Geek anti-intellectualism: replies

My essay on “geek anti-intellectualism” hit a nerve.  I get the sense that a lot of geeks are acting–quite unusually for them–defensively, because I’ve presented them with a sobering truth about themselves that they hadn’t realized.  Consequently they’ve been unusually thoughtful and polite.  This is quite new and startling to me–I mean, there’s something about this discussion that I can’t remember ever seeing before.  Anyway, it must have seemed relevant, because it was posted live on Slashdot within minutes of my submitting it–something I’d never seen before–and proceeded to rack up 916 comments, as of this writing, which is quite a few for Slashdot.  It was also well discussed on Metafilter, on Twitter, and here on this blog (where I’ve had over 160 comments so far).  What struck me about these discussions was the unusually earnest attempts, in most cases, to come to grips with some of the issues I raised.  Of course, there has been some of the usual slagging from the haters, and a fair number of not-very-bright responses, but an unusually high proportion of signal, some of it quite insightful.  Reminds me of some old college seminars, maybe.

First, let me concede that I left a lot unsaid.  Of course, what I left unsaid ended up being said, sometimes ad nauseam, in the comments, and a few points I found to be quite enlightening.  On the other hand, I find a lot of geeks thinking that they understand aspects of higher education that they really don’t.  I’m not sure I can set them right, but I’ll try to make a few points anyway.

I am going to do what I’ve always done, since the 1990s, when something I’ve written elicited a much greater response than I could possibly deal with: make a numbered laundry list of replies.

1. How dare you accuse all geeks of being anti-intellectual? I didn’t; RTFA.  I know there are lots of very intellectual geeks and that geekdom is diverse in various ways.  I’m talking about social trends, which are always a little messy; but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss.

2. There’s a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-academic. Maybe the most common response was that geeks don’t dislike knowledge or the intellect, they dislike intellectuals with their academic institutions and practices.  First, let me state my geek credentials.  I’ve spent a lot of time online since the mid-90s.  I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects.  You’ll notice that I’m not in academe now.  I have repeatedly (four times) left academe and later returned.

I agree that academia has become way too politicized.  Too many academics think it’s OK to preach their ideology to their students, and their tendency to organize conferences and journals around tendentious ideological themes is not just annoying, it is indeed unscholarly.  Moreover, speaking as a skeptically-inclined philosopher, I think that some academics have an annoying tendency to promote their views with unwarranted confidence, and also to pretend to speak authoritatively on subjects outside of their training.  Also, in many fields, the economics of academic advancement and publishing has created a tendency to focus on relatively unimportant minutiae, to the detriment of broader insight and scholarly wisdom.  Also, I completely agree that college work has been watered down (but more on that in the next point).

Having admitted all that, I’m still not backing down; I knew all that when I was writing my essay.  Please review the five points I made.  None of them is at odds with this critique of academe.  Just because some experts can be annoyingly overconfident, it doesn’t follow that they do not deserve various roles in society articulating what is known about their areas of expertise.  If you deny that, then you are devaluing the knowledge they actually have; that’s an anti-intellectual attitude.  If you want to know what the state of the research is in a field, you ask a researcher.  So even if your dislike of academics is justified in part, it does not follow that their word on their expertise is worth the same as everyone else’s.  Besides, most of my points had little to do with academics per se: I also had points about books in general, classics in particular, and memorization and learning.

3. Just because you think college is now a bad deal, economically speaking, it doesn’t follow that you’re anti-intellectual. Well, duh.  I didn’t really take up the question whether the present cost of college justifies not going, and I’m not going to get into that, because I don’t really think it’s relevant.  Let’s suppose you’re right, and that for some people, the long-term cost of college loans, combined with the fact that they won’t get much benefit from their college education, means that they’re justified not going.  My complaint is not about people who don’t go to college, my complaint is about people who say that college is “a waste of time” if you do go and are committed.  Maybe, for people who don’t study much and who don’t let themselves benefit, it is a waste of time.  But that’s their fault, not the fault of college.  I taught at Ohio State, which is not nearly as demanding as the college I attended myself (Reed), and I saw many students drifting through, not doing the reading, not coming to class, rarely practicing their writing skills.  I also saw people who always did the reading, always came to class, participated regularly, and were obviously benefiting from their encounter with great writing and great ideas.  Moreover, how college affects you isn’t “the luck of the draw.”  It depends on your commitment and curiosity.  This is why some partiers drop out and come back to college after five or ten years, and then they do great and finally enjoy themselves in class.

