If you think you can separate the wheat from the chaff with IQ tests and snazzy credentials, prepare to be sorely disappointed: because smart people with MAs and PhDs are often blinded by bias.
“The intellectual life has a certain spontaneous character and inner determination.
It has also a peculiar poise of its own, which I believe is established by a balance
between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas
—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.”
—Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1966)
I used to believe that all rigidly dogmatic people were knuckle-dragging idiots, and that all professors with PhDs were intellectuals. But life (and graduate school) have long since disabused me of these youthful delusions. The truth is far more messy and complicated, and far less comforting: dogmatists and intellectuals are, I’ve discovered, much to my chagrin, actually quite hard to differentiate. Truth be told, I frequently find it hard to tell them apart. After all, the dogmatic person can be, like the genuine intellectual, exceptionally bright and highly articulate; they can also be well-educated, well-read, and well-informed. As such, if you think—as does Steven Pinker—that you can separate the wheat from the chaff with IQ tests and snazzy credentials, prepare to be sorely disappointed. Smart people with MAs and PhDs are often blinded by bias.
I’ve only been able to find one discernible difference between dogmatists and intellectuals—a single telltale sign—though I’ll readily admit that it’s highly subjective: real intellectuals surprise you from time to time. They praise something you didn’t expect them to praise. They attack something you didn’t expect them to attack. And they change their minds occasionally. The same cannot be said of the dogmatic: they never surprise you. All to the contrary, the dogmatic person’s position on pretty much any subject is entirely predictable—indeed, tediously and nauseatingly predictable.
An old college buddy of mine is a case in point. He was always quite politically conservative, even when we were in undergrad, but he was an intellectual back then—first and foremost—and that made arguing with him till three in the morning thoroughly delightful, regardless of our differences. But arguing with him is no longer delightful. He’s become dogmatically neoconservative in middle age, and, as a consequence, conversation with him has become pointless, repetitive, and boring—despite the fact that he’s extremely well-read and highly intelligent. On good days, talking to him is like talking to an answering machine that answers all questions with one of ten prerecorded responses. On bad days, talking to him is like talking to a doctor who prescribes the same three prescriptions to all of his patients, all day long, regardless of what they say to him. He used to be a conservative intellectual. Now he’s just a conservative.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Photo courtesy of author.
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.