Social Question

crazyivan's avatar

Why don't we have intellect-star?

Asked by crazyivan (4461points) April 11th, 2011

I spent this weekend at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism and had a great time. In that crowd, astronomers, psychologist, neurologists and mathematicians are super stars. It felt good cheering for Phil Plait and Steven Novella instead of some stupid pop star.

Got me to wondering why we don’t embrace intellect in this society. There’s no rule that says we have to honor our actors, musicians (or lip-synchers… whatever) and athletes. Other cultures embrace intelligence far more than Americans.

So my question is why? Why can’t Neil Degrasse Tyson sell out a stadium? Why can’t Eugenie Scott do a 70 city sold-out tour? Why don’t kids have a favorite anthropologist? Why is it that most of the people reading this have no idea who these people are?

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32 Answers

filmfann's avatar

Well, we do have Tom Cruise, George Clooney, and Sean Penn!


Neurotic_David's avatar

Well, I see your point, but to some degree, I think we do.

Most folks know who Stephen Hawking is.

Literate folks who pay attention to the world know who Niall Ferguson is, or Paul Krugman, or Malcolm Gladwell, or other big thinkers. We don’t always agree with some of their ideas or opinions, but we know who they are.

They’re not entertainers, however, so they’re not playing to packed houses.

On the other hand, some intellectuals are entertainers, to a degree. Richard Dawkins is an intellectual promoting his views on atheism, and he draws some pretty big crowds from time to time. People like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are political intellectuals who, rather than taking an academic approach to their craft, play to an audience. A really big audience!

About 3 million folks used to read Time Magazine each week. (I dont know what their current circulations numbers are and I’m in a rush to reply.) Isn’t 3 million people reading a news magazine just as strong as 50,000 people going to a Justin Bieber concert?

Just random thoughts, in reaction to your post. :) Good question!

josie's avatar

Because there is no market for it. Youth is a large market. Truly smart and motivated kids in the public ed system are subjected to some bullshit or another by the terminally stupid or unmotivated. Not enough of them to buy enough tickets to make it work.

crisw's avatar

I know who they are! :>) You lucky duck- especially seeing Steven Novella, SGU doesn’t seem to make it to the west coast very often, so I’ve never met him in person…

As to your question- we don’t seem to value intelligence as much as we do vapidness. I detest most pop culture, and this is just one of the reasons why.

Cruiser's avatar

Local hero paleontologist Paul Sereno made quite the splash and gained Rock Star Status with a few of his finds. He even made Peoples 50 most beautiful list! That is hitting the Big Time!!

There would be more but the smarty pants are too busy being smart to waste time walking the red carpet.

iamthemob's avatar

I think that @josie puts it well when he says there’s no market for it.

In order to sell anything – particularly a personality – you need to appeal to a base. The broader that base, the more investment there will likely be in the marketing, and the more return on that, and therefore the more prevalence.

And although I agree that there is more value placed on things that are in the end superficial, the problem with attempting to conceive of an intellectual star is the base for such a person would be smart people. Of course, smart people are considered so because they represent a smaller, more “skilled” percentage of the population. And, once we start discussing specialty areas, the base gets smaller and smaller.

The benefit of actors, sports figures, etc., is that one doesn’t need to understand acting, or even a sport, to understand and see that a person has talent, or that they are enjoyable. In order to fully enjoy the work of an intellectual, or to even be able to identify that they truly are skilled, you already are in a select and smaller group.

And then, of course, the more and more expertise, the more and more people disagree…and vehemently. Academia is full of wars over, for example, “X is the best historian today!” against “No, fool! Y is!”

In the end, what do you expect? Within a given field in academia or practical intellectual studies, you always have the superstars. It’s just there’s a disagreement about who is in that group, and the people that know it are a relatively small part of the population.

Rarebear's avatar

I’m with @crisw Lucky duck! That sounds like a great conference. I really wanted to go to TAM this year, but I’ve got another conflict.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet Eugenie several times through the Bay Area Skeptics. What a wonderful person!

ratboy's avatar

Is Dr. Andrew Wiles not a cultural icon?

augustlan's avatar

I’d love to live in an alternate reality where the great intellects are also the most popular people on the planet. Aside from the ‘audience’ problem already mentioned, there might also be a personality problem. Some of the most brilliant people just aren’t very personable, you know? The speakers on often seem to hit the sweet spot, though. Brilliant and likable. If more people were exposed to those talks/people like those speakers, maybe admiration for the giant-brained would increase.

Jeruba's avatar

I think it’s because kids in school automatically hate the smart ones. They translate their own feelings of inferiority into anger and blame at the bright kids for “making” them feel inferior. Parents probably contribute to that in a lot of ways, but where did they get their ideas about it? They brought them from childhood.

