The Pseudo-Intellectuals Among Us

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

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.

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