Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

There are several themes in this book that are similar to those put forward in Black Rednecks and White Liberals by the same Thomas Sowell. I was tempted to discuss the two books together but I decided against it in the end as some points I will be considering will be more specific to this book. There are two central messages in the book. First, that intellectuals are more impressed with their knowledge than they should be. As a result of this they try to influence issues they are ignorant about. The second is that intellectuals are susceptible to intellectual fads. They tout ideas that are in vogue in intellectual circles at the moment. I will discuss the book using the two messages I have just outlined.

Sowell’s definition of an intellectual is someone whose end products are ideas. Sowell distinguishes them from engineers, accountants, research scientists and hair dressers. According to this definition intellectuals would be linguists, philosophers, theoretical physicists, sociologists etc. As engineers and research scientists are most likely to produce actual products, intellectuals don’t. There is nothing wrong with coming up with ideas. The problem arises when intellectuals think that they can transfer their specific knowledge in their fields into other areas. Or that they are better placed to tell the populace what they should do. The fact is that the most intelligent person in the world will be ignorant of more than 99% of the world’s knowledge. So the populace as a collective is multiple times wiser than any individual. It is for this reason why central planning which includes price fixing fails abysmally everywhere.

When I was in High School, in a Physical Education class, our instructor made us kick a ball into am empty goal post. We kicked the ball just a little further from the penalty spot. In a class of 51 students, only about three people were able to successfully kick the ball into the net. We can shout at players all we want, thinking football is easy to play, but we lack the necessary experience to be experts. We are ignorant of how difficult it can be to score a goal. We could defend ourselves by saying that playing football is not our job, and that those whose job it is ought to play well. But will we then leave critique to the experts then? An actual example that Sowell shares in the book is the utterances of intellectuals, who know little about guns and might never have shot one, when there is a police shooting and the police seem to have discharged a lot of bullets. He avers the difficulty in shooting stationary target. This difficulty is multiplied when a target is moving and the police man’s life is on the line.

I think this is the right moment to segue into another central message of the book. Intellectual fads. A current one is lumping all police shootings especially in the US as motivated by racism. Better still, systematic racism. It seems to be more about expressing outrage than looking at the evidence. It seems weird that when individuals commit racist acts, those individuals are not called racist, but a whole group is called racist. This is exactly what happens when some police officers act brutally. An example that comes to mind is that shared by Te-Nehisi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me, written as letters to his son. In the book, Coates’ friend a black man is mistakenly killed by a black policeman. He strangely concludes that his friend died because America is a white supremacist society. And like most bigoteers, instead of him to give concrete evidence he only gives anecdotal evidence and writes poetic prose with racist undertones. In his entire book he doesn’t share a single data point to ground his assertions. Not a single one. One also has to be practical. It is like being naïve enough to think a war can be fought without a single innocent person being wrongly killed. Collateral damage comes with the package. The police will make mistakes. The police will have individuals who are racist. The question we need to ask ourselves is how prevalent it is. Also given that blacks commit more crimes per their population than whites, sometimes several times in some categories, it isn’t a surprise that more blacks are killed in police violence per their population. Also not all killings by the police are unjustified after the fact. This came to world’s attention after LeBron James’ impulsive tweet that a policeman who had shot and killed a black girl, after the trial of the George Floyd murder, was next. The police officer had shot the teenager for trying to stab another black girl. This was captured on video. LeBron later deleted the post, but I am not sure he apologized.

Sowell explains the danger of this way of looking at the world. It creates conflict and divides people. The rule of the game should be evidence. Hard-naked facts. Anecdotal evidence is just not enough in these kinds of discussions. This was concretized in my head after reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Outrage isn’t evidence. Hard evidence can make us realize that our outrage is misplaced. The disastrous outcomes of identity politics is based on evidence. It’s not emotive. Sowell shares examples from the experience of Germans in Eastern Europe during WWII. The banishment of people of foreign descent from Zimbabwe engendered a skill vacuum that the economy is still suffering from. I have a Zimbabwean friend who attests to this fact.

