Let’s detect and undo one of the most popular intellectual fallacies ever

As a case in point, consider my recent post arguing that Andrew Sullivan is the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years.  Such a claim will raise the status of Sullivan.  While I am happy to see his status raised, that is not my point.  My point is merely that he has been very influential, and in the sense of changing actual real world outcomes, a claim which most other public intellectuals of high status cannot even begin to make.  The comments on the post are mostly weak, especially those comments critical of Sullivan.  Some people are arguing that Sullivan does not in fact deserve higher status.  And that in turn is causing them to misjudge, or fail to judge at all, the claim about his influence.

If you can avoid this fallacy consistently, and unpack the positive claim from any and all implications about changes in status, you will think much better and learn much more.  I find also that very smart people are not necessarily more protected against this mode of fallacious reasoning.

Many blogs of course pander to this very fallacy.  Why not be more explicit?  One could put a post up with the person’s name and photo and simply write: “OK people, let’s argue in the comments whether this person deserves a higher or lower status.”  But that would be too explicit, and it would lower the status of the blogger and commentator, so something else is written and the same debate ensues.


I couldn't agree more. This reminds me of studying St. Augustine, rightly considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in antiquity for his enormous cultural influence. Europe, for a thousand years, was largely shaped by one man's writing about God.
I found Augustine to be boring, intellectually sloppy and rather tepid, yet I appreciate that his influence was vast not only from around 500-1500 C.E., but that he had a huge impact on dozens of other writers, thinkers and politicians.
Ideas, and people, can be influential regardless of whether or not you agree with them.

St. Augustine is boring _because_ he was so influential. Plato is also extremely boring -- but that's just a reflection of how deep his influence was. If you compare patterns of thought before and after Plato/St. Augustine you see the importance of their thought.

For instance, St. Augustine wrote a version of the "Cogito" a millennium before Descartes did.

Augustine was also the first major thinker to push a linear and progressive narrative of history instead of a circular vision.

(Note that I am trying to raise the status of of Augustine here)

Many blogs of course pander to this very fallacy.

Of course there is no pandering on this blog or in the comments.

Is there a difference between being influential, and being an influential intellectual?
Are very obvious influences more important than more subtle influences?
Is influence over current time t more important than influence over time t+dt?

How would we even expect the correlation to go? For example, here's Google N-gram for Andrew Sullivan & gay marriage: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=gay+marriage%2CAndrew+Sullivan&year_start=1970&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=0 graph: http://i.imgur.com/hB0snzr.png

'Gay marriage' long prediates Sullivan, we can see from the small bumps (who aren't our Sullivan), and then we see a steady growth in both followed by gay marriage taking off massively in 2004 while Sullivan remains relatively constant. Is this what we would expect to see if Sullivan were the leading ideologue whose persuasiveness were fueling the rise of gay marriage?

I would maintain there is a valid distinction. Oprah, as someone else said, has been much more influential. Perhaps Phil Donohue as well if you want to go far back. But intellectuals they are not.

Nor is Sullivan. Nor do I think he has been all that influential.

I've no idea what a "positive claim" might be, but the thrust of the advice is pretty much what a fourteen year old is reminded of before starting to write an essay (or at least it was in my day). Why is it necessary to repeat it here for adults?

You must be new here ?

What, with my implication that economists be viewed as adults? It was rather innocent of me, alas.

A positive claim is a statement about what is, as opposed to a normative claim, which asserts what should be.

Sullivan has been influential - but you are overstating his case.

The success of gay marriage is due, in part, to greater acceptance of homosexuality altogether. It was socially difficult for many to "come out of the closet" prior to the 1980's. The reasons are many - and irrelevant to this post - but it's true. A major reason why many people today feel gay marriage should be legal is that they simply know gay people today.

Sullivan is not often credited for causing people to come out of the closet. It's true he formulated the earliest arguments for gay marriage - arguments that are universally right. And it's probably true that he has, indirectly, made this more socially acceptable - but that's also true of many many leading homosexuals. Sullivan no doubt advanced the cause of gay marriage... and in my mind deserves credit. But it's probably wrong to say he's even close to the leading cause. That battle has been fought more broadly by millions of people who've made the often difficult decision to come out of the closet... The credit should be spread much more widely.

