Science-Based Anti-Intellectualism

On a regular basis someone publishes a book in which they attempt to apply neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or the social sciences to questions that the humanities are actually better equipped to address. As a consequence, such authors typically end up dressing up their embarrassingly sophomoric musings related to philosophy, literature, and culture in the trappings of scientific rigor. Meanwhile, they ignore -- and show themselves to be thoroughly unacquainted with -- the thousands of years of excellent work that might have deepened their approach. A case in point is Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Isaac Chotiner savages in words that could have been written about any number of these books:

What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions.


IMAGINE is a collection of stories—all pop-science these days must be translated into stories, as if readers, like children, cannot absorb the material any other way; but some of Lehrer’s stories do not necessarily support his thesis, and some of them contradict it.


IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.

These books aren't just self-help with a scientific gloss: they're a form of anti-intellectualism emboldened by scientific pretense. And they're rooted in the same sorts of motivations as anti-intellectualism associated with religious fundamentalism and political extremism: the need to believe that there is an easy and un-reflective path leading to final answers to big questions. What emboldens this brand of anti-intellectualism is its claim to have replaced fuzzy armchair theorizing with experimental rigor -- a claim not in the least borne out by the laughable results.

-- Wes Alwan



    • Vasili says

      Bergson could alternatively be seen allied to someone like Durkheim (especially after latter’s turn away from functionalism in Elementary Forms of Religious Life), both being anti-materialist and in that sense anti-reductionist, even proto-postmodernists.
      What is perhaps tragic about the success of the postmodern paradigm (the perceived victory of deconstruction over structuralism, cultural hermeneutics, certain forms of practice theory etc.) is that the vacuum is being filled with grand narratives much more totalizing than the culturalist theories rendered toothless by their own self-reflexivity. I’m referring of course to evolutionary psychology, but I might as well talk about certain vulgar uses of Foucault, which like certain vulgar Marxist approaches, dissolve the specificity of cultural forms in “the acid bath of instrumentalism.” I might add to this list those who, in a rush to insert agency and the subject back into the center of theorizing after the antihumanistic and politically regressive elements of structuralism bleached them out, lapse into covert forms of methodological individualism in the guise of resistance and polyphony. Here again, in the seeming rejection of a stable center, a totalizing scheme rears it’s head.

      Great post Wes! I was listening to an interview of Lehrer and steam was literally coming out of my ears. What is most disheartening, and horrifyingly ever more commonplace, is the intellectual amnesia that you talk about.

  1. Nick Burbidge says

    C’mon, everybody knows that more women prefer pink than men because, in pre-history, the womenfolk were the gatherers and had to look for berries…

    They know, scientifically, how society was arranged in PRE-history, y’know.

    Last week I had to spend two days at, er, a management training course. It wasn’t all bad: some useful tips on overcoming nerves etc, similar to acting tips – but it was couched in this horrible, anti-intellectual management theory-speak. And yes, evolutionary psychology made an appearance!

    Management-speak – with its appeals to (supposedly scientific) authority in the place of logic or argument and its pretence to complex thought – pervades a lot of these books. It is self-evidently the discourse of masters and mastery, with all that that implies. It demands that you don’t think. It seems to demand an ought from an is: it is the case that creative people show similar brain patterns, so it ought to be the case that these brain patterns ARE the creativity…

    You too can have such brain patterns! You too can be creative, and successful and popular and handsome. Just buy my book.

    The Times of London recently carried a pre-Olympics article about “home” advantage. Why are teams more generally successful when they play on home turf? What is the influence of the home crowd exactly? The article referred to a study that showed rises in testosterone in football crowds when watching a game at their home ground. This, naturally enough, spurred on the home players. The head of the study suggested that this was possibly because, back in pre-history, humans needed more aggressive bonding when defending against other tribes.

    Er, yeah, maybe. I guess.

    I mean, it does show that people who support a particular cause tend to come together and aggressively support that cause, like chanting your home team’s name and criticising the ref when he judges against your team. And this situation actually has real, chemical effects on our bodies here and now. Who knew?

    Great post!

  2. says

    Being in an doctoral program focused on educational leadership, I call these kinds of books a plague … but they are politically powerful. I object, but my bosses know these are persuasive.

