Home > Academia, Books, Conservative, Groupthink, Hayek, Intellectuals, Liberal, Sowell > My Mini Review of “Intellectuals and Society”

My Mini Review of “Intellectuals and Society”

I just finished listening to Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell. I bought the audio book, so I won’t be able to provide any actual quotes, so I’ll be paraphrasing. Since this isn’t for scholarship, but more for my own thoughts, quotes are not mandatory.

What is an Intellectual?

First things first, what is an “Intellectual?” I think Dr. Sowell’s definition fits rather well. An intellectual is a person whose end product is ideas. They don’t make anything. They merely repackage ideas, that mostly, came from someone else and present them to the public (public intellectual). Sowell uses that definition to make the distinction between an intellectual and someone of intellect; an engineer or medical doctor.

Since an engineer’s end product is something tangible, same as a medical doctor, they have some sort of feedback mechanism that weeds out the good from the bad. An engineer whose bridge falls in the river (Tacoma Narrows Bridge) finds them self out of a job and out of the profession. Same goes with a doctor or dentist, if they pull the wrong tooth or amputates the wrong limb too often, they will find themselves out of a job and out of money.  The same isn’t true of an intellectual.

Dr. Sowell makes the point that an intellectual is immune to the short and long run consequences of their end product. This is so obvious that it’s hard to notice it at times. How often are politicians, pundits etc called out for the consequences of their ideas? Almost never! Paul Erlich comes to mind for me. Erlich has written numerous books and essays  warning about unchecked population growth, a modern-day Malthusian. His 1968 The Population Bomb book proved to be big joke. Did the fact that just about everything he has said turned out to be wrong hurt his reputation? Nope, just take a look at his awards on the Wiki page.

While Sowell uses the early 20th century for examples, like Russell, Shaw, and Wells. These figures are almost unknown to the younger generation and probably most of the older generation as well. I think Sowell would have made a better point if he’d have used more modern examples, like Erlich, Sunstein, Krugman, etc. These are people we know and hear of today. Anyway, back to Erlich.

Erlich is a good example of what Sowell calls an intellectual for another reason, he is an expert in his field but makes pronouncement about things outside his field. Erlich is an entomologist whose expertise is in butterflies. Yet he thinks he knows enough to make pronouncement on human populations. Dr. Sowell says that this is because intellectuals confuse their expert knowledge with the mundane knowledge.

What is Knowledge?

A key aspect to knowing what makes an intellectual tick is the knowing how they view knowledge. Dr. Sowell states that there are two main types of knowledge, expert knowledge and mundane knowledge. Expert knowledge is just that, knowing a lot about a certain subject area. This can be in any field; economics, botany, chemistry, physics, mathematics etc. The part about expert knowledge that is key to me, is that it usually requires a marshaling of facts with a little bit of logic thrown in. I can be an expert in ancient Greek history, if I just read enough and memorize certain things. I can be an expert in Math, if I read enough and apply certain tools. Dr. Sowell goes a little farther, to say that intellectuals are usually very good in the field they are experts in. He uses the example of Chomsky. Chomsky knows things about linguistics that most other people will never know, that makes him an expert in his field. Chomsky also has the ability to create novel ideas about the area he is an expert in.

Mundane knowledge is just that, mundane. It’s collective knowledge, things that can’t be pinned down and things that usually come from experience. Mundane knowledge is like knowing what sound a car engine should sound like. While it might seem trivial, you put all those little trivial pieces of knowledge together and you get the vast majority of the knowledge that is out there. Dr. Sowell makes the point that it’s the mundane knowledge that is the driving force behind human society. This is very Hayekian. Which of course, I agree with 100%.

An intellectual is someone who confuses their own expert knowledge with the mundane knowledge, that makes the world work. They think that because they know a lot about a certain thing, that it translates into knowing a lot about everything. This is why Erlich thinks he can make judgment on population, why Chomsky thinks he should make political judgments, why Krugman thinks that his Nobel gives him room to make broad partisan political pronouncements, etc. This is the key difference between an intellectual and someone with intelligence. Clearly, Krugman et al are intelligent, but so is an engineer or a doctor. Yet you don’t see engineers going on and on about politics (usually at least not in the media). Yet when you do hear an engineer or doctor making broad political or social pronouncements outside of the field of expertise, it is because they are acting as intellectuals.

Another important aspect of knowledge that Dr. Sowell makes, is that the mundane makes up the vast majority of total knowledge in the world, 90%. I think it’s more than that, on the order of 99.9% But that’s just me. The point is, that it’s impossible for one person or even a group of people to fully comprehend and understand what goes on in society. It’s the flaw that dooms all planners, since planners are intellectuals. Dr. Sowell uses the example of the USSR, who had no shortage of experts. Yet, their endless panel of experts could not make their economy work. When here in the US (for the most part) thousands and thousands of people, with  a far lower level of expertise in any given field than the USSR planner, armed only with mundane knowledge and experience produced the greatest economy in the 20th century. Again this is very Misian and Hayekian, the Socialist Calculation Debate.


Incentives matter. I don’t care who you are, I’m a firm believer that no one does anything for free. There is always a motive. So what are the incentives for the intelligentsia? What makes them tick?

Same as everyone else they are not a different breed of human, as much as they might tell you or want to think of themselves as. They want money, power and prestige. Since intellectuals only deal in ideas and they are immune to the consequences of those ideas, they are free to pursue anything that tickles their fancy regardless of any harm it might entail. Again, I think of Erlich, who in his book Population Bomb discussed “compulsory birth regulation… (through) the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size.” Sounds eerily familiar to John Holdren’s comments, who is Obama’s science adviser.