Couldnt agree more. Perhaps Sullivan had some influence on the gay marriage debate, maybe even quite a bit, but to say that he is the most influential public intellectual of the last 25 years over steps the mark by quite a bit. He would still need a step ladder to kiss Milton Freeman's ass.

I agree. And further, let's get to specifics:
Sullivan: gay marriage
Friedman: the elimination of the draft, the earned income tax credit, school choice, the tide starting to turn against the war on drugs, the broadening of the libertarian movement and the increasing importance of libertarian institutions (the Institute for Justice, Cato, Reason, George Mason, Marginal Revolution, The Volokh Conspiracy, the Tea Party), public choice theory, libertarian tendencies in the information technology sector, Healthcare Savings Accounts, the understanding of the great depression, monetary policy, free trade, respect for the link between free trade and peace, the start of judicial questioning of central authority and commerce clause power, an increased respect for property rights. And all of that is just the influence in the U.S.

Don't forget complete scientific lack of respect for wildlife ecosystems that require government protection, and an inability to understand that Social Security is a cost-saving institution isomorphic to a business firm. Part of our problem is that far too many people have been kissing Milton Friedman's ass.

Who's Andrew Sullivan?

Thread winner.

Not to paint myself as a naive know-nothing but I actually had to Google him. Disappointed to find out he was just a conservative gay... Even if the guy had single-handedly brought gay marriage acceptance to the masses, that's still would be relatively modest.

I mean, don't get me wrong, for all kind of associated reasons, I believe accepting homosexuality is important and the young are not wrong to use it as a quick way to evaluate politicians/proposals etc.

But it's still only 10% or less of the population.

First, you overrate the influence of Andrew Sullivan because you don't understand why trends in American thought and life over the last half century contributed to the inevitability of gay marriage becoming an elite obsession. Sullivan didn't convert anybody through the brilliance of his reasoning (I read his 20th Century articles on the subject -- e.g., we need gay marriage to fight the AIDS epidemic! -- and they were weak.) Sullivan just was well-situated to hop on the bandwagon earlier than most.

Second, even if Sullivan were the single-handed author of gay marriage, so what? It's a silly brouhaha that reflects the fundamental silliness of dominant modes of discourse in the 21st Century.

Third, Sullivan's pretty boring to talk about (other than the fact that he juices himself with artificial testosterone, which explains a lot about his erratic judgment), so commenters went off on tangents and offered opinions on other public intellectuals. For example, I nominated as the "top" intellectual of the last 15-20 years Steve Pinker, based on some combination of influence, accuracy, style, novelty, and significance.


I find myself agreeing with Steve Sailer. On Pinker at least.

Are you suggesting Tyler is not thinking regionally ?

I think Steve is trolling for nominations for himself.

Steve is certainly more cited on the comments of this blog!

Last 25 years, among North Americans, restricting the list to authors of heavyweight nonfiction books.

Pinker, Murray, maybe Diamond, maybe Fukuyama, maybe Paglia. The Wilsons (E.O and James Q.) I see as peaking in the 1970s, but they would be worthy of consideration, too. Bill James deserves a mention, but his biggest impact was over 25 years ago.

Andrew has been very influential on one issue, an issue of intense importance to a rather small minority. Others have arguably been more important on this very issue, despite the fact that they are television producers rather than public intellectuals.

War with Iraq, an issue of huge importance to the whole nation, was strongly influenced by several public intellectuals, including Andrew, but much more by others like Thomas Friedman.

The disastrous economic policies that led to the crash of 2007 were immensely consequential for the whole world, but they were due mostly to Alan Greenspan and the intellectuals from whom he bought the Kool-Aid: Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.

"on one issue, an issue of intense importance to a rather small minority"

Wasn't this of intense importance to the supporters of DOMA too? The base of the GOP pushed for DOMA because it was so important to them to stop gay marriage from happening.

Hard to call the Christian right a "rather small minority."

Gays are a small minorty.

The Christian right is a larger minority. Those among them who care passionately about this issue are a small fraction of them.

You don't have to be gay to believe that gay marriage should be legal, just like you don't have to use illegal drugs to be pro-legalization. And you are simply wrong that most of the Christian right doesn't care about gay marriage.

Yes, this was an issue the Republicans could use to get the evangelicals and other Christian extremists to turn out at the polls. It was (and is) a cynical ploy, but it worked so well the Republicans couldn't resist sucking that orange dry. A few months ago, when Rush Limbaugh admitted on the air that this battle was lost, what little juice remained evaporated.

