First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Groupthink and the Intellectual Elite
One of the most amusing things about the movement to force immigrants to speak only English is that we have a much more serious language problem on our hands -- and it's centered in the universities.
There are whole departments where English has been effectively banned and replaced with "Theoretics," a language designed so that the speaker can make the listener feel stupid without the speaker actually having to be smart.
I will give you a genuine example taken from a course description at a real university in the United States. Keep in mind that this is designed to be read by the public -- by the students who are deciding whether to take the course.
And please, don't be disturbed if you can't understand anything being said. Your noncomprehension is the purpose of Theoretics. If you understand any part of this, it means that the writer failed.
I will offer a translation afterward. So when you get confused, just skim until you start recognizing the language as English. That will be me talking again.
A Passage in "Theoretics"
"Narratives of Race
"This course takes as its central object the idea of race. Race is understood as a social construct that designates relations of structural difference and disparity. How race is treated is a crucial issue in this course. It is in this question of "the how" that the term narrative becomes salient. The term narrative intentionally focuses attention on the material practices through which we have come to define race as a social construct. This terminology, "narratives of race," spotlights an interest in investigating the historical events and visual and verbal images employed in the linking, patterning, sequencing, and relaying our ways of knowing race and its social relations. Implicated in the construction of race is its production and deployment of the moral and intellectual values that our academic disciplines bear. In considering such values as part of the investigation, this course includes careful comparative analyses of the ways in which the disciplinary systems of ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and politics are used in the making and remaking of the academic and social grammars of race. Thus the analysis necessarily includes an intertextualization of the several academic disciplines engaging the question of race."
Here is the translation: "This is a course about what we mean by 'race,' particularly at the university." All the rest is smoke, endlessly paraphrasing this slender meaning.
Why didn't they just say that? Because the unreadable language is a code that reveals the hidden message:
"In this class, there will be no content. You will not have to understand anything about the real world. You just have to have all the correct opinions -- which you already know -- and then learn to speak Theoretics fluently and parrot back to the teacher the same empty language that you see here in this course description. Anyone who thinks for himself or disagrees with the teacher will be abused and ridiculed. When you have achieved complete incomprehensibility, with the right attitude, you will pass the course."
I am being sarcastic, of course -- but I am not being inaccurate. The American intellectual elite has been almost completely overwhelmed by a revolution that requires our smartest people to turn off their brains, accept the received opinions, and do nothing to disturb the ruling class.
Do you think I'm exaggerating?
It's Worse Than We Thought
It used to be that this sort of nonsense only ruled the English departments and the ideological "studies" departments -- you know, Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, where you are not educated but indoctrinated. The language of Theoretics allowed the professors in these areas to reject such concepts as "fact" and even "text" (though the word is always used) so that they could sound really smart without ever having to check their ideas against the real world.
They seized control of these departments quite simply: Since university faculties get to decide who gets tenure, they merely blackballed anybody who wasn't fluent in Theoretics. They ended up, therefore, with a faculty almost entirely composed of true believers (or expert fakers) in the vast airy nothings that they "teach."
But we could always soothe ourselves with the knowledge that there were departments where such nonsense could not possibly succeed. Engineering. Mathematics. Physics.
Especially Physics. Because physics is the field of Newton and Einstein. Physics describes the real universe, at its smallest and largest scales -- from quarks to quasars.
Everything in physics is predicted through mathematics, and then checked against the real world. It is the purest of sciences.
But something happened in the past two decades. Groupthink took over physics as well.
Lee Smolin is a physicist, involved in the thick of some of the knottiest problems in the field. He is also involved in the social world of physicists, which is where the problems arose.
Smolin's brilliant book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next is the best-written overview of the current state of physics I seen. It is worth reading merely to get up to speed on what the issues in physics are, from someone who knows what he's talking about.
Not that you will understand everything he talks about. Let's face it -- few of us have the math skills to do any of this science. But Smolin's explanations are clear enough that even if you have to skim here and there, you can trust him to come back to earth within a paragraph or so and make it clear enough for you to understand what it all means, in English.
In short, this book is the opposite of Theoretics. Smolin has set aside the legitimate jargon of his field and written in plain English, and anybody who has remained alert to contemporary science will be able to understand most or all of this book.
But along with the overview of the current state of the field, Smolin has also created a critical memoir of the way one interesting theory -- String Theory -- became an ideology and then a virtual religion, until it now dominates the field of physics so thoroughly that it is only just barely possible to point out that it is not proven and probably is not true.
I'm not going to try to duplicate Smolin's brilliant achievement by trying to summarize what String Theory is -- honestly, you need to read this book for the science alone.
