The Tyranny of Certainty

This is a nice rant by Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, in conversation with John McWhorter of Columbia. It's about the toll taken on academic thought by specialization and what you might (though Loury doesn't) call intellectual timidity.

Loury's opening reference to the 'young whippersnappers' in economics may make you want to file this under, 'Kids, get off my lawn!'. But Loury isn't imagining this difference between generations. That academic specialization has grown during his career is undeniable--and, indeed, is a sign of a kind of intellectual progress. So is the greater use of quantitative tools, as he acknowledges. In that sense, faculties full of tightly focused number crunchers should be a source of pride. Still, we do need the yin to this yang--the impressionists, the synthesizers, the grand theorizers, the reckless speculators, the people willing to spend time arguing about things that won't soon, if ever, be settled but are no less important for that.

If you want to see more of Glenn, check out the Glenn Show archives at Bloggingheads.tv. If you want to hear McWhorter discuss the theory that made him unpopular among some of his fellow linguists, here's that.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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