Blind resentment of things as they were was thereby given principle, reason, and eschatological force, and directed to definite political goals
—Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (1962)
Imagine a time before writing, when you would learn things from your hands and your elders. Spoken words were helpful, but the root and branch of education was one’s experience with things, not abstractions. Timothy Ferris fashioned exactly this idyllic world in Wired Magazine this week and enlisted the vanguard of scientists and engineers to invoke the old path of learning and bring us back to interrogating nature directly.
What, then, drove society off course?
Ferris’s answer: the printing press, ideas, and more generally, all that is intellectual. Yes, Ferris narrates a story in which these endeavors did more than just drive society off course. They made a big stinking mess.
It’s no joke. Ferris pronounced the role of these intellectual engagements indefensible and, instead, turns his admiration to the prized advances of science and engineering. Ferris anchors his conceit to CP Snow’s notion of The Two Cultures, but his assertion of ruin rests on a cascade of mistakes.
When CP Snow wrote The Two Cultures more than fifty years ago, he signaled a reformation in the academy. It was his Martin Luther moment. Science would snap its tether to the arts, the softer subjects, and demonstrate the vigor with which it engages the world. Though a mediocre scientist himself, he pointed to the hard-edges of evidence-based research and the progress engineering brought to the economy and society. His fervor has inspired many followers – just as you might expect with a great awakening of sorts. The sciences advanced because of it, and Ferris offers his allegiance.
Ferris, however, coarsens the division in Snow’s Two Cultures. He separates mental activity between scientific and intellectual pursuits. Science deals with objects. Intellectuals deal with abstractions. Science leads to engineering and all that is good in the world. Intellectuals lead to ideologies and all that is bad in the world. Ferris offers up the fruits of science and engineering, and he attributes our general decline and disaffection to the misguided notions of intellectuals.
Ferris sketches a straw-man for the intellectual – the ideologue. The two words are interchangeable in Ferris’ fable of the scientist and the intellectual. An intellectual arrives at an ideology, and an ideologue is an intellectual. They share the same space, rub up against one another, adopt each other’s habits. And in pairing them off, Ferris spreads the more pernicious qualities of the ideologue over anything that is not science and engineering – anything intellectual.
The intellectual Ferris describes will invent the facts to suit their ideology. The ability to learn a great deal without physically doing much of anything allowed intellectuals to introduce abstractions. Without the scientist’s focus on things, Ferris’ intellectuals make arguments about the world without respect for facts. Ferris writes, “Being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts.” An ideologue will stretch the truth to suit their ideas, just like the skeptics of “biological evolution to global warming.” They will conjure “big, pretentious ideas untethered to facts.”
The ideologue, according to Ferris, has bred nothing but human suffering and maintains no respect for the facts at hand. Ferris typifies their efforts with Freud and Marx and says, Freud discovered nothing and cured nobody. Marx was a hypocrite whose theories failed in about as hideously spectacular a way as can be imagined. Indeed, in Ferris’ mind, if it’s not the work of science and engineering, it’s the work of an ideologue, and as his lessons from Marx and Freud will suggest, beware of the ideologue and, therefore, the intellectual.
But this is a mistake.
Not all intellectual activity is geared toward ideology. One would be naive to equate all intellectual effort with that of the ideological skeptics of “biological evolution to global warming.” It may not yield the same semiconductors or smartphones that come from the labs and workshops of IBM or Apple or HTC, but it serves a separate purpose than ideology. Just because it’s intellectual does not mean it’s ideological.
Ferris seeks cover with a quote from Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology. He points to the blind resentment to things as they were as the driving force for the development of ideology, and in the context of his article, it appears that Bell might have articulated an inflection point in history when ideology began and interrupted the progress of science. He did not. Ferris takes the quote out of context. The next sentence begins, “The equality of all souls became the equality of all individuals.” The conversion of blind resentment to political goals predicated equality and precipitated the democratic institutions that we now take for granted.
Ferris may have mistaken Bell’s follow-on discussion of Comte as agreement with his position. But he is again, wrong. Comte worried that equality would spur equality of ideas, and society would struggle with competition among them. It would unwind society’s cohesion. Bell later concludes, however, modern society does not bear Comte out. It seems that Bell does not bear Ferris out, either.
But one should also muster some sympathy for Ferris’ grubby scientist. For his scientist is also a scientist without abstractions. Abstractions are the contrivance of those intellectuals with which ideologies seduce society again and again. Abstractions underpin ideologies, not science. But in what world does science not rely on an abstraction of the world by which to describe it? Ferris is a noted science writer, but the abstractions inherent in classical mechanics or the standard model seem alien to him.
The constant that remains through Ferris’ work is a fundamental suspicion of the intellectual. Yes, we can all find satisfaction with the advances of science and technology, and his praise thereof reminds us of the Jonah Salks and Thomas Edisons of the world, but it’s hard to miss the lurking hostility, resentment and suspicion of all else. And it’s this suspicion that reminds us of what inspired Pol Pot and the killing fields in Cambodia, the famine, re-education camps and deaths of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the gulag’s of the Soviet Union.
Could it be that in Ferris’ ambition to advance science and diminish intellectual activity, he’s introduced an ideology that will brook no discussion of ideas or intellectual activity – that in condemning ideology, he’s established his own.