The worst part of this sorry chapter is how exploitation of the Christian right has changed the Republican party. You can't profit from these people without letting them in the tent, and they have transformed the party in bad ways. It's not just about creationism -- today's Republican party has become the culture medium for other crazy memes like antivaccination, antiflouridation, etc. and crazy candidates like Michelle Bachmann. I still vote for some of their candidates, but I feel like my party has moved and left me behind.

"crazy memes like antivaccination, antiflouridation"

These are reactions against the crazy memes of flouridation and ridiculous vaccination pushes.

anti flouridation and anit vaccination used to be a crazy right wing cause (cold war era), but I believe they are now crazy left wing causes.

Being "pro-vaccine" to me signals that you are willing to accept unskeptically anything that the pro-vaccine establishment puts forward. That's gay. And not in a good way.

You didn't use the word "sheeple", but you were thinking it.

No. Again. Why do you feel the need to lump "those people"?

I doubt you are just a huge fluoridation supporter. I suspect that flouridation is a signal for you and an extrapolation.

Flouridation has some nominal evidence for it. In fact it is one of the only interventions that does. So, you have to be a big flouridation supporter because you can't use flouridation as a case for extrapolating to other such interventions. On the other side scientists often have no idea what they are doing and we are dumping chemicals in everyone's water. What's wrong with the precautionary principle?

There is also nothing wrong with a reasonable vaccination schedule.

It's also just bizarre to dump stuff in water. It's doubly bizarre to have people drink something that acts topically on teeth. What else does that? What else (other than vaccines) do we just broadcast uncritically?

On the other side, the only justification I hear aside from that it seems to do alright for cavities is that for my opinion that these things are unique in their lack of critical attention by their supporters and granted some kind of special ethical status that I'm somehow defective or part of some crazed movement.

DOMA was a Republican policy was it? Remind me again who signed it into law. That would be that well known Republican Bill Clinton wouldn't it? Also note that other well known Republican Barack Obama went into two elections opposed to Gay marriage and supportive of DOMA.

And of course Jim Carey, Jessica Simpson and the rest of the anti-vaccination crowd are solidly on the Left. Always have been. But hey, mood affiliation, whatever.

Other right-wingers who voted for DOMA: Harry Reid (D-NV), Joe Biden (D-DE), Charles Shumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Steny Hoyer (D-NY), Robert Menendez (D-NY), and former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK, Robert Byrd (D-WV).

On one hand it was a huge issue politically and Sullivan deserves a large measure of credit.

On the other I think the actual effects of gay marriage on society at large will be very small. Certainly smaller than the Iraq war and 30+ years of changes in tax policy, welfare reform and the like.

Though the intellectual and cultural effects of gay marriage and acceptance of homosexuality dwarf those of a wars and tax policy.

DOMA passed 85–14 in the Senate and 342–67 in the House. Among those voting Yea were Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. Pres. Clinton signed it into law. I guess they voted for it before they knew they could vote against it. A large majority of states still ban gay marriage.
That hardly seems a minority to me.

Even by your normal standards of condescension, pompousness & over-inflated self-esteem (each based on qualities less apparent to your readers than to you), this really takes the cake.
Hard though it may be for you to imagine, many are not looking for advice on how to "think much better", and, if we were, might consider taking that advice from someone who provides more evidence that they are able to do so, rather than you.

you could have worked in 'mood affiliation' for another point

And secret menus and beautiful women for at east another half point each.

?? Why are you here then, if that's your take on things

I would say you are guilty of a kind of inverse of this fallacy. DOMA was barely overturned in a 5-4 ruling like so many others. I find it extremely telling how different the response, both here and across the media, has been to gay marriage than to health care. That was also upheld by a 5-4 ruling. Gay marriage most recently had a 55-40 approval. Approval of "health insurance marketplaces," "sliding scale subsidies," "no exclusion for preexisting conditions," etc etc regularly run in the 70% range,, when separated from "obamacare" and "obama" and "democrats." Maybe Jonathan Gruber should be the most influential public intellectual? 30 million people will newly receive health care, vs maybe a couple million that will get gay married.

Jonathan Gruber?? The bad guy from Die Hard?

No, the guy who invented Markdown and who runs an Apple blog.

