The World of the Intellectual vs. The World of the Engineer

Timothy Ferris in Wired:

Being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts. Facts used to be scarce on the ground anyway, so it was easy to skirt or ignore them while constructing an argument. The wildly popular 18th-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose disciples range from Robespierre and Hitler to the anti-vaccination crusaders currently bringing San Francisco to the brink of a public health crisis, built an entire philosophy (nature good, civilization bad) on almost no facts at all. Karl Marx studiously ignored the improving living standards of working-class Londoners — he visited no factories and interviewed not a single worker — while writing Das Kapital, which declared it an “iron law” that the lot of the proletariat must be getting worse. The 20th-century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend boasted of having lectured on cosmology “without mentioning a single fact.”

Eventually it became fashionable in intellectual circles to assert that there was no such thing as a fact, or at least not an objective fact. Instead, many intellectuals maintained, facts depend on the perspective from which are adduced. Millions were taught as much in schools; many still believe it today.

More here. And here is a reaction from Massimo Pigluicci in Rationally Speaking:

“The world of the intellectual vs the world of the engineer” […] is a quasi incoherent rant about the evils of intellectualisms and the virtues of applied science. Ferris writes, I would argue as an intellectual, in one of the most intellectual of contemporary publications, about how the battle between intellectualism and science-engineering has been waged since the beginning of the printing press. The results are in – science/engineering won hands down – time to close the curtain on intellectualism.

Ferris engages in such a stereotypical piece of anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter (the sociologist who authored the classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life) could have used him as a poster boy. Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” Indeed, Hofstadter even identified the precise category of anti-intellectualism to which Ferris’ rant belongs: instrumentalism, or the idea that only practical knowledge matters and should be cultivated. In America, the attitude traces its roots to the robber barons of the 19th century, as exemplified by the attitude of Andrew Carnegie about classical studies: a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.”

More here.