Public intellectuals

By Eric Crampton 24/02/2015 6


Philip Matthews at the Christchurch Press asked me for comment on the role of public intellectuals in New Zealand.

He used a well-chosen excerpt from the email below. Here are the parts for which there wasn’t room in last weekend’s paper.

“Public intellectuals have to be good academic all-rounders. The best ones combine deep specialist knowledge of their own research area with broad and voracious interest in work outside their main field. They then draw the links between findings in their own specialist areas and those from other fields to provide research-informed analysis both of current policy and of the general state of the world. Denis Dutton exemplified the public intellectual. I’m not a particularly good one.”

“Anybody jumping into policy debates, public intellectual or not, has to have a pretty thick skin. Even if your analysis is entirely correct, somebody will hate the policy conclusion and yell at you about it in Letters to the Editor, on Twitter, or elsewhere. Most policy preferences are not evidence-based but come from deeper affiliations and self-conceptions. I think most people who stick their necks out understand this and can sort informed and serious critique from the noise. The risk for the public intellectual is more when those folks’ colleagues or bosses cannot tell the difference between serious critique and the Twitter mob and consequently panic too quickly about any public controversy.”
“I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m very happy with the support I get at The New Zealand Initiative. I was always supported by the Economics Department at Canterbury when I took on more of a public intellectual role. But in academia, that might be more exception than rule. Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily was a daily read for me while I was a graduate student in Virginia, half a world away from Christchurch. But it seemed underappreciated at Canterbury, and even unknown to a lot of the people who worked there.”
“Academia should serve as a repository of knowledge, as a generator of new knowledge, and as transmitter of both of those both to students and to the broader public. The current university funding model, through the Performance Based Research Fund, can do a decent job in encouraging the generation of new knowledge, but I think that that has come at the expense of the other two functions. A lot of what we have known about the world is being forgotten as academics specialise ever more deeply into their particular niches. It’s what is needed to land articles in the very top journals, but our history of thought matters too. And while the government has told the universities that it wants funding to recognise research’s impact, by which it means research’s effect in helping to improve the country and the world, it would be pretty surprising if PBRF panels did not choose to interpret ‘impact’ as meaning citation counts in journals few people read.”

“I also think New Zealand’s media does a fine job in supporting the country’s public intellectuals. The worst fate for a public intellectual isn’t having people angry about your ideas, it’s having the ideas be ignored. Academics who know how to write for a broader audience do not really have that hard a time in getting their ideas out into the public arena.”


6 Responses to “Public intellectuals”

  • “Academia should serve as a repository of knowledge, as a generator of new knowledge, and as transmitter of both of those both to students and to the broader public. The current university funding model, through the Performance Based Research Fund, can do a decent job in encouraging the generation of new knowledge, but I think that that has come at the expense of the other two functions.”

    YES.

  • “Academia should … as a generator of new knowledge” – YES!

    “Academia should serve .. as transmitter of both of those both to students and to the broader public” NO! NO! NO! Biggest mistake ever! and, amongst other thing, it explains why people are so illiterate when it comes to science.

    I take full responsibility for my stand here. I can explain. For the time being, and while I’m not entirely satisfied, I’ve written an article about that problem.

    http://metaskeptic.net/metaskeptic-escaping-researchers-model.html

  • Enjoyed reading your post, petermetaskeptic; very thought-provoking & I might do a riff on it on my (other ie teaching) blog. I’d like to explore this bit further:
    The reason why we teach science as it is right now is because of an obsolete understanding of how knowledge should be managed. – this is true. But rather than address it by taking science teaching out of the universities, why not encourage/lead/foster changes in how it’s taught in the universities? We’re already seeing the beginnings of that shift, to some small extent here in NZ, & more widely in places like the US (driven by the work of Carl Wieman & his team, for example).

    This isn’t to say that science thinking, & the teaching thereof, needs to be explicitly addressed at all levels of our education system. And it’s going to take some pretty big changes in that system to get us there.

  • Sorry for my late answer.

    That’s what the text is all about. Small changes won’t do the job. We need a game changer approach. Universities are good at what they do. The error is precisely to think that they can do other kind of job.

  • “Universities are good at what they do. The error is precisely to think that they can do other kind of job.”???

    IMO many university science courses are not particularly good at teaching the nature of science & its associated capabilities, being more inclined to ‘transmission’ teaching (especially at first year). And yet the experimental evidence is quite clear: we can and should change that. In the universities themselves.

  • I was referring to the teaching model use by universities. With all due respect, a classical discussion about science teaching won’t do any good.

    Take, for example, the team at http://www.skepticalscience.com/. They are doing a great job at debunking GW deniers. However, when it comes to science teaching (they use EDx MOOC) their model is a linear model to convert people to their view, while GW deniers use a power law model.

    Another problem is that we refuse to teach moral based on science values and knowledge. Only science values have the potential to solve social dilemmas, but we still refuse to use them. For example, take Phil Plait, authors of bad astronomy (http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/02/24/vaccines_hank_green_video_on_why_people_refuse_them.html), He’s advocating vaccination, and wrote against deniers every time he got a chance. Still, he never makes any reference to social dilemmas while the work of scientists like Thomas C. Schelling clearly does. In a famous book published in 1978, (Micromotives and macrobehavior) Schelling explains what the tragedy of the common is, and I quote “The commons are a special but widespread case out of a broader class of situations… Pollution, Infection, Litter, Noise…” (the commons).

    Science thinking as a social model should be adopted by the population, because in a science-based civilization, science values and science thinking make a superior model.

    P.S: I know that I might hurt some feelings, but don’t forget, it’s my job. I hope people will respect what I’m trying to do, even if they do not agree. The contract is that I’m thinking out of the box while following a scientific approach. When I say that the deniers follow a power law model, and we use a linear model. That can be checked. (The real question is how fast each model is growing). When I say that we can use social dilemmas to talk about Global warming and vaccination. I give references, which can be checked.