Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Public intellectuals

Philip Matthews at the Christchurch Press asked me for comment on the role of public intellectuals in New Zealand.
He used a well-chosen excerpt from the email below. Here are the parts for which there wasn't room in last weekend's paper.
“Public intellectuals have to be good academic all-rounders. The best ones combine deep specialist knowledge of their own research area with broad and voracious interest in work outside their main field. They then draw the links between findings in their own specialist areas and those from other fields to provide research-informed analysis both of current policy and of the general state of the world. Denis Dutton exemplified the public intellectual. I’m not a particularly good one.”

“Anybody jumping into policy debates, public intellectual or not, has to have a pretty thick skin. Even if your analysis is entirely correct, somebody will hate the policy conclusion and yell at you about it in Letters to the Editor, on Twitter, or elsewhere. Most policy preferences are not evidence-based but come from deeper affiliations and self-conceptions. I think most people who stick their necks out understand this and can sort informed and serious critique from the noise. The risk for the public intellectual is more when those folks’ colleagues or bosses cannot tell the difference between serious critique and the Twitter mob and consequently panic too quickly about any public controversy.”

“I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m very happy with the support I get at The New Zealand Initiative. I was always supported by the Economics Department at Canterbury when I took on more of a public intellectual role. But in academia, that might be more exception than rule. Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily was a daily read for me while I was a graduate student in Virginia, half a world away from Christchurch. But it seemed underappreciated at Canterbury, and even unknown to a lot of the people who worked there.”

“Academia should serve as a repository of knowledge, as a generator of new knowledge, and as transmitter of both of those both to students and to the broader public. The current university funding model, through the Performance Based Research Fund, can do a decent job in encouraging the generation of new knowledge, but I think that that has come at the expense of the other two functions. A lot of what we have known about the world is being forgotten as academics specialise ever more deeply into their particular niches. It’s what is needed to land articles in the very top journals, but our history of thought matters too. And while the government has told the universities that it wants funding to recognise research’s impact, by which it means research’s effect in helping to improve the country and the world, it would be pretty surprising if PBRF panels did not choose to interpret ‘impact’ as meaning citation counts in journals few people read.”

“I also think New Zealand’s media does a fine job in supporting the country’s public intellectuals. The worst fate for a public intellectual isn’t having people angry about your ideas, it’s having the ideas be ignored. Academics who know how to write for a broader audience do not really have that hard a time in getting their ideas out into the public arena.”


  1. Makes sense to me, but it'll never happen. The ICC, like all bureaucracies, has zero understanding of incentives. Why use a gnat (that works) when a sledgehammer (that doesn't) is available?

  2. As I as I can tell the requirement for being a "public intellectual" is the belief that you have a comparative advantage in everything. A sad assumption, especially from people like Paul Krugman who really should know better. As a Mr Smith pointed out many years ago, specialisation and the division of labour underlies growth and this applies as much to knowledge as any other economic good. But it does mean that we know more about less and thus we are able to talk, based upon actual knowledge, about very little. A point that runs counter to the very idea of being a "public intellectual". I can't help thinking that much of the public debate on topics would improve if "public intellectuals" remembered this point.

  3. Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily was a daily read for me also - it was great.

  4. You know nothing, Paul Walker. It also requires a willingness to answer the phone or reply to emails.

  5. Much though it pains me to say it, I tend to agree with Deputy. Too many of those quoted in Matthews' article are characterised by a willingness (indeed, eagerness) to speak out on matters that are a million miles from their areas of intellectual expertise. That's not being a public intellectual---public loudmouth would be a better description.

  6. Oh sure.

    And imagine how much worse it would be if universities started setting KPIs for their press people targeting mentions of academics' names. Heck, they might even start asking economists to write press releases on the economic importance of, say, jandals.

  7. "I tend to agree with Deputy"

    I don't believe I just read that!! I need to go and have a lie down.

  8. Exactly!!! Shit you should never do.