I read a lot of books, which means I also read a lot of book reviews. And some are classics. They’re essays of a certain type, after all, and there are great essays, so why not great book reviews? John Banvilles’s take-down of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books several years ago is already legend. Going back further, it’s hard to imagine a better piece of essay writing than Paul Fussell’s review of The Boy Scout Handbook (to be found in the collection of essays bearing that same name). And perhaps topping the list of all-time classics is Peter Medawar’s well-deserved destruction of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (collected in a book of Medawar’s essays, Pluto’s Republic), back when people actually read, or claimed to read, Teilhard, in 1961.
It’s a remarkable review for a number of reasons, many having to do with what an intellectual fraud Teilhard was. And it’s very funny, too. But here was something else, too, because it contained a sentence that even after decades has stuck with me. And it relates to another phenomenon that Medawar was concerned with–which is, why were (and perhaps still are) so many people taken in by Teilhard? It’s not the first time, of course, and lord knows we’re surrounded by people being taken in by any number of things. This bothered Medawar quite a bit, and genuinely puzzled him. But he thought in part it was the result of expanding education far beyond its natural reach. If that sounds elitist, it probably is. Here’s Medawar’s proposal for the popularity of Teilhard back then:
How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. It is through their eyes that we must attempt to see the attractions of Teilhard, which I shall jot down in the order in which they come to mind.
Medawar then goes on to offer some possible reasons for this. Most are concerned with aspects of Teilhard’s book that are more fundamental to the nature of the book itself than its public, but he does have this to offer as a general comment:
The Phenomenon of Man is anti-scientific in temper (scientists are shown up as shallow folk skating about on the surface of things), and, as if that were not recommendation enough, it was written by a scientist, a fact which seems to give it particular authority and weight. Laymen firmly believe that scientists are one species of person. They are not to know that different branches of science require very different aptitudes and degrees of skill for their prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He does not even preserve the common decencies of scientific writing, though his book is professedly a scientific treatise.
And goes on to conclude his review with the following comment:
I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable; but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.
Medawar should count his lucky stars he did not live to see the advent of Fox News, and what passes for scientific “discussion” these days. All of this was brought to mind by the recent discussions here at S&R between Brian Angliss and Burt Rutan, and once again being forced to confront what Medawar describes as people’s “active willingness to be deceived.” The actual discussion between Rutan, a trained engineer, and Angliss, also a trained engineer, is interesting enough in its own right—sadly, Rutan seems to be operating under a different set of rules here. But this is not unusual. There are areas of popular and scientific concern—global warming being the most recent and best example, but the evolution/”creation science” debate also spring a bit too easily to mind—where people appear more than willing, indeed eager, to cast aside the normal rules of discourse and argument, even to suspend those rules entirely.
As usual, the best sport is to be found in the comments, all 235 of them, since it appears a bunch of people from denialist sites decided to flash mob the discussion. It is here that we find all the evidence we might want to validate Medawar’s hunch that we are surrounded by people who are, indeed, “educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”–or even being able to sustain any kind of obvious thought process whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Really, go check it out. Comments on Climate discussions are always enlightening, in their own perverse way.
This is just the latest of a long series of problematic “debates” on global warming to annoy me. I have a bunch of Climate blogs that I check out regularly, and the difference between (a) genuine discussions between people who know what they’re talking about but disagree on, say, interpretation or even appropriateness of certain kinds of data, and (b) the people who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about, but like to barge in anyway, is striking. And then the internet adopts its own version of Gresham’s law (“Bad money drives out the good’), where the ignorant overwhelm everything. It’s depressing, that’s what it is.
It’s not at all difficult to find examples in other domains either. We’re surrounded by them—the latest diet craze, the latest Republican idiocy, Jonah Goldberg, whoever Roy Edroso is writing about today. It’s almost too easy. These examples come along merrily, at far too dizzying a speed to keep track of, and they can become overwhelming. In many cases, people’s self-delusions largely only hurt themselves, or, sadly, their immediate families—people who continue to listen to Harold Camping, for example. But there are always discussions which are important, that often get dominated by, or can’t prevent the inclusion of, people who not only have no idea what they’re talking about, but also who can’t manage to construct a linear thought. The internet has been a godsend to these people. Beforehand, they could only interrupt and annoy their families, and friends, if any. Now they can interrupt an annoy everyone.