Instead, I'm going to talk about how the social group of String Theorists took over the physics world.
Originally, it was just a handful of scientists working on the cutting edge of a strange approach to the Grand Unified Theory -- the attempt to discover how gravity relates to the other three Forces of physics (electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear).
These guys were legitimate scientific heroes -- that is, they pursued their ideas despite the fact that they were getting little or no funding. Because of the way science works in the American university, the lack of prospects for grant money meant that they couldn't even get tenure. They sacrificed in order to follow up on a very, very promising line of inquiry.
Then, all of a sudden -- Smolin isolates the six-month period in which it happened -- a few leading professors suddenly declared that String Theory, instead of being a weird backwater, was Where It's At.
Overnight, those untenured recluses were the most important guys in the field.
Well, fads come and go in every discipline. But this time something strange and different happened. String Theory very quickly became, not the hottest field, but the Only Game In Town.
Smolin charts it very carefully. Within a very short time, the only young graduate students who were getting prestigious job offers were the ones working on String Theory. It was harder and harder to get any papers published in the peer reviewed journals unless you were working on String Theory.
Smolin recognizes -- because this is not just a brilliant book, but a profoundly honest one -- that his own reticence to get involved with String Theory was more a matter of personality than judgment. He simply isn't the kind of person who gets on the bandwagon. If everybody is flocking here, then he'll be over there.
But as he began hearing that the String Theorists had proven that they could get non-infinite results in their math (one vital test of a physics theory is that your answers are finite numbers), he began to get excited about the possibilities that String Theory offered to the area he was working on. And for a time, he dabbled in it.
Until, with a shock, he came up against a strangely unmentioned fact.
No one had actually done the math.
They were doing math, of course, all the time -- pages and pages of it, equations so long that students were writing them in tiny lettering on artists' notebook paper just so they could fit. But the key mathematics, the reality check, had only been done to the "first approximation," which meant that nobody had any idea whether any of this stuff actually described the real world.
It wasn't until relatively late in the game that somebody announced they had proven it to the second approximation -- but even with this, it was only a small subset of String Theory that had been worked out this far, and not the most productive part.
This came as a shock to Smolin -- and everyone else who noticed it -- because nobody had pointed out that String Theorists had not done their homework.
Everybody was so enthusiastic about playing in the String Theory sandbox that everybody took it for granted that its utility had already been proven. But it hadn't. It still hasn't. In fact, every indication right now is that it probably never will be.
Because as far as anyone can tell, all the talk of 23 dimensions (or maybe only ten -- or is it eleven?) tidily folded in on themselves (which is why we can't detect them) refers to nothing in the real universe.
Here's what was happening: Every time String Theory looked like it might be predicting something that could be tested in the real world, it turned out that the particles it predicted didn't exist. So the String Theorists simply changed the assumptions about the sizes of the particles to put them in the range that is undetectable by any of the existing machines.
In other words, it was functioning like a millennialist religion that is desperately trying to explain why the Second Coming didn't happen on the appointed day. The day keeps getting pushed back, farther and farther, until finally everybody realizes that this isn't a revelation, it isn't truth, it's a wish. A hope.
In real science, if your theory is only able to stand up against the evidence by constantly inventing new reasons why the evidence can't be seen, you've got a problem.
Furthermore, if you have a theory which, by just changing this or that, can describe any one of millions of different universes, you have basically given up on science and moved into a different camp -- the tent meeting of faith.
Nothing against tent meetings or faith. They just aren't science.
We even have leading String Theorists saying, in effect, "Because String Theory gives us no way to describe why the universe functions as it does, we can only conclude that the universe we live in is a random event. We happen to live in the universe that happened to produce physicists, and so all we're studying is the accidental rules of this universe, when there could just as easily have been any of a million -- or an infinite number of -- different rule sets that were just as valid."
As Smolin points out, that is a declaration that science is over. Because if the rules could be anything, then there's no point in trying to discover what they are; in effect, there are no rules. Calling it "random" is just the atheist's way of saying "The universe is this way because God made it so, only there is no God." There's simply no room for science in that picture.
How did this happen to physicists? Remember, these are the people with the sharpest mathematical minds. The no-nonsense guys who don't put up with any ideas that can't be tested. How did the whole field become dominated by a theoretical approach that has resulted in very nearly (though not entirely -- Smolin bends over backward to be fair) nothing?
It's as if the entire world of physics -- and it's the world, not just America -- went on sabbatical for two decades. Only on the fringes of the field has anything been happening -- and it's been happening with very little grant money, because everything was getting sucked into the maw of String Theory.
You couldn't get tenure if you weren't a String Theorist. You couldn't get grant money. You couldn't get published. You couldn't get a doctorate -- except at the fringes of the field.
