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Social "Intellectuals"

The primary qualification for being regarded as an intellectual is to develop a reputation and convince people to regard you as an intellectual.

Being widely regarded as “intellectual” is a social status. It is achieved through specific types of social climbing.

Social climbing and reason are enemies. They’re incompatible. Someone really good at reason would reject social climbing. So we should expect to find that most “intellectuals” are bad at reason. And, from extensive surveying, I think the evidence fits the prediction well.

Being regarded as an intellectual does have something to do with being smart or figuring out some good ideas, at least in some cases. It’s not purely a social game. The best thinkers sometimes gain some intellectual reputation, though often not the best or highest reputation. So e.g. the best living economist, George Reisman, is largely unheard of, but would be regarded by most people as being an intellectual (since he was a professor and wrote a 1000 page book on economics). There are many more examples of great thinkers without accurate reputations.

Some types of intellectual accomplishments are easier to judge than others, so they do a better job of leading to a reputation regardless of what else the person does. Generally scientific ideas (“hard” sciences only) are easier to judge than philosophical ideas. Hence most famous philosophers are awful, while a fair amount of famous scientists are actually good (particularly people who got famous for scientific work, not for writing popular books about science or doing a science podcast or something like that).

Reputations sometimes get more accurate centuries after someone dies. That removes some of the social factors from mattering, and it gives people in the field more time to sort out which ideas are actually good. In general, scientists are much better at science 300 years later, so they can do a decent job of judging the scientific achievements of the scientists from 300 years in the past. However, historians are often wrong. The news is often wrong about what happened yesterday, and historians have a much harder job that gets harder as things get older. False reputations can persist for centuries and the refuting information can be lost.

The good news is: making intellectual contributions has a lower barrier to entry than you may have thought. You don’t need a fancy reputation. Most of the people you think are above you are incompetent. You don’t need the same education or peers that they have in order to do good work.

But beware. You can easily make the same mistakes as them. You can focus on social climbing while pretending to yourself that you’re seeking truth. Avoiding that is more important, and harder to come by, than any credentials.

The bad news is: if you don’t think, you can’t safely expect other people to do it for you. It’s not a safe thing to count on others doing correctly. You should try to learn and reason, yourself, if you value your life, instead of leaving your fate in the hands of our society's “intellectual authorities”.

The world needs more people who are willing to try to learn and think. The main tools needed are honesty, curiosity, energy, avoiding bias, choosing truth over social perceptions, and some stuff like that, not to have an extensive education or to be born a “genius”. Those things are harder and rarer than most people think, but if you think you have them, do something with them. E.g. start discussing ideas in the comments below. Anyone can do it if they are willing to prioritize truth over social status.


Elliot Temple on February 23, 2019

Comments (3)

How should it be?

Reputation can be useful to have access to ideas from someone who usually has good ideas. However, I don't see a way to give someone a reputation that it's realistic (talking about philosophers here).

If I don't care about social climbing I will end up having a bad job and that's bad. So I have to give some importance to it.

I have a question: If reputation is fraudulent, how can I find good ideas without reading what every thinker wrote?


perfeito2 at 9:13 PM on March 11, 2019 | #11998 | reply | quote

> If reputation is fraudulent, how can I find good ideas without reading what every thinker wrote?

Find thinkers you like who have stuff you judge as high quality. It should be stuff where you can judge, e.g. an issue you know about, or a summary or critique of something you've read. If you've hardly read anything, you'll need to read some common ones so you can judge people's summaries and reviews for yourself.

Then you can use their opinions of other stuff you haven't read as tentative a starting point. And look for criticisms and contrasting views. For every counter argument, someone should have addressed it. If you can't find anything which addresses a counter argument, *don't go by reputation* – recognize you don't know or investigate yourself (or switch sides and agree with the counter argument, but then you have to see if that other view has addressed all the counter arguments against it, and you have to do quality evaluations of the authors on that side that you're going to get info from, and so on).

Instead of social status, it should be about *arguments about what is correct and mistaken*. They can be written down and evaluated. The correctness of summaries of the state of the field can themselves be argued about. Everything can be done with arguments you can judge for yourself, even though you don't have time to go into full detail on some matters personally.

Rational people say things like, "As far as I know, Rand evaluated Kant and Rand's evaluation is correct. Do you have a criticism which shows where she went wrong? If you do, I can look more closely at that specific part of her analysis. I have reviewed many criticisms of Rand already and found them very bad, and that badness is documented. I can provide dozens of examples by myself and others, if needed."

> If I don't care about social climbing I will end up having a bad job and that's bad. So I have to give some importance to it.

Most people need to get hired *fewer than ten times* for *important* jobs in their whole life. (You can get a temporary job at a coffee shop without social climbing.)

So instead of social climbing so you can impress lots of people, if the goal is to get hired for a good job, then it's better to put more effort into your job searches. Find some more rational people who are hiring and will look at skill and merit, and put some extra work into showing your merit to them. E.g. find a job which hires mostly based on *work sample tests* instead of reputation. You can be totally unacceptable to over 90% of employers in your field and still have *plenty* left to get hired at. You only need to please a handful of people, in your entire career, to get hired a handful of times.


curi at 9:47 PM on March 11, 2019 | #11999 | reply | quote

https://mises.org/wire/college-education-has-little-do-education

> An old friend of mine, who taught political science for 25 years at the University of Colorado, was known to tell his students that the real reason they were there was to marry people from the right social class.

>

> While perhaps a little overly cynical, this assessment certainly wasn't totally wrong. Few parents have ever been overly concerned with the supposed education their children receive at a University like CU. The real concern has primarily been the receipt of a degree from a respectable — although not "elite" in the case of CU — university. And, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, an additional benefit has been to ensure that little Susie and little Johnny also become accustomed to the social mores and habits of a certain socio-economic class.

>

> Even if Susie doesn't meet a doctor at college, it's still best to send Susie to a place where she learns to socialize and interact with the sorts of people who will eventually become doctors and engineers and successful business people. When one is finished with his or her "education," one has a nice degree to show for it, plus a social circle comprised of presumably soon-to-be-successful people.

>

> So, it shouldn't surprise anyone that it turns out rich Hollywood actors with intellectually and academically mediocre children have become obsessed with getting their children into high-status colleges. They employ bribes and fake test scores to purchase what they've always been able to purchase otherwise: a stylish consumer product, which is essentially all a college degree is for most people.


Dagny at 12:56 PM on March 14, 2019 | #12015 | reply | quote

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