The Pseudo-Intellectuals Among Us

How pundits, quacks, sciolists, and charlatans subvert erudition and wisdom

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I love books. Well… I’m obsessed, as I’ve unabashedly stated. I delight in learning new words—oftentimes in multiple languages—and I get strangely excited about their etymologies. But I also have a tendency to gorge myself in random—and arguably useless—snippets of information regarding all sorts of things. This is often guided by a mild case of self-diagnosed attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder; I’ll proffer an example for adjudication to demonstrate how far off the beaten track I can wander.

A few days ago, I was reading a book when I suddenly encountered a new word. I reached for my cellphone and opened my Merriam-Webster app. Before I my search could begin, I was distracted by the app’s Word of the Day: crepuscular. I clicked on the word knowing that I would be provided with an etymology of the word. I wasn’t disappointed. But I learned Latin had two words describing twilight, one which had kinship with the word lucid. This naturally led me to Lucifer (and his descent), then to luciferin, followed by bioluminescence, marine wildlife, and finally whales.

Braggadocio to Lucifer to bioluminescence to whales. And I was only interrupted by a phone call. My massive digression could have landed me in the darker recesses of the internet, from which few return.

I still don’t know how this happens.

So, I am acquainted with a panoply of ostensibly useless trivia. Jack of all trades, master of none. If we could stroll through the labyrinthine scriptoria of my mind, it would look as if an earthquake had struck the Library of Alexandria moments before the infamous conflagration. Bedlam. Chaos. Madness. Nevertheless, I’ve been assured I could possibly find limited success as a contestant on Jeopardy. Meh… who knows?

The loss of focus and seemingly haphazard detours are not without their triumphs. I am reasonably well-informed about current events—foreign and domestic—and can participate in all sorts of learned and quasi-learned conversations; I typically have much to say in all cases. Yet, I never claim to be an expert, even in areas which I have been formally educated—or which I fervently research. Indeed, I often wonder whether these superficial glimpses of knowledge make me a dilettante.

Unfortunately, we are familiar with those charlatans who claim to “know for a fact,” or have profound knowledge and wisdom we mere plebeians could never possess. (Or one could take the President-elect’s position: “nobody really knows.”) Few appreciate a know-it-all. Yet, fewer still wish to be considered uninformed or unlearned. I think it is this fear which spawns pseudo-intellectuals.

What is a Pseudo-Intellectual?

There isn’t a general consensus about what defines a pseudo-intellectual. Wiktionary describes a pseudo-intellectual thusly:

  • A person who affects proficiency in scholarly and artistic pursuits whilst lacking any in-depth knowledge or critical understanding of such topics.

And Merriam-Webster gives the following definition:

  • A person who wants to be thought of as having a lot of intelligence and knowledge but who is not really intelligent or knowledgeable

The earliest—most comprehensive and, in my opinion, the most satisfying—description I could find came from a 1981 article by Sydney J. Harris. Harris, in reply to a Harvard student’s entreaties to settle a debate about intellectuals and their inverse, says that a pseudo-intellectal is:

“[a person] interested in being right, or being thought to be right, whether he is or not… claims to know as much as can be known about the subject under consideration… sets up a straw man and beats it to death for the sake of seeming to be superior… makes deity of reason and tries to force it into realms it cannot penetrate… accepts ideas, when he does, only from experts and specialists and certified authorities… propounds dogma that he insists is true… paints a picture in black and white, right or wrong, leaving no room for contrary viewpoints… makes each tentative and provisional answer sound like a finality… slavishly follows ‘the most reliable authorities’ in his field, sneering at heresies… [and] talks above his audience to mystify and impress them.”

I urge the reader to read the article in its entirety to see the complete juxtaposition between “true and false” intellectuals.

Where Pseudo-Intellectuals Lurk

Everywhere.

They are everywhere. In shopping malls, on the internet, in our homes. They publish books and host television programs. Television personalities and talk show hosts defer to them, asking their advice and spreading misinformation on important health matters.

Political talk shows often invite “experts” on to discuss some contrived or skewed topic. Ben Carson, former Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon, has shamelessly denounced evolution as “unscientific” and possibly being the work of Lucifer! And this is an educated man who utilized scientific principles in his profession for decades! Until December 04, 2016, the worst parts about Carson were his attacks against science and reason. On December 05, 2016, we could add that the acclaimed neurosurgeon—and his stultifying creationist rhetoric—had been nominated by President-elect Trump as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I don’t want to imply that a neurosurgeon cannot know about housing and urban development, but shouldn’t the nominated individual have credentials sufficiently close to the position in which they would hope to occupy.

