Thursday, January 17, 2002

It must be nice to be Richard Posner. His book on Public Intellectuals is getting savaged. David Brooks says the book reads like a parody of Posner's trademark "Law and Economics" reasoning, and gets off the unforgettable zinger that "watching Posner try to apply economic laws to public debate is a bit like watching a Martian trying to use statistics to explain a senior prom." Alan Wolfe notes the irony that Posner, grand poobah of "Law and Economics", seems distressed, in this case, at the result of the market for punditry, and can think of nothing better to do about it than to overload that market with bizarre regulatory schemes of no obvious use. He also notes how strange it is that the tedious statistical exercises that form the basis of Posner's book somehow failed to name Fouad Ajami, Ian Buruma, Tony Judt, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Fareed Zakaria, among many others, as public intellectuals.

But no worries. To Posner, the criticism seems, to judge by his Slate diary, to be of no particular concern because he takes the fact that he is being criticized as validation of the work:

George Orwell once remarked that Rudyard Kipling had been incessantly criticized by intellectuals during his lifetime and after his death, and yet when the dust settled it was Kipling who was still being read while his critics had been forgotten. Negligible work rarely attracts much criticism; it's simply ignored. Only when a work gets under people's skin do they bother to criticize it, and the deeper under the skin it gets the shriller the criticism. Often the reason a work gets under one's skin is that it shakes one's faith in oneself, one's values, or one's career.

And so, it suffices in response, to point out that some of the people he criticizes in the book have said dumb things in the past that haven't panned out. His direct response, in toto:

Speaking of criticisms, I have been taking some knocks lately from reviewers of my most recent book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. They say it's impossible for anyone to assess public intellectuals en masse, as I tried to do, when the subjects about which they opine on talk shows and in op-ed pieces and their other venues range from culture to race to ecology to the economy to foreign affairs. But you don't have to be an ecologist to point out that if ecology professor Paul Ehrlich predicts in 1970 that by 1974 the United States may have to ration water and that by 1980 hundreds of millions of people will be starving to death because of overpopulation, there's something wrong with his ecology. You don't have to be a social scientist to realize that political scientist Robert Putnam is fooling himself when he contends that the "Saguaro Seminar" that he has organized is the key to restoring a sense of national community. Nor do you have to be a cultural historian to conclude that the literary critic Jacques Barzun is barking up the wrong tree in declaring the trend to informal dress in law firms and investment banks a symptom of the nation's decadence. When academics step outside the ring of critical fire that is one of the glories of the academic culture at its best, the risk of their falling flat on their faces is very great. And it doesn't require expertise in their fields to notice their horizontal posture.

And so his critics are dismissed by association, as defenders of Ehrlich, Putnam, and Barzun. We needn't even consider the possibility that Posner's critics have evaluated Posner's book on its own merits, and found that Posner himself, as an academic writing far outside the domain of his own specialties, has, in the case of this book, mixed together bogus statistical analyses with essays on unrelated topics into a kind of repetitious, poorly edited, half-baked stew which is, taken in sum, every bit as dumb as Ehrlich.

How nice.

Postscript: Posner's next entry had more of the same chest-thumping, describing critiques of the book as "the pounding I am taking for kicking some of these sacred cows", even though every critic I've seen has evaluated Posner's arguments, such as they are, on their merits, and only named the individuals he critiques.

There is one new substantive point --- he defends his list against charges of incompleteness by saying that he "was just trying to create an appropriate sample for a statistical investigation." If that were all he was trying to do, of course, he wouldn't have added dozens of people to his initial list because reviewers of the manuscript thought they belonged.

What's more curious is the statistical investigation he thought he was trying to do --- to compare press metions to academic citations, taking the latter as a metric of the merit of a pundit's thought. Which should give pause to Posner's friends on the right, who are fond in other contexts of saying that widely cited academics like Baudrillard aren't worth listening to because, they note correctly, their arguments are nonsense.


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