Does Celebrity Make Intellectuals Stupid? Part 3

Chatterbox parses Richard Posner’s data one last time.

Chatterbox stands accused of meandering around the question, “Does celebrity make intellectuals stupid?” in two previous items examining Richard Posner’s new book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. (Click here and here to read the previous items. Click here to see Posner’s controversial census of the 546 “public intellectuals” in America, and here to see Posner’s only slightly less controversial expanded list of 607. Click here to read a pissy column about Posner’s book in The Nation by Eric Alterman, who probably should have mentioned that he didn’t make either list. Click here to read a condescending review of Posner’s book in the New York Times by David Brooks, who appeared on both lists. And click here to read an online diary by Posner that, coincidentally, is running this week in Slate.)

So, does celebrity make intellectuals stupid? Chatterbox would say not. True, Posner finds a negative correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the media. But when it comes to the full list of 546 public intellectuals, Posner finds a positive correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations. (Moreover, as Chatterbox noted earlier, the negative correlation for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the media is far from across-the-board, since 18 of the top 100 media domes also ranked among the 100 public intellectuals most cited in scholarly journals.) So the worst thing you can say about public intellectuals is that the most famous among them more often than not see a dip in their academic prestige, though not always. The reason, Posner guesses, is that the time a very famous intellectual spends on public-intellectual work comes out of the time that intellectual would otherwise spend on academic work. (Apparently a 1977 study of U.S. Nobel laureates by Harriet Zuckerman observed something like this.) You wouldn’t think that writing the occasional op-ed or making the occasional appearance on Charlie Rose would take all that much time, but apparently it does if you’re in the top 100, where the pace of media schmoozing is much faster than it is for the other 446 public intellectuals. Like so much else in our economy, the public-intellectual market tends to be winner take all: Although the top 100 constitute less than one-fifth of Posner’s 546 public intellectuals, they get 67.5 percent of the media mentions! Clearly, we need to see some wealth redistribution—less media celebrity for Henry Kissinger and more for Morton White.

Incidentally, Chatterbox should add an important caveat: The number of scholarly citations a public intellectual gets is of course a somewhat shaky measure of how “smart” that person is in the first place. A public intellectual who addresses large issues of great interest to the broad public may be deemed within the academy to be insufficiently focused on minutiae. Chatterbox can imagine many instances where attention to minutiae is important. But he can also imagine many instances where it is not. Surely it’s not unknown for a scholar who becomes a household name to be subject to reverse snobbery from his peers. And surely it’s not unknown for a scholar who becomes a household name to let that celebrity go to his head and to produce sloppy work either inside or outside the academic realm. (Perhaps that’s Stephen Ambrose’s problem.) It’s Chatterbox’s guess—but only a guess—that these two factors cancel one another out.