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Intellectuals and Society.

Intellectuals and Society, by Thomas Sowell, 398 pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-46501948-9, New York, N.Y, Basic Books, 2009.

Thomas Sowell has done it again. He has written another excellent book that exposes the misguided conclusions of orthodox intellectuals.

He defines intellectuals as individuals who specialize in the production of ideas. Gifted individuals in other fields, such as physics and medicine, are not included in his definition.

Sowell concludes that the physical sciences eventually discovered their Rosetta stone, which enabled them to mitigate "the tragedy of the human condition"--that mankind must solve innumerable problems in order to survive and to prosper. Scientists of the physical sciences, including physicians, refer to their Rosetta stone as the scientific method.

Physicians are aware that they stagnated for millennia because they were wedded to mysticism. For example, Sowell points out that an Austrian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, collected statistics showing that mortality rates varied between women who had been examined by doctors who had washed their hands, and those who hadn't. His colleagues initially brushed aside his findings because they were perceived to be simplistic (p 83). Fortunately for society, physicians eventually abandoned emotive non-solutions and adopted the scientific method to guide them to the truth. Semmelweis's methodology was vindicated. Physicians never looked back. Medical breakthroughs have since been breathtaking.

Regrettably, the social sciences, such as economics, political philosophy, law, and history, have yet to accept the guiding principle that will ensure that reason will prevail over mysticism. In short, social scientists, by and large, continue to reject empirical evidence because it is viewed as being simplistic or, more importantly, because the evidence contravenes their "anointed vision."

"No amount of hard evidence," writes Sowell, "has been able to burst through the sealed bubble of this elite vision."

He draws a distinction between two classes of gifted individuals. There are those wise enough to know that they don't know and who therefore seek to empower everyone to find solutions; they buttress their findings by evaluating and reevaluating empirical evidence. Then there are those so conceited as to believe that their superior intellect enables them to assimilate the knowledge required to impose their "anointed vision" on society.

John Dewey is quoted as an example of that anointed mindset: "Having the knowledge we may set hopefully at work upon a course of social invention and engineering" (p 18). When Dewey and his ilk are proven wrong, they stubbornly refuse to be swayed by empirical evidence. This is exemplified by Robert Reich's response after his facts on a particular topic were conclusively proven to be erroneous: "I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions" (p 45). Empirically trained physicians would reject such irresponsible statements from their colleagues and rightfully shun them. But such is not the case with Reich. He continues to be lionized by his intellectual peers!

Sowell is not alone in concluding that the social sciences lack rational guiding principles. Richard A. Epstein is quoted as saying, "Although science is capable of making linear advancement, the same is not true of law, where the same insights and mistakes tend to recur again and again" (p 157). Epstein limits his comment to law, but Sowell applies his insight to all of the social sciences. The predictable result is the relative stagnation of the social sciences compared to the physical sciences. The reason for the failure is elementary. Social scientists insist on hard-wiring their "anointed vision" onto society rather than dispassionately studying empirical evidence.

Sowell provides myriad examples illustrating how intellectuals repeatedly fail to accept empirical evidence and, as a consequence, fail to endorse lasting, workable solutions to problems in law, economics, history, etc.

For example, he admonishes "experts" for failing to understand "how prices allocate resources over time, as well as allocating resources among alternative users at a given time." The list of economic errors, accepted as dogma by intellectuals at The New York Times and numerous other left-leaning publications, is disturbing.

Sowell repeatedly and trenchantly points out that leftist scholars remain indifferent to the irrefutable evidence discrediting their policy prescriptions. They discard reason and substitute it with a technique that Sowell brands as "verbal virtuosity."

In other words, intellectuals exercise verbal gymnastics to discredit empirical evidence in order to give them an undeserved aura of sagaciousness.

It may be wishful thinking, but let us hope that the intellectuals controlling the social sciences will heed Sowell's advice and reject mysticism. If that auspicious day arrives, as it did with the hard sciences, society's ability to mitigate the tragedy of the human condition will be greatly enhanced.

Sowell correctly diagnoses the disease that has been metastasizing into every aspect of American life. His diagnosis can be aptly summarized by his felicitous phrase "the vision of the anointed," the title of one of his previous books.

Thomas Sowell arrives at the correct diagnosis for our current malaise. It is up to us to implement the cure by demanding the restoration of this country's founding principles, which empowered all individuals to use their unique knowledge for finding solutions, rather than relying on the limited knowledge of the "anointed."

Robert P. Gervais, M.D.

Mesa, Ariz.
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Author:Gervais, Robert P.
Publication:Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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