Dispatches from “Enlightenment Now:” Intellectuals

One of the blog posts I’m working on demands that I give Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now an in-depth skim, and it’s dredging up all sorts of secondary things. I might as well take advantage of that, and spread the misery around.

For instance, are we sure Pinker isn’t a secret far-Right plant?

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bienpensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 43.

His hatred for “intellectuals” is astonishing, especially since the blurb for Enlightenment Now calls him one. Isn’t the whole thesis of the book that we should all become more enlightened, more intellectual? And yet it contains an endless parade of scorn for those who are known for their intelligence.

At various times Western intellectuals have also sung the praises of Ho Chi Minh, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Kim II-sung, Pol Pot, Julius Nyerere, Omar Torrijos, Slobodan Milogevié, and Hugo Chavez.

Why should intellectuals and artists, of all people, kiss up to murderous dictators? One might think that intellectuals would be the first to deconstruct the pretexts of power, and artists to expand the scope of human compassion. (Thankfully, many have done just that.) One explanation, offered by the economist Thomas Sowell and the sociologist Paul Hollander, is professional narcissism. Intellectuals and artists may feel unappreciated in liberal democracies, which allow their citizens to tend to their own needs in markets and civic organizations. Dictators implement theories from the top down, assigning a role to intellectuals that they feel is commensurate with their worth. But tyrannophilia is also fed by a Nietzschean disdain for the common man, who annoyingly prefers schlock to fine art and culture, and by an admiration of the superman who transcends the messy compromises of democracy and heroically implements a vision of the good society.

pg. 451

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space. A satellite photograph of Korea showing the capitalist South aglow in light and the Communist North a pit of darkness vividly illustrates the contrast in the wealth-generating capability between the two economic systems, holding geography, history, and culture constant. Other matched pairs with an experimental group and a control group lead to the same conclusion: West and East Germany when they were divided by the Iron Curtain; Botswana versus Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe; Chile versus Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro — the latter a once-wealthy, oil-rich country now suffering from widespread hunger and a critical shortage of medical care.

pg. 95

This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naive hope. The Enlightenment has worked — perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph is so unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well. Far from being an insipid consensus, these ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt. When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble — a reason to live.

pg. 11

In 2016, a majority of Americans named terrorism as the most important issue facing the country, said they were worried that they or a family member would be a victim, and identified ISIS as a threat to the existence or survival of the United States. The fear has addled not just ordinary citizens trying to get a pollster off the phone but public intellectuals, especially cultural pessimists perennially hungry for signs that Western civilization is (as always) on the verge of collapse.

pg. 196

Intellectual culture should strive to counteract our cognitive biases, but all too often it reinforces them.

pg. 53

(The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.)

pg. 248

I used to think that Trumpism was pure id, an upwelling of tribalism and authoritarianism from the dark recesses of the psyche. But madmen in authority distill their frenzy from academic scribblers of a few years back, and the phrase “intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not oxymoronic. Trump was endorsed in the 2016 election by 136 “Scholars and Writers for America” in a manifesto called “Statement of Unity.” Some are connected to the Claremont Institute, a think tank that has been called “the academic home of Trumpism.” And Trump has been closely advised by two men, Stephen Bannon and Michael Anton, who are reputed to be widely read and who consider themselves serious intellectuals. Anyone who wants to go beyond personality in understanding authoritarian populism must appreciate the two ideologies behind them, both of them militantly opposed to Enlightenment humanism and each influenced, in different ways, by Nietzsche. One is fascist, the other reactionary — not in the common left-wing sense of “anyone who is more conservative than me,” but in their original, technical senses.

pg. 452

Pinker is apparently unaware of the right-wing think tank machine, which props up shady characters as “intellectuals” in order to advance the interests of wealthy donors. Those 136 “scholars and writers” include Newt Gingrich and Peter Thiel, FYI. The organizer of the manifesto is F.H. Buckley, a member of the Heartland Institute, and said Institute is notorious for promoting climate change denial. Steve Bannon may consider himself an intellectual, but belief is not the same as reality, and Michael Anton is arguably more ridiculous.

I know, I know, you could argue that Pinker’s focusing just on the “literary intellectuals” as per C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.” Sorry, that’s not plausible. Notice the lack of any qualifiers for some of these quotes, as well; Pinker is including a significant majority of all intellectuals in his tirades, at minimum.

[feels a tap on his shoulder]

Er, uh what-

What makes one person more intellectually able than another? Can the entire distribution of human intelligence be accounted for by just one general factor? Is intelligence supported by a single neural system? Here, we provide a perspective on human intelligence that takes into account how general abilities or ‘‘factors’’ reflect the functional organization of the brain. By comparing factor models of individual differences in performance with factor models of brain functional organization, we demonstrate that different components of intelligence have their analogs in distinct brain networks. Using simulations based on neuroimaging data, we show that the higher-order factor ‘‘g’’ is accounted for by cognitive tasks corecruiting multiple networks. Finally, we confirm the independence of these components of intelligence by dissociating them using questionnaire variables. We propose that intelligence is an emergent property of anatomically distinct cognitive systems, each of which has its own capacity.

Hampshire, Adam, et al. “Fractionating human intelligence.” Neuron 76.6 (2012): 1225-1237.

Whoa whoa whoa, what’s a study that refutes the idea of a single-factor measure of intelligence doing here?! Shoo! Go away, you’re off topic!

[hears something scamper away]

That’s better.

Howard Gardner’s brilliant conception of individual competence has changed the face of education in the twenty-three years since the publication of his classic work, Frames of Mind. Since then thousands of educators, parents, and researchers have explored the practical implications and applications of Multiple Intelligences theory–the powerful notion that there are separate human capacities, ranging from musical intelligence to the intelligence involved in self-understanding. The first decade of research on MI theory and practice was reported in the 1993 edition of Multiple Intelligences. This new edition covers all developments since then and stands as the most thorough and up-to-date account of MI available anywhere. Completely revised throughout, it features new material on global applications and on MI in the workplace, an assessment of MI practice in the current conservative educational climate, new evidence about brain functioning, and much more.

Gardner, Howard E. Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books, 2008.

THAT’S IT!! I’m ending this blog post right now!