Systemic racism is just one of the intellectual fads. Before I continue, I want to say what I am not saying. I am not saying that there has never been systemic racism. For example, Americans had Jim Crow and the Jews lived in their Ghettos. In relation to these facts in the past we have evidence. We can’t give opinions without substantiating them. Doctrines like white privilege and male privilege, though likely true in the past can’t be backed with evidence now. The argument is sometimes put forward that since some category of people have benefited generationally from the status quo from the past something must be done among the present living to level the playing field. Therefore, those who were unborn are to pay for their parents sins. They are to be responsible for acts that they can’t be responsible for. Sowell rightly points out that what advocates of social justice often demand is cosmic justice. Their suggestions as to how grievances should be corrected are often counterproductive to those who are to benefit from the corrections. Apparent corrections such as affirmation action laws also tend to penalize other minorities.

So what do we do? What is the best way to correct past injustice? Work hard. The best way to humiliate ones enemies is to be very successful. The mention of hard work often creates images of Boxer in Animal Farm going beyond his limit till he drops dead. But I will work harder is a useful maxim to overcome our default indolence. Laziness comes naturally. And adopting an attitude of personal responsibility means we can’t blame others. If we fail, it’s on us. There is no pointing fingers. It is understandable why we would want to focus on others’ faults. But the only person we have control over is ourselves.

In terms of intellectual fads, one theme we see in the book is the inability of intellectuals between what a system conveys and the system as a cause of its outcomes. There also seems an inability to appreciate that correlation is not causation. In terms of the distinction between conveyance and causation, let us look at a few examples. One example is test scores. If an analysis of test scores shows that some category of people are doing better than others, and are therefore likely to enter elite institutions, admissions of the outstanding students is perceived as racist. The admission process isn’t racist since anyone who qualifies is accepted. An admission process based on individual merit can’t be racist. This is a different argument from whether admissions were limited to some group in the past and didn’t take in others, say minorities and women. The accusation of racism in America is brought into doubt as people of Asian descent dominate admission in STEM fields which have been historically difficult to get into. Another example is saying that the free market system is inherently discriminatory against some segments of the population. It is a truism that some business owners are prejudiced. The most tolerant society will have its intolerant citizens; this wouldn’t be a good enough reason to call the entire society intolerant. To make this judgement, we need to examine the preponderance of such attitudes, and this should be supported by empirical fact. To use another concrete example, banks deny black loans than they do whites in America. This may be perceived as systematic racism until one realizes that black owned banks discriminate more than their white counterparts. Asian Americans tend to have easier access to loans than the majority white population. Therefore, the accusation of systematic racism appears to be moot. Banks give out money when they are certain enough that the potential debtor can repay. Since blacks have worse credit ratings than whites, and whites than Asian Americans, the status quo is what we should expect.

You would think anti-racism and not racism would be the only intellectual fad, but Sowell details how racist ideologies based on little empirical data seized the academic class in the period before the second world war. This racist ideology often clothes itself in genetic determinism. Its goal is to hasten the work of natural selection, thus evolution. It was interesting to note that Hitler corresponded with some American academics. Intellectuals of those years assumed incorrectly that the only civilization that has contributed to human development is the Western one. They downplayed the advances of the Chinese and Mongols as well as that of the Arabs. Although I believe that Western Civilization has contributed more than other civilizations, past and present, the whole story is a human story. It wasn’t a civilization that built itself from scratch. But borrowing Newton’s words used in a personal context, it was built on the shoulders of giants. Some supposed evidence for the inferiority of other races was based on IQ test scores. Looking at IQ test scores of that time, and even now, there are so many nuances which wouldn’t lead one who is careful and without an axe to grind to such conclusions about entire classes of people. It also doesn’t follow that if we were able to conclusively prove the difference between races in terms of intellect, then we should treat the weaker races worse. This was the attitude of the Great Karl Popper.

