[EAS]Idiot Savants

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Fri Jan 4 17:52:37 EST 2002

Subject:   Idiot Savants

(from NewsScan Daily, 2 January 2002)

      In his latest book, "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,"
the  erudite author and jurist Richard A. Posner is harshly critical
of academic  pundits who pontificate on subjects outside their narrow
realm of expertise:
       "Most people, including academics, are confusing mixtures. They
are  moral and immoral, kind and cruel, smart and stupid -- yes,
academics are  often smart AND stupid, and this may not be
sufficiently recognized by the  laity. They are particularly likely to
be both smart and stupid in an era  of specialization, when academic
success is likely to crown not the person  of broad general
intelligence but rather the person with highly developed intellectual
skills in a particular field, and both the field and the  skills that
conduce to preeminence in it may be bulkheaded from the other fields
of thought. The brilliant mathematician, physicist, artist, or 
historian may be incompetent in dealing with political or economic
issues.  Einstein's political and economic writings are a case in
point. Picasso's  artistic, or Sartre's literary and philosophical, or
George Bernard Shaw's  dramatic genius did not inoculate them against
Stalinism, or Heidegger's  philosophical genius against Nazism. But if
the compartmentalization of  competence, and the underlying disunity
of the self, are not widely  recognized--and they are not--a
successful academic may be able to use his  success to reach the
general public on matters about which he is an idiot.  It doesn't help
that successful people tend to exaggerate their  versatility; abnormal
self-confidence is a frequent cause and almost  invariable effect of
great success."

See http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/067400633X/newsscancom/ 
for  Richard A. Posner's "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline" --
or look  for it in your favorite library. (We donate all revenue from
our book  recommendations to adult literacy action programs.)

It is indeed getting harder to find intellectual companionship of the
"broad general" kind. Modern information technologies 'empower' us to
do/read/buy many things for ourselves online, but these transactions
are seldom imbued with trustworthy, if any, editorial judgment, that
comfortingly resonant yet broadening point of view. Getting 'more
voluminous and less decisive' describes not just most of the magazines
we subscribe to, but our lives in general.

I have often said that 'points of view' are the last great marketing
opportunity, and of course they have been for some time, e.g. the
'decorative' views espoused by Martha Steward or Oprah Winfrey. It
seems a lot like the Appearance Control Panel on my Macintosh
computer, where one can select different themes. But I doubt that
their book recommendations, as an extension of the decorative arts,
are a good model for how to expand one's sense of judgment. And most
public intellectuals, as Posner notes, have become increasingly
specialized.  --PJK

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