    Why so? So what? What to do about it?

    I also think that anti-intellectualism is a great topic for the podcast to pursue. Who could you read?

  3. Dave says


    Great post and thanks for the link on the Hofstadler book. I’ll check it out.

    It’s interesting that books like “Imagine” focus on the Pop Culture winners. It’s a dubious marketing tactic. The Title “Imagine” is clearly equating John Lennon with superior creativity. Why not Kraftwerk or The Velvet Underground? Why not Philip Glass? (Are they not populist enough to sell your book?) It demonstrates their goal is not the subject matter but the superficial attachment to popularity and sales. Why not the creative genius of Macintyre and virtue ethics?

    I think pop culture itself selects things randomly. There were about 4000 folk singers taking 1920s tin pan alley songs and changing the lyrics to address the 1960s. One of them was going to hit the lottery and win. It happened to be Bob Dylan (His approach certainly wasn’t unique or the best).

    The book in question “Imagine” assumes you can make yourself creative like John Lennon. But, it leaves out the randomness of why we use John Lennon and the song Imagine as an example. He might not actually have been the most creative song writer of his day; it might not be something you would want to emulate. He might just be the winner of a pop culture lottery.

    Just a thought about pop culture over load.

      • Bruce Adam says

        I agree, yet many of these same criticisms are leveled at Pinker himself in the Facebook thread about this blog post.

        Any expert outside his own field is open to attacks of this sort. They’re also quite likely to be wrong. William James and Mrs Piper is a classic case. In James’ case I know he was wrong but even that doesn’t make it worthwhile to discard everything he’s written .

        In dismissing the views of those without authority we move closer to blind acceptance of the authorised views. Critical reading, of any source, solely on the merits of the ideas as presented, is the first priority, surely.

        • says

          I knew that about Pinker, and Pinker also savaged another one of my favorites, George Lakoff, in one of his books. So, what is it, then? I disagree that they fail because they aren’t seen as “authorities.” There’s something about the facile way they construct arguments and draw conclusions that raises red flags for me. Gladwell’s “10,000 hour meme” recipe for success, for example, became the basis for a whole book. But what about folks who were successful without putting in 10,000 hours, or folks who put in 10,000 hours and weren’t successful. This isn’t authority, it’s basic logic — and a fault of the whole “success” genre.

          In a way, this seems like the String Theory of rhetoric. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or defensible, as long as it’s elegant.

          • dmf says

            wonder how much this has to do with going “pop” (and otherwise wanting to reach a wider audience, enter the public arena) , Lakoff’s old partner Johnson has gone on to do some really insightful/imaginative, but also grounded and careful, work while Lakoff’s unfortunate foray into the gossip world of political punditry was just begging for these kinds of dismissals.

  4. Noah says

    Hey Wes,

    Here is an article by Theodore Dalrymple; It’s also about how neuroscience (or any science) will never fully explain human actions, despite how hard scientists try

    Also, If you want a good piece of scientific journalism, you should check out “The Brain That Changes Itself.” It is popular neuroscience, and yes, it is full of anecdotes, but essentially it is just an explanation of neuroplasticity. There is one interesting bit, however, where the author uses neuroscience to show how a philosopher got things wrong. This is when he basically shows that the mind and body are not as separate as thinkers like Descartes thought it was, because what people do with their mind (think) affects the structure of the brain and vice-versa. But he never goes as far to say philosophy is useless. You should check it out.

  5. Chris Mullen says

    Well Wes, while this doesn’t necessarily relate to your topic, you might feel vindicated with Jonah Lehrer’s recent resignation from the New Yorker over the fact that he manufactured quotes from Bob Dylan in the very book you lambasted above. The second link in question also refers to the previous incident of Leher’s repeated self-plagiarisms which an article in Slate sums up as “Lehrer has moved into the idea business”.

    “This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.”

    Since he is now in the business of selling himself, the ideas he expresses are nothing more than a form of advertisement. Obviously, the “authenticity” of the “ideas” in question, given the above revelation and subsequent resignation, are secondary to the “selling” of those ideas which equates to the “selling” of Lehrer himself. If this is the new future of public discourse then we should all have plenty to be worried about.


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