25 Mar

I recently finished Thomas Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society.  Sowell is arguably the most influential living intellectual behind modern conservative thought (the ghost of Milton Friedman does not count as living).  Punditry on the right is often just the garbled form of Sowell’s arguments.  Sadly, his arguments are engaged and critiqued far too infrequently.  So, I’m going to roughly summarize one argument from his book that impacts historians.

In Intellectuals and Society, historians are one of many groups he places in the “intellectual” category.  He argues that there is often an inverse relationship between intellectuals with specialized knowledge within their field and intellectuals with broader knowledge outside of their field.  The fact that many intellectuals step out of their specialty is one part of the problem.

Sowell argues that knowledge is very disperse.  He proceeds as follows.  Intellectuals have more knowledge than the average person but the congregate knowledge of all the average people is significantly greater than the knowledge of intellectuals.  However, because intellectuals are more intelligent than the average person, there is a tendency to overestimate their own intellectual superiority.  This is magnified when they step out of their field of specialization, making pronouncements that are backed by prestige gained in another field.

Additionally, Sowell argues that some fields are significantly more self correcting than others because they have a greater degree of external validation.  For medical doctors, the health and/or sickness of patients is the source.  Engineers have to make sure the buildings stand and the bridges do not fall.  However, other professions substitute external validation for internal validation.  Sowell argues that when the worth of one’s work is only judged by his or her peers, false premises are not corrected as fast.  That immense ability is often more dangerous because it can take valid arguments built on false premises further than lesser ability.

Furthermore, Sowell argues that many professions are flawed in the method in which people are judged to have obtained mastery.  Specifically, he notes that in the medical profession, one can simply learn and master the body of knowledge and techniques in order to be considered a doctor.  However, in professions that require PhDs, a simple mastery of the profession is not enough.  One must increase the body of knowledge both to receive the terminal degree and to eventually gain tenure.  He writes that in conjunction with a self validating profession, this is exceptionally dangerous.  These problems corrupt the search for “truth” in a way that other professions could not afford.

So, I’m curious to see what you all think?


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