People who grow up aggressively, boastfully, willfully ignorant are not going to start admiring intelligence when they become adults.

Funny, though, they are still going to want their kids to be smart.

Rarebear's avatar

@Jeruba I don’t agree. I was considered the “smart one” in my class, or one of them at least. I never felt hated at all. Sometimes I got teased a little, but everybody gets teased on occasion.

crisw's avatar


I had the opposite experience- I was teased relentlessly all through school. But then I was also a weird kid from a poor family.

Rarebear's avatar

@crisw Maybe it’s because I was crushingly popular with the girls. :-)

Hang on a sec


weeveeship's avatar

Ayn Rand. Nuff said.

A lot of guys I know are influenced by her philosophy

SavoirFaire's avatar

We have “intellect stars” in the form of public intellectuals. And some of them really can demand fairly high prices for an appearance. What you are asking about, though, is why people with highly specialized fields of interest cannot attract a general audience. It seems to me that’s a question that should answer itself.

@weeveeship Cult leader and public intellectual are different positions, even if some of the results look the same.

mattbrowne's avatar

Because most scientists are unable to translate their messages into a simple language with a vocabulary of no more than 2000 words.

What we need is science communicators who become stars. A good example was Carl Sagan.

Who has followed into his footsteps?

An interesting example of a science communicator in Germany is

who uses cabaret-style comedies to communicate scientific findings. He also wrote several books which all became bestsellers.

Pop stars use the language of young people. Their songs are about topics that concern young people like love, pain, rejection, dreams, and so forth.

When young people find science cool again, there’s a better chance of top scientists competing with top pop stars.

iamthemob's avatar

@mattbrowne – Good point about communication. I believe that you and I have talked about the problem of scientific rhetoric – the problem with so much of scientific discussions is that the participants use terminology that is basically jargon, although it may have real world meanings that are different from their technical ones. And so often, they do this without regard for the confusion it causes.

This is part of the reason why they’re often heard as being arrogant when they feel like they’re being direct, perhaps. And that doesn’t really lead to a feeling of arrogance.

crazyivan's avatar

@iamthemob I think you make a valid points, but again, these are cultural. Kids don’t have to be musicians to appreciate “music” (I can’t call modern pop music without using quotes). They don’t have to be writers to appreciate books. Why should they have to be smart to appreciate intelligence? I didn’t follow much of the technical end of the conference but I still enjoyed it. I think @Jeruba really hit the nail on the head though. It’s almost considered okay to dislike someone for their intelligence…

(oh, and sorry if it seems like my only purpose on Fluther is to disagree with every word you say…)

@Neurotic_David I’d just like to point out that you called Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck “intellectuals” and failed to get struck by lightening. Good job!

@weeveeship Really? Ayn Rand? Brilliant writer, philisophically dumb as a stump.

@mattbrowne The kind of spot on insight that I’ve come to expect from you. I think you’ve absolutely nailed it.

@crisw and @Rarebear Yes, it was insanely fun. I’ve been dying to make it to TAM for years and after the good time I had at NECSS this year I think I’m finally going to make it happen.

Rarebear's avatar

@crazyivan Dang, I wish I could go. We could have a fluther/skeptic meetup.

Brian1946's avatar

Michio Kaku should start a Chuckie Sheen-style media blitz, and call it the Sword of Science or Fists of Physics Tour!

iamthemob's avatar


I understand your point regarding appreciation, and you’re right. But when we’re talking about celebrity, it’s both a talent and a popularity contest. It’s about being able to gain followers quickly with minimum investment.

The problem with intellectualism is that it’s not accessible in the same way as music, or even as books. Enjoying music doesn’t require that you understand how it was made, or if it’s innovative – on the most basic level, it’s purely about taste. You therefore don’t have to know anything about it to know that you like it. But, as you like it, you can invest and learn about it, and understand and appreciate it all the more the more you know about it, and become more discriminating in your taste. But that investment is an outgrowth of taste.

Intellectualism flips that model on its head. It requires that first you invest a lot of upfront understanding on the issues being discussed. This almost cuts out the young, because the younger you are the more likely it is you have a superficial understanding of underlying subject matter. Further, intellectual superstars are generally judged up to a certain level by objective measures (or fairly objective) as their work has been shown to be important. That’s not a matter of taste. So you have to be familiar with that work as well. In order for the person to be accessible, you have to invest a lot of time.

After you have that background, then which of the stars we actually like is a matter of taste.

So, naturally those who can appeal to more people and do so with a certain immediacy are more popular. For young people, the more simple things in general appeal to them at first. It’s like how you like very basic foods in the beginning – and then, as you grow up, your palate is refined. Intellectual stars really can only appeal to a limited number of people who are most genearlly going to be older and have invested in their area already.