The racist fad is often accompanied with preoccupation with population growth. It’s not a bad thing to care about how fast the population is growing. The problem is what to do about it. The racist point of view is that the ‘lesser members’ of society must be got rid of. They become they vehicle for natural selection. It was with this ideology that Planned Parenthood was set up. This is my reading from reading the book. But I am uncomfortable with it as people are often products of their environment. And their attitudes are often testament to the intellectual climate of the time, no matter how revolutionary their ideas are. So I will give Margaret Sanger the benefit of the doubt. I will read more about her and her work before I form my opinions. We can easily make caricatures of great people, because even they have their flaws.

Another intellectual fad would be multiculturalism. This idea seems to suggest that no culture is better than another, and that all cultures need to be allowed exhibition. Diversity is good for every society. We learn when we meet people who are different from us. More often than not, no matter how deplorable a culture is, there is something good we can learn from it. The problem arises when cultures are in conflict with each other. Opposing values don’t often mate with each other. They can’t co-habit in the same place. There is an element of culture that is cosmetic. This includes foods, way of dressing and to some extent language. However, honor killings can’t coexist with rule of law. I think multiculturalism which sees all cultures as equal arises from the difficulty in explaining how we arrive at our values. Some social norms appear arbitrary, some clearly are. Heck, some rules are stupid. There’s are countless examples in history of people stifling others’ expression of their identity just because those who had power could do so. But this common aberration shouldn’t lead us to the conclusion that all values are equally valid. We know this when we are being practical. In a recent episode on the Jordan Peterson Podcast he interviewed the journalist Bari Weiss. Ms. Weiss shared a story about her discussion with a feminist friend who wouldn’t criticize Female Genital Mutilation practiced in a certain part of the world because it was the tradition of those people. Cultures are not equal because some facilitate the well-being of their people than others.

I think I have talked enough about the central message of the book. One contribution Sowell adds that I hardly hear is the explanation of inequality, and how different his description is from what one hears. This is somehow related to people’s tendency to confuse what things convey with their cause. It is said that the rich has been getting richer, especially in America. I have never heard anyone fully contest this claim. The only other person to have contributed to my knowledge in this area is Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Even he doesn’t dispute the claim. He rather argues that there is nothing wrong with the rich getting richer so far as they are not insulated from their mistakes. Sowell explains how we confuse wealth categories with actual individuals. A wealth category can be the richest 10% or the poorest 20%. Analysis on these categories are based on people’s earnings. As people increase in wealth as they acquire more expertise, it is not obvious that widening variance in such categories are evil. Given that wealth across all income categories seem to have increased, it could mean that people are likely to get richer than previously as they gather expertise. Sowell shows that when we look at flesh and blood people as they progress through life, not income categories, we realize that people who were in the richest percentiles actually saw a decrease in wealth. If I remember correctly he used the base year of 1997.

Now to what I didn’t like about the book. Sowell believes that taking personal responsibility for ones life is more productive that being an activist. In this I wholly agree with him. However, he seems to suggest that activism makes no difference. An example is with the Civil Rights Movement. Although Sowell states that the movement had a positive effect he shows that when one looks at the data things got worse for black people after the rise of the movement. These data would include percentage of never married black women, which presently hovers around 70%- scary, proportion of black people on welfare, percentage of children born out of wedlock. One might ask why these statistics are important. There seems to be evidence to suggest that children born into stable two parents households flourish than others who don’t have this privilege. If I had the chance to ask Thomas Sowell a question, it would be- when is it right to demonstrate against a perceived evil? Never?

The other problem is with Black church services which see a lot of singing, dancing and shouting. It is an outlet for people to express their emotions. It also brings people together with its electricity. Sometimes for doing good in the community. I have experienced this kind of service. It has its strengths. I am a Mormon so I often experience the opposite as my normal. Hymn singing. Someone give a talk; calm as he or she develops a rational argument. Sowell seems to suggest the emotionally charged service is bad. I can understand it when such an argument is made against violent rap music. But church? Isn’t it just cosmetic?

Thank you for reading.

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