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The Age of Wonkery

By Shlomo Maital

   In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, April 11, David Brooks supplies a crucial insight.

     Once the thinkers of the world were intellectual foxes. In Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, they had many many ideas and challenged all of them.

     Today? We have wonks.   They are hedgehogs. They have one BIG idea. And they sell it ferociously, regardless of the facts.  In truth — they have given up thinking. 

     As Goethe observed, thinking is better than knowing (i.e. foxes are better than hedgehogs),   but …looking is best of all. And wonks do not look (at the facts).   Nor think about their Pablum ideologies.

       So – we are doomed to live in the Age of Wonkery. Not too good for humanity.

       Here is how Brooks frames it:

“People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with. That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.   In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.”

Brooks does not say this but —   not only is President Trump a super-wonk but – he has peppered his so-called administration with similar super-wonks, who are not troubled by facts.   And in upcoming elections in France, Germany and elsewhere, we see rising political parties featuring wonkery at its extreme (e.g. get rid of foreigners, anyone not like us, that will solve our problems).

     What does this mean for thinking people? Continue to fight. Challenge unsupported ideas. Build on facts. Dig up the facts. Think through issues. And above all embrace complexity.   Wonks simplify…violating Einstein’s rule, simplify as much as possible – but not more so.   Life is complex. Truth is complex. It cannot be reduced to a single variable, a single formula.    

   Wonks succeed because people are confused by complexity and want simple formulae.   Don’t give in.   Embrace complexity as a way of embracing truth – and fight back.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
April 2017
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