|CONVERSATION: RICHARD POSNER|
May 9, 2002
MARGARET WARNER: The book is "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline." The author is Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of appeals for the 7th circuit. He's also the author of more than 30 other books on topics ranging from aging to AIDS to the Clinton impeachment.
Welcome, Richard Posner.
RICHARD POSNER: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
MARGARET WARNER: First, let's start out by defining your term. What do you mean by "public intellectual"?
RICHARD POSNER: Someone who uses general ideas, you know, the cultural tradition, political theory, economic theory to address issues of public concern and to address it... address themselves to the general audience.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, not a specialized or academic audience, but just the sort of educated public.
RICHARD POSNER: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: So what is your evidence that this whole field, this discipline is in decline?
RICHARD POSNER: We don't seem to have today the kind of public intellectuals who loomed so large in history. You go back to John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, and back to Socrates. But just in the 20th century, it's people like George Orwell and Edmund Wilson and Raymond Aron and Gershwin Russell, people who were... had real intellectual distinction, were outspoken, addressed many issues, off... sometimes a little offbeat or off... but you know, people who could... who had a distinctive voice.
Or often they had distinctive life experiences. Now, people like that-- highly intelligent people-- are almost all academics. Most of them are specialized academics, and they don't -- have neither life experiences nor the articulateness to address the general audience and comment on a wide range of current issues.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you say their greatest shortcomings are?
RICHARD POSNER: The issues that tend to arise are extremely complex or involve, you know, paralyzing uncertainties. They're not clear black and white issues. So they're hard to address. And on the other hand, the most intellectually ablest people tend to be narrow specialists, and they can't really port their specialized knowledge to some fast-breaking current crisis.
That doesn't prevent them from, you know, talking, so we've had a lot of... when I first got interested, extraordinarily uninformed academic commentary about the Clinton impeachment, which raised many complex issues that academics addressing them did not know. And we saw it with the election deadlock in 2000. And we're seeing it now in the wake of the September 11 attacks, a lot of uninformed comments about this extremely difficult political, military...
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do you think are the reasons for this? Is it the appetite of television?
RICHARD POSNER: In part, there's... it is easier for academics who want to moonlight as public intellectuals to get access, yes. Television and radio has a sensational demand. And especially when there is a crisis, something new... I mean, a crisis generally... yeah, it's anticipated, and that means the journalists aren't up to speed on it.
So there's a huge public appetite for commentary on the crisis. There is enormous television time to provide that commentary, and the journalists who don't have a specialized knowledge turn desperately to the academy for people who are thought to be able to speak with authority to these issues, but very often they're people of intellectual distinction maybe in some unrelated field and they are intelligent people-- very self- confident and they're glib, they think they are smarter than anybody else-- and so they offer their two cents' worth about issues about which they know very little.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of the reviews of your book have been critical.
RICHARD POSNER: I would say the majority of them have been quite negative, yeah.
MARGARET WARNER: And one of the things they've been critical of is even your notion that the whole area of intellectual debate and discourse should be subjected to the laws of economic analysis.
RICHARD POSNER: Well, I think when academics or anybody else go out into the media market to reach the public, they're engaged in economic activities, so there are people who are making a great deal of money, although I think the major incentive is to, you know, to sound off and express yourself, feel you have an influence.
MARGARET WARNER: And your major conclusion?
RICHARD POSNER: My major conclusion is that academic distinction does not translate in any automatic way into media celebrity. In fact, there's actually a negative correlation between how your scholarly distinction looked... you know, counting scholarly citations and your media mentions, your media celebrity. And that means it's a rather undiscriminating market. And understandably, the media aren't in a position really to identify the people who know the most about a subject.
And on the other hand, the public isn't really interested in the most scholarly exponent. Particularly, they want colorful people, people who take extreme positions, which are interesting dramatic people, people they've heard of.
MARGARET WARNER: If the consumers are the people who watch and read this and they find it challenging, interesting, stimulating, is there no value in that?
RICHARD POSNER: Well, there's a value and a disvalue. I mean, the value is it's entertainment. The disvalue is that a lot of this is a kind of solidarity- building or kind of prejudice- reinforcing. The tendency is people watch the public intellectuals who mirror their own views. They're not watching the people who challenge those views.
MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, you do have a remedy that you suggest to bring more accountability to this whole field.
RICHARD POSNER: Yeah. I document in the book the really extraordinary frequency of absurdly mistaken predictions and evaluations that famous public intellectuals make, and yet they go on doing their public intellectual routine. So there is no accountability.
It would be very nice if a custom emerged that people posted on some accessible Web site all their public utterances. I think it also would be good for these people who are... who are talking about political and social questions to reveal the way, you know, public officials are required to, the sources and amounts of their outside earnings.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally, you suggested a journal of retractions.
RICHARD POSNER: Maybe it's unrealistic in terms of human nature to have people say this: I predicted acts that didn't happen. You should know this, because I'm going to make future predictions, and you should be able to evaluate my... look at my track record, see if I'm worth believing.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard Posner, thanks very much.
RICHARD POSNER: Thank you.