Some thoughts on “Rise of the Thought Leader”

This is a great article on the corporatization of the intellectual, or really the origin of the “thought leader” by David Sessions. An illumination of Dan Drezner’s new book, the Ideas Industry, reviewer David Sessions outlines Drezner’s main arguments and connects them back to a Gramscian perspective on the social responsibility of the intellectual.

In doing so, Sessions sees Drezner extending and furthering Jacoby’s concerns about the lunchpail academic & professionalization of academic work into the construction of an entirely new “private” intellectual. This “thought leader” is imbued with the evangelist’s zeal, so to speak, setting forth ideologies from special perspectives that support or extend capital’s hegemonic influence.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I’m prepping to join faculty. Namely, what does it mean to be an intellectual in the modern academic environment? And, more importantly, what exact actions embody intellectualism in academia? A fair (if not overly glib) read of Jacoby is that the point where an “intellectual” becomes an “academic” is where their attention to their discipline or the broader human experience becomes “professionalized,” beholden to specific disciplinary foci, norms, and standards. A conversation that was public becomes a conversation in a clique.

Said, in the criminally-less-referred-to Representations of an Intellectual, provides essentially the same divide, but also suggests a significant set of affective states the intellectual should occupy. Self doubt and being in-exile are two critical components that I think Jacoby misses. Without these affective states, Jacoby’s critique is still biting but toothless. Sessions stabs towards these, noting the “skeptical and analytical” Chomsky and Nussbaum.

But, this is hardly right; it’s important to acknowledge they’re skeptical and analytical, even of their own work. That is, to be an intellectual is to take self-doubt seriously, but not as existentially disqualifying. From my perspective, an academic falls into this “thought-leader” behavior when they provide flimsy epistemological justifications, just narrow enough for them to stand on & that crumble right after the new numbers or contrarian conclusions fall out of their model. If their arguments are in service of plutocratic benefactors, as Drezner (appearing through Sessions) claims, the thought leader’s bespoke positional lens ought not (and often does not) stand up to serious scrutiny.

I also see this division between “academic” and “intellectual” as a product of a deepening critical-empirical divide, where many valid critical points are dismissed with a facile acknowledgement about simplifying assumptions & George Box’s totally overused maxim. The point of “all models being wrong” is not to justify the use of any model, rather that models should be judged by their usefulness, which is an inherently critical question!

For example, to whom does the assumption of independence in marginal response provide a benefit? Aside from the modeler, who wants to be able to use 90-year-old Fisherian estimators for regression analyses, the assumption that a treatment affects all people equally everywhere and that all responses are independent of one another and completely homogenous given sufficient controls… that’s a strikingly political assumption! Yet, the political meaning of this assumption eludes many quantitative/methodological analysts, who are still thoroughly entrenched in the eternal catfight amongst the (anti-)empiricists.

As someone who does do empirical, totally quantitative analysis, I still routinely acknowledge these issues as serious concerns. Of course, it sometimes is the case that allowing for violations of these assumptions yields no substantively different results in an analysis. But, it is the active awareness that manifests through self-doubt, model criticism, & a commitment to epistemological rigor that is the hallmark of a total empiricist. You need to do the legwork to validate these assumptions, if at all possible. The model you use stands atop its own theory, regardless of whether or not you’re aware of it.

That said, I’ve been wondering recently myself; as someone who’ll be finishing up and joining faculty in the coming months, what does it mean to be a successful intellectual academic when Uncle TED drives impact measures? I have no clue. But, I do know I anticipate it will be real tough to sell the species of self-doubt and criticism & think is needed here.

imported from: yetanothergeographer