One of the books that Thomas Frank references in Listen, Liberal is Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds: a Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives. I’ve requested the book, but I know what it is about. He argues that the “intellectual class” is really a system that constrains thought. This is my experience. In fact, getting a PhD is not about showing that the student has reached some intellectual height; it is about proving that they are a member of the tribe.
One could use this idea to argue against global warming, “Everyone is involved in group think and can’t break out of it.” But I know this isn’t the case because I saw the consensus on global warming grow and it wasn’t like that at all. Acceptance of the theory accumulated with the data. But there is another issue when it comes to global warming. It’s just science and it spans many different fields. Everyone has and had a big incentive to find data that broke the theory. Instead, what you find on the denial side is cherry-picked data and conspiracy theories. So the issue doesn’t really need to be discussed regardless.
But the way a PhD trains a mind is not by making sure that it believes the currently accepted theories of the science. It trains a mind to think in the same way. Consider a theoretical case of a department of sociology where no one did field work. Everyone there only studied their science by looking at how student volunteers interacted. A graduate student who was determined to live at a retirement community for a year to study the people there just wouldn’t get a degree. It wouldn’t be because the faculty were afraid of what the student might find. It just wouldn’t be seen as sociology. And from a practical standpoint, who would the thesis adviser be?
We’ve seen something very much like this in the field of economics where the Chicago School determined somewhere along the way that their models were more important than reality. And that would have been perfectly okay. I’m all for useless science in the same way I’m for art or any other creative activity. But artists don’t go to Washington and pontificate about how there will be hyperinflation unless massive cuts are made to Social Security. It is not a coincidence that Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty did not go to the University of Chicago. If they had, they would have washed out or been co-opted by the hive mind.
I’ve been in academia enough to know that this is true. So Thomas Frank’s book has real resonance for me. Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is where he compares the people who FDR surrounded himself with (the “Brain Trust”) and those who Obama surrounded himself with. No one doubts that in both cases, these people are brilliant. But FDR’s geniuses came from different places. Obama’s (and Clinton’s before him) were all from the same place (generally, the Ivy League). And so whereas FDR got advice from people with different experiences, Obama does not. Obama gets advice from people who have all done very well by our “meritocratic” system and so see no cause for alarm.
I often marvel that I got a PhD. But I know how I did it: I am capable of seeming very normal for years at a time. Eventually, the truth will out. So they blew it. But even still, I didn’t go to the Ivy Leagues, even though I know I could have. I think there is something wrong with smart people who make that kind of boring choice.
Of course, for the people who have pursued that kind of life, it just makes sense. They see themselves as the best and so they want to surround themselves with other people who are “the best.” But instead, they end up surrounding themselves with people who think in a very similar way. And the experience of putting them all together makes them think even more strongly that the way they think is the only way to think.
It makes me think that the best thing that could happen to humanity is what happens at the end of The Psychic Parrot, where all the best and brightest are killed. We might (and I do me might) lose some intellectual firepower, but at least we’d have more diversity of thought.