A celebrity intellectual is a person known to the general public for his or her intellectual achievements. There are many, many intellectuals who are known to their students and peers, but few of those manage to float into the consciousness of people outside their narrow academic discipline.
We have always had celebrity intellectuals. Socrates was certainly a celebrity in ancient Athens. Mass media made Einstein more famous more quickly than any scientist before him and, arguably, since. Television brought many more scientists, like Von Braun and Oppenheimer and Watson to public view.
Today, though, the Internet has accelerated the dissemination of all kinds of information to previously unimaginable velocities, including the accomplishments of key intellectuals. One of the biggest forces has been the digital broadcasting of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference talks. TED.com has made thousands of talks by designated intellectuals available to anyone who is connected to the Internet.
Suddenly we have so many celebrity intellectuals that we can’t remember their names. But we remember their claims to ideas and accomplishments. It’s not unusual today to hear someone at a party asking, “Did you hear that TED talk by that woman who studies why victims of domestic violence don’t leave their husbands?” That Woman is as much a celebrity as that actress who plays Sheldon Cooper’s mother in The Big Bang Theory. You can be a celebrity even if people don’t remember your name.
This phenomenon is not a fad. There is good reason to want to hear what the leaders of scientific and cultural revolutions have to say. You don’t have to make any outrageous assumptions to predict that the number of celebrity intellectuals in our lives will be greater than ever before in history.
This has some good effects.
It stimulates interest in intellectual pursuits. The more voters who talk about what they saw on TED instead of on Jersey Shore, the better off we all will be.
And we need more of our youth to aspire to be rocket scientists. Especially when they are inspired by intellectuals on the leading edge of science and technology.
But there are some pitfalls in the creation of celebrity intellectuals.
It begins when someone, like a TED conference organizer, selects an individual to present his or her work. This selection may be based on the existing fame of the individual; or the ability of the person to be entertaining; or even on the personal preferences of the organizer. People may be promoted to celebrity status because of their ability to network, to entertain, or even because of nepotism. Not all celebrity intellectuals are, in fact, the most accomplished intellectuals in their fields.
However, the celebrity is chosen, he or she is then in a position to take credit for creating a whole field of study when, in fact, he or she is normally only the tip of a large iceberg. More than once, I have heard TED speakers present their invention as a unique advance that stands alone when in reality, it is but a single stone in a huge pyramid.
Too often a celebrity uses the phrase, “I invented…” in a sentence which obscures exactly what small part of a much larger technology he or she invented and implies that he or she is personally responsible for an entire academic discipline. Often a discipline that was active and thriving years before the celebrity graduated from high school.
In effect, the celebrity becomes a personification of a field of academic study in the public mind. That’s okay to the extent that it makes the work easier for the public to understand and remember. But, to the extent that research funds are diverted away from other, arguably better, researchers, it can be detrimental to progress.
Worse, celebrity can pervert the scientific method. Science works on constant examination of ideas. Theories must be discarded when flaws are discovered or when new data invalidates them.
The celebrity’s work can become invulnerable to refutation simply because too many people automatically believe in the authority of the celebrity and considers him or her to be an unassailable expert. The celebrity can’t be wrong because he or she is the one who was made famous.
I can give you an example. I heard a talk on TED in which the speaker presented an improperly-designed experiment as confirmation of her theory. Her theory was probably correct, but one of the graphs that she showed did not support her position. I pointed this out in a comment and received, in reply, a couple of poorly-informed, logically-incorrect rebuttals. People were coming to the defence of the speaker, not because she was right, but because she had been chosen by the TED organizers to be the celebrity and I had not. I continued the argument briefly, then took my own homily – “When you are arguing with fools, so are they” – to heart and pursued the discussion no further. It’s foolish to beat yourself bloody against someone armored in celebrity.
When people can’t see past the celebrity to examine his or her ideas with an objective eye, then science has failed.
Neither of these consequences – ignoring other researchers or ignoring flaws in ideas – delivers a fatal blow to science. The entire scientific process has evolved to be robust and recover from such errors. But it takes time and will slow the progress of science to some degree. In fact, to the degree that the celebrity wields influence over other, less famous peers and over the public purse.
I believe that the rise of a culture of celebrity intellectuals will provide a net benefit to society. But that is not a certainty. What is a certainty is that the culture of celebrity intellectuals will not go away, but will become stronger over time.
It will be interesting to watch and see exactly how much the culture of celebrity intellectuals benefits us over the coming decades.