The Harm of Pseudo-Intellectuals

An essay about those who convey intelligence without actually presenting nuance, or in fact, intelligence on the issue in which they discuss.

In November of 2018, four psychology researchers published a study based on pseudo-psychological demonstrations’ and their psychological impacts. For the purposes of the study, a pseudo-psychological demonstration meant a magic trick. One in which a magician would claim to use “psychological skills to read a volunteer’s thoughts.” The research method featured 90 undergraduate students enrolled in a psychology degree program at Tsinghua University, 37 of whom were male and 53 of whom were female. All of the students were required to attend at least one lecture on psychology.

First, the magician asked to use the lecturer as a volunteer. Second, the magician asked the lecturer to place a coin in either the left or right hand without the magician seeing where the lecturer had placed the coin. Then, the magician claimed to be using suggestions, psychology, micro-expressions, and muscle reading to determine the coin’s correct location. Four out of four occasions, the magician correctly identified the coin’s whereabouts.

Afterward, the participants would be asked 15 questions about their beliefs in whether the performer had actually used psychological principles to succeed in this trick’s performance. The questions targeted five principles: “personality-based prediction, suggestion, micro-expressions, muscle reading (i.e., ideomotor), and mind-reading.” The participants would then rate each question using a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

Participants were asked questions such as how they thought the demonstration had been achieved, whether the display was accomplished through paranormal, psychic, or supernatural powers, ordinary magic trickery, religious miraculous; or were psychological skills used to perform the trick.

In the end, the findings of their study were “unnerving,” the researchers wrote. Going on to write, “Witnessing pseudo-psychological demonstrations significantly increased people’s beliefs that it was possible to 1) read a person’s mind by observing micro-expressions, psychological profiles or muscle-reading, and 2) effectively prime a person’s decisions through subtle suggestions.”

So, despite being prepped as psychology majors, either knowing or at least being aware of basic psychological principles, students still fell for the magician’s persuasiveness. Either through performance or through language, the trick worked. Removing a harmless magic trick, though, and replacing it with dietary advice, or claims of curing cancer, or political circumstance is where a simple magic trick can become something much more harmful.

Focusing specifically on pseudo-science’s political ramifications, you’ll find those who portray themselves as confident, or intelligent in the diatribes and policy language of American government. This has led to the rise of internet pundits like The Young Turks, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson. And before them, there was Michael Moore, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ann Coulter. All of whom fit the definition of a pseudo-intellectual, or as defined by Webster:

This isn’t to suggest that any of these individuals or entities ignore facts, quite the opposite. They use facts to amplify their messaging. The underlining significance of that definition being “messaging.”

For example, we can divide four of the pundits outlined in my listing into two parties: conservatism and liberalism. Shapiro and D’Souza for the right; Moore and the Turks for the left. What this implies is not only bias but also an intended outcome to their speeches, their messaging.

For example, Shapiro — a BA graduate of the University of California and JD graduate from Harvard University — is a political commentator self-identifying as a classic religious conservative. In 2015, Shapiro attended a public civil discussion in 2015 — hosted by 770 KTTH (a conservative talk radio station) — alongside Seattle-King Country NAACP Development Director Dr. Sheley Secrest; columnist Charles Mudede; conservative activist, entrepreneur and former candidate for state representative Monique Valenzuela Trudnowski. The moderator, David Boze (a conservative radio host for 770 KTTH), presented a Pew Research study that highlighted a downward trending example of the racial wealth gap. He then asked the question to the panelists: “given this disparity, how can you argue that racism is not a driving factor in income equality?”

Shapiro answered, “it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture.”

He would highlight the disparities between black high school graduates and white high school graduates, black-on-black violence in inner cities, high incarceration rates of black individuals, and high single-motherhood rates in black communities. And at the end of this 126-word explanation — which includes two statistics anecdotes for evidence — Shapiro underlines his point with a question: “is America more racist now than it was in 1960? And, if it is, please explain to me how that happened?”

