What motivates political anti-intellectualism, what counteracts it

It seems both the right and the left can engage in anti-intellectualism. The right doesn’t like college professors and feels ivory tower liberal elitists want to tell down home people how to live and what to think.

But the USSR under Stalin wasn’t a good place for intellectuals either. Neither was Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Are intellectuals seen as people with tons of book smarts and no common sense? Are they seen as cultural traitors? Is it the fact that higher education and intellectualism can be correlated with rejection of religion or maintaining social tradition? Is it that intellectuals can be influential and as a result turn people against the ruling party and religion?

What is the appeal for kicking out the most competent and educated people from society? Is anti-intellectualism strictly an authoritarian phenomena? I don’t think left or right wing libertarians support anti-intellectualism. However left and right wing authoritarians do.

But China is an authoritarian country, and intellectuals are revered there. In the democratic US many people hold Sarah Palin up as an example of an amazing person in all her anti-intellectual glory.

So authoritarianism alone can’t explain it either. Saddam Hussein wanted to create ‘1,000 PhDs for Iraq’. China realizes education is a key to world power.

What appeal is there to kicking the competent people out of society and handing it over to boobs? According to wikipedia it is religion, populism and authoritarianism.

China is an authoritarian regime (so was Saddam’s Iraq) but I guess both were pragmatic about realizing the need for education to create military, economic and political power. So maybe pragmatism is a good antidote to anti-intellectualism. That seems to be a big reason many people reject Sarah Palin in the US, a pragmatic realization that you cannot run a country with someone like that in charge.

And a pragmatic realization that you cannot compete in the 21st century after you persecute all of the college professors would probably counteract anti-intellectualism.

I’ve also seen anti-intellectualism among some feminists who are fairly liberal and open minded in most other areas. Their motive seemed to be fear that an intellectual investigation into anthropology, biology and evolutionary psychology would justify misogyny.

This is a pretty freewheeling OP that poses several different questions, (and different kinds of questions), about intellectuals and anti-intellectualism.

So I’ll limit myself to two follow-ups.

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say about China or Iraq. Yes, China values some intellectuals; but it arrests others. Yes, Iraq saw a relatively educated elite strata: but were most of these people intellectuals or simply professionals? Isn’t there a distinction to be made between highly educated professionals (competent or not) and intellectuals (not all of whom long to be running society–at least not in an organizational sense).

All of this makes me wonder how you define an intellectual.

My second follow-up pertains to your last point, about feminists. I’m not sure which feminists you’re thinking of, but the feminist arguments I’ve seen against evolutionary science aren’t anti-intellectual. They’re arguments against bogus science. Whether one agrees with the verdict or not the motive isn’t anti-intellectualism I don’t think the effect is either (that is, the claims seems too well researched to be anti-intellectual even if, perhaps, there remains room for debate).

I’ve come across in the past arguments from feminists that “Logic is masculine; emotion is feminine. Science is logical, therefore it is masculine and evil.” That’s certainly antiintellectual. Back in the 80s I recall female mathematicians complaining about death threats from feminists for being traitors to womankind. I don’t know how strong it is right now, but historically there’s been a strong anti-intellectual streak to feminism.

And I’ll point out that given the overwhelming evidence for it that ALL arguments against evolutionary science are anti-intellectual.
As far as the OP goes, IMHO what prompts anti-intellectualism is generally a sense of inferiority, or fear of the truth. The latter being especially important in authoritarian cultures, for obvious reasons.

There is a practical, scientific side to politics, but there is also a religious, spiritual side to it. right-wingers don’t like climatologists. Left-wingers don’t like economists. All kinds of people don’t believe the scientific evidence on vaccines, or GM food.

When certain beliefs are deeply held, they often take on a quasi-religious character. Free market fundamentalism on the right, social justice on the left.

Huh? Isn’t Paul Krugman an economist? Amartya Sen? Bradford DeLong?

The ones I’ve seen are. I have seen women write off thinkers Steven Pinker out of hand and openly say their responses were due to a fear that fields like evolutionary psych would be used to justify the oppression and marginalization of women. I would post scientific studies on biology and attraction, and they’d just be written off or ignored (this was another board).

Also, if you read the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf makes the claim that there is no real evidence that attraction has biological basis, which is not true. There are certain universal traits that are considered attractive across cultures.

