Private intellectual

by Michael

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I tend to think of myself as an intellectual. This is not to say I think I am cleverer than anyone else, or even clever at all, but more that I experience life mostly ‘in my head’, through my thoughts. Often we make a  distinction between the head and the heart, the intellect and the emotion; add to this the gut, or the instinct, and there you have my shorthand triad for dissecting personality. So I dwell in my head at the expense of my heart and my gut. While it means – in theory, at least – that I think my way through problems, applying rational arguments, in fact it often manifests itself as a pathological tendency to over-think problems, to worry about every minor decision (sometimes at the expense of major ones) and to distrust emotional and instinctive responses.

(Writing this – and, of course, thinking about it too much – I wonder whether it is really true that my personality is weighted so far toward intellect. I suspect my emotions and instinct have much more of a role than I acknowledge, but I channel their contributions through my head so it feels as though it is intellectual thought, which I am more comfortable with.)

If it helps make the point that I don’t intend ‘intellectual’ to be a judgmental term (ie a boast about my mental capabilities), I know that I am in no way ‘academic’. The signs were there in my undergraduate degree, which I characterise these days as a struggle with the practicalities of scientific life though the struggle was as much with the library as the lab. The signs were there, too, during my various postgraduate studies (I’ve done a lot of studying for a nonacademic): at drama school, I flourished on a course that met (barely) its academic requirements but emphasised more the practice of theatre; then, while doing a science communication masters, I rediscovered my antipathy to organised research methods. I love reading around a subject but I have no interest in documenting my research by noting sources and banking references. I prefer to trip aimlessly through reading matter, decide what I agree with (or what agrees with me) and incorporate it into my own world-view rather than maintaining an academic distance in order to marshal those resources and play out arguments at a later date.

I finished my masters almost exactly seven years ago. This month, my course celebrated its 21st anniversary by inviting alumni back for a day of discussion and reflection about science communication. The session I found most interesting was on the role of public intellectuals, hence my starting this post the way I did and my continuing it thus.

Thinking out loud

The questions asked in the session were around scientists as public intellectuals: Can a scientist even fulfil the role? On the other hand, does the role per se necessitate some scientific expertise?

Clearly some sort of definition is in order. Is a ‘public intellectual’ just someone who talks about brainy ideas in the media? Or is there some more specific social role implied by the term? While suggestions of public intellectuals the other week included Brian Cox, Christopher Hitchens and Voltaire, for me the term is only interesting when it is applied with a specific social purpose. Steve Fuller, an academic at Warwick University, described it as “thinking out loud”, to which I would tentatively append “on behalf of society”. I like that because it does not suggest expertise in a particular area but rather the capacity to apply one’s (effective) mental faculties to a problem, or an issue, or a concept, and – without committing to always being right – helping to define a wider understanding of it that comes from the head (as if specifically to counteract the apparently more common and immediate reactions from the heart and the gut).

In fact, public intellectuals are definitely not ‘experts’, except in the application of intellect to particular topics. Expertise, obviously a vital part of the debate, may even be a drawback to the specific role of the ‘public intellectual’, if it interferes with a proper, distanced examination of the issue. This might, therefore, exclude from the discussion the sort of ‘science celebrity’ that seems to be on the rise, if only in the well-cited persona of TV’s Brian Cox (who, I note, appeared in Doctor Who last night in exactly the same role as the newsreaders who play themselves in that show in order to lend an air of legitimacy to the scripted public response to the kind of problems (alien invasion, mostly) that the Doctor and his companions encounter.

(It strikes me that the Doctor might be a good example of a public intellectual – if only he had a more ‘public’ persona within the fiction of the show. He does, after all, if I recall correctly, spend a lot of the script saying “Think!”, either to himself or his companion and while his solutions often involve an element of running down corridors and waving his sonic screwdriver at things, there is usually some thinking behind it).

Going in to the alumnal discussion, my idea of a public intellectual was Jonathan Miller – polymath medic, comedian, broadcaster and opera director – obviously a ‘brainy’ chap. I’m slightly alarmed that I now seem to have settled on Doctor Who as a model, but who else is there? Our public intellectual is not just someone who turns up on the Today programme to spout preconceived opinions about the latest controversy.

The public intellectual is interested in everything, is capable of analysing anything (albeit from a particular ethical, moral, philosophical or even academic starting point) and reaches conclusions that are useful. They’re the kind of people you’d like in the House of Lords, perhaps, counterbalancing the professional politicians in ‘the other place’, who seem to rely on instinct to decide policy and emotion to sell it to us voters.

Could a scientist fulfil this public intellectual role? Why, yes, of course. As someone noted in the session, a scientist is more than just an expert – they are a person too (I know; newsflash!). And scientists (in theory) are trained in applying their intellectual capabilities to problems, in an attempt to understand the problem before attempting to devise a solution (if a solution is even required). I don’t think this capability is exclusive to scientists, but if they could bear to abandon their specific expertise, I’m sure many of them could add to society’s “thinking out loud” – as long as they use their heads more than their hearts and guts.

Part of me aspires to such a role, although I would have to find a way to ditch that part of my head that worries too much about getting things wrong in public. For the point of ‘thinking out loud’ is as much to generate and test ideas as it is to explain and resolve them.

I will stay a ‘private’ intellectual for now, then, with no illusions about either the relevance or the rightness of my thoughts. But I will look out for those with the necessary intellectual intelligence and public confidence – my head, heart and gut all tell me such people are the most interesting and the most useful to society.

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