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on September 15, 2016
Paradigm shattering. Sowell loads you aboard the econ-philosophy train and then, like a wide eyed and battle hardened engineer who forgot his dose of thorazine, he plows that juggernaut through just about every liberal sacred cow and talking point. The scope of this book is broad, with many references to the historical origins of disproved arguments that keep resurfacing, especially in the internet/youtube age. The single best reference work for anti-social justice warriors.

He doesn't just talk statistics, though there is some of that, what Sowell presents is a nuanced critique of the psychology and philosophy of social justice, of the left and liberals in general, and much more. Everything is covered, from top to bottom. Every nook and cranny is put under the microscope and asked for empirical evidence. It is rarely found, if any is found at all.

A must read.
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on January 10, 2017
Thomas Sowell is, hands down, one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and talented writers of the last century when it comes to analyzing ideas and trends around the world. I myself was introduced to Dr. Sowell a few years ago. His common-sense insight, interesting writing style, and occasional humor have done a lot to help me inform my own world-view. Sowell's book, Intellectuals in Society, is a crowning achievement that everyone should read, regardless of creed, or ideology.

In such a tumultuous time politically, it feels easy to let our own emotions, or the words of those we see as on a higher intellectual plane, dictate how we see the world. Dr. Sowell does an exceptional job of looking at and dissecting the Intellectuals words throughout the history of America and the western world in general. When Sowell says "Intellectual," he specifically means those whose final products are ideas. The most damning point that Dr. Sowell makes is that unlike other careers who work or think on a high intellectual plane, such as doctors, engineers, or architects, the "Intellectuals" who's end products are ideas rarely, if ever, end up being held accountable for when said ideas don't work in practice. In fact, these ideas have in fact had devastating effects around the world, and caused millions upon millions of lives to be wrecked or downright destroyed.

It is worth noting that Sowell himself may be considered an "Intellectual," but I believe that he is able to practice far more restraint and acknowledge the intellectual limitation far more than many, if not most, of his peers are won't to do. Sowell spends a good chunk of the book looking at empirical, historical data which shows the folly and utter fallacies of intellectuals throughout history. Many totalitarian regimes, specifically in the early to mid twentieth century, have been found to have been supported quite fervently among many intellectuals of the time, specifically many on the left such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, among others. Other examples of the folly among intellectuals include many of the prevalent views they had surrounding making piece treaties with totalitarian leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, as a means to avoid war. This was particularly evident among Neville Chamberlain. When future prime minister Winston Churchill expressed (in hindsight) very reasonable criticism of this piece treaty, he was scorned, and mocked, rather than actually challenged or debated. Ultimately, the refusal to hear out those like Churchille led not to piece, but to the most bloody war in human history in the form of World War II.

The most interesting and worthwhile fallacy that Sowell points out is how real, flesh and blood individuals have been described by Intellectuals. The most notable hear is none other than chief justice Clarence Thomas. Sowell points out that while Thomas is accused of being a recluse, due to the fact that he doesn't like to attend political gatherings (and isn't too keen on self-promotion.) In actuality, Clarence Thomas enjoys speaking with regular people, and loves going on road trips around the country. he often likes to strike up a chat with regular people without so much as mentioning his role on the Supreme Court. This is yet another example of how the ideas of Intellectuals matter more to them and their ilk than actual, flesh and blood people.

Dr. Sowell's book is dense, and is written in a way that may come off as somewhat inaccessible to some, though that isn't really a fault of the books, or of Dr. Sowell's writing style. As a matter of fact, it is a testimony to the craft with which Dr. Sowell wields his pen that the book remains as intriguing and informative as it does from start to finish. Thomas Sowell is a man who has done extensive and thorough research in every topic in which he covers, whether it be the economic fallacies of many Intellectuals, to law and order, to geopolitical issues, to more besides. Regardless of where one stands on any of these issues, I would highly recommend that you rent, or even purchase a copy of Thomas Sowell's brilliant, insightful, and meticulously well-written book. While Sowell himself thinks on a high intellectual level, he never condescends to the reader or his audience. This book will surely be of use if you're someone with a desire to think for yourself and have a desire to filter out the "spin" that it seems like we see all too often from those in politics, academia, the media, entertainment industry, and so forth. With that said, I highly encourage you to give this book a read.
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on March 14, 2018
Sowell's thesis is simple and clearly stated: intellectual elites and experts are not to be blindly trusted. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has said much the same thing in his works while avoiding the blunt and politically incorrect implications. That an intellectual can criticize other intellectuals without offering a prescriptive way out of an imagined "impasse," as one perplexed reviewer opined, is hardly a disqualifying conundrum. No one criticized Aristophanes for lampooning Socrates and the intellectual class of ancient Athens when he wrote The Clouds 2,500 years ago. The question Sowell poses can be summarized by reference to Sidney Hook who allegedly asked Albert Einstein: "I don't lecture you about physics; why to you lecture me about politics?"