Finally, may I say again (I said it first in the 1990s, and also a few days ago), it is possible to get a degree by examination from programs like Excelsior College?  This way, you bypass the expense of college and pick all your instructors for a fraction of the cost.  This entails that you can get intellectually trained, as well as earn a real college degree, without going into debt.  This would be my advice to the clever ex-homeschoolers who claim that it is college that is, somehow, anti-intellectual.  Put up or shut up, home scholars: if you really are committed to the life of the mind, as you say, and you’ve already got experience directing your own studies, why not get a degree through independent study with academic tutors, and then take tests (and portfolio evaluations) to prove your knowledge and get the credential?

4. The people you’re describing are not true geeks; they are the digerati, or “hipsters,” or leftist academics who were already anti-intellectual and then started doing geek stuff. Uh, no.  I mean, you’re probably right that some anti-intellectual thinkers who weren’t geeks have started talking about the Internet a lot, and they have a big web presence, so now they might appear to be part of geekdom.  But they aren’t really, by any reasonably stringent definition of “geek.”  Besides, if you look at my article, you’ll see that that’s what I said (such people fall into the category of “digerati”).  My point is that claims (1)-(5) started circulating online among geeks, and they are, each of them, commonly spouted by lots of geeks.  Take them in turn.  (1) Anti-expert animus is a well-known feature of the geek thought-world.  Wikipedia became somewhat anti-expert because of the dominance of geeks in the project.  (2) Of course, the geeks at Project Gutenberg love books, but all too often I see comments online that books went out in the 20th century, and good riddance.  One of the leading idols of the geeks, Clay Shirky, essentially declared books to be a dying medium, to be replaced with something more collaborative.  (3) It is obvious just from the comments here on this blog, and elsewhere, that some geeks find the classics (that means philosophy, history, novels, epics, poetry, drama, religious texts, etc.)  to be a waste of time.  They don’t have the first clue about what they’re talking about.  (4) The first time I saw the idea discussed much that Internet resources mean we no longer have to memorize (and hence learn) as many facts was among Wikipedians in 2002 or so (when it was totally dominated by geeks, even more than it is now).  (5) The whole college-is-a-waste-of-time thing is a not uncommon geek conceit.  It’s not surprising in the least that a founder of would spout it.  It’s easy for computer geeks to say, because they can get well-paying jobs without degrees.  In many other fields, that’s (still) not true.

5. But I’m an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passe.  The things to be learned are “relationships” or “analysis” or “critical thinking.” Oh?  Then I claim that you are espousing an anti-intellectual sentiment, whether you know it or not.  I’m not saying you’re opposed to all things intellectual, I’m saying that that opinion is, to be perfectly accurate, a key feature of anti-intellectualism.  Look, this is very simple.  If you have learned something, then you can, at the very least, recall it.  In other words, you must have memorized it, somehow.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you must have used flashcards to jam it into your recalcitrant brain by force, so to speak.  Memorization doesn’t have to be by rote.  But even if you do a project, if you haven’t come to remember some fact as a result, then you don’t know it.  Thus I say that to be opposed to the memorization of facts is to be opposed to the learning, and knowing, of those facts.  To advocate against all memorization is to advocate for ignorance.  For more on this, please see my EDUCAUSE Review essay “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age.”

I know that this is an old and common sentiment among education theorists–which is a shame.  Indeed, the educationists who say that it is not necessary to memorize the multiplication table are implying that it is OK for kids to be ignorant of those math facts.  (No, it’s not OK.  They should know them.)  Anyway, it might have started with misguided educators, but it is becoming far too common among geeks too.

6. The Internet is changing, that’s all.  Most people are anti-intellectual, and they’re getting online. No doubt about it, the Internet has changed greatly in the last five to ten years.  And it might well be the case that the average netizen is more anti-intellectual than in the past, in the very weak sense that more stupid people and uneducated people are getting online.  This might have been clever to say, if my point had been, “Folks online seem to be getting anti-intellectual.”  But that isn’t at all what I said or meant.  If you will review the evidence I marshalled, you’ll see that the people I’m talking about are not the great unwashed masses.  I’m talking about geeks and the digerati who presume to speak about geeky things.  And their influence, as I said, has been growing.

