If anyone wants to crunch the numbers, I would be excited to see the percentage of US Congresspeople with serious educational attainments vs Japanese, French, German, Canadian, or any other similar body.


Graduating university does not an intellectual make.


Sure, at the individual level graduating from a top tier university or with a phd doesn't mean you're an "intellectual".

But from a population standpoint, the two are certainly correlated. The number of congress people should be large enough to assume population level statistics unless there's some serious biases _against_ intellectuals running for or winning political races.


I disagree. After a certain amount of the pop. gets certain degrees, it’s just a cheapening of the degree. For example, despite having an eng PhD from a top 10 (5?) university in the US, I know I wouldn’t have been awarded one from a top 100 50 years ago. The standards were higher

And you don’t cheapen what you treasure.


> The number of congress people should be large enough to assume population level statistics

It's not a uniform sample. In fact, it's not even sampling from the same population - it's a set of samples of size 1...


You are 100% right.

However I was trying to respond to the parent commenter’s point about mediocrity. I was trying to craft a simple metric which would speak to mediocrity. It’s an imperfect metric for sure.


Is mediocrity in political leadership so bad? History's greatest catastrophes were undertaken by overachievers.


Sure, but that’s probably a variance thing. The overachieving can be a multiplier unto itself.

Do you notice it though, when you have a Brezhnev, or a Qin Er Shi, or a Louis XVI? Napoleon was so much cooler than Czar Nicolas II. We don’t remember those other folks as much, and sometimes the effect of their rule isn’t immediately or decisively felt.


I find that different cultures and countries draw different lines between intellects and beliefs. I came from Vietnam. It has a communist leadership. The subject of evolution is widely taught and agreed. People in school show off their scientific intellect. There's an emphasis on the study of science subjects. You'll hear a lot about science competition, local scientists. Religious doctrines are suppressed. You rarely hear about them except through some friends who are associated with religions. Even those friends rarely talk about their religions in public.

In America, there's a somewhat different divide. Academia teaches evolution and almost never mentions religion. Churches and mosques are the places you would learn about religions. Government seems neutral. But if you dig around, you can find a lot of religious materials. You can meet people who openly expresses their religious beliefs. In some ways, science feels suppressed and has to compete with religions.

But this anti-intellectualism may make science better. Rather than agreeing with science, we constantly question it.


The idea of questioning science and informed skepticism is valuable, but I don't think it stems from anti-intellectualism. How can people who distrust science to that degree come up with meaningful criticism? I don't see what value climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers are bringing to science, for example.


It's not that climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers are themselves improving science, it's that their existence forces scientists to up their game. If you know that someone is going to question your findings, you tend to work harder to ensure that you're actually saying something true and there are no holes in your reasoning. This holds even if those people never actually question your findings - even if you never interact with them at all. The benefit is all because of your own self-criticism.

It's like how competition tends to make companies provide better service, even if the competition never actually steals a single customer away. The fact that it could changes the incentives in a way that makes you do your job more rigorously.


I'm not sure how their existence improves science, considering the questions they often demand of scientists come from no area of scientific rigor or examination.

If anything we've started seeing the clear opposite, where the climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers have been outright suppressing scientists and reports that disagree with their skepticism.


That would make sense if science was a monoculture and could only be challenged from the outside, but scientists question each others' findings all the time. You can't have a scientific process without scrutiny.


Why couldn't it be both? Internal scruitny is necessary but I'd say that how well communicated research is influences how much funding and attention it gets which obviously matters a lot in shaping the scientific community.


but I acknowledge that questioning your beliefs is good. It's foundational to the scientific method. I just don't see how uninformed challenges are worthwhile. At this point things like vaccine effectiveness are basic facts. What more can scientists do?


>But this anti-intellectualism may make science better. Rather than agreeing with science, we constantly question it.

Anti-intellectuals by definition don't possess the intellectual curiosity necessary to contribute to science, rather, they fear and mistrust such curiosity, and any result of it more complex or less intuitive than high school algebra.