Gruber did have the benefit of a classical education.

If we're arguing which single person swayed the gay marriage debate the most over the past 20 years, then Ellen DeGeneres is surely the answer.

+1 for humor and +1 for legitimacy.

Agree. Ellen is comes-across as impossible to dislike. Very much unlike Sullivan.

I'd vote from Cam and Mitchell.

How influential has Andrew Sullivan been when he shows some spine and stands up against the Zeitgeist? For example, Sullivan has been much, much braver and better informed on race and IQ than 98% of pundits. In 2013, for instance, he defended Jason Richwine:


So, did Andrew Sullivan's vast influence keep Richwine from getting Richwined?

Of course not.

is it truly the case that Tyler Cowen is attributing public opinion shifts re: gay marriage to Andrew Sullivan's blogging?

its a popular blog amongst a certain class of people. a class to which Tyler belongs. however, Sullivan is not an author with a wide reach and certainly not an author that has been persuasive on the scale of changing the minds of millions of American voters.

Not to mention that it's questionable as to whether he's actually influential among the group he reaches.

Dr. Cowen seems to be developing a dreadful habit of touting banal and widely-read authors/publications who also happen to be buttering his bread, e.g. David Brooks and Ross Douthat.

Couldn't agree more. I honestly don't think I've ever read a complete blog post by Sullivan. He might seem influential to people who have their heads stuck in the blog-o-sphere, but most people in the real world have never heard of him.
Moreover, Gay marriage would clearly have gain popular acceptane whether Sullivan existed or not.

But if influential people read him, then it seems fairly likely that he'd be influential even if you never heard of the guy.

Now I can't claim that I never heard of him until coming here where TC picks status winners and thus somehow I must subconsciously want to lower the status of someone I was clearly never directly influenced by!

I made my case that the gay status trend owes a lot to Freddy Mercury. Why do you want to lower Freddy Mercury's status?!?

Freddie, not Freddy.

I love Freddie Mercury! I want to raise my status with Freddie Mercury lovers.

"Freddie Mercury lovers."

That may be either a large group or a HUGE group!

How many are still alive?

Good question. Is the real influential intellectual the individual that best helped to circumvent the government medical system in the development of the HIV treatment regime.

I agree.

But I would also nominate a certain New York Times columnist for the job. And not the Nobel Laureate I like. I hear Tom Friedman is required reading for any and all aspirant Chinese Communists. That is definitely changing "real world outcomes".

Your answer, I think, has a very Anglocentric bias, which is fair since Anglo-america dominated intellectualism in this time period. But very few people elsewhere really care about who Andrew Sullivan is. Tom Friedman to some autowallah, i am sure, in Bangalore!

The aspiring - if not actually creative - intellectuals on this continent (asia) will also speak highly of his books. That is influence.

The search space is incorrectly narrowed if we limit ourselves to outcomes that are *good* beyond a reasonable doubt.

this may be the first time I've seen Thomas Friedman called an "intellectual" without any irony.

Hey, if Andrew Sullivan counts, then so does the Mustache. And probably The Situation.

By definition a public intellectual has to be part of the culture, the Burmese, Chinese, or Arab world rightly have different figures, and arguing which is the biggest is a bit like arguing who would win in a fight between the Borg and the Death Star.

What's the name for the fallacy where you assume everyone who disagrees with you is guilty of a fallacy?


Bingo!; a more succinct version of the point i make above.

Excellent comment, +one million.

TC says: "My point is merely that he has been very influential."

No, your point was "Andrew Sullivan is the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years" which is stated quite clearly in the link to that post. Now own it and stop backing up and thinking we're the ones who can't think consistently.

And usually stated in this form:

Andrew Sullivan is probably the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years.

"My point is merely that he has been very influential, and in the sense of changing actual real world outcomes, a claim which most other public intellectuals of high status cannot even begin to make. "

But this is merely an assertion, and your only cite to his influence is a single magazine article written in the 1980s.

Your case is far weaker than you give it credit for. Moreover, the assumption (accusation?) that anyone who disagrees with you must be in bad faith is, truly, the most popular intellectual fallacy ever.

Tyler's is the most eloquent defense of a false predicate I have ever read.

Unfortunately, his conclusion remains false.

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27 ESV)

And for those culturally ignorant, the "I" is Jesus. But saying so lowers the status of Tyler's point. Sigh...