So the real work has been done by scientists living in poverty, working virtually alone, or funded by their own money. Only recently have some of them began getting attention for work that may actually describe the real world. It's a shameful thing when one ideology becomes so dominant that it effectively shuts the door to any other approach.
It happened because of groupthink. It's the same phenomenon that happened among pro-Communist leftists in America during the 1930s and 1940s, that allowed them to swallow Stalin's flip-flops about Hitler (now we hate him, now he's our buddy, now we hate him again), while still considering themselves to be intellectuals.
It's the same phenomenon that I watched sweeping through English departments at universities, first in the form of Deconstructionism, and then expanding to include Multiculturalism until it finally became "Literary Theory." I was appalled when that last change happened, because the meaning of "literary theory" used to embrace all the different approaches to literature -- but now it means only one particular theory, and it's perhaps the most useless one ever to exist, since its central tenet is that literature is nothing but the culture talking to itself, in which case, one might wonder, what's the point of talking about it?
I'll quote the same Oregon State University definition of Groupthink that Smolin quoted:
Groupthink members see themselves as part of an in-group working against an outgroup opposed to their goals. You can tell if a group suffers from groupthink if it:
1. Overestimates its invulnerability or high moral stance,
2. Collectively rationalizes the decisions it makes,
3. Demonizes or stereotypes outgroups and their leaders,
4. Has a culture of uniformity where individuals censor themselves and others so that the facade of group unanimity is maintained, and
5. Contains members who take it upon themselves to protect the group leader by keeping information, theirs or other group members', from the leader.
As Smolin says, "This does not match up one-to-one with my characterization of the culture of string theory, but it's close enough to be worrying" (p.287).
What worries me is that it matches up very, very closely with department after department in the American university, including the creative arts and the soft sciences, and with our media elites, and with both political parties.
We still talk about "American individuality" but when I look around me, I can see how in my lifetime the very people who claimed to be revolting against "the Establishment" have become a far, far more rigid Establishment themselves. And now they bring all the fervor of a witch hunt to destroy their enemies -- the "outgroups" that they demonize.
In Guilford County, we see it on both sides of the ludicrous "race issue" where the white racists see every action by black county commissioners as racism, and the black racists see every action by white county commissioners as racism, without anybody being able to recognize that sometimes the people who oppose you aren't necessarily the devil.
We see it in national politics, where the critics of the Bush administration froth at the mouth as they attack everything that Bush does -- and everything he doesn't do. He's the worst president ever because he didn't "do what it took" to stop North Korea and Iran from getting nukes, and he's the worst president every because he did do what it took to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
But the right wing is just as bad -- everyone who thinks abortion should be legal is a baby-killer; everybody who thinks assault weapons should be banned and concealed weapons are a danger is an enemy of freedom. The slightest deviation from the party line is punished.
There Is Hope for Science
Smolin's book is actually quite optimistic. He points out several very promising avenues of post-String Theory research. He is generous to those whose careers have been subsumed in the String Theory groupthink and welcomes them to begin branching out and exploring other approaches. He holds out hope primarily because physics is a science, and the kind of people who become physicists won't be content to keep going around in circles forever.
They will recognize the reality check, and soon. The facade of perfect unity is crumbling.
People are point out that physicists who dress themselves in String Theory are, in fact, pretty darn near naked.
But what about the other disciplines?
Students who read course descriptions like the ones I quoted at the beginning of this essay are becoming cynical. They recognize when somebody's blowing smoke in their faces. More and more, the smartest students are simply turning away from these disciplines. They are becoming the refuge of the frightened incompetent -- the students who are desperately afraid that somebody will find out that they are not really very smart at all. If they can just master the language of Theoretics, then regular folks won't understand them, so they'll have to believe they're smart!
What do you do then, when you find your department filling up with the weakest, most timid students at the university? How long before the emptiness of your own rhetoric disgusts even you, and you throw it all against the wall and start speaking English again, and checking your ideas against the real world?
In physics, it has only taken twenty years -- in another ten, String Theory will almost certainly be behind us, a nearly-forgotten and slightly-embarrassing episode on the way to real post-quantum physics. That's because even when they were doing something ultimately useless, everybody doing String Theory was actually brilliant.
It will take longer for Theoretics to die, because most of the people getting on the bandwagon now aren't all that bright, relatively speaking; then again, when most of the genuinely smart people aren't in your group, eventually it's going to collapse.
Kind of the way Communism did in Russia in 1989. Poof -- and the monster is gone.
But look at all the corpses it made while we still thought it was real.