The myth that science is just slavish dogmatism is pushed by the anti-intellectual crowd, and by people who want to discredit scientific theses like evolution, climate change, parts of physics and astrophysics, mainstream medicine or vaccines. Science already has a process of constantly questioning itself - that's literally what the scientific process is. That constant questioning by science of its assumptions and revising them in the face of new evidence has led iteratively to models of reality which have proven fairly robust against criticism, and appear to accurately describe and predict the universe.

The anti-intellectuals, meanwhile, just scoff derisively at the "globalist elites" in their "ivory towers" with their "mumbo jumbo."


Intellectuals have fueled the rise of plenty of terrible ideas and outcomes. People -- even deplorables and bitter clingers -- are right to question intellectuals and in some cases raise barriers that are difficult for them to overcome.

Sometimes the mumbo-jumbo is bullshit or dangerous.


>People -- even deplorables and bitter clingers -- are right to question intellectuals and in some cases raise barriers that are difficult for them to overcome.

By mentioning "deplorables and bitter clingers" you're admitting that much of the motive for such questioning among anti-intellectuals is rooted in politics and tribalism - and the premise that "intellectuals" are of the opposite or enemy tribe (leftists, liberals, feminists, Jews, atheists, pick your poison) and that therefore their work is inherently fraudulent or meaningless.

>Sometimes the mumbo-jumbo is bullshit or dangerous.

But anti-intellectuals tend to consider everything they don't understand, or anything that's part of the "establishment", to be "mumbo jumbo." If they had a credible, rational basis for their criticisms, rooted in an understanding of the domain they criticize, they would no longer be "anti-intellectual."


In some ways anti-intellectuals create space for other intellectuals to get traction when opposing bad ideas promoted by establishment embraced intellectuals.

While, anti-vaxers, et al, are raised as examples of the harm anti-intellectuals can cause, many great harms have been caused or celebrated by intellectuals over the ages.


>In some ways anti-intellectuals create space for other intellectuals to get traction when opposing bad ideas promoted by establishment embraced intellectuals.

They really don't, though. At least, not a productive space. Intellectuals are quite capable of getting that traction on their own, and doing so on the basis of fact and evidence, rather than anger and a nihilistic mistrust of order and complexity.

You're putting a lot of effort into painting a heroic narrative of anti-intellectualism and of the harms of "the establishment" and intellectuals "over the ages," but that's a political stance, and one that assumes the anti-intellectuals are filling a necessary role in the ecosystem that intellectuals, themselves, cannot.

I put forth that there is no value to anti-intellectualism. Skepticism, yes. Questioning of authority? Yes. Opposing bad ideas? Yes. None of those are the particular domain of anti-intellectualism. Rather, those are all hallmarks of intellectualism.

The anti-intellectuals are the ones burning down the observatory so this never happens again. They're not helping.


I'll grant this, but an outsider perspective isn't the same thing as basic rejection of serious rigorous inquiry. Thomas Kuhn's work certainly argues that scientific consensus isn't as meritocratic as we would like, but there are plenty of folks doing relatively fringe work that is nonetheless rigorous and intellectually based.

Climate change denial in particular isn't a product of outsiders seriously questioning the scientific consensus on any grounds; it's a manifactured controversy, founded on outright lies by companies that stand to benefit if we don't do anything about it.

The reasons for anti-vaccine ideas are more complex, but they aren't the product of a serious engagement with the other side of the argument.


The interesting question that may well be addressed in the book but not in the wiki; is it a mistake? The communist regimes were quite pro-intellectual [0]; and the modern communist party is relatively technocratic compared to the US.

The problem is although technical excellence is a benefit, intellectuals form their own class and have slightly abstract demands. As a body their first priority is not the material betterment of ordinary people, although individually there are intellectuals who punch well above their weight in that regard.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_Soviet_Union


That's very moot. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism

There is a well known story, when Stalin met with Vavilov¹ to hear his concerns about issues related to genetics, and was ridiculing his ideas, making fun of him, saying that all he does is "playing with pestles and stamens". Vavilov died of starvation in prison. I don't call such regimes intellectual.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Vavilov


You shouldn’t extrapolate from Stalin’s regime to the whole Soviet era. Stalin is infamous for making the USSR backward in genetics, history, archaeology, and linguistics. Yet as soon as he died, those fields recovered and significant progress on even a global level was made. My own academic background is in the latter three subjects, and I cite work by Soviet scholars in any publication I write.

