Nice work, if you can get it

Why doesn't Consumer Reports rate analysis from public intellectuals?

In the authoritative words of one international affairs analyst in late October: "US policy has assumed that the Northern Alliance, and possible Taliban defectors or dissident tribal groups elsewhere in the country, would do the ground fighting to overturn Afghanistan's present government, once air power had broken its resistance. This is not happening." Barely two weeks later, that's exactly what happened.

Why was it that so many public intellectuals read the war on terrorism incorrectly? What explains their often "false prophecies" and ill-considered prognostications?

Richard Posner, a US Court of Appeals judge (known most recently for his mediation in the Microsoft antitrust case), senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and prolific author, thinks he knows precisely why.

In "Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline," Posner turns his poison pen on scores of public intellectuals, including the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Luttwak, and Paul Ehrlich, those "talking heads" who disseminate their thoughts to the wider public on issues of political and ideologically import.

Of particular interest are environmental decay, the darker side of realpolitik, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, former President Bill Clinton's impeachment, and the deadlocked 2000 presidential election.

Through the application of market economics and statistical analysis, Posner first identifies the seemingly endless supply of and demand for public intellectuals to pontificate on these matters and their various genres (such as the literary critic, the public philosopher, and the Jeremiahs or "declinists"). He also highlights the fact that market discipline is sorely lacking. Bad analysis rarely leads to reduced "marketability," which underscores the poor contribution of "knowledge workers" to molding better citizens. "Their difficulty in contributing to social betterment is the failure of a market rather than of individuals," writes Posner.

Indeed, he goes to great lengths to outline the reasons for a badly performing public intellectual marketplace: the modern university, its predilection for a specialization of knowledge, the disappearance of bona fide "independent" intellectuals, the notion of the intellectual on "holiday" from the rigors of academic peer review, and the dereliction of the media's gatekeeping function.

Added to these are the absence of a discriminating consuming public, the low cost of entering the market, and the failure to provide any product warranties or quality guarantees. As Posner himself laments: "The public protects itself against the high variance and low average quality of public-intellectual work mostly by not taking it very seriously."

Posner does not, however, leave readers searching for their own solutions. He has a number of practical and interesting suggestions, all of which he freely acknowledges have little or no chance of being implemented.

In order to institute some norms of greater accountability, accessibility, and quality, he admonishes academic institutions not only to accord more scholarly attention and scrutiny to the phenomenon of public intellectuals (including the creation, half tongue-in-cheek, of a Journal of Retractions), but to use their Web pages to catalog each faculty members' forays into the public intellectual marketplace.

More controversially, he argues that public academics should disclose their incomes earned from "going public" for purposes of transparency and as a deterrent against "irresponsible moonlighting" and "selling out."

The tone of his narrative reflects, at times, a certain pettiness, a sort of combination of settling of scores and professional jealousy. But his marshaling of arguments, combined with his copious footnotes and extensive source material, makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read.

That said, this is not a book for the faint of mind, the ideologically challenged, or even the general reading public, and thus it raises some questions about Posner's own public intellectual status.

• Peter McKenna is an assistant professor in the Department of Political and Canadian Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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