by Judith Curry
Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader. – David Brooks
David Brooks has an entertaining piece called The thought leader. Excerpts:
[A] new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.
The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited.
He doesn’t have students, but he does have clients. He doesn’t have dark nights of the soul, but his eyes blaze at the echo of the words “breakout session.”
Many people wonder how they too can become Thought Leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like.
In fact, the calling usually starts young. As a college student, the future Thought Leader is bathed in attention. On campus he finds himself enmeshed in a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation.
Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.
Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status.
Fortunately, this snarky phase doesn’t last. By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese.
The middle-aged Thought Leader’s life has hit equilibrium, composed of work, children and Bikram yoga. The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child. His prose has never been so lacking in irony and affect, just the clean translucence of selling out.
By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.
Toward the end of his life the Thought Leader is regularly engaging in a phenomenon known as the powerless lunch. He and another formerly prominent person gather to have a portentous conversation of no importance whatsoever. In the fading of the light, he is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell.
Motivated by Brooks piece, Paul Krugman writes The Facebooking of Economics. Excerpts:
It used to be the case that to have a role in the economics discourse you had to have formal credentials and a position of authority; you had to be a tenured professor at a top school publishing in top journals, or a senior government official. Today the ongoing discourse, especially in macroeconomics, is much more free-form.
But you don’t get to play a major role in that discourse by publishing clever Slateish snark; you get there by saying smart things backed by data.
Obviously the web has changed a lot, although the process actually started even before the rise of blogs. Economics journals stopped being a way to communicate ideas at least 25 years ago, replaced by working papers; publication was more about certification for the purposes of tenure than anything else. Partly this was because of the long lags — by the time my most successful (though by no means best) academic paper was actually published, in 1991, there were around 150 derivative papers that I knew of, and the target zone literature was running into diminishing returns. Partly, also, it was because in some fields rigid ideologies blocked new ideas.
Anyway, at this point the real discussion in macro, and to a lesser extent in other fields, is taking place in the econoblogosphere. This is true even for research done at official institutions like the IMF and the Fed: people read their working papers online, and that’s how their work gets incorporated into the discourse.
So who are the players in this world? I see a lot of solid professional economists; a number of equally solid economic journalists; and a few people who don’t fall into standard categories, but are by no means the kind of shallow operator Brooks describes.
Does this new, amorphous system work? Yes! In just the past few years we’ve had what I’d consider three classic economic debates. Of course most of the people on the losing side of these debates refuse to admit having been wrong, but it was ever thus — science progresses funeral by funeral and all that.
So don’t feel nostalgic for the days of authority figures dominating the discourse. Intellectually, in economics at least, these are the good old days.
JC comment: Thinking about climate science, both of these essays provide some insights. Like economic debates, the scientific and public debate on climate change is proceeding much faster than the peer reviewed journal process. The Cowtan and Way paper is a case in point, in context of the intense public interest in the pause – within a week or two of publications, there was a plethora of analyses checking and interpreting this paper. I also like Krugman’s statement: ‘rigid ideologies blocked new ideas.’
Foreshadowing these ideas, in my 2006 paper on Mixing politics and science . . . I wrote:
Some of the most relevant scientific debate on this topic is not being undertaken at meetings sponsored by the relevant professional societies and government agencies, but rather in the media and via blogs, and only slowly in the professional scientific journals. After reading The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Friedman 2005), we were prompted to reflect on how broadly the new technologies are influencing the scientific process on topics of high relevance. As pointed out by Friedman, the challenge is how to think about the new technologies and the associated changes that have irreversibly changed the intellectual commons and manage it to maximum effect. The new scientific process will eventually sort itself out among the new technologies, the need for the scientific review process, and the need for information by the public and policymakers. However, during this sorting-out period (which may end up being a period of continual evolution as new technologies emerge), the use of science to inform policy, particularly on issues of high relevance, will almost certainly become confused with the decentralization of scientific authority previously vested in scientists that have published on the subject in refereed journals. While this decentralization provides a better guarantee that the best possible information and analysis is out there somewhere, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the best information and analysis in this new environment, providing more fodder for the politicization of science.
This decentralization of intellectual authority is overall a good thing, although David Brooks satirically describes the emergence of a rather shallow group that in the climate field may be bloggers, consultants, or employed by advocacy groups. I’m intrigued by Brooks’ description of the evolution of such individuals; I have seen people enter into this arena at all stages of life – from college age to post retirement. Twenty- and thirty-somethings don’t have a monopoly on snark, it is alive and well in more senior bloggers (William Connolley immediately comes to mind). There may be a mellowing with age effect – I used to find Gavin Schmidt to be extremely snarky; I find him less so now. Which of these individuals successfully emerge as thought leaders? Well I think getting rid of the snark seems to be a prerequisite for making it into the major leagues (not sure if I count making it into the Guardian or HuffPo as ‘major leagues’). People who actually do analysis that is meaningful in an academic context (even if they choose not to publish in academic journals) seems to be another prerequisite.
The bottom line is that fields with high societal relevance – economics and climate change are prime examples – is that thought leadership requires a response time substantially more rapid that the academic publication and comment/response cycle. Blogs and working papers posted on the internet are moving the scientific and public debate much more rapidly than was previously possible. Rapid publication in online discussion journals is arguably a compromise between slower traditional academic publishing and the wild west of the blogosphere.
From my perspective as a university researcher in a field with high societal relevance, it seems that the reward structures and way we educate students is not well suited to this brave new world.