Just today, my usual random blogging has come up with two examples without even breaking a sweat—it took about five minutes, if that. First, thanks to Brad DeLong’s blog, we find Jonathan Chait eviscerating Veronique De Rugy. Chait’s post, lengthily excerpted by DeLong, is classic, and as is often the case, another signal that much discussion of the political economy is based on stuff that is just made up. It’s worth quoting Chait at length:
But it is true that I do spend a lot of time arguing with the lesser lights of the intellectual world as well, and de Rugy herself is a good example. Our current debate offers a useful example of why I do this. De Rugy wrote a column centered around the claim that the United States has a more progressive tax system than any other advanced country, and as her sole piece of evidence cited the fact that rich people pay a higher share of the tax burden in the U.S. than in other countries. I wrote a response, noting that this reasoning is completely idiotic. Rich Americans pay a bigger share of the tax burden because they earn a bigger share of the income, not because the U.S. tax code is more progressive.
De Rugy’s reply is an incoherent collection of hand-waving that does not come close to addressing this very simple and fatal flaw with her claim. She… conflat[es] the marginal tax rate (the percentage tax you pay on your last dollar) with the total tax rate (the overall percentage of your income paid in tax), using “income tax” as a stand-in for total taxes, and trying to broaden the debate into a bigger philosophical dispute. But it’s not a philosophical dispute. It’s a simple case of her making up false claims based on extremely elementary errors.
And this is why I am forced to be so mean. There are just a lot of people out there exerting significant influence over the political debate who are totally unqualified. The dilemma is especially acute in the political economic field, where wealthy right-wingers have pumped so much money to subsidize the field of pro-rich people polemics that the demand for competent defenders of letting rich people keep as much of their money as possible vastly outstrips the supply. Hence the intellectual marketplace for arguments that we should tax rich people less is glutted with hackery. The very simple fallacy I pointed out by de Rugy has been knocking around for years, without end. (Here it is in a piece by Stephen Moore in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Here is Senator Jim DeMint making it today in an interview with the approving editors of Reason.) A similar problem exists, perhaps to an even worse extent, with climate change denial.
Second, almost as an afterthought, Larison once again has to point out, both in his own comments and by a reference to Mark Adomanis over at Forbes, that Victor Davis Hanson doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now, I’m occasionally prepared to cut Hanson some slack from time to time—he’s one of those people (Christopher Hitchens being the apotheosis) for whom Iraq seems to have taken away any semblance of rational judgment. Davis used to have informed and entertaining things to say about agriculture—now he has uninformed and nasty things to say about politics. And I have friends who think that Hanson has insights. But he doesn’t. He has vitriol, and the ability to string words together in a fashion that implies that there are thoughts lurking underneath.
See, that wasn’t hard at all. It took more time to cut and paste the links and the quotes than to actually find these sorts of examples. In fact, the dispiriting thing about his exercise is how easy it was. Maybe it’s the genre-shifting that’s the trouble—moving from one domain to another. Your doctor might know a lot about medicine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d take his advice on tax planning–or voting. That sort of example is clear enough. But the world, or at least that part of it endlessly portrayed in our 24/7 media, is chock full of people whose ability to sustain a linear thought has been demonstrated, multiple times, to be essentially zero. Michelle Bachmann comes perhaps too easily to mind, and there were apparently a sufficient number of Americans who were prepared to see her become President of the United States. Not enough, thankfully, but still. She even got a spooky Newsweek cover out of it. But your mileage may vary. You will no doubt have no trouble coming up with your own example. But the sheer number of these people to be found on American television is frightening—one reasons to never turn it on.
None of this makes me feel any better. I remember once, as a sprout, watching William F. Buckley on the old Firing Line grill someone—probably a Civil Rights leader, that would have been Buckley’s style—about what was wrong with the idea of a literacy test as a condition for voting. Well, the obvious answer then was the existence of systems designed to keep poor black people illiterate, and therefore ineligible for voting. But in another context it’s an interesting subject for a thought question. Some sort of knowledge or citizenship test has occasionally been offered as a condition for becoming a Member of Congress, and it’s hard to dismiss that notion out of hand, given the kinds of comments we get from, oh, Jim de Mint, just to pick the first name that comes to mind. It has a certain appeal. It couldn’t possibly be enforced, of course.
The more pressing question, I suppose, is how did so many of our institutions—particularly politics and the media—get to be so dominated by these people? Was it when colleges and universities started offering degrees in things like “Media Studies?” Was it growing up with Ronald Reagan as President and thinking that that was the default condition–Reagan? I have no idea. What I do know is that this is the defining characteristic of the people who dominate public discussions on things like the economy and Climate Change these days—people who can sound like they know what they’re talking about, but on closer inspection clearly don’t. But they’ve somehow, often by accident, managed to acquire the ability to sound good. And because they sound good, they’re convinced themselves, and others, that they know something, and that something is worth sharing. It’s a low rent version of the Categorical Imperative—if I can say something, no matter how foolish, I should. George Monbiot is right–these people are fundamentally stupid. But we let them drone on because we’re too goddam polite. There was a time when natural selection would have weeded many of these people out. No longer.