Monday, December 08, 2008

The fate of an honest intellectual

Good thing I am not as courageous as Norman Finkelstein. I do remember the Sokal hoax, though :-) See academic trends in pictures for more fun!

The basic lesson deserves emphasis: most people -- even intellectuals, professors and, yes, scientists -- are not careful thinkers. They are not good at overcoming the emotional and psychological barriers that prevent the falsification of cherished beliefs. Science is good training, but all too often not sufficient.

My Chomsky story. I accidentally came across a copy of At War with Asia in the Page House library (Caltech) when I was a student. I had no idea who Chomsky was, I knew nothing yet of linguistics, but the book was powerful and affecting. Years later as a Junior Fellow I emailed Chomsky (a former Junior Fellow) at MIT and invited him to one of our formal Monday dinners. He declined to come to dinner, as his relationship with some of the senior fellows was contentious, but wanted to come to lunch and meet some of the younger people. We had a wonderful time, and I discovered he has a pretty good sense of humor :-)

Note: I don't have any particular expertise on the matters related to Finkelstein's career or scholarship. But the story below rings true to me.

The Fate of an Honest Intellectual

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, pp. 244-248

I'll tell you another, last case—and there are many others like this. Here's a story which is really tragic. How many of you know about Joan Peters, the book by Joan Peters? There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters—or at least, signed by Joan Peters—called From Time Immemorial. It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular—it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it. Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there's no moral issue, because they're just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country. And there was all kinds of demographic analysis in it, and a big professor of demography at the University of Chicago [Philip M. Hauser] authenticated it. That was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He's a very careful student, and he started checking the references—and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, it was completely faked: probably it had been put together by some intelligence agency or something like that. Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: "Here's what I've found in this book, do you think it's worth pursuing?"

Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it's an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you're going to get in trouble—because you're going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they're going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you're getting into. It's an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it's preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people's lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.

Well, he didn't believe me. We became very close friends after this, I didn't know him before. He went ahead and wrote up an article, and he started submitting it to journals. Nothing: they didn't even bother responding. I finally managed to place a piece of it in In These Times, a tiny left-wing journal published in Illinois, where some of you may have seen it. Otherwise nothing, no response. Meanwhile his professors—this is Princeton University, supposed to be a serious place—stopped talking to him: they wouldn't make appointments with him, they wouldn't read his papers, he basically had to quit the program. ...

He's now living in a little apartment somewhere in New York City, and he's a part-time social worker working with teenage drop-outs. Very promising scholar—if he'd done what he was told, he would have gone on and right now he'd be a professor somewhere at some big university. ...

But let me just go on with the Joan Peters story. Finkelstein's very persistent: he took a summer off and sat in the New York Public Library, where he went through every single reference in the book—and he found a record of fraud that you cannot believe. Well, the New York intellectual community is a pretty small place, and pretty soon everybody knew about this, everybody knew the book was a fraud and it was going to be exposed sooner or later. The one journal that was smart enough to react intelligently was the New York Review of Books—they knew that the thing was a sham, but the editor didn't want to offend his friends, so he just didn't run a review at all. That was the one journal that didn't run a review.

...We approached the publishers and asked them if they were going to respond to any of this, and they said no—and they were right. Why should they respond? They had the whole system buttoned up, there was never going to be a critical word about this in the United States. But then they made a technical error: they allowed the book to appear in England, where you can't control the intellectual community quite as easily.

Well, as soon as I heard that the book was going to come out in England, I immediately sent copies of Finkelstein's work to a number of British scholars and journalists who are interested in the Middle East—and they were ready. As soon as the book appeared, it was just demolished, it was blown out of the water. Every major journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review, the Observer, everybody had a review saying, this doesn't even reach the level of nonsense, of idiocy. A lot of the criticism used Finkelstein's work without any acknowledgment, I should say—but about the kindest word anybody said about the book was "ludicrous," or "preposterous." ...