7. Americans are anti-intellectual.  Geek anti-intellectualism is just a reflection of that. Think about what you’re saying here; it doesn’t make much sense.  I claim that geeks are increasingly anti-intellectual, or increasingly giving voice to anti-intellectual sentiments.  This is a trend, which many people are discussing now because they recognize it as well.  American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon, goes back to colonial days, and was rooted in our distance from the erstwhile European sources of intellectual life as well as the physical difficulty of frontier life.  The pattern of anti-intellectualism I discern is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has grown up especially with the rise of the Internet.

8. Conservatives never were the anti-intellectuals; it was always the liberal lefties! Glenn Reynolds linked my post, and so some conservatives grumbled about my line, “Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing.”  Well, I hate to wade into politics here.  I used the passive voice deliberately, because I did not want to endorse the claim that anti-intellectualism is the mark of “knuckle-dragging conservatives” (I don’t endorse this phrase, either).  All I meant to say is that this is one of liberals’ favorite things to say about American fundamentalists.  I was about to, but did not, go on to say that actually, among the home schooling crowd, liberals and libertarians tend to go in for “unschooling,” which is relatively (and not necessarily) hostile to traditional academics, and it is conservatives who go in for  uber-academic Latin-and-logic “classical education.”  I didn’t say that, because I knew it would be distracting to my point.  So I’m kind of sorry I made the remark about conservatives, because it too was distracting to my point.  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers, so to speak, everywhere.

9. Are you crazy?  Geeks are smart, and you’re calling geeks stupid by calling them anti-intellectual. You didn’t know that “anti-intellectual” does not mean “stupid,” apparently.  There are plenty of anti-intellectual geeks who are crazy smart.  They aren’t stupid in the least.  You also must distinguish between having anti-intellectual attitudes or views, which is what I was talking about, and having anti-intellectual practices. There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are anti-intellectual.  (There are Jewish anti-Semites, too.)  Just think of any progressive education professor who inveighs against most academic work in K-12 schools, describes academic work that involves a little memorization and practice as “drill and kill,” wants the world to institute unschooling and the project method en masse, has nothing but the purest P.C. contempt for the Western canon, advocates for vocational education for all but those who are truly, personally enthusiastic about academics, wants academic education to be as collaborative as possible rather than requiring students to read books, which are “irrelevant” to the fast-changing daily lives of students, and channeling Foucault rails against the hegemony of scientists and other experts.  Well, such a person I would describe as an anti-intellectual intellectual.  The person might well write perfectly-crafted articles with scholarly apparatus, read classics in her field, and so forth.  It’s just that her opinions are unfortunately hostile to students getting knowledge (in my opinion).

10. But the liberal arts are a waste of time.  Studying Chaucer?  Philosophy?  History?  The vague opinionizing is pointless and facts can be looked up. If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any really educated person will disagree with you.  Once you have received a liberal education, your mind expands.  You might not understand how, or why it’s important, but it does.  That’s why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn’t pay much, as it usually doesn’t.  If you haven’t studied philosophy, you can’t begin to understand the universe and our place in it–I don’t care how much theoretical physics you’ve studied.  There are aspects of reality that can be grasped only by critically examining the content of our concepts.  Similarly, if you haven’t read much literature and especially if you are young, then you are very probably a complete babe in the woods when it comes to the understanding of human nature and the human condition; that’s why people read literature, not so that they can sniff disdainfully at others over their lattes.

11. What you call “anti-intellectual” is really “anti-authority.”  You’re merely defending the prerogatives of snooty intellectuals whose authority is on the wane. This is one of the most common and often snarkiest replies I’ve run across.  But it’s also a very interesting point.  Still, on analysis, I’m going to call it flimsy at best.  I’m going to spend quite a bit of space on this one.  Feel free to skip to down to the end (“In Sum” before “Conclusion”).

Let’s distinguish between being opposed to knowledge in its various forms, on the one hand, and being opposed to the prerogatives of intellectuals, on the other.  I claim that the path many geeks are headed down really has them opposed to theoretical and factual knowledge per se. I think the evidence I offered supported this reasonably well, but let me try to make it a little more explicit.

