Why are intellectuals such conformists?

What, you didn’t know that they were conformists?  That’s not surprising.  The scholar of our time preens himself as an independent thinker, and works hard to project that image to others as well.  In his view, the non-intellectuals are the conformists, and he and his fellow intellectuals are the exceptions, free minds and spirits who stand apart from the herd.

Superficially, there is something to it.  It’s true that his views are different than those of non-intellectuals.  He may even hold their views in scorn.  A student, seeing that his professor thinks differently than his parents do, may be forgiven for considering his professor an independent thinker.  But the truth is merely that his parents are not the sorts of people to whom his professor conforms.

Scholars conform to each other.  Consensus is achieved not so much by following the evidence wherever it leads, as by talking oneself into viewing the evidence in such a way that one is never in danger of falling too far out of line with how other scholars think.

We admit that this sort of thing has taken place in the recent past.  Once upon a time geologists “knew” that the earth’s crust is stationary, penologists “knew” that prisons rehabilitate, neuroscientists “knew” that male and female brains are identical except for the regions which regulate sexual hormones and behaviors, psychologists “knew” that sexual abusers who have undergone therapy are no longer dangerous to children, political economists “knew” that the transfer of wealth from the governments of rich nations to the governments of poor nations makes the poor people in those nations richer, and climatologists “knew” that the earth was about to enter a new ice age.

Though we like to think we are above all that today, the fear of deviating from what the smart people think is as strong as ever.  Atmospheric scientists “know” that human activity is causing the earth to become warmer, biologists “know” that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of random variation and natural selection, sociologists “know” that children raised by same-sex couples thrive just as well as children raised by their mothers and fathers, political scientists “know” that diversity of color is crucial to intellectual debate but that diversity of opinion is not, university administrators “know” that differences in the intellectual fields preferred by men and women are due to discrimination, and intellectuals in general “know” that although there might be a God, there couldn’t be one whose existence would make any difference.

So what is my thesis?  That the impulse to conform is just as powerful among intellectuals as among people in general?  No, I think it is much more powerful.

There are probably many reasons, but allow me to suggest just two of them. 

One reason is fiscal and organizational.  Laboratory research and survey research are expensive, and even when scholars pursue lines of research which don’t cost anything, they are often under pressure from those who decide on their salaries and promotion to bring money to the university in the form of research grants.  Who doles out these grants?  Increasingly, the government doles them out.  Who decides who receives them?  Committees of scholars decide.  Which scholars tend to get onto these committees?  The sort who hold the conventional views.  What kinds of research do such people tend to support?  The kinds that don’t challenge these views.

Although the fiscal and organizational explanation is a strong one, there is a certain mystery about it.  For why do intellectuals put up with such regimentation?  Why don’t they rebel? At least part of the answer lies in how we grew up.

Most of us were nerds.  We were good at things other children didn’t care about, and poor at things other children admired.  Understandably, the other kids found us strange.  To compensate, many of us cultivated a sense of superiority.  “I don’t need those dumb kids; I am one of the smart ones.”

But “smart kids” too are social beings.   A child who “doesn’t need” the approval of the “dumb kids” depends all the more on the approval of the "smart ones" to whom he is desperate to belong.  And the fact of the matter is that strangeness isn’t valued by the “smart ones” either; they merely have different criteria of what is strange.  The entrance ticket to the smart club isn’t just to be smart, but to think the way kids think who are already considered smart.  As we age, the pressure to stay on good terms with the club grows only stronger.

I am less distressed by all this than one might think.  There is nothing wrong with intellectual authority; the problem is that we hew to the worst kind of it, the authority of the intellectual mob.  Working within an intellectual tradition is actually a good thing; the problem is that instead of working within traditions, we work within fads.

Could the intellectual culture be different?  Of course.  It is not a permanent feature of reality; there have been many intellectual cultures.  Then how might it change?  That is a good question, but not for today.