Does celebrity make intellectuals stupid?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 3 2002 7:09 PM

Does Celebrity Make Intellectuals Stupid?

A look through Richard Posner's data.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Chatterbox rang in the new year reading Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. The book has attracted some notice for its informal census of public intellectuals in America, which Posner numbers at 546 (he subsequently expanded that to 607). Alan Wolfe, in a New Republic review of the book that was full of misplaced fury, faults Posner's methodology, and comes up with various names that ought to have been on Posner's list, including Paul Berman, Andrew Delbanco, Jerome Groopman, Katha Pollitt, Sam Tanenhaus, etc., etc. (Wolfe himself is on Posner's list, as is, of course, Posner, a leading guru of the conservative "law and economics" movement who moonlights as a federal appellate judge.) But it isn't Posner's purpose to come up with a definitive list of intellectuals who comment regularly on public affairs. Rather, Posner wants to identify some trends among public intellectuals, and for that all he really needs is a decently large sample, which is what he's got. Obviously, the findings are far from scientific, despite Posner's laborious efforts at regression analysis. But they are suggestive, in a playful sort of way, and Chatterbox thinks they deserve attention. (In theory, Posner is supposed to have posted his data here, but just now the site appears to be under construction.)

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[Update, Jan. 5: The tables are there now. Click here  for Posner's data on 546 public intellectuals, and click here  for Posner's data on the expanded group of 607 public intellectuals.]

The thesis of Posner's book is that the reliability of public intellectuals has been harmed by two trends: the increasing specialization of academic life, on one hand, and the ever-growing media's insatiable demand for wise experts ("domes," as we called them when I worked at Newsweek) on the other. More and more academics are becoming public intellectuals, but fewer and fewer of them have acquired the breadth of knowledge that we associate with the gentleman scholars who interpreted American society for the common reader or broadcast audience in years past. (The ranks of academically unaffiliated intellectuals, Posner notes, have thinned out.) Of course, intellectuals have long been inept at retailing commonsensical advice to the polity; witness their voguish support for communism and fascism during the first half of the 20th century. And intellectuals' direct influence on the public has been negligible for at least the past hundred years. Still, Posner notes, public intellectuals do have substantial indirect influence through the press. And anyway, it's always fun to look at intellectuals through a sociological lens.

The first question you'll want answered is, "Which public intellectuals get the most media mentions?" Since the academics who get the most publicity are by definition the ones who are most famous—hence least likely to be overlooked by Posner—whatever flaws exist in Posner's public-intellectual census play a minimal role here. Posner's top 10 media domes are, in declining order:

Henry Kissinger (12,570 media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (12,344)
George Will (10,425)
Lawrence Summers (9,369)
William J. Bennett (9,070)
Robert Reich (8,795)
Sidney Blumenthal (8,044)
Arthur Miller—the law professor, not the playwright (7,955)
Salman Rushdie (7,688)
William Safire (6,408)

Of these 10, Reich, Miller, and Summers are the only ones who currently work full-time in a university setting, and Summers really shouldn't count because he became president of Harvard after the period in question. Thus Lesson 1: Even though the unaffiliated public intellectual is a vanishing breed, if you want to join the media-dome elite, you still will do better staying out of the academy. (Ex-professor, on the other hand, is a much better gambit; Chatterbox counts six here, plus Will was a faculty brat.) More surprising, Lesson 2 is that the Unaffiliation Principle extends to the most famous Washington think tanks, which exist entirely to get their scholars on television. Brookings, Heritage, and the American Enterprise Institute are all unrepresented here.

Posner is too polite to compile a list of the public intellectuals who get the fewest media mentions, so Chatterbox had to do it for him. Here's the single-digit club, in ascending order:

Morton White (two media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
George Lichtheim (three)
Edgar Friedenberg (four)
James Boyd White (six)
Herbert Packer (seven)
Isaac Rosenfeld (eight)
Dennis Wrong (nine)

Posner's methodology is here a somewhat larger cause for concern, since the counting of public intellectuals whose fame is marginal is a pretty subjective business. Most readers probably haven't heard of more than a couple of these people, several of whom are now deceased. (Death, Posner points out in his book, has a devastating effect on the quantity of your media mentions—most obviously, you can't get booked onto Nightline—though the ever-popular George Orwell ranks 11th in the top 100 media domes.) Somewhat better known are the 10 public intellectuals most-cited in scholarly journals:

Michel Foucault (13,238 scholarly citations between 1995 and 2000)
Pierre Bourdieu (7,472)
Jürgen Habermas (7,052)
Jacques Derrida (6,902)
Noam Chomsky (5,628)
Max Weber (5,463)
Gary Becker (5,028)
Anthony Giddens (4,910)
Stephen Jay Gould (4,891)
Richard Posner (4,321)

Of these, only Gould, Chomsky, and Posner are true media celebrities. Overall, Posner found that 18 of the top 100 media domes also ranked among the top 100 public intellectuals most-cited in scholarly journals. This disproves the cynical notion that a public intellectual's media fame invariably destroys his influence in the academy.

Since there's much more to consider in Posner's data, Chatterbox will follow up soon with a sequel.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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