Intellectuals versus pseudo-intellectuals

Roger Scruton thinks relationships on the Internet are not as good as those in real life:

In real life, friendship involves risk. The reward is great: help in times of need, joy in times of celebration. But the cost is also great: self-sacrifice, accountability, the risk of embarrassment and anger, and the effort of winning another’s trust. […] I can avoid the risk and still obtain pleasure; but I will never obtain friendship or love.

When I relate to you through the screen there is a marked shift in emphasis. Now I have my finger on the button. At any moment I can turn you off. You are free in your own space, but you are not really free in mine, since you are dependent on my decision to keep you there. I retain ultimate control, and am not risking myself in the friendship as I risk myself when I meet you face to face.

This is a load of bollocks. As Norm Geras points out:

Scruton could have said something about: how you can make friends on the internet with people you otherwise would not have met; how you can then consolidate and extend these friendships offline; how, even if you don’t (because of distance, say), having electronic friends can be a rewarding experience in itself; how old (real-world) friends who live far apart can now be in touch with one another with much greater facility and regularity than formerly; how, the internet being (when all is said and done) part of the real world, friends can also cease to be friends because of what happens there; and how anyone whose friendships are wholly confined to the internet probably has problems aside from an addiction to their computer. But he doesn’t touch on any of this.

Indeed he doesn’t touch on any of this. Why not? I think the root cause is that Scruton is just not very clever.

Academic disciplines are either testable if their results are tested against reality, or non-testable if they are not. For example, civil engineering is testable because if you build a bridge and it falls down, you know you’re done it wrong. Computer programming is similarly testable; if there is any subtle flaw in the logic of your program, it won’t work (and bugs can be very subtle indeed). All science, with its requirement of falsifiability, is by definition tested against reality.

Practitioners of testable disciplines that are on the whole cleverer than practitioners of non-testable disciplines. There are two reasons for this. The first is that testable disciplines tend to attact cleverer people, and the second is that testable disciplines actually are a discipline: you’re continually testing your ideas and theories against reality, and reality disciplines your mind by telling you when you are wrong. You can’t bullshit nature; as Richard Feynman said “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

To consider whether practitioners of testable disciplines are more intelligent than those of non-testable disciplines, Paul Graham conducts a thought experiment:

Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they’ll be shot. Which group is more worried?

Graham also points to the Sokal Hoax:

We have some evidence here: the famous parody that physicist Alan Sokal got published in Social Text. How long did it take him to master the art of writing deep-sounding nonsense well enough to fool the editors? A couple weeks? What do you suppose would be the odds of a literary theorist getting a parody of a physics paper published in a physics journal?

What does this have to do with Scruton? If you read his bio, he seems never to have spent any time getting to grips with any testable discipline, instead he writes articles for newspapers, a job that doesn’t require any real understanding of the subjects one writes about.

So I hereby posit Cabalamat’s Rule of Intellectuals: a person can only be a true intellectual if they have mastered a testable academic discipline; if they haven’t but call themselves an intellectual anyway, they are instead a pseudo-intellectual bullshitter.

So for example, I would class Alan Kay and Peter Norvig as intellectuals, because of their work in the field of software, as well as their ability to make sensible public pronouncements on general topics.

To be fair to Scruton, he is not as bad as some in talking bullshit. Others have elevated it to an art form, using bullshit as a smoke screen so that it’s not easy for the uninitiated to tell whether it is in fact bullshit. Consider these examples taken from Richard Dawkins’ review of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.


If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.

One of these is by the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, the other is by a program designed to spew out impressive-sounding nonsense. Can you tell which is which?

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7 Responses to Intellectuals versus pseudo-intellectuals

  1. Luis Enrique says:

    I might consider, erm … testing this hypothesis by a proper sampling of intellectuals that work in non-testable and testable disciplines and seeing how smart they are. There are many sensible and interesting fields of human inquiry that are inherently untestable … you appear to imply that if somebody works (solely) on these subjects, they cannot be a genuine intellectual and I suppose by extension that there is nothing rigorous or interesting that can be said about non-testable questions (otherwise we’d find genuine intellectuals saying it).

    Has Norm Geras mastered a testable discipline? I don’t think he has. I can think of many people who have mastered a testable discipline who embarrass themselves when they air their opinions on, say, philosophy, politics and economics. If I had a pound for every time I’d come across a ‘real’ scientist spouting crap about economics, for example, I’d have enough for a weekend break in a European capital of my choosing.

  2. Neuroskeptic says:

    Heh. Quite right. Now Nietzsche – by your standards probably a pseudo-intellectual? – said something similar. It was… let me look it up…

    Science Furthers Ability, Not Knowledge – The value of having for a time rigorously persued a rigorous science does not derive precisely from the results obtained from it: for in relation to the ocean of the things worth knowing these will be mere a vanishing droplet. But there will eventuate an increase in energy, in reasoning capacity, in toughness of endurance; one will have learned how to achieve an objective by the appropriate means. To this extent it is invaluable, with regard to everything one will afterwards do, once to have been a man of science.” from Human, All Too Human

  3. steve says:

    You want to watch out, though: Engineers’ Syndrome can take their toll on students of the testable disciplines….

  4. cabalamat says:

    Now Nietzsche – by your standards probably a pseudo-intellectual?

    Well a lot of what he wrote was very unclearly worded, which is part of what I’m railing against.

  5. cabalamat says:

    There are many sensible and interesting fields of human inquiry that are inherently untestable … you appear to imply that if somebody works (solely) on these subjects, they cannot be a genuine intellectual

    I do imply that. I was making my case too strongly in the article, in that it’s perfectly possible for someone to be intelligent and have worthwhile stuff to say without having mastered a testable discipline.

    Though I still think it’s reasonable if the word “intellectual” is reserved for people who have proved their intellect by mastering a testable discipline.

    Has Norm Geras mastered a testable discipline? I don’t think he has.

    I don’t thnink so either — I wasn’t intending to insult him though.

    I can think of many people who have mastered a testable discipline who embarrass themselves when they air their opinions on, say, philosophy, politics and economics.

    Sure. But look at how many politicians embarrass themselves when talking about computing. (Actually, it’s less, because most polticians know they know damn all about computing.)

    (Incidently politics is, or should be, a testable discipline in that new policies should as a general rule be tested in different parts of the country to see if they work before being rolled out nationwide.)

  6. Neuroskeptic says:

    “Well a lot of what he wrote was very unclearly worded, which is part of what I’m railing against.”

    There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Nietzsche nevertheless. And by German philosophical standards he was very readable. Certainly compared to Kant or Hegel, although that’s not saying much. Also, you have to remember he was crazy, so give him some leeway.

  7. This is pure bollocks. You’ve turned the idea of an intellectual on its head, for starters. And this whole science and arts dichotomy is not only old news, its becoming tedious. When will we finally get beyond all these binaries and oppositions. You’d think someone would come up with a formula…

    What is it about “culture” that scares science so much — is it because scientists patently refuse to see their own assumptions and practices as culturally constrained?

    This whole concept of testability and falsifiability started out with Karl Popper, and has been significantly altered, amended and even made obsolete. But you’d have to be a historian and philosopher of science to know that. Do they qualify as “real” intellectuals?

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