I see your point and plead guilty to your charge. Your points about his influence and innovation as a public intellectual are strong. And Sullivan is an undeniably brilliant man. And clearly influential.

I guess that a good historic parallel would be Jane Addams. She is often looked at as a workhorse volunteer feminist activist but in reality was the consummate broad based public intellectual who was treated daintily because she was woman. I think William James and the several Presidents she had interactions with treated her in this fashion. A significant exception to this would be John Dewey who revered her and gave her the honor of being his intellectual touchstone.

"Some people are arguing that Sullivan does not in fact deserve higher status."

I think this goes a little deeper, or at least needs a little more clarification: claims that are descriptive in nature "You have incorrectly judged whether or not Sullivan is high status" could easily be confused for normative claims "Sullivan does not *deserve* highER status."

Just because Andrew Sullivan advocated something, and subsequently that thing happened, does not mean that it was due to Andrew Sullivan's influence. What evidence is there for his influence?

wait, is Andrew Sullivan the same Andrew Sullivan that determined with certainty that Sarah Palin is not the actual mother of Trig Palin? because that was amazing.

"Public intellectuals" is self-referential--

that is, those who wish to call themselves "public intellectuals" refer to others who call themselves "public intellectuals"...

In the hope that

The favor of referring to someone else as a "public intellectual" is



Anonymous and Non-Public Intellectual

And here I find myself agreeing with Bill, and his spaced out comments.

His comments have expanded formatting too.

my aren't we precious ...

I see why you think Sullivan is so important.

The bigger problem may be failing to define what you mean by "public intellectual" and "influential" in the first place. Answers will vary, depending on how broadly (or narrowly) one defines the terms (e.g., Does Rush Limbaugh count? Cass Sunstein? And what's the measure of influence?). Heck, Posner spent an entire book without solidly defining the terms, except by example.

For example, if the test is, "but for X, we might not have Y," it's hard to see how Sullivan - who at most was riding on top of a world-wide wave (which started cresting here well before Sullivan, with, e.g., Romer v. Evans) - is more influential than, say, Bork. With the former, there wasn't a huge shift in the attitudes amongst the movers and shakers (i.e., J. Kennedy in this case). The latter, however, could be said to have almost single-handedly reversed the opinion of the legal elites in two area of law (anti-trust and constitutional interpretation).

Oh please. Here's another falacy to chew on: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Although it is certainly true that Andrew Sullivan championed a cause that has recently achieved a good deal of success, attributing that success to Sullivan's intellectual leadership is, or ought to be, preposterous to anyone remotely familiar which the content of his arguments. I cannot believe any substantial number of "marriage equality" supporters came to that position by reading Andrew Sullivan. Assuming, however, that some number of supporters claimed to be convinced by Sullivan's "arguments" (such as they are) those arguments and those supporters obviously (and I mean really, really, obviously) had no effect whatsoever on the legal or political "debate" that has resulted in the success of same sex marriage.

For the most part, "marriage equality" has been imposed on the people of this country by judicial fiat and over their vigorous objections. To the extent that "marriage equality" has resulted from normal political processes, the fact that Andrew Sullivan occasionally accused opponents of being "christianist" bigots (which is the sum and substance of every "argument" he has ever made on the subject) has had no effect. Sullivan's particular accusations were simply lost in a sea of very similar "arguments" by others.

Well, not quite. Over the past 30 years, gay marriage has gone from being reviled (that's why Clinton eagerly signed DOMA) to receiving steady popular support. As far as influences, I think it was Obama's weight that tipped the scales in the direction they were already heading.
I also agree with the guy about 40 posts ago who points to Ellen's influence being greater than Andrew's.

All Sullivan really did was hand Republicans a CYA argument they could take to the Christian right "we have to have gay marriage because AIDS", so they could have a political excuse to stop opposing it, since it was going to doom them with younger voters.

Since I've never had to be convinced to tolerate folks I haven't paid much attention to the argument (and I'm not so inclide to just hand over the influential mantle to someone who had zero direct influence on my evolution). But I'm not sure I trust "progress" based on the "domesticate the gays" notion. What does the government do for me and my marriage, exactly? Throwing them the bone of marriage (and it's still not the same thing as hetero marriage where kids are produced) seems like a pollitical football compared to tolerance and everyone having the freedom to contract. So, to a libertarian outside the political football match, it's a bit of "meh" to me. So, what are the gays getting? It's status all the way down.