Still, in the universities or in any other institution, you can often find some dissidents hanging around in the woodwork—and they can survive in one fashion or another, particularly if they get community support. But if they become too disruptive or too obstreperous—or you know, too effective—they're likely to be kicked out. The standard thing, though, is that they won't make it within the institutions in the first place, particularly if they were that way when they were young—they'll simply be weeded out somewhere along the line. So in most cases, the people who make it through the institutions and are able to remain in them have already internalized the right kinds of beliefs: it's not a problem for them to be obedient, they already are obedient, that's how they got there. And that's pretty much how the ideological control system perpetuates itself in the schools—that's the basic story of how it operates, I think.


Anonymous said...

"So in most cases, the people who make it through the institutions and are able to remain in them have already internalized the right kinds of beliefs: it's not a problem for them to be obedient, they already are obedient, that's how they got there."

Formal education is an example of an institution with no utility that persists. Why?

If lectures have any benefit, videotape is just as good as in-person.

The text. The reading. The excercises. The test. This is enough.

You're a real smart guy Steve, but if you were also moral you would quit stealing your students money by "teaching".

Dave Bacon said...


While I myself, and probably you, can learn from the text, the reading, the exercises, and the test, I'm pretty sure this is not a universal condition. Have you actually talked to students about this? Ever thought that maybe students learn differently from different methods? That your way of learning isn't universal?

That said I also think lecturing needs to be replaced. There have been some interesting studies of learning using video tapes along with an expert who can stop the tape and answer questions. Indeed the best lectures are the ones in which questions from the learners form the basis of the lecture.

And really "Formal education is an example of an institution with no utility that persists"? You believe everyone can just guide themselves and learn new subjects? I'd like to see that! That's some utopia you're thinking of.

Seth said...

There's a sad parallel between the "bubble" of academic acceptance of Joan Peters' book and the credit bubble currently deflating. Both are forms of the 'madness of crowds': beliefs lacking grounding in empirical fact, but sustained by a willingness to accept others' claims at face value rather than risk ostracism.

Seth said...

I suspect Finkelstein would have done ok if he had invested more energy in positive contributions of his own rather than attempting a politically-charged take-down. Once he had an established reputation and colleagues invested in him to some degree, then he might have had "standing" to launch such an attack.

Tribes can and do police their own sometimes, but if someone still 'outside' attempts a police raid it is apt to be taken as an attack on the whole tribe.

Socially constructed reality. Deal with it ;)

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows that actual learning is only a small component of the value of formal education. It's first and foremost about socialization and babysitting.

Anonymous said...

If you check out the wikipedia page on Finkelstein you'll see that he was awarded his Ph.D. from Princeton and has been faculty at numerous universities. It seems like he recently had some problems getting tenure at DePaul, but it doesn't look like his career was destroyed. Chomsky is pretty well regarded and makes some good points, but I think he also has a reputation for stretching the truth when it suits him.

Anonymous said...

Chomsky is an old man and he forgets that in the Internet era the 'big lie' that he likes to pursue just doesn't hold up.

Joan Peters is alive and well. It's completely likely that she authored the book. One only needs to do a Google search.

And Norman Finkelstein didn't lose his university position for his criticism of "From time immemorial..." The Internet will help here again.

Congrats Steve. You are a U of O member in good standing now!

Anonymous said...

"Everyone knows that actual learning is only a small component of the value of formal education. It's first and foremost about socialization and babysitting."

An absurd amount of money to pay for socialization and baby sitting. How'd man ever get along when only priests went to college? Of course there is a need for laboratories and libraries.

"And really "Formal education is an example of an institution with no utility that persists"? You believe everyone can just guide themselves and learn new subjects? I'd like to see that! That's some utopia you're thinking of."

No. There must be a curriculum/ syllabus for every subject. Now there are as many of these as there are instituions of higher education BUT only one per subject is needed. It's an absurd waste of resources.

Why has formal education persisted and grown?

