The Tyranny of Certainty

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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, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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