But economists love left wingers. Obama was picked by 66% of economists in 2008 vs 28% for McCain.

Left wingers do not like economists from the Milton Friedman neoliberal school. However other economists (Krugman, Roubini, Romer, etc) are ok.

Although I’ve got not idea what you’ve been reading I suspect you may be misunderstanding some of this writing. Can you please provide one example of a feminist saying that logic is masculine and emotion is feminine? Or that science is evil?

The typical feminist argument is that logic is often considered a masculine trait and emotion is considered feminine. The typical feminist is trying to contest these stereotypes, not uphold them. And even the older feminisms that argued that women speak “in a different voice”–(this is pretty outdated stuff from the 80s)–were trying to get more respect from women’s (supposedly) caring outlook. Their point was that logic was valued and care was not; their point was never that a whole human being, much less a whole society, shouldn’t value both. (And again, this is really dated stuff.)

Yeah, and I guess some “feminists” may have worn tin foil on their heads to screen out death rays from planet Venus. But do you have an example of any published work from a feminist arguing against the treachery of female mathematicians? What would the basis of this death threat be? That women can’t add? That they shouldn’t be mathematicians?

To which I’ll reply that any argument that rules against the intellectual merit of “ALL arguments” without looking at the specific claims of those arguments is, by definition, anti-intellectual.

Huh? Isn’t Paul Krugman an economist? Amartya Sen? Bradford DeLong?
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I guess I should have been more precise. Left-wingers don’t like economists when they well, act like economists rather than political pundits. Krugman and DeLong and virtually any other economist will tell you that free trade is beneficial. The consensus on free trade is as airtight as the consensus on climate change, probably moreso. Don’t tell liberals that. Krugman and DeLong will also tell you that the minimum wage costs jobs. Despite that, they(and I) support minimum wage increases when appropriate. But they recognize the tradeoffs. Most liberals don’t want to think about it, so they just deny it, or even more absurdly, insist that raising minimum wage INCREASES jobs.

**But economists love left wingers. Obama was picked by 66% of economists in 2008 vs 28% for McCain. **

Obama’s plan made more sense. His governing, well, that’s another story. Obama ran on a platform of not raising taxes except on the top 1% and cutting spending.

Left wingers do not like economists from the Milton Friedman neoliberal school.

Which doesn’t make much sense, because their issue with the Friedman school is about things that the Krugmans of the world agree with them on: monetary policy is always the cause of inflation, free markets are more efficient than central planning, free trade between nations is more beneficial than protectionism.

This stuff is complicated Wesley. There are real arguments to be made against evolutionary psychology that don’t amount, IMO, to anti-intellectualism.

I can’t account for why some posters on a board didn’t like your links and it would be foolish for me to try. I’m sure some traits are considered attractive across cultures but there is also so much variety–in the ideal female weight for example–that I’ve never seen any of these claims add up to much (like the claim that people are attracted to symmetry–so what?).

Perhaps a thread on this topic will emerge at some point in the future; for the present, without hijacking yours, I’ll simply say that anti-intellectualism is certainly not the only reason why anyone, feminist or not, might disagree with evolutionary psychology.

How are you defining free trade, adaher?

But Krugman and DeLong are liberals. Krugman wrote a book called The Conscience of a Liberal, no?

Not always because neoliberal economists (from what I know of them) oppose other things like government intervention. Economists like Roubini and Krugman were in favor of a government stimulus and wanted a larger stimulus (a trillion or so) more heavily devoted to infrastructure. There are major differences between Economists like Krugman vs Friedman on issues like the role of government intervention, labor rights, consumer and environmental protections, etc.

Krugman didn’t believe raising the minimum wage will hurt employment.


Paul Krugman: The available research suggests that the U.S. minimum wage right now is low enough that increasing it has very little effect on employment, but raises incomes at the bottom. Also, a falling real minimum wage seems to act as a sort of undertow, dragging down wages some ways up the scale. Obviously the minimum wage by itself isn’t enough to serve as the centerpiece of an equalizing policy, which would have to involve a whole range of actions.