Intellectuals like Erlich make a lot of money doing what they do. It’s not hard to see why, simple supply and demand. People of all types want to hear things that appeal to their a priori biases. Since intellectuals deal in abstract ideas, that can’t be verified, they are more than willing to provide the ideas that people want to hear. This is better understood in the context of news media. Republicans want to hear things filtered through their own constrained vision, so they listen to Fox who is more than happy to give the people what they want, intellectuals of a certain bias. The same hold true for MSNBC, CBS, Huffington etc.

While the ideas themselves have consequences, the purveyors of those ideas don’t bare any brunt of the responsibility for those ideas since those ideas are rarely novel. Since I love to hate on some Global Warming, I’ll use that as an example. ALGORE doesn’t bare any responsibility for his “Hockey Stick” scam because he got his information from IPCC (not quite accurate but for the purposes of my example it’s sufficient). The IPCC doesn’t bare responsibility (as we have seen from the Glacier-Gate and Amazon-Gate) because they get their information from “peer reviewed” articles (sometimes). Those scientists don’t bare responsibility because they get their numbers from CRU, NOAA, NASA…who get their numbers from other scientists. You see where this is going. No one has any responsibility for anything because they all relied on someone else, so going way back up the food chain to ALGORE. Why wouldn’t he make sweeping pronouncements about AGW, to aquire wealth, and a nifty Nobel Prize? Sounds like a nifty scam for someone with absolutely no expertise in the field of climate science.

Groupthink is a huge part of that equation. Intellectuals of like variety tend to stick together. They select for each other, which is why most social science departments are overwhelmingly liberal. Groupthink also plays a role in the only critical test of an intellectuals ideas, peer review. Now peer review isn’t just for academia. Again think about the news media. Hannity, Olbermann, Maddow only agree with people that think the same as they do. This is a form of peer review. Now academia has its own problems with peer review, but they are basically the same. Why would you challenge an assertion that conforms to your own a priori bias? A Global Warming alarmist isn’t going to question the new “study” that confirms their bias, but they are going to challenge one that refutes their bias. Hannity isn’t going to challenge a panel member that he agrees with, but he will challenge Colmes since they hold different ideas.

The more I think about groupthink, the more I’m amazed that we (Humans) have managed to learn, innovate and evolve as much as we have. The intelligentsia of Galileo’s time held vastly differing views on the solar system than Galileo. Yet somehow through the fog of groupthink and confirmation biases, the truth did come out. This gives me hope that all the nonsense coming out of our present intelligentsia will eventually be shown to be false, much like Erlich’s and Malthus’ population forecasts were shown to be false. But in the mean time and even after proven wrong, intellectuals like Erlich will still gain money, power and prestige from those that believe the same way he does, regardless if it’s factually false. Orwell said that “some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool.”


I realize that this didn’t turn out to be a “mini” review. It is quite a long piece for me. Intellectuals and Society is a fabulous book. I highly recommend everyone read it, even though I know few actually will. It’s their loss. There are a few things that do need to be cleared up.

Yes Dr. Sowell is an intellectual as well. I’ve noticed a lot of Liberals try to make the case that Dr. Sowell’s thesis doesn’t hold because he is arguing against his own profession. Of course that case is hogwash. That’s like saying a doctor shouldn’t call into question, questionable practices by fellow doctors. That critique isn’t so much an argument as it is ad hominem.

Dr. Sowell’s book  takes aim at Liberals mostly. Of course the fact that the majority of intellectuals have been Left leaning be of any consequence?  The thesis holds true across the political spectrum. Just because Dr. Sowell doesn’t say so, doesn’t mean you can dismiss his thesis. Of course it’s those kinds of dismissals that distinguishes intellectuals from people actually interested in learning. Intellectuals love to mischaracterize opponents positions in order to bolster their case, the Tea Parties are a case in point.

As a final note, I would recommend that before you read Intellectuals and Society, that you read A Conflict of Visions first. The whole notion of constrained and unconstrained vision originated from A Conflict of Visions and is dispersed through Intellectuals.

  1. yttik
    May 13, 2010 at 08:53

    LOL, good post! I’ll have to read it. I’m surrounded by intellectuals, I come from a family of intellectuals, and I swear, people think entirely too much!

    I’m chuckling here, because I recently went on a road trip with a bunch of intellectuals and a monsoon came up and of course the windshield wipers decided to stop working. So here I am, trapped on the side of the road with a couple of engineers, unable to solve the simplest of problems. Naturally the only way to fix something like that is to find a kid in the car, the one who has not yet been corrupted by intellectualism, and get her to solve the problem with a few twist ties and some duct tape. See, intellectualism tends to make you so smart, you can’t even problem solve simple tasks anymore.

  2. Seth
    May 15, 2010 at 10:43

    Thanks for the write-up. I plan to read it soon. I thought it would be an update to his “Vision of the Anointed”, but it sounds a little different.

    Roberts and Leamer discussed some of these ideas on EconTalk this week. The idea that the incentives that face economists (like getting in newspapers or gaining notoriety) don’t allow for humility.

    It would be nice if it was easier to hold intellectuals accountable to their ideas. Too many people are willing to buy their BS b/c they have a degree from such-in-such rather than looking at how their ideas actually turned out. Much of what we think in society is built on fallacy.

    • May 25, 2010 at 19:32

      Its a little bit different, he brings Hayek into it a lot, which I like.
      I agree too many people believe in the appeal to authority fallacy, just like far too many people think the ad hominem is a good debate strategy.

  3. Seth
    May 25, 2010 at 19:57

    I agree. I’m amazed at how people are suckered by just about any fallacy.

    • May 26, 2010 at 15:54

      Right! Of course they think they are smarter than everyone else so it’s okay for them to use them…I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

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