As to whether it’s cool to dislike intelligence, it’s also cool in a lot of places to dislike the arts and music (theater geeks anyone?). Consider the show “glee.” The people on it are very believable as being unpopular on the show – but outside it, they’re superstars. The jocks are loved because that’s what’s normal. I think that has less to do with how we treat intellectuals as celebrities as it seems.

Also, consider the fact that there are many geniuses who are popular celebrities in a mainstream fashion – those who produce gadgets that everyone uses. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – these are household names. They’re also intellectual superstars.

crazyivan's avatar

@iamthemob I think your opinion glazes over the fact that this is not a universal phenomenon. It is far worse in the US than it is in many parts of the world and it is far worse now than it was 100 or 150 years ago. Your points are valid, but I don’t think they reach your conclusion.

For example, I don’t need to know the first thing about astronomy to enjoy a planetarium show. If somebody like Neil Degrasse Tyson is narrating it, I don’t even have to be interested to enjoy it. I know as little about virology as humanly possible but that didn’t stop me from enjoying a lecture on virology at the conference.

It’s about our cultural values and swinging those cultural values. I think it’s important to reject much of what you’re saying because it implies that this problem necessarily arises out of some fault with intellectualism rather than a simple wanton ignorance by our culture. The demonization of the intellect is a problem in this country and it is why we are falling behind the rest of the world in math & science. I’m sorry, falling further behind the rest of the world.

iamthemob's avatar


I’m not arguing that we’re more enlightened now than in the past, but I also think that a lot of the arguments about the dumbing down of the U.S., etc., are not necessarily valid as it’s as likely the case that we’re not being dumbed down, but are more aware of general dumbness that was already there.

Part of the problem with resorting to a historical comparison is the fact that media was limited in a way that it’s not today. We therefore start off with fewer methods to preserve what actually happened, and as we go further back, we have even less…and, additionally, less examples are preserved. Generally, the examples that are preserved are the best examples – what society thought was very valuable culturally and scientifically. Of course, if you look at a lot of the popular folk entertainment, music, etc. of the time, you get lots of stupid – even wicked dirty – stuff (think the idiot court jester, or public hangings, or bawdy court “poetry”).

Another problem, as mentioned, is that the further back we go, the less we knew. There was a time in human history where it was, in fact, possible for one person to know everything there was to know. As we learn more, we become more specialized in our knowledge, and therefore intellectually become more insular where it’s less probable that there will be an overall intellectual giant that all can recognize but rather more of them in separate fields that those interested in those fields could recognize.

To be honest, I’ve never really looked into it – but the claim that we’re “worse off” intellectually than we were x number of years ago is one that I hear more stated than supported, and where it is supported, it’s generally anecdotal. It seems an incarnation of the “back in the good old days” nostalgia – where, of course, when we were back there we didn’t feel like they were the good old days at all.

Your example of the planetarium seems in line with my examples of Gates and Jobs. If the knowledge can be funneled in some way where it’s made entertaining (which speaks to the communication issue raised by @mattbrowne) or where it produces something that is marketed and popularized, then those people are both smart AND famous.

Now, when we talk about our development in terms of the rest of the world, and how our education system isn’t producing like it should, that’s indeed a problem – but I don’t think that it’s necessarily an outgrown of some cultural campaign against intellectualism (although the entire argument of the “intellectual elite” seems to indicate one). I think much of what seems like such a campaign is more like a frustration growing from both the communication issue and the disconnect in some cases between theory and practice. A person can be brilliant and not be able to apply that knowledge to practical issues in a way that produces something of value to all. When we have academics trying to regulate, for instance, a world of business that they have never really been a part of, but only studied, we aren’t going to get the right answers in practice most likely. We’ll get smart answers, but not the right ones, because a fundamental perspective is ignored.

Of course, in the end, we all have to settle for a certain amount of ignorance – there’s too much to know. That often means we also encounter people that are profoundly intelligent in one way and profoundly ignorant in another, so that such encounters leave us thinking “How can s/he be so stupid” ... and they may be thinking the same thing.

The only reason I really end up disagreeing with you is that I don’t see a demonization of intellect in todays society. I do see that there is a good amount of apathy, but I don’t think it’s anything new. I don’t think, therefore, that there’s a benefit to an analysis of “what went wrong,” because it may very well be that nothing did – at least nothing new. The problems that you’re talking about are ones that we can address with a more “what can we do better” or “where do we go from here” argument, considering that causal elements are debatable considering the complexity of influences that may have led to them.

crazyivan's avatar

@iamthemob Dude… you can say a lot without saying much.

iamthemob's avatar

@crazyivan – And when you don’t have anything to say, you resort to an ad hominem.