Most academic libraries in the West keep Soviet academic publications from the Stalinist era in the closed stacks, because no one ever asks for them. There is a reason for that: the level of scholarship is poor, and the author feels compelled to praise the “Great Leader” (вождь) even if he was writing on something so removed from the modern Soviet Union and Communist ideology as e.g. 3rd-century CE grave finds. However, from the Khrushchev era on, Soviet scholarship in many fields was as strong as in the West and, as I said, some of those works are standard references for the field regardless of where on earth you live and work.

I would consider the late Soviet Union a fairly “intellectual” culture, because even as in the West the attraction of many such academic careers declined in the 1970s and 1980s (i.e. the belief that such degrees were useless and there was no way to make a living from them), in the USSR it was still very respectable to enter such fields. Naturally, however, that was only possible under an overall planned economy that turned out to be deeply flawed and inhuman, and as I mentioned elsewhere here Russia’s intellectual culture declined after the fall of Communism, but still.


It did change in the later period, but again, scientists were moving progress rather despite the regime, than thanks to it. Stalin was just one of the most egregious examples of that sort.


> scientists were moving progress rather despite the regime, than thanks to it.

No, it is more nuanced than that. Those scientists only had their positions because the state chose to allocate resources to keep them employed. With the fall of Communism, when academia was exposed to market forces, those departments were often gutted.

Also, certain fields gained considerable state support precisely because the regime felt they served its own foreign policy goals. For example, the USSR was a powerhouse for the study of the Iranian language family. This was not only because a number of Iranian languages were spoken within the USSR, but also because the USSR wanted good Central Asian areal studies so that it could better extend its influence over Iran and Afghanistan. The same is true of many of the Third World nations where the USA and USSR were fighting for influence: name a language in Africa or Asia, and there is often a very well-written Soviet-era grammar or lexicon that linguists everywhere still cite today.


That's exactly my point. Regime didn't care about science, it cared about using it to further its goals. That's why for example medicine was so abysmal there. Its own population was very low priority.


And yet they had a successful space program - after Stalin died in 1953 that is.


Despite, not thanks to the government. They surely were very competitive, but that was not due to intellectual pursuit. Science was seen as valuable to weaponize, not to make life better.

If you want examples of how government officials handled progress, see:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nedelin_catastrophe

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ybnj4jcnwg

The above catastrophe occurred, due to government disregarding safety warnings and pushing personnel to do the test before some official anniversary event.

So I'd differentiate between scientists themselves and the regime, which was hardly intellectual.


Science was seen as valuable to weaponize

I don't think they were much of an outlier in this. Some of the greatest accomplishments of the US were done either to compete with the Soviet Union, or to make better weapons.


The tragic irony of the Cold War (and maybe all wars) was that both sides saw themselves as threatened, and that they were being justifiably defensive.


I would say pro-educational, but not openly pro-intellectual, because that could be seen as bourgeoisie.

My uncle - an engineer born in communist Poland - is to this day frustrated by the way he was treated by the system.

Interestingly my father - also an engineer - had no such issues, although this might be explained by the fact that he was a son of a military surgeon.


"pro-intellectual" by sending intellectuals to Gulag?


Turns out where a country sits on the authority-liberty spectrum is more important than pro-anti intellectualism. Being pro-intellectual doesn't necessarily mean being pro-liberty. America isn't going to send intellectuals to the gulags no matter how anti-intellectual the climate gets (assuming the legal system holds out).

I'll point out what seems obvious to me here - if "pro-intellectualism" means identifying a class of people, labelling them intellectuals and giving them a systemic advantage than that isn't a good idea. That is class warfare. If it means philosophically believing that rationalism and science are the keys to a better future then that was trialed in Soviet and Chinese systems of thought. It wasn't the only thing going on at the time and I agree it didn't work out very well - better to let people do what they want than to enforce that they believe 'good ideas'.




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