Just give the gays equality before the law...you know like the Constitution requires and stuff. But in politics you want to be the guy who dribbles the crumbs to the potential supporters rather than they guy who refuses to dribble crumbs.

dribbles the crumbs to the potential supporters

Let me fix that:

dribbles the crumbs to the potential financial supporters

>My point is merely that he has been very influential, and in the sense of changing actual real world outcomes

Milton Friedman, who I agree with Tyler on, helped end the draft, invent monetarism, inspire a whole host of civil and economically libertarian reforms, and significant policies for dozens of countries, both by indirectly and direct consultation. In addition, in his role as public intellectual, professor, author, columnist, and educational firm maker, Friedman inspired a generation of young economists and libertarians and completed shifted the debate on a lot of issues.

Andrew Sullivan kicked off the gay marriage movement which improves human welfare on a tiny margin, and which is still only partially successful, with only a handful of advanced liberal democracies on board. Rush Limbaugh has easily reached more American minds, and pushed more political margins. (thought as an 'intellectual' may be disputable"

Considering your criteria, I say Jeffrey Sachs. He definitely changed a lot of real world outcomes in Latin america and Post-communist countries, and now through the MDGs. Runner up would be some of the original designers/creators of internet protocols, computer software/hardware etc. who leave a lasting legacy in every personal computer.

Agree, but Friedman's influence reached it's peak in the 1980s, which was more than 25 years ago.

So, we are to <> to think more clearly about the claim itself. Forget Tyler. Forget Andrew Sullivan. Is this procedure, this unpacking worthwhile?

Between the angle brackets should have been "unpack the positive claim from any and all implications about changes in status."

I miss the preview button.

Let’s detect and undo one of the most pernicious rhetorical devices ever.

Pop psychology has embedded itself so deeply that everyone thinks they're a psychologist now and likes to diagnose their conversational adversaries- you suffer from this ailment, that bias, a mood malady, etc. Let us take or dispute an argument on its merits and ignore each other's inner mental state for a bit.

(This is not a comment on Sullivan, gay marriage or either's importance in the past 25 years.)

I both completely agree (and in practice am successful at differentiating) that "influential" and "should be influential/high status" are different things, and am completely baffled by the desire to increase Sullivan's status.

Because to the best of my knowledge, looking at his output, the man is an incompetent hack whose ability to actually use his intellect seems to have atrophied entirely after around 2003 or so, "influential" only because his particular circumstances made him a useful tool for achieving certain political goals.

What about Scalia for influence/impact in the past 25 years? Whether you agree with him or not, his judicial approach, in both its consistency and inconsistency, has shaped public policy pretty substantially: no more voting rights act, no more Miranda rights, we'll soon have no more affirmative action, labor rights are disappearing, and there's probably more. I guess counter to that, he has not ended gay marriage or abortion and sodomy is less illegal than before. Perhaps that means Anthony Kennedy is the answer since he swings all those votes?

Bork over Scalia. He lead the way with originalism, plus his contributions to antitrust. More importantly, Posner notwithstanding, I think it's hard for a sitting judge (and more so a Justice) to qualify as a public intellectual.

As for Kennedy, I ain't calling the guy who occasionally taps in (or, depending on you view, lets in) the go-ahead goal in a 4-4 game the intellectual MVP. Especially after the "Sweet Mystery of Life" passage.

This gets my vote for TC post of the year. Bravo!

It would be interesting for Tyler to attempt to explain why Sullivan's promotion of gay marriage was influential while his promotion of "The Bell Curve" when he edited The New Republic in 1994 was so anti-influential, spectacularly backfiring and helping inspire further punishment of cognitive dissidents like Summers, Watson, and Richwine.

Oh, please. Summers was NOT fired because of controversial comments. He was fired because he squandered $26m of Harvard's cash and intervened to keep his buddy Shleifer on staff after he was convicted of defrauding the U.S. govt in connection with Russia's privatization program.


Your ridicule becomes unsubtle here. Wait, what???!! You were serious??!! Whew!!- not serious, just blog-comment spam.
Probably this phenomenon accounts for TC's inflated sense of himself as a "public intellectual"- after all, his students laugh at his clever jokes, and his blog is full of adoring comments like this one.