That's the point of Intellectuals and Society. Sowell takes the pronunciamentos of the high and mighty, the great and gifted, and scrutinizes them against outcomes. In chapter after chapter on issues ranging from inner city crime to economics, to international security, he uses this method to measure stated goals with actual results. This method is hardly unusual in scholarly circles. Although trained as a quantitative economist, Sowell uses well-established ethnographic and comparative interpretations to arrive at his conclusions. In the end, he makes a convincing case that his theory (borrowed from Hayek) of expert knowledge (deep and narrow) versus accumulated common knowledge (broad, and nuanced) has validity.

Given that social action is inherently complex, dynamic, and virtually limitless in its permutations, the book demonstrates the risks of expert knowledge. Where Sowell, in my opinion, slips is in his analysis of war and international security situations. Here, the role of deception and misperception often influence outcomes and even copious amounts of post hoc research may only produce more questions and uncover more enigmas. Thus, Sowell's narrative of Germany after World War I is conventional and predictable while scholars such as Gerhard Weinberg have themselves challenged this view for years by, among other things, claiming that Germany got off relatively lightly at Versailles and not, as received opinion holds, that Versailles punitive terms played a significant role in the run-up to World War Two.

These minor demurrals aside, I still recommend the work if only for the description of the characterization of social knowledge and its impact on society.
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on August 4, 2013
I nominate Thomas Sowell for the Eric Hoffer award for his penetrating analysis in Intellectuals and Society.

He defines his subject matter as those persons who have ideas as the end product of their work. It seems fair to say that he is focused on those whose ideas are about social issues as opposed to, say, mathematics - issues such as economics, law, and war. In addition he deals with the intelligentsia, which along with the intellectuals "... would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges' clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals."

Among the observations Sewell makes about the subject of his investigations the following seven stand out.

1. The end product of intellectuals is not amenable to immediate testing in the physical world. Engineers, doctors, and football coaches are subjected to such tests but not intellectuals. That raises the question: how are the end products of intellectuals - their ideas - judged?

2. They are judged by their peers, that is, by other intellectuals. Consequently, a kind of prevailing consensus arises which with the help of the intelligentsia permeates the culture.

3. They have a compulsion to put their ideas into action. It isn't enough to just sit on their hands and bask in the glow of intelligentsia approval.

4. They are inextricably connected to their ideas. It's as though to challenge their ideas is to challenge their life.

5. They view themselves as the anointed whose task is to enlighten the populace. One thinks of Obama resonating with San Francisco intelligentsia when he referred to his opposition as Bible thumping, gun toting rednecks.

6. They are never held accountable for failure. As time passes and history demonstrates the error of their ideas they do not fall into disgrace as would, for example, a doctor who killed his patients.

7. They are never right. Well, hardly ever. He does document one case where they were on the right side. As the saying goes even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

The foregoing does not do justice to the rich narrative, the logic, and the numerous examples from history which make Intellectuals and Society so enjoyable to read. What I found particularly valuable was that certain insights fell into place for me.

The testing of the end product by peer review rather than by physical reality is a case in point. The upshot of peer review as the standard of truth is that intellectuals as well as the entire amen chorus of intelligentsia are drawn into the world of social metaphysics.

Nathaniel Branden, who coined the term social metaphysics, defined it as "... the psychological syndrome that characterizes a person who holds the minds of other men, not objective reality, as his ultimate psycho-epistemological frame of reference."