I was attempting to respectfully disagree with you on this one – to have an actual discussion. Please don’t throw that back in my face – that was unwarranted.

That kind of statement seems to be exactly the kind of anti-intellectual rhetoric that you’re saying is a bad thing.

crazyivan's avatar

The point I was making (succinctly) is that the first 4 paragraphs of that response were off-subject and unrelated to anything that’s being talked about here. That’s not “ad hominem”, though suggesting that the reason that I said it was to attack you and out of having “nothing to say” is. Just because you say it in latin doesn’t make it correct.

And I love that my pointing out that your post was largely just aimless rambling is dubbed “anti-intellectual”... little full of ourselves are we? All I’m going to say in my defense is that at least two people agreed with the statement, which proves in my mind that it was warranted.

But if pithy isn’t your thing, let me spell it out for you in long form:

Just because you’re using a lot of words doesn’t mean you’re making a point. That whole shtick on how we know less and less the further we go back is true, sure, but it’s also meaningless in connection to the actual debate at hand. It’s a general point that is ultimately inapplicable in this specific instance.

In addition, you’re not trying to have a discussion, you’re trying to “respectfully disagree”. There is a difference. For it to be a discussion you have to make valid points that advance the conversation, not just fill up your screen with a lot of words. If you read back over your post objectively (and I can’t blame you if you don’t… it was really long), you’ll notice that you actually never made any kind of point at all. All you did was disagree.

Now if I weren’t observant, I might not have noticed that. To a layman who skimmed your post it might seem like you’d actually filled it with substance, but you didn’t. I’m reminded of some advice a publisher gave me many moons ago:

“If you can’t sum up the plot in one sentence, there is no plot”.

iamthemob's avatar

I understand that you think the first paragraphs are off topic – but as you say, just saying it (even in plain English) doesn’t mean that you’re correct. The discussion about history was a response to your claim that we are far worse off than we were 100–150 years ago. have a problem with that claim. It seems to be, as I said, stated rather than supported.

So, if your claim is that we are far worse off than we were at that time, what are you basing it on? Why is that a valid claim? That’s what the first paragraphs were talking about, and how they pertain to the debate at hand.

Point #1: The assumption that we are worse off intellectually than we were 100–150 years ago hasn’t been shown valid. We may, in fact, be better off now.

In the remaining, you claim that I ramble, don’t make a point, just disagree, say a lot in order to distract from the fact that I don’t have a point.In addition to Point #1 abov, there were other points, which I’ll outline.

Point #2: In regards to the planetarium, science and education appeal more generally when they are given a gloss and presented in a more thrilling way. The planetarium is a show as much as it is science, and that’s why you don’t need to know a thing about astronomy to enjoy it. It’s scientists marketing science to people.

Therefore, when you simply state that you can enjoy intellectual pursuits without having any understanding, don’t we need the person with understanding to somehow make it entertaining? If they don’t, what else should they expect?

Point #3: I don’t see an anti-intellectual agenda. The dispute is not anti-intellectual so much as people frustrated with intellectuals who theorize a bunch, but can’t put ideas into practice in a way that’s useful to the general public.

So, what is your evidence or where do you see intellect demonized? I don’t think it is.

Those two points were meant to respond to your claims in the previous post as well.

I could make my points more broadly, and succinctly, but I didn’t because I felt the issues here are complex. I didn’t mean to claim that my statement was intellectual, but more that your response wasn’t. That you disregard it without support may be pithy, but so is calling someone an asshole.

We can return to actually discussing, or you can continue to insult my by assuming that I’m blathering. I’m going to hold out the olive branch for as long as possible, despite everything.

iamthemob's avatar

And now three people agree with you, @crazyivan. Maybe you are right to insult me.

But, for those giving the insult a GA – well, do you disagree with what I say? If you want to remain anonymous, that’s your right. I’m willing to clarify.

Rarebear's avatar

For what its worth, I’m lurking on this debate and I throw my hat in with @iamthemob. I agree with him. I don’t see an anti-intellectual trend. The difference now is that in the good ‘ol days, in order for someone to be heard, they had to actually write and get someone to publish. Now any Joe Blow can write a blog and state their opinions on anonymous websites like fluther. So IMO it just appears that the intellectuals are being diluted out.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Let’s keep it civil, guys.

iamthemob's avatar

@Rarebear – I think that’s a really good point on the issue. What also plays into it is the fact that there’s simply more of everything, including people. This means that, simply because of the numbers game, we’ll just have more people who are superficial part of the general dialogue.

So, in addition to the lowered bars to entry to public discourse, there are more people taking advantage of that lowered bar.

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