Friday, January 20, 2017

Am I An Anti-Intellectual? And Is Obama Just Too Damned Smart?

Today I saw an article in the Washington Post,  David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser:

Gelernter is a pioneer in the field of parallel computation, a type of computing in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously. The programming language he developed in the 1980s, Linda, made it possible to link together several small computers into a supercomputer, significantly increasing the amount and complexity of data that computers can process. Since then he has written extensively about artificial intelligence, critiquing the field's slow progress and warning of AI's potential dangers.

 In 1993, Gelernter was seriously injured by a letter bomb sent by Ted Kaczynski, the anti-technology terrorist known as the Unabomber.

 Beyond computer science circles, Gelernter has made a name for himself as a vehement critic of modern academia. In his 2013 book, “America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats),” he condemned “belligerent leftists” and blamed intellectualism for the disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values. He attributed the decline in American culture to “an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges.” (Gelernter himself is Jewish.)
That made me think, what exactly is an anti-intellectual?

The wikipedia article states: "Anti-intellectualism is hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible."

I don't think that really describes me, and I question whether, given his lifelong pursuit of advances in computer science, it really applies to Dr. Gelernter either.

Thomas Sowell offers a different definition:

Economist Thomas Sowell argues for distinctions between unreasonable and reasonable wariness of intellectuals. Defining intellectuals as "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas" as distinct from those who apply ideas practically, Sowell argues that there can be good cause for distrust of intellectuals. When working in their fields of expertise, intellectuals have increased knowledge. However, when compared to other careers, Sowell suggests intellectuals have few disincentives for speaking outside their expertise, and are less likely to face the consequences of their errors. For example, a physician is judged by effective treatment, yet might face malpractice lawsuits if he harms a patient. In contrast, a university professor with tenure is less likely to be judged by the effectiveness of his ideas and less likely to face repercussions for his errors:

By encouraging, or even requiring, students to take stands where they have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual training to seriously examine complex issues, teachers promote the expression of unsubstantiated opinions, the venting of uninformed emotions, and the habit of acting on those opinions and emotions, while ignoring or dismissing opposing views, without having either the intellectual equipment or the personal experience to weigh one view against another in any serious way.[3]
I like that definition, or opinion, or what have you.  I think most ideas that come out of the purely academic realms need to be approached with a degree of mistrust. (Just like I think most of Silicon Valley's claims of creative disruption should be examined skeptically) I don't really think that qualifies as anti-intllectual though.  I think that is healthy skepticism and is in fact something that should be taught in school. 

I can't speak for Dr.  Gelernter but I am give myself a pass on this one.

Second question - Is Obama just too damned smart?

This is legitimate. 

Yesterday I am listening to NPR and they are discussing Obama's legacy and political polarization.  The host at one point asks the guest (again I am not making this up) "Is it possible that one of President Obama's problems is that he is so intellectual, that he so thoroughly examines a problem, that after he makes up his mind he can't see how anyone can possibly disagree with him.  That if they do disagree it must be malicious in intent"

Te guest of course responds, "Yes, you've hit the nail on the head" or something similar.  Now this isn't the first time I have heard this argument advanced, and being widely acknowledged as a moron, I usually just accept it and move on.  But this article on Gelernter got me thinking - If this was a Republican President this wouldn't be looked at as some sort of advanced intellectual process leading the  President to undoubtedly correct conclusions; No, it would be seen as a sign of intellectual rigidity unworthy of the leader of the free world. 

Just sayin'...

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