To illustrate with a caricature, a social metaphysician sitting in a room feels water dripping from above. He doesn't look up to see if there is a leak in the ceiling; instead, he asks the person next to him if the ceiling is leaking. An affirmative answer gives him a feeling of certainty in his "knowledge" that seeing it with his own eyes would never do.

If reality is the contents of other persons minds and if the contents of those minds are the intellectual's ideas that have passed peer review, it simply will not do to have those ideas challenged. To challenge those ideas is to destroy reality and you along with it. That explains why members of the intelligentsia get in such a tiff when they meet opposition.

Von Mises must have had the intelligentsia in mind when he wrote "Most men endure the sacrifice of their intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams." Mayor Bloomberg would deny gravity before he would give up denying soft drinks to New Yorkers.

Why is it that intellectuals have such an uncanny talent for being wrong? One would think they would be right maybe half the time. It can't be because there is only one right answer and many wrong ones; some issues such as going to war have only two alternatives - either you go or you don't go.

It seems that part of the explanation is the premium put on novelty. Who among the intelligentsia would applaud an intellectual who simply stated the common sense obvious? Why not get attention with novelty when there is no penalty for failure? Perhaps some future investigator will provide a better answer to the question.

In any event their penchant for leading society in the wrong direction is a very serious problem. As currently constituted the intelligentsia is a cancer on society. Many thanks to Thomas Sowell for enlightening us about the nature of this malady.
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on February 3, 2013
This book explains how intellectuals take untested ideas that may sound good, gain consensus within their intellectual community, and then spread these ideas primarily through the college ranks and the media. He demonstrates how it is not necessary for them to demonstrate results, and, even if the idea proves later to not work, the originator's intellectual star-power does not diminish. This is in contrast to the non-intellectual world, where failed ideas do not lead to rewards and peer recognition.

Sowell is an original thinker, meaning he does not merely pass on things you have already read elsewhere. He offers insights into how decades of social engineering experiments have produced generations of Americans who don't feel particularly obligated to have to contribute much to our society but are well versed on what they think society owes them.

If you believe that everyone should at least try to pull their own weight, you will find a kindred spirit in Thomas Sowell. If you focus more on what society should be sure everyone is given, this book is a good way to see the other side of some of the arguments put forth by the intellectual community. It is important to see the other side if agreement can ever be reached between the sides.
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on July 6, 2013
My reading of Thomas Sowell's books had really opened my eyes to what is going on in this country. This explains much of the stupidity I see coming out of Washington. It is particularly interesting to see how affirmative action, minimum wage laws, and other policies have made things worse for all concerned, but especially for the black Americans in this country. It is amazing that these "intellectuals" think that they know better how we the people should live our lives than we the people who are actually living those lives. Sowell explains where this superiority complex comes from. Can we reverse this trend? I wonder. I understand that Sowell is an atheist, but as a Christian I see pride as the number one problem here. And why don't these people see that socialism is destroying this country by inches (more like by miles now)?

Succinctly written, eye opening. Strongly recommend anyone interested in our country's welfare to read this.
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on June 11, 2013
Extremely interesting, well written and useful book.

Intellectuals and their mental processes are analysed and their gimmicks, lies, methods very well presented.

Very often, instead of arguing endlessly about politics, economics, arts, and various other topics, it can be a precious shortcut to understand the psychology, the emotional issues, and the intellectual tricks used by your opponent.

After reading this book, you will understand much better how politicians, journalists, commentators, so called philosophers and academics actually manipulate facts, ideas, information, and people.

You will never be the same after reading this great book.
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on January 24, 2018
What can I say? It's Thomas Sowell, one of my favorite authors. In a nutshell, he explores how only intellectuals can come up with some of the ideas they do based on virtually no evidence, and how unfortunate we are to listen to them because ... well, they are the "intellectuals." The author stresses that any good ideas must be based on hard evidence, not proclamations on high by intellectuals. Anything less is not worthy of consideration.
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The revised and expanded version of Intellectuals and Society is a book of the highest importance. One wishes that it could be adopted as the ‘common reading text’ for all colleges and universities. This will never happen, because: a) the book is far too long for the modern student attention span and, b) it flies in the face of much of the college process of indoctrination and challenges readers to see the realities of our contemporary intellectual milieu.

