Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in The Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”
It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.
By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
Here is the exchange that I had with Gelernter when I reached out to ask if he would be interested in discussing the substance of his views on science, politics and culture.
Conor Friedersdorf: The Founding era had as significant a scientist and inventor as Benjamin Franklin playing major parts in the revolution and experiment in self-government.
What might a science advisor offer elected officials today?
David Gelernter: I think the lesson of Franklin is not that a science advisor can tell you all sorts of things about government and diplomacy and human nature, but that thoughtful people are almost never defined by a pre-existing intellectual shoe-box. The best scientists aren't the dedicated drudges who have no other interests. The best take after Newton, Einstein and tens of thousands of lesser lights in their devotion to science and other things too. As a scientist handing out advice on the study of science, something I do as a college teacher, one of my main messages is that you can't be an educated human being on the basis of science alone; another main message is that, sometimes, you can't even be a scientist or technologist on the basis of science alone.