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Revisting Richard Posner's Decline of the Public Intellectuals Thesis
--Guest post by Paula Orlando, American University doctoral student.
Should it take a public intellectual to decide what a public intellectual actually should be? The literature on public intellectuals presents serious tensions regarding the differentiation between academics and public intellectuals as well as the understanding of the proper role that a public intellectual should play in society. In our doctoral seminar this week, we are discussing both the role of public intellectuals but also the nature of applied research and the challenges of research translation.
In Richard Posner’s much discussed 2001 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, he argues that public intellectualism in the United States has been deteriorating over the last decades and that this is due mostly to their academic overspecialization and lack of accountability. In Posner’s world public intellectuals should be independent thinkers who theorize on general matters of public concern rather than speak to an insular community of experts on very specific subjects, or worse, make pronouncements about the ‘wrong things’ or engage in the prediction mill.
If Posner is correct in asserting that today’s public intellectual is an overspecialized academic, it would seem reasonable to believe they are particularly accurate and insightful forecasters in their areas of expertise. However, according to Philip Tetlock’s study Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, most specialists perform worse in their forecasting of societal trends and political outcomes than if they simply assigned random outcomes to their predictions. Even in looking at predictions made only within their field of study, the experts were still no more reliable than non-specialists.
In a review at the Washington Post, Robert Boyton, on the other hand, regards Posner’s view as essentially anti-intellectual and incorrect in equating public intellectuals with a slightly higher level punditry, even if Boyton agrees with Posner’s central critique of the public intellectual’s lack of accountability. For Boyton, the public intellectual’s value lies in ideas and their contribution to society in the long term, even if they may not always be great predictors or manifest themselves in a linear pattern. Boyton in fact believes that the very reason why “the best philosophical ideas are so fascinating is that they are unpredictable.”
For those willing to enter the arena of public intellectualism, Amitai Etzioni provides his own ten commandments. He sets forth a vision where a public intellectual balances their willingness to illicit controversy and criticism, the number of subjects they address, and the audience they are hoping to reach. Etzioni sees the role as a “process” and cautions public intellectuals regarding their 15-minutes of fame. He recognizes the fickle nature of today’s media and the role that labeling plays in political discourse. His advice provides a roadmap for moving from the sometimes inaccessible nature of academic writing and issue generation to the more broad based and policy driven analysis that academic training can offer but has difficulty bringing into the realm of an educated though more generalized audience.
Drawing on Etzioni’s advice and an understanding of the pitfalls of using the platform of a public intellectual for predictions, public intellectuals should concentrate on using their specialized knowledge in an applied and accessible manner. Public intellectualism should entail applying knowledge in a transformative manner to benefit society but, at a bare minimum, it should involve translating specialized research in order to make it accessible to the general public.
--Guest post by Paula Orlando, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication. Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.
Posner, R. A. (2003). Public intellectuals: a study of decline: with a new preface and epilogue: Harvard Univ Pr. , pages 1-17 [PDF].
Boynton, Robert S. (2002, Jan. 20). "'Sounding Off,' a review of Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals," The Washington Post Book World. [HTML]
Menand, L. (2005). Everybody’s An Expert. New Yorker. [PDF]
Etzioni, A. (2010). Reflections of a Sometime-Public Intellectual. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43(04), 651-655. [PDF]
This storm rained electrons, shifted energy from the sun's rays to the magnetosphere, and went unnoticed for a long time.
- An international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of a "space hurricane" seven years ago.
- The storm formed in the magnetosphere above the North magnetic pole.
- The storm posed to risk to life on Earth, though it might have interfered with some electronics.
What do you call that kind of storm when it forms over the Arctic ocean?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/8GqnzBJkWcw" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Many objects in space, like Earth, the Sun, most of the planets, and even some large moons, have magnetic fields. The area around these objects which is affected by these fields is known as the magnetosphere.</p><p>For us Earthlings, the magnetosphere is what protects us from the most intense cosmic radiation and keeps the solar wind from affecting our atmosphere. When charged particles interact with it, we see the aurora. Its fluctuations lead to changes in what is known as "space weather," which can impact electronics. </p><p>This "space hurricane," as the scientists are calling it, was formed by the interactions between Earth's magnetosphere and the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_magnetic_field" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interplanetary magnetic field,</a> the part of the sun's magnetosphere that goes out into the solar system. It took on the familiar shape of a cyclone as it followed magnetic fields. For example, the study's authors note that the numerous arms traced out the "footprints of the reconnected magnetic field lines." It rotated counter-clockwise with a speed of nearly 7,000 feet per second. The eye, of course, was still and <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/for-the-first-time-a-plasma-hurricane-has-been-detected-in-space" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">calm</a>.</p><p>The storm, which was invisible to the naked eye, rained electrons and shifted energy from space into the ionosphere. It seems as though such a thing can only form under calm situations when large amounts of energy are moving between the solar wind and the upper <a href="https://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/releases/PR854520.aspx" target="_blank">atmosphere</a>. These conditions were modeled by the scientists using 3-D <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec10" target="_blank">imaging</a>.<br><br>Co-author Larry Lyons of UCLA explained the process of putting the data together to form the models to <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/space-hurricane-rained-electrons-observed-first-time-rcna328" target="_blank">NBC</a>:<br><br>"We had various instruments measuring various things at different times, so it wasn't like we took a big picture and could see it. The really fun thing about this type of work is that we had to piece together bits of information and put together the whole picture."<br><br>He further mentioned that these findings were completely unexpected and that nobody that even theorized a thing like this could exist. <br></p><p>While this storm wasn't a threat to any life on Earth, a storm like this could have noticeable effects on space weather. This study suggests that this could have several effects, including "increased satellite drag, disturbances in High Frequency (HF) radio communications, and increased errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation, and communication systems."</p><p>The authors <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">speculate</a> that these "space hurricanes" could also exist in the magnetospheres of other planets.</p><p>Lead author Professor Qing-He Zhang of Shandong University discussed how these findings will influence our understanding of the magnetosphere and its changes with <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/uor-sho030221.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">EurekaAlert</a>:</p><p>"This study suggests that there are still existing local intense geomagnetic disturbance and energy depositions which is comparable to that during super storms. This will update our understanding of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling process under extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions."</p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.