For TS, ‘intellectuals’ are those whose work product is ideas, ideas that are seldom exposed to empirical tests but are, instead, measured by what TS calls ‘peer consensus’. In other words, if the ideas are accepted by colleagues this becomes the source of their ‘validation’, not external/empirical checks. Hence, the ideas can enjoy equal prominence when they diametrically contradict one another, early 20thc intellectuals attributing minority experiences to genetics and later 20thc intellectuals attributing them to racism (i.e. society and the environment rather than nature). Since their colleagues (in each case) concur, they are free from external criticism. Similarly, when their colleagues concur with their stance, external reality becomes irrelevant. Thus, Edmund Wilson could see the Soviet Union as the world’s moral exemplar even though its citizens were being executed or starved to death.

The intellectuals here are a largely left-leaning collection of academics in the humanities and soft social sciences; their colleagues in, e.g., engineering and medicine do work that is subject to external, empirical test and hence they are accountable. Differentiating themselves from their peers is, in some cases, their hallmark. The intellectuals are supported by a penumbra of journalists, teachers and writers whose impact on public policy comes through their ability to sway naïve readers/voters. Since the intellectuals see themselves as the self-anointed whose job it is to control the ignorant masses, they are not exclusively on the left. Michael Bloomberg, e.g., is just as ready to control the lives of his fellow citizens as a Paul Krugman.

The differentiation comes in several ways. In economics, e.g, those who support market-driven decision making (like TS) will make an argument such as the following: when the Soviet planners set out to fix the prices of goods and services they had to make approximately 24,000,000 decisions. That is a daunting task (even for those with the pride and arrogance to believe that their personal intelligence enabled them to perform it). For the millions in the marketplace, however, such decisions are made constantly and fairly straightforwardly. The question becomes—who do you trust, a handful of intelligent individuals (usually with expertise in a narrow field) or the collective wisdom of the total populace? The same is true with standard issues of public policy—should we place our lives in the hands of a handful of ‘experts’ or trust the accumulated wisdom of centuries and millions? The ‘intellectuals’ opt for the former.

They are also differentiated by their world views. The ‘intellectuals’ are utopian and they tend to deal in abstractions. They believe that humans are perfectible and that social engineering can bring us to the promised land. They also often argue emotionally. They will decry ‘poverty’, e.g. and demand solutions while they fail to tell the electorate that ‘poverty’ is a moving target that they constantly redefine. At the same time they decry the distance between rich and poor, while presenting their arguments in terms of abstract constructs, failing to tell the electorate that actual flesh-and-blood individuals move across the categories. They will decry the income level of one group vs. another without telling the electorate that there are important demographic differences between the groups, the group that is largely older thus (and obviously) having greater income because they have greater experience and additional years to acquire skills, receive promotions, and so on. The intellectuals’ critics (usually ‘conservatives’) have a ‘tragic view’ of humankind. (Some would say that they see humans as ‘fallen’.) They believe that humans are capable of great achievements and societies are capable of growth, amelioration and success, but they also believe that human nature is something that is real and more or less constant. Dictators will arise and they will not always lay down their weapons or opt for peace and brotherhood. Public policy must be aware of human nature and policy makers must realize that in the vast majority of cases they are not facing a magical fork in the road which leads to either utopia or perdition; they are looking at concrete decisions that involve very real trade-offs.

These arguments are made with a long succession of examples, including the views of ‘intellectuals’ on economics, social vision, subjectively-filtered ‘realities’ and ‘truths’, the law, war and race. While the book presents a great deal of material that material is articulated with lucidity and point. The book is not arcane or recondite; it is straightforward and compelling.

If you want to know how we have arrived at a set of views that appear to be counter-intuitive, counter-cultural and both ‘respected’ and often wrong, this is the place to start.

Highly recommended.
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on June 13, 2014
This is the best book I have read in years. Sowell's thinking on the viewpoint of intellectuals is extremely precise. This book is an outstanding discussion of the contrast between the ivory tower and the real world in all of its facets. Sowell is not overtly political, but the implications are pretty clear. Heavily (and wonderfully) footnoted. He's not making it up.

It was also a little embarrassing to read as I realized that I had uncritically accepted a lot of arguments. This book really made me think.
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