The real answer is that whetever the institution, if it is old enough and it is large enough and it is powerful enough almost all men will try to rationalize it.

Steve Hsu said...

There are 2 questions:

1) Was the Peters book correct? Did it receive adulation from intellectuals who failed to carefully review the claims because it reinforced their prior beliefs?

2) Did Finkelstein pay a price for pointing out that the emperor had no clothes? Wikipedia says his PhD was delayed -- that is not inconsistent with Chomsky's story.

I suspect the answers are yes and yes.

I should add that I find Chomsky himself prone to confirmation bias. Read what he writes about kibbutz socialism in some of his earlier essays... (that's just one example off the top of my head).

Anonymous said...

Why are there two questions? There are many questions about such a post. For example, Chomsky believes:

"Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there's no moral issue, because they're just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country."

Why is this the implicit message? Maybe the implicit message of the book is that the Jews have just as much right as the Palestinians to live in that area. I would ask why Chomsky sees an implied threat to the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Israel? Is it because Jews have been expelled from practically every Arab country? Why don't you fact check that?

Or perhaps the idea that Finkelstein settled into obscurity in 2002. Finkelstein has had academic jobs since then and managed to get into trouble quite nicely. Perhaps Ward Churchill is another persecuted intellectual. Maybe Chomsky has something interesting to say about him.

Chomsky is a very dangerous man. But modern times and the free flow of information make him a bit less dangerous.

Steve, your blog is very interesting where it discusses finance and physics, but when it comes to politics you are just tone deaf.

Steve Hsu said...

The post is not about politics -- it's about cognitive biases.

Someone else will comment that they agree with Chomsky's take on Finkelstein but not with my take on Sokal or lit crit.

Anonymous said...

of course chomsky is infallible, even though he's a linguist, but the linguistics work he's famous for is a mathematization of grammar.

nothing the soc sci people could do would surprise me, it's all in their gre scores and the sat scores of soc undergrad majors.

Anonymous said...

anonymous wrote, Chomsky is a very dangerous man.

Yeah, because anyone who criticizes Israel is dangerous.

Anonymous said...

chomsky is a dangerous man because he pursues the big lie. In fact, the whole Chomsky screed reeks of the big lie--it's Chomsky himself who suffers from cognitive biases.

Anonymous said...

Some of the comments note that Finkelstein went on to teach at several institutions. This is great, because it got me to look at his wikipedia page and learn more. However, the same comments claim that that shows Chomsky to be a big fat liar. However, if you read closely you'll note that this passage from Chomsky was written in 1984.

Ron Pavellas said...

My most recent blog entry (12/17/08) may be relevant to your examination of "intellectuals" in academia and elsewhere: : What is 'Intellecual', Really?"--

efalken said...

Chomsky is a very interesting man because he shows what a genius is: sometimes brilliant, often crazy. As a libertarian economist, I find his Marxist narrative delusional, founded on patently absurd fundamentals (labor theory of value) and naivete (all those socialist failures aren't 'true socialism'?). Yet, his insight on the way all languages have this universal grammar that isn't strictly logical is really fascinating, and he's got some really interesting thoughts on artificial intelligence. Kary Mullis, William Shockley, Isaac Newton are other examples where if you read their oeuvre, there's a lot of brilliance, and a lot of just bat-poop crazy stuff.

Perhaps this is why the 'optimal IQ' is about 130, not 160, and definitely not infinity, from a fitness perspective.

steve hsu said...

If you do a statistically careful survey of 160s, over a wide range of questions, I don't believe that they'll have, on average, more nutty or incorrect or unjustifiable beliefs than a group of 130s. In fact it is much more likely that the 160s are "rational" (evidence based, Bayesian, whatever) thinkers than the 130s. Some (many?) 130s have trouble understanding Bayesian updates, decision making under uncertainty, systematic cognitive biases, etc. A 160 would not have this problem, although they may be sloppy about using it in all areas of thought.

PS I agree with your assessment of Chomsky's beliefs.

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