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The Science of Intellectual Tribalism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump's science adviser." -- Washington Post, Jan. 18

Um. Well, huh.

For those unfamiliar with David Gelernter, he essentially created parallel computing, which sounds like witchcraft to me, but I'm told it's a really big deal. He was also one of the first people to see the internet coming, in his 1991 book "Mirror Worlds." Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, described Gelernter as "one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time." Ted Kaczynski -- aka "the Unabomber" -- agreed, which is why he maimed Gelernter with a letter bomb in a 1993 assassination attempt.

Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale and has degrees in classical Hebrew, has written books and articles on history, culture, religion, artificial intelligence and philosophy. His acclaimed paintings don't do too much for me, but that's probably because I'm a bit of Philistine about these things.

Regardless, saying that Gelernter is "fiercely anti-intellectual" is a bit like saying Tiger Woods is fiercely anti-golf.

So what on earth could the Washington Post mean with that headline?

Science reporter Sarah Kaplan gives a few clues. First, Gelernter is a fierce detractor of Barack Obama and has "made a name for himself as a vehement critic of modern academia." True enough, I guess. Also, he has "expressed doubt about the reality of man-made climate change." The evidence provided for this assertion is a bit tendentious, but we'll let it pass because I don't think this is primarily about climate change.

It has to do more with two things: liberal tribalism and the guild mentality of a certain subset of the scientific community. There's a long progressive tradition in America to think that intellectuals must be liberal, and therefore intellectualism equals liberalism.

Indeed, Kaplan seems a bit bedeviled by this point. The headline of her story says Gelernter is anti-intellectual. The first sentence notes that Gelernter has "decried the influence of liberal intellectuals on college campuses." A few paragraphs later, Kaplan suddenly informs us that his "anti-intellectualism makes him an outlier among scientists."

If you believe that intellectualism requires being loyal to a certain political agenda, this all makes some sense. The problem is that decrying the influence of liberal intellectuals is hardly synonymous with rejecting intellectualism itself.

What Kaplan really seems to be getting at is that Gelernter is one of the few major intellectuals out there today who is critical of the intellectual establishment, which acts as a class or guild.

She reports that "Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hadn't heard of Gelernter until Tuesday." The horror!

Rosenberg adds that Gelernter is "certainly not mainstream in the science community or particularly well known. ... His views even on most of the key science questions aren't known. Considering the huge range of issues the White House needs to consider, I don't know if he has that kind of capability."

Translation: If I don't know him, he just can't be that important -- or smart.

There are scientists whom science reporters know and go to for quotes. The Union of Concerned Scientists, historically a very politicized outfit, is a rich source of such pithy scientists. More broadly, the world of scientists involved in public policy is a very small subset of the world of science, and -- as with almost every other profession and industry -- a certain guild mentality develops among its members. As a result, they become inclined to say, in effect, "Back off, this is our turf."

It was this phenomenon that my old boss (and thoroughgoing intellectual) William F. Buckley had in mind when he said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard Law School.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a polymath and best-selling author, is another maverick intellectual who has little use for what he calls the "Intellectual Yet Idiot" class that trades on its elite credentials to impose a kind of groupthink on what is permissible to say or believe.

It takes a lot of intellectual firepower and self-confidence to declare that the intellectual emperors have no clothes, so it's no surprise that neither Gelernter nor Taleb have been accused of being excessively humble. Their brashness can be off-putting to some and threatening to those invested in the monopoly of authority held by certain groups. But that doesn't make them wrong -- or anti-intellectual.

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