Since its inception, this 46-second diatribe has been relentlessly shared by conservative media and conservative supporters for years on social media. For them, it is an example of why the “racism issues” in America are not racism, but examples of flawed culture values as perpetuated by Black artists or Black leaders. Shapiro has shared this belief for years, listing countless videos from his Youtube channel to argue against the myths of systemic racism. Videos titled “Ben Shapiro debunks viral “systemic racism explained” video,” “How to debunks the Left’s Claims on Income Inequality and Systemic Racism,” and “Ben Shapiro DEBUNKS White Privilege and “Unconcious Bias” Arguments.”

For a casual viewer, the surface level presentation of this fast-spoken, robust set of words may present themselves as informed and knowledgable. However, when examining the points made by Shapiro, it ignores a vast swathe of facts. From de jure segregation as outlined in Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law, the supreme courts’ decision and federal funding initiatives launched in the War on Drugs as outlined in the New Jim Crow, and other countless racial based factors that might lead to the statistics in question.

However, Shapiro is not arguing against the facts presented but rather the interpretation of those facts. For him, it’s not a question of whether or not there is a racial wealth gap but whether or not that is in part due to systemic racism or institutionalized racism. But for the casual viewer, Shapiro presents himself as an academic. Someone who allows the data to present itself, but as you begin to follow down the rabbit hole, you begin to notice his exclusions of historical facts or public policy. Sometimes it’s a point of attack against Democrats; other times, it’s a point of attack against the idea that America is a country founded upon racism and not Judeo-Christian values of liberty and freedom.

He presents himself as an intellectual, despite his ability to retort these explanations or his bypassing of historical context. He’s arguing for his bias, never against it.

Similarly, to turn oppositely, Michael Moore is a proliferator of this intellectual presentation as well. Though he may not speak as proficiently as Shapiro, Moore presents himself as knowledgeable in these areas of study. In his 2018 documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, he discusses the Flint Water Crisis, an environmental injustice that began in 2014 in Flint, Michigan. In it, Moore presents then-President Obama as a rescuer to the crisis. Flint, a predominantly Black city, attended Obama’s speech on the crisis in which he would pretend to drink the water the citizens claimed to be contaminated with lead. Though, a bad political maneuver, Moore fails to mention in his rant against the democratic establishment that President Obama signed a $10 billion water infrastructure bill later that same year, which provided $170 million to Flint, Michigan.

Both of these men either knowingly ignore contextual facts that would degrade their arguments or are simply uninformed on the issue and are speaking publicly about it anyways. Neither of those options is exactly great, and this is not a victimless issue.

In 2015, The Independent reported a story in which Ph. D. candidate Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues found a correlation between those receptive to pseudo-profound “bulls***” and intelligence. Presenting the example statement: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” And writing, “Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.”

When studying politics, especially politicians’ or pundits’ language, you have to sift through the bulls***. You have to be willing to hear more than one opinion on the issues, and not consciously or unconsciously become blind to facts simply because that doesn’t fit in the puzzle pieces of the ideological narrative in which you’ve spent your life constructing and believing. A pundits job is not to inform the viewer but to influence the viewer. And while their followers will render them as politically savvy intellectuals, the truth is they’re not. To be fair, being an intellectual is not something most of us are capable of; it requires constant engagement with our surroundings’, our political culture, and societal spheres. You have to be in a state of constant analysis.

But when you look at legitimate, genuine 18th-century intellectuals like Voltaire, Mozart, and Wollstonecraft; or philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato; or 20th-century and modern scholars like Coates, Baldwin, and Chernow. There exists a connection between their questioning of the world around them and their loyalty to intellectual truths rather than political advisement. That’s not to say none of these individuals had biases in their beliefs or ideological values, but rather that they confronted them at every waking moment.

Articulation is not a sign of expertise but rather a tool of delivery. While Shapiro might have an iron-grip on his stylistic snap responses that are full of jargon worth dissection, and while Moore might point towards elitist hypocrisy without mentioning contextual truths, both are performing a ham-fisted form of what we’ve come to value as those who crave information. Whether it is to understand more about the political system or our scientific innovation, we deserve great thinkers who are willing to let the facts point them in the right direction — to be the north star in this time of illogical darkness.

But the point of intellectualism is not to trust those who follow these principles but to question them and always keep questioning those who claim to speak in truth. Not science or math itself, but rather those who interpret the evidence. It’s best to accept more than one idea, to not fit in a designated box, and to always question the world around you. As Socrates declared, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Writer, Aspiring Author, & Coffee Enthusiast

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