Before going further, let’s sort out some definitions. An intellectual is a person who focuses on the mental faculties of knowledge and understanding, as opposed to the faculties of emotion and of will. An academic is a person whose job is teaching or research at a university. Hence the two words don’t mean the same. Many intellectuals are not academics and many academics are not intellectuals. The climate in universities sometimes favors intellectualism and sometimes doesn’t. Hence, to be intellectual one must sometimes be anti-academic, just as to be patriotic one must sometimes be anti-government.

So, why does anti-academic sentiment get so much traffic right now? All the reasons you list have some validity, but the most basic answer is: common sense. Many academics have believed all kinds of loony stuff over the years. For example, the theories of Sigmund Freud were hugely popular for several generations, not only in psychology but also in fields like literature. While Freudianism is gone now (thankfully), plenty of other isms from the past sixty years or so are equally groundless and silly. No thread on this topic could be complete without a link to How to Deconstruct Almost Anything, which concludes:

This sort of thing, once acknowledged, can explain a lot of popular sentiment towards academia. Terry Pratchett, himself a fine demonstration that one can be a genius without having a college degree, has made a career out of mocking the academic world. In his vision, a university is a place where a bunch of clowns sever their ties with the outside world and pretend to know things that no one else knows. Given the popularity of his work, this idea must have some resonance with the public at large.

It should be mentioned that plenty of people inside the academy have agreed with this viewpoint. For example, physicist Alan Sokal played a famous hoax where he got an article called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity published in an academic journal called Social Text. The article was a joke, mocking the ideas and writing style of left-wing, postmodernist academics. Books like this one make the same point in a more serious fashion.

As for me, my basic attitude is to treat any material produced by a professor the same way I treat any other material. I read it and I see whether it makes logical sense or not. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not. As an example of the later, I have put forth on this board my reasons for believing that evolutionary is basically all bogus. Now I may be wrong; Ben Goldacre may be right when he says that only most of it is bogus, but I’ll need to see real experiments matching real genes to real behaviors before I believe it. To me it’s a clear example of how once a sub-field gets large enough, the participants can keep quoting each other in circles and make their doctrines look to be solid even when they aren’t. Heck, the field of evolutionary psychology has been hit by its own set of embarrassing hoaxes.

How are you defining free trade, adaher?

Trade without tariffs or restrictions beyond normal regulations found in the importing country.

Not always because neoliberal economists (from what I know of them) oppose other things like government intervention

From an economic perspective, yes. Friedman used to concede that if you want to do certain things, like poverty reduction or universal K-12 education, that you had to have the government do it. Just understand that it won’t be done efficiently or particularly well. But sometimes government is the only option because the market won’t supply it.

Paul Krugman: The available research suggests that the U.S. minimum wage right now is low enough that increasing it has very little effect on employment, but raises incomes at the bottom

That’s a pretty time specific diagnosis. In general, raising minimum wage prices some labor out of the market. There’s a pretty good consensus about that, and it’s backed up by the fac tthat the teen unemployment rate gets higher with every recession.

Again, I favor raising the minimum wage fairly regularly for other reasons, and I’m sure every liberal and even some conservative economists agree. But you can’t ignore the tradeoffs.
But let’s not get in the weeds here, since this is taking away from the subject of the OP. I’ll gladly concede this and just move on to the fact that an awful lot of people on the left and right alike don’t like what scientists have to say about genetically modified foods, or vaccines. Whether or not you are anti-science on a particular subject tends to have a lot to do with whether the science backs a deeply held opinion of yours. For many liberals who feel very strongly about the sanctity of the Earth and Nature, scientific advancements that involve altering nature tend to raise their hackles. It’s mainly the lefty set that believes that organic foods are healthier, even though there isn’t much scientific support for that concept.

And to sort of get back to economics, social justice is practically a religion for the left. Liberals have often supported self-defeating measures to reduce poverty or have resorted to socking it to the rich simply for the sake of socking it to the rich. The fact that the welfare system destroyed families and community cohesiveness as it was implemented in the Great Society was beyond dispute as early as the 1970s. Yet liberals fought tooth and nail against welfare reform. Thank God for Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Then there’s candidate Obama being asked about raising the capital gains tax. He acknowledged that a lower capital gains tax brings in more revenue(and thus enables more spending on programs that benefit the poor), but supported raising the tax anyway as a matter of “fairness”. That’s government by feelings, not government by reason.