Consider point (1), about experts.  (“Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.”)  That certainly looks like it is about the prerogatives of experts.  If for example on Wikipedia I encountered people saying, for example, “Experts need to prove this to us, not just assert their authoritah,” that would be fair enough.  That’s not anti-intellectual at all.  But going farther to say, “You merely have access to resources, you don’t understand this any better than I do” and “You’re not welcome here” is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.  If you can’t bring yourself to admit that–and I submit that the stripe of geek I’m describing can’t–then your attitude is anti-intellectual.  (Some people are refreshingly honest about just this.)  Then what you’re saying is that specialized study and experience do not lead to anything valuable, and are a waste of time.  But they lead to knowledge, which is valuable, and not a waste of time.

Point (2) (that books per se are outmoded) also, admittedly, has a little to do with intellectual authority–but only a little.  One of the reasons that some geeks, and others, are welcoming the demise of books is that they resent a single person set up as an authority by a publisher.  They say that publishing can and should be more like a conversation, and in a conversation, there shouldn’t be one “authority,” but rather a meeting of equal minds.  So perhaps those who are pleased to attack the medium of books couch their views as an attack on authority.  Perhaps.  But when I defend books, I really don’t care about authority so much.  Of course, when thinking adults read books, they don’t read them it in order to receive the truth from on high.  They are interested (in argumentative books, to take just one kind) in a viewpoint being fully and intelligently canvassed.  As some of the geeks commenting do not realize, and as some people don’t realize until they get to graduate school, it frequently requires a book–or several books–to fully articulate a case for some relatively narrow question.  Scholars should be praised, not faulted, for being so committed to the truth that they are willing to write, and read, discussions that are that long.  The fact that publishers have to pick authors who are capable of mounting excellent arguments at such length doesn’t mean that their readers are supposed simply to accept whatever they are told.  At bottom, then, to oppose books as such is to be opposed to the only way extended verbal arguments (and narratives and exposition) can be propagated.  An indeterminately large collaboration can’t develop a huge, integrated, complex theory, write a great novel, or develop a unified, compelling narrative about some element of our experience.  If you want to call yourself intellectual, you’ve got to support the creation of such works by individual people.

Point (3), about the classics, has almost nothing to do with the prerogatives of authority.  The shape of the Western Canon, if you will, does not rest on anybody’s authority, but instead on the habits of educators (school and university) as an entire class.  You’re not rebelling against anybody’s authority when you rebel against classics; you are, if anything, rebelling against the ideas the classics contain, or against the labor of reading something that is demanding to read.  In any case, anybody who comes down squarely against reading the classics is, to that extent, decidedly anti-intellectual.  Face it.

Point (4), which has us memorizing as little as possible and using the Internet as a memory prosthesis as much as possible, has absolutely nothing to do with authority.  If you’re opposed to memorizing something, you’re opposed to learning and knowing it.  That’s quite anti-intellectual.

Point (5) concerns college, and on this many people said, in effect, “I oppose the stupidity of an overpriced, mediocre, unnecessary product that rests on the alleged authority of college professors.”  Then it looks like you’re criticizing the authority of professors, and so you think I’m defending that.  Well, to be sure, if college professors had no significant knowledge, which (as I think) gives their views some intellectual authority, then there would be no point in paying money to study with them.  But I can defend the advisability of systematic college-level study (I choose these words carefully) without making any controversial claims about the authority of college professors.  I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say (especially in the humanities and social sciences).  After all, most professors expect their students to be skeptical and not to take what they say uncritically; and only a very dull student will do that, anyway.  If you didn’t know that, it’s probably because you haven’t been to college.  So, no.  I am not merely defending the authority of college professors.  I am personally quite critical of most scholarship I encounter.

In sum, I know that libertarian geeks (I’d count myself as one, actually) love to rail against the prerogatives of authority.  You’d like to justify your anti-intellectual attitudes (and sometimes, behavior) as fighting against The Man.  Maybe that is why you have your attitudes, maybe not.  In any case, that doesn’t stop said attitudes from being anti-intellectual, and your issues don’t mean that I am especially concerned to defend the prerogatives of authority.  I am not.


I think I’ve hit most of the high points.