I am continually surprised that purveyors of quackery—homeopathy, energy medicine, and acupuncture, to name a few—find droves of followers despite spurious health and weight loss claims. If only I lacked self-respect, ethics, and morals, then perhaps I could spout bullshit from the mountaintops like Deepak Chopra, and get paid handsomely for it, no less. The problem lies in vocabulary. Chopra knows a lot of words. He can pronounce the words with confidence, yet he knows not their definition. However, it’s the confidence and the convoluted way Chopra strings them together that earns him a huge following. Everyone should check out this site which provides one with the “enigmatic wisdom of Deepak Chopra.” It’s a lot of fun. More importantly, it makes plain that the garbled noise escaping the lips of Chopra and his ilk is bullshit at best.

Let’s not forget about the loathsome pre-digested health lessons given by the titan of quackery purveyors, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Half of all the advice Dr. Oz gives on his popular television show have little to no supportive evidence behind them, something which he has had to account for in front of a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing. One also has to question Oz’s motives when he uses “flowery language” when covering topics and health claims on his show, claims that he admits are not often supported by evidence. None of this, however, diminishes his following, worship, and fame. How could it? He’s a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. A man described as “so eloquent and telegenic that people are often surprised to learn that he is a highly credentialled member of the medical establishment.” Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Dr. Oz Show, polluted with its various exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims, has been presented with several Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Talk Show.

To combat pseudo-intellecutals, we must first change their names. Any association with brainpower—and intelligence broadly—must be avoided lest we inadvertently stroke any egos by use of the word intellect. I propose the term sciolist. Formally (according to herehere, and here), it is defined:

  1. One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding
  2. An amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge
  3. Smatterer, pretender to knowledge

The third one is my favorite. It is also the simpler and, arguably, the most perspicuous of its brethren.

Further, it wouldn’t hurt if we all became health literate and scientifically literate. We have to arm ourselves with skepticism and hypersensitive bullshit detectors, for pseudo-intellectuals are often indistinguishable from mere mortals. Oz, Chopra, and Carson—in order from least to most pernicious—are all educated with advanced medical training, donning the appropriate professional designations after their names to prove it. The latter two can certainly be classified as pseudo-intellectuals. Dr. Oz, on the other hand, harbors pseudo-intellectual tendencies. And I’m not absolutely certain to what degree financial incentives play a role in what he says and does.

I have two precious nuggets to offer as one pursues knowledge and wisdom to combat smatterers and pretenders. (Yes, knowledge and wisdom are two different things.) First, I entreat the reader to take a look at Maria Popova’s blog postWisdom in the Age of Information…, where she opens with this lovely passage:

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

An aside: Popova has also forewarned about the rise of pseudo-intellectuals and provides a valuable addendum to the above definitions I furnished. I maintain that Popova is right. And I think one way to achieve wisdom is to adopt a skeptical mindset. It permits us to be reflective and to question everything we encounter.

The second is another wonderful excerpt of Christopher Hitchens when debating the question: Does a Good God Exist? [I recommend watching the whole debate (here), without music, to better understand the context.] Of all the great things he had said or written, the following is certainly my personal favorite.

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet. That I haven’t understood enough. That I can’t know enough, that I’m always operating hungrily on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way… take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.

Indeed, I believe we should aspire to live that way, too.

Although I present a dichotomous picture of learned individuals versus pseudo-intellectuals, the truth is somewhat more nuianced. “[A]s in most matter’s concerning humans, there is no pure type: some intellectuals are laced with phoniness, and some pseudos have a hidden core of authenticity.” I often wonder where I lie on this proposed spectrum.

Lastly, I ask we ponder the following questions: Do our obscure hobbies make us frauds? Does our lack of commitment or enthusiasm for a particular subject—despite the morsels of trivia we greedily devour—make us dilettantes? Is the concept of a modern-day Renaissance man or woman an unrealistic one? Have we spread ourselves our too thin? Or have we, with our increased emphasis on specialization, all become pretenders of knowledge?

Author: unholyephraim

I am a nerd, a writer, a scientist (and a nascent public health professional), a gourmand, and a polyglot with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and an enthusiastic willingness to share that knowledge with others. I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology with minors in Mathematics and Chemistry, and I'm currently pursuing my Master of Science in Public Health.

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