Intellectuals and Experts – Problems? Or Solutions?

Full disclosure, this was written by my father Louis Walter Imholt a few years before he passed away. It is as true now as it was then. Perhaps almost more important now than it was then. By the way that isn’t my father in the picture. That is Fritz Zwicky, and look at my other posts for a rundown about Fritz and Spherical Bastards.

Intellectuals and Experts

Why Experts are Ignorant

Experts and Intellectuals appear and present opinions on a large number of subjects on which they are ignorant. It is particularly tragic when their opinion serves to limit future debate on a subject, as for instance the current global warming (oops, that’s now climate change) debate.

I need to warn you that this blog entry is partially a rant, but I feel qualified to do this since for a large part of my career I was an expert. Staying at the top of my game as a mainframe computer expert (Consultant Systems Engineer) took a good bit of study in the field. Besides my direct work, for many years I read a technical work and 8 or so magazines each week. Then I’d read technical manuals, proposals, project definitions, etc. I would constantly learn new computers, languages, software, and data-base methods. This is what leads to the ignorance for subjects outside my immediate area. After doing this 6 days a week, I was exhausted. In my newspaper I’d go the comics and sports page first; maybe to skip the others. What little spare time was available would go to my house and kids, then a James Bond novel or to Archie Bunker on television.

This same rut and 70 hour work-weeks apply to most ‘Experts’. What this means is that they can’t keep up on current events or politics. Then we add to the mix those experts who are also classed as ‘Intellectuals’. Most of this idea comes from Thomas Sowell’s excellent thought in his book “Intellectuals and Society”. He defines an intellectual as someone who works with an idea or opinion as his final product. University professors, critics, and expert consultants never need produce anything but the idea; and having produced it they move on never waiting to see an outcome. It may take as much intellect, study, and practice to be a neurosurgeon, but he is not an intellectual and typically lacks the time to present ideas.

Eric Hoffer’s Opinion

Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman and philosopher. His books were insightful and remain in print. During the height of his popularity (the 60s and 70s) he was interviewed in several hour long TV shows, twice by Eric Sevareid and twice by Bill Moyers. I can’t find current details and don’t even remember which of these shows it was, but his response on this subject made such a strong impression on me that I can still paraphrase his comments after 40 years.

The interviewer commented on Hoffer’s ‘seeming dislike’ of intellectuals. Hoffer first paused to clarify the current use of the term in government and academia. He defined that ‘Intellectual’ as someone who by virtue of his background (education, college, etc.), ancestry (parents or teachers), or position (expert or bureaucrat) feels he is more qualified to run my life than I am. Then he exploded; I don’t DISLIKE them, dislike does not begin to describe my feeling, I HATE THEM, I LOATH THEM, I DESPISE THAM.

Role of Experts

I don’t hold ENTIRELY with Hoffer’s attitude. I don’t mind that they think they could run my life better than I. I am slightly irritated when people like a boss’s wife take that position. I am inconvenienced when a someone like an administrative assistant at a church takes that position.

But major problems begin when that expert writes government laws or regulations… now it becomes do it their way of face fines, jail, etc. There are more problems with regulations, but that is for another blog.


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