One thing I didn’t discuss in my original essay was why geeks have become so anti-intellectual, especially with the rise of the Internet.  Here is my take on that.  Most geeks are very smart, predominantly male, and capable of making an excellent livelihood from the sweat of their minds.  Consequently, as a class, they’re more arrogant than most, and they naturally have a strong independent streak.  Moreover, geeks pride themselves on finding the most efficient (“laziest”) way to solve any problem, even if it is a little sloppy.  When it comes to getting qualified for work, many will naturally dismiss the necessity of college if they feel they can, because they hate feeling put-upon by educators who can’t even write two lines of code.  And the whole idea of memorizing stuff, well, it seems more and more unnecessarily effortful when web searching often uncovers answers just as well (they very misguidedly think).  What about books, and classics in particular?  Well, geek anti-intellectual attitudes here are easily explained as a combination of laziness and arrogance.  The Iliad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract; instead, they could read a manual or write code or engineer some project, and do a lot more of what they recognize as “learning.”  The advent of new social media and the decline of the popularity of books are developments that only confirm their attitude.  It doesn’t hurt that geek is suddenly chic, which surely only inflates geek arrogance.  If they admit to themselves that there is something to philosophy, history, or anything else that takes time, hard study, and reflection to learn, but which does not produce code or gadgetry, then they would feel a little deflated.  This doesn’t sit well with their pride, of course.  They’re smart, they think, and so how could they be opposed to any worthwhile knowledge?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that some (only some) geeks turn out to be anti-intellectual.  This is no doubt why many people said, in response to my essay, “This is just what I’ve been thinking.”




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Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

52 responses to “Geek anti-intellectualism: replies”

  1. “‘You merely have access to resources, you don’t understand this any better than I do’ and ‘You’re not welcome here’ is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.”

    You are not referring to average Joes, you’re referring to average geeks. A self-styled anti-academic geek would tend to bristle at the appeal to authority, not because of an anti-intellectual attitude, but because of an intellectual disagreement with someone that a geek would view as a peer.

    However, one thing I’ve noticed about myself and every geek I’ve ever met is that we all have intellectual areas we find distasteful–I suppose you can call this “anti-intellectualism” but that seems both too broad and yet too narrow. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that I–like many (or all?) geeks–have Attention Deficit Disorder. ADHD can inspire creativity and intelligence that are hallmarks of geekhood, but a cognitive dysfunction is nothing if not anti-intellectual. (Perhaps the phenomenon you’ve described is simply an ADHD epidemic?) We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the rare twit who seems to be good at everything hardly deserves the honorific of “geek”.

  2. I wonder whether some of those who rail against these academic practices are aware that information becomes useful not when you have access to facts, but when you know enough facts to build up an in-depth picture with them, which as yet we have never managed to teach a computer to do.

    In fact it seems to me that there is a difference between information and knowledge that seems to be missed out perhaps because the people making these criticisms have never performed any rigorous analysis of how their own knowledge or expertise differs from a set of data points. Many geeks, though very quick to refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect are lamentably subject to it with regard to matters of a philosophical nature.

  3. André Roberge

    While I do agree with most of what you wrote, I must strongly object to the following:

    If you haven’t studied philosophy, you can’t begin to understand the universe and our place in it–I don’t care how much theoretical physics you’ve studied.

    I do find such a statement very dismissive of experts in the study of the Universe (aka cosmology) which requires deep knowledge of theoretical physics. By making the above statement, you are guilty yourself of what you accuse “anti-intellectual geeks” of doing.

    I would counter by saying: if you have not studied advanced theoretical physics, if you are not aware of all the known facts about the Universe (including having a deep understanding of the physical laws that describe it) and of their limitations, then you can’t pretend to understand the Universe and our place in it, regardless of how much philosophy you have studied.

  4. whatever

    What is a professor ? Merely a middle man to direct knowledge.

    In what cases of education has the professor been obliterated by the internet ? music, philosophy, literature, film making, programming, painting, electronics to some extent, sex education and many crafts which the acdemics have forgotten.

    Maths, physics and other hard disciplines which need a lab bigger than a computer require a university.

  5. Andrew

    I can see a lot of myself in the depiction(s) of the “young geek” in this post and the one it’s based on. I’ve found myself unable to actually read a book cover-to-cover, despite my large collection of eBooks, and my desire to have the knowledge within them. I find myself wishing there were a way to download the data to the brain a la The Matrix, sans the digital slavery and whatnot, because being able to access the massive glut of information on the internet with a simple phrase search makes me feel as though time spent memorizing things can be better used doing something else.

