Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Public Intellectuals

Where'd they go?

I really have a hard coming up with a comprehensive list of people I would consider "public intellectuals" ... I came up with one name (Stanley Fish, who has a running column/blog in the New York Times), then had to cheat by going to this list that I remembered reading a while back.

The thing about the list is that I would not characterize many of the people on it as being "public intellectuals" in the sense that the J.K. Galbraith sense that the WSJ uses, which is to say someone that has ample academic experience, perhaps some government (or other practice) experience, and makes a conscious effort to explain complicated ideas to the masses. I think the FP/Prospect list omits several prominent scientists: Roger Penrose, Michio Kaku, and Brian Greene, most notable; and certainly not to exclude Neil deGrasse Tyson, who seems to have inherited Carl Sagan's mantel as the Universe's ambassador to contemporary America.

Maybe Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt and Tim Harford ... ? Perhaps too soon?

The point of the article is well-taken: there appears to be very few "intellectuals" who deign to venture outside of the Ivory Tower. In one regard, this is unfortunate, and is so for reason that I don't think really need explaining. But on the other hand, it may not be possible or will become decreasingly possible as time wears on. More often then not Academia finds itself tackling increasingly technical issues that require a great deal of preparatory instruction ...

Still, very complicated ideas have been explained with a skill and ease that transcends the effort needed to discover them -- I can think of few better examples of this than Einstein's Relativity: the Special and the General Theory., which explains an entirely counterintuitive concept with an enviable simplicity. That skill is rare these days and isn't just something that should be prized by people who wish to become "public intellectuals," but by all people.

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