This is a very interesting discussion. I think the “anti-intellectualism” of the right wing goes beyond mere arguments about economics. I hope this thread doesn’t get too sidetracked by the economic debate because there’s a social and psychological dimension to this too which is worth talking about. Politicians in America have marketed themselves as “everyman” characters, with great success. People have talked about their desire to “have a beer” with the President; it’s as if there is some deep need for people to be ruled by someone who’s as dumb as they are instead of someone who’s smarter. A lot of Americans seem to fear leaders who are educated and articulate; they want someone who’s “down-to-earth” (read - artificially dumbed-down.)

It wasn’t always like this; Kennedy was an elite figure and people still loved him, for instance. He never tried to make himself appear “down-home” to appeal to dumb people who think that buddy-buddy banter over a beer qualifies someone to be at the helm of a nuclear arsenal. Kennedy was a monarchic figure.

But voters nowadays are turned off by anyone like this. Someone who speaks in a lofty tone and uses too many big words is seen as an elitist, and that puts people off. Personally I want an elite person in charge of the country. I do not want my next door neighbor or my drinking buddy to be the President. I want someone who I know is smarter than I’ll ever be.

People have talked about their desire to “have a beer” with the President; it’s as if there is some deep need for people to be ruled by someone who’s as dumb as they are instead of someone who’s smarter.

That desire isn’t totally irrational. Managing something as complex as a country is impossible. Putting super-bright people in charge doesn’t accomplish anything more than putting a team of morons in charge. It’s like having a smart dog run a business as opposed to a stupid dog. It’s just beyond the capability of the species no matter how smart they are. Likewise, no human or group of humans is smart enough to manage the country. and stupid politicians don’t come into office with promises to put their genius to work to solve our problems. Smart politicians do, and they invariably fail just like the dumb ones.

Of course, competence does matter, but competence and genius don’t always go hand in hand. Most people who know other competent people know them to be “no-nonsense” types, not necessarily smart guys.

While I’m on the topic, stock-picking seems like another example of an activity that smart people and dumb people do equally well. Some things are just too complex for even the smartest people to do better than random chance, so a total idiot would do just as well.

Politics is a bear. There are so many issues where smart people come to totally opposite conclusions. And you quickly find that no matter how smart they are, they don’t have all the data. There’s always some vital fact they don’t know, or which they’ve misinterpreted. Even answering a simple question like “Does gun ownership reduce or increase crime?” is nearly impossible. So when some egghead promises to go to Washington and use reason and science to solve the nation’s problems, as opposed to the other guy who just went with his gut, chances are he’ll be just about as successful as the guy who went with his gut.

There’s a difference between a very smart person - even a genius - and an intellectual. To me an intellectual is someone who looks at his world with intense curiosity and thorough analysis, and believes in a personal philosophy that incorporates this analysis. An intellectual is someone who is creative; who generates ideas; and who also works at being able to write and speak in a highly articulate manner.

Bill Clinton is a good example of this. Supposedly he was advised to hide his intelligence and put for a southern Bubba persona. I think I read that in his biography.

Obama is extremely smart, but luckily doesn’t have to hide it. However he does use more emotional and verbal manipulation rather than his intelligence to win support and appeal. He is famous for being a communicator on par with southern preacher, not an introspective policy wonk (he is both). People can remember his speeches, but understand very little about the health policies he supported in the election.


So I guess that is a step up. Obama doesn’t have to hide his intelligence (like Clinton was supposedly advised to do), but he gets very little out of it too. And Palin was actually a drag on McCain due to her lack of intelligence.

One (controversial) observation I’ll make: If you’re physically weak, you can go to the gym and buff up. If you’re fat, you can lose weight. If you’re crap at photography you can keep practicing and take classes and you’ll get better, or buy a digital camera that does most of the complicated stuff for you.

But if you’re thick, there’s generally not much you can do about it. You’re basically stuck being thick, and no amount of trying to learn stuff or going to the library or whatever will change that. Obviously I’m speaking in extremely broad generalities here, folks.

In short, “being smart” is generally one of those things you either are or you aren’t- and understandably, I think people in the “aren’t” category will be anti-“things the smart people like” because they don’t (and can’t) understand it.