    When internet access is cut off, I feel both liberated and a strong sense of dread. I have to hope that I don’t encounter a problem that I’d usually rely on the internet to help me solve, and the fear of that encounter can lead to panic. At the same time, the inability to check email, news, social media, or Youtube for a time actually allows me to focus on the task at hand.

    I used to say jokingly “I can’t imagine having to do research without the internet!”. The levity in that statement has almost evaporated entirely, and thinking about that frightens me to no end.

  6. Jasmine Grey

    Thanks, Larry, for your thoughtful articles.

    It may very well be that high levels of education and expertise are not required to create a popular web site, but many other fields that our society depends on are far more demanding and less forgiving of ignorance. For example, how many people would really want their doctor in the E.R. to be a self-taught amateur who needs to consult the web for what the proper treatment for a heart attack is? How many people would want to travel over a bridge that was built by people who didn’t have degrees and experience in engineering? Or be defended in court by a lawyer who didn’t have a deep knowledge of case law in his area of expertise? Or fly in an airplane that was being flown by a pilot who would have to look up emergency procedures on the web? Or for that matter, an airplane whose avionics software was written by someone who had never cracked open a book on the design of real-time concurrent systems?

  7. Michael Chui

    Because I’m a geek who’s deeply interested in education (and, I might add, who fiercely believes that technology is the wrong direction to seek better), I was rather hurt by the inclusion of Sir Ken Robinson in your original article. Perhaps I don’t understand Robinson’s ideas properly, but my sense has been that Robinson and those he represents (including myself) have no problem with children learning facts or hard knowledge. The issue is that education is largely still being conducted today with an authoritarian edict, when that’s no longer effective or desirable: being creative, having critical thinking, focusing on relationships, etc., etc. are all a better grounding for learning facts than being obedient, having excellent memorization and regurgitative abilities. Thus, by focusing on this grounding and using facts as a means to learn creativity or critical thinking, rather than their end, we get what we most want: educated adults capable of finding the facts they personally need.

  8. Alex

    While I would say that history, literature and philosophy certainly help us to gain a better abstract understanding of the world around us, without a technical context the skills gained become next to worthless. The circle jerk that is modern philosophy is absolutely worthless in my eyes, since it generally deals with the intangible and ultimately irrelevant. As time goes on and the level of abstraction between our physical reality and the philosopher’s model of that reality continually shrinks, I believe philosophy and its derivatives will be less and less relevant to affording a complete understanding of the world. At the end of the day, the “human condition” is merely a distant and obscure view of the physical (unless you’re a dualist, in which case, fuck you).

    1. It saddens me that so many people have so little understanding of philosophy that they believe it to be no more than a family of intangible irrelevancies. Sure there are ridiculous pseuds around who think they are talking about philosophy, but can we really dispense with epistemology? Morality? Logic? The rigorous thinking that is required by serious discussion of these questions?

      In the last year or so I have heard several radio pieces lead by scientists of various types convinced that their hard, solid, empirical science can take the place of philosophy in some ( or all ) regions. Whenever they are placed beside a philosopher in a discussion it becomes very clear that they are absolutely out of their depth when it comes to rigorous thinking and have, in general, no idea what philosophy even is.

      Experimental results: Science
      The Scientific Method: Philosophy

  9. Squozzer

    After reading yesterday’s article, I found myself in camps #2, 3, and 9. But I think my reaction was against the conditioning to which I’ve been subjected all of my life — that college is good, college is Mother, college is Father.

    Growing up in the 70s, “intellectual” was crypto-speak for “Marxist”, and “anti-intellectual” was the counter-code for “philistine” (you used my favorite term — knuckle-dragger — in your previous article.)

    And I got the impression through your last paragraph in yesterday’s point #1 that you were conflating anti-college with anti-intellectualism. Maybe that was my conditioning kicking in again, or maybe a wish that I had known exactly what I needed to know to do what I wanted to do instead of learning a bunch of stuff and having to shelve most of it.

    And I think some of it was the Battle of Hastings example you used — I don’t think knowing 1066 (or October 14) is nearly as important as knowing the results of William’s victory — such as the massive French influence on the English langauge.