There is such a thing as reality. Even in English Departments, and Women's Studies, and African-American Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies, there is a real world, and eventually, if your descriptions of it don't match up with that real world, you will wind up like millennarian prophets whose messiah never showed up -- without followers, except for the most rabid true believers who never make reality checks at all.
Eventually, the thousands of dissertations and "scholarly" papers written in Theoretics will be looked at as a historical curiosity, like Piltdown Man and Aether and the Philosopher's Stone. Tourists -- only a few -- will look at the artifacts and say, "People actually believed this? They took it seriously?" And the docent will smile benignly and say, "Not just anybody -- it was the most educated who were most deceived."
What Can We Do?
To paraphrase a great country song: Parents, don't let your children grow up to be college students.
But if you must let them get their meal ticket punched, then before you let them go to the university, inoculate them. Show them passages written in Theoretics. Decode them together. Point out how ridiculous they are. Prepare them so that whenever someone starts speaking to them in this kind of obfuscatory language, they'll laugh.
Ridicule is the only answer to intellectual pretension. Since, over time, the participants in Groupthink invariably end up being only the most frightened and insecure, ridicule makes them panic. As long as they feel their group around them, they still act like a mob -- so that many a student and many a dissident professor still feels the pain of the witch hunt. But when the scorn becomes pervasive enough, the mob evaporates, and all its former members pretend that they never belonged, they never believed.
We ordinary citizens need to make them irrelevant and treat them with the scorn they deserve. They are not, in fact, smarter than we are -- the reverse is more likely to be true. They have been educated in falsehood, which makes them more ignorant than the uneducated.
Who Are the Real Intellectuals?
If you're really smart -- a genuine intellectual -- then you will be able to communicate effectively, especially with people who disagree with you. (In physics, the language used is mathematics; but in most fields, it is the native tongue of the people.)
That's not a very lofty test, is it? But Smolin passes it, brilliantly. While a vast number of people who pride themselves on how smart they are fail it every single day.
We have school administrators who lost their hold on English long ago, and simply can't speak in language that ordinary citizens can understand. Yet these people decide how our children will be taught -- why aren't we laughing at their obvious, self-demonstrated incompetence?
We have university professors, art critics, artists, political theorists, economists, psychologists, people of high repute in almost every field, who have retreated into Groupthink so far that they literally can no longer test their ideas against reality. Yet people still act as if their opinions and predictions matter.
But after decades of dominance by the Groupthinkers, the first light of dawn is now visible on the horizon. A new generation is simply uninterested in joining their club.
The best writers aren't writing to please their professors.
The best artists aren't taking their classes or applying for their grants.
The best young office-seekers are sickened by the Groupthink and desperate to find sensible real-world solutions to real problems instead of joining either of the two teams of semi-insane people called "parties."
The best teachers let the words of the education theorists pour over them like rain and then get on with their work in the real world.
Here's how Smolin describes the ethics that promote real science:
1. If an issue can be decided by people of good faith, applying rational argument to publicly available evidence, then it must be regarded as so decided.
2. If, on the other hand, rational argument from the publicly available evidence does not succeed in bringing people of good faith to agreement on an issue, society must allow and even encourage people to draw diverse conclusions (p. 301).
I don't know how that sounds to you, but to me, it comes like a breath of fresh air. I want to print up cards with those two statements on them, and hand them out to people who are ranting about how those who disagree with them are evil and have the worst possible motives and should be fired from their jobs.
Let's have another go at how we recognize true intellectuals:
They read widely and constantly, especially in subjects they did not study in school.
They enjoy civilized discussion with people whose ideas are not identical to their own and they change their minds when presented with better ideas.
They turn away from pretension and judge other people's intellectual ability, not by the conclusions they believe in, but by the thought processes by which they reached those conclusions.
Intellectuals like this really do exist. I personally know seven -- no, eight -- no, nine of them who are currently teaching at American universities. And I've read the publications of perhaps a dozen more.
Of course, I have met hundreds of professors and read the publications and speeches of many more than that. The percentage of intellectuals is not high in academia, but it's also not non-existent.
I also know dozens of genuine, first-rate intellectuals who are not in academia, most of whom do not have advanced degrees, some of whom never went to college at all. But they pass the test. They are a joy to be with. I learn from them all the time. I hope that sometimes they learn from me.
Meanwhile, when you see them speaking or writing in Theoretics, laugh -- but remember that they're only doing it because they used to be admired for it. The fashion is passing and they haven't realized it yet, like fifty-year-olds who are still strutting in clothes that were in vogue back when they were in their twenties. You still wear that? Oh, how ... nice.
Just make sure that we're not falling for a new intellectual fashion just as blindly as they did.
Lee Smolin. The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.) 392 pp., $26.00.
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