    We’re probably in no danger of becoming the hapless cops in “Demolition Man” — who needed a machine to tell them how to apprehend a criminal — we will still learn things, and desire to learn them, but we shouldn’t be afraid to re-evaluate what we need to learn and how we learn it.

  10. eric

    Have you heard of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy?

    From Wikipedia: The term was advanced by philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking: Do I sincerely want to be right?. ‘Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”‘

    Take a look at your response to the claim (#10) that the liberal arts are a waste of time: If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any *really* educated person will disagree with you.” You seem to be saying that no *true* intellectual would agree with this claim.

    Does being an intellectual absolutely require respect for the liberal arts? I disagree. It is true that a vast majority of people I would consider intellectuals would agree that the liberal arts have an important place, but that doesn’t mean that ALL of them feel this way. In particular, I have met several academics (full tenured professors) in the sciences and mathematics which have disparaged the value of liberal arts and humanities. I think it would be a stretch to call these men (they have all been men) uneducated or anti-intellectual, even if you disagree with them. If however, you would say that yes, despite their contribution to scientific knowledge, their lack of appreciation for the humanities makes these gentlemen anti-intellectual, I would ask whether when you say that geeks are “opposed to knowledge”, what you really mean is that they do not value the humanities. This is a vastly different claim than the one you are making.

    When was the last time you found a geek who was disparaging knowledge of science or mathematics? Geeks tend to value science and technology along with anyone who has scientific knowledge and/or technical skill. Value of technical knowledge is so valued by geeks that we go so far as to tightly integrate it into our humor. Take, for example, XKCD,the classic geek comic strip. Most of the jokes there that would be lost on anyone without knowledge of science and computers. Geeks wear their technical knowledge like a badge of honor, so your claim that there is a trend of increasing disrespect for knowledge among geeks seems very puzzling to me.

    Would you at least agree that geeks value proficiency with technology, in particular programming? You even include the claim that “The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software”. I hope we’re on the same page (no pun intended) here. Well, if you’re going to build a website you need to know a few things. You need to know what a web browser is. You need to know how to code CSS and HTML. If it’s anything other than a static page — and no major, successful sites are static these days — you’re going to need to know a real programming language, whether it’s ruby, python, php, perl or something more esoteric. A good working knowledge of server administration and the http protocol help too. When I say that a prospective web programmer needs to “know” these things, I mean “know” in the sense that you refer to knowledge — not dead words on a page, but a living vibrant understanding of what’s going on — ideas and understanding in someone’s mind. If you need to go to Wikipedia to look up what a web browser is, or what HTML tags are, you’re not going to be building a successful website any time soon. As you would expect, the geeks I know value this sort of knowledge very highly and often go so far as to criticize others who don’t know even the basics. That doesn’t seem like an over-arching opposition to knowledge.

    I suspect that what you are really trying to say is that a large and increasing number of geeks do not value the same types of liberal arts knowledge which you value. This is likely true, and I would agree with that claim.

    I do realize that I am opening myself up to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy of my own, should you claim that person X is a geek and they are indeed disparaging technical knowledge along with the humanities, leaving me with the choice to back down or claim that X is no *true* geek. You would have a point. Like 99% of arguments, this one largely boils down to definitions. How do you want to define an intellectual, and how do you define a geek? Is a geek anyone who contributes to Slashdot or Wikipedia? Anyone on the internet? Anyone who seems geeky to you? If you write further on the topic, maybe you should start by offering some more specific definitions.

    Finally, I will readily concede that it is POSSIBLE that I’m wrong and you’re right. Maybe there IS a trend here that I’m not seeing, where geeks are becoming hostile to scientific and technical knowledge as well as that found in the humanities. However, you have presented no data. You have merely commented on a trend you personally observe. If you want to call Slashdot and Wikipedia contributors geeks, there’s a lot of publicly available data out there in the edits and in the comments. You could scrape some of this data and check how many times certain anti-intellectual phrases (just pick a reasonable set) cropped up in the last year relative to 3-5 years ago. Be sure to normalize by total comment/edit volume. You have your hypotheses, now go do an EXPERIMENT. Geeks, at least the variety I am familiar with, are convinced by data, a subset of knowledge. I suggest you go find some if you want to prove your critics wrong.

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