My last comment was meant as a reply to spammer "RPLong" aka stationarywaves.com, presumably a seller of letterhead etc?

He's a frequent poster not a spammer. That's a link to his blog.

stationarywaves.com, presumably a seller of letterhead

All the comedians are here today.

I wouldn't single out Sullivan from the cacophony of punditry as most awesomest. He is too au courant. The ripples of his splashes do not extend over time. Of the nominees I've seen here, I'll go with Taleb.
He who controls the jargon wins the game -- Tragifragilicity and Melanocygnophobia are buzzwords for the ages.

To the M. Friedman boosters: Wrong quarter-century. Peak Milton was ages ago.

I increasingly find that Stephen Jay Gould was the most influential public intellectual of my lifetime. Gould took the lead in rewriting the history of science to appeal to the newly dominant interest groups, a brilliant coup.

Does this say more about you? For the life of me I can't figure out how it matters for my political ideal. Dumb people would have to work harder, that's about it.

The other day as I carried my kid into the hospital past HUNDREDS of empty handicap spaces it finally hit me hard what politics is all about.

Are you taking it too personal?

I agree, but for a different reason. You're implying that he led scientists, and those interested in the history of science, astray. I'm not aware of anyone who was converted to SJG's brand of academic Marxism by his essays. However, he redefined the essay as an art form. Gould raised the standard for popular essayists to a level where serious scholars who might have remained non-popularizers, such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, chose to write popular books and columns - as did my own mentor, Peter Bernstein ("Against the Gods," "Capital Ideas"), who cited Gould, no friend of capital markets, as his inspiration. Gould was wrong on the one question you identify, but he did much more good than harm to the cause of literature and the public understanding of science.

That is the most Hansonian thing I have ever read on this blog. I literally checked the byline to see if Robin Hanson had written it.

Robin Hanson?
I only remember Zac, Isaac, and Taylor Hanson, but you are right that TC's post is very "Hansonian"; Tyler at his very best does approach the intellectual heights of "MMMBop!"

I am not usually impressed by Sullivan's intellectual firepower ("pass. the. damn. bill." as an argument for PPACA), but I was pleasantly surprised to find him taking a pro-science position on race:

Right. Here's a discussion of the role that Sullivan and his boss at TNR Marty Peretz played in backing The Bell Curve in 1994, and the rebellion that caused among the less scientifically capable staffers:


"pass.the.damn.bill" was Steve Benen, although Sullivan may have gotten on the bandwagon at some point.

I think a lot of you need to consider precisely what arguments for gay marriage started to carry the day for the movement with the general public. Sullivan was ahead of the curve on more than one of those. I think Cowen probably should have provided a bit more support for his original blog entry, but I don't find his position preposterous.

It is interesting that what got traction, presumably, is that there was this wonderful thing that heteros had (marriage) that was being withheld from homosexuals. And the rising status of homosexuals partly by shedding sexual unseemliness meshed perfectly with the conservative institution of marriage. Since politically it is mostly about group identities, and I don't understand what is so great about government-granted marriage, and no one ever felt the need to articulate any actual logical arguments for or against, and no one ever got interested in discussing the role of the state in marriage, and what I gather from hearsay on Sullivan is his was a "domesticate the gays" strategy by moving toward tolerance within monogamous government-granted marriage, it has been pretty easy for me to remain blase` on the issue.

"Sullivan...has been described by Urvashi Vaid as a proponent of "legitimation", seeing the objective of the gay movement as being "mainstreaming gay and lesbian people" rather than “radical social change.”"

At best this seems orthogonal to what I'd call libertarian progress. That doesn't mean it's not influential. However, there are two sides to the equation. Should homosexuality be viewed as "normal"? Or should we put less emphasis on what is normal? However, I wouldn't relinquish so easily credit away from libertarians who have long fought for the other side of the equation. Also, how does one identify true influence versus just being a front-runner or a figure-head on an inevitable social trend? Mostly it doesn't matter, as who is really going to worry about it?

Interesting threads on "most influential public intellectuals"! I would include on the list either Steven Pinker or Robert Wright. In 1995, it was rare to hear a typical American non-biologist try to explain anything about human beings by referring to the evolutionary past; when Wright's best-selling "The Moral Animal" came out that year, it was really a new idea for a lot of readers. As of 2013, evolutionary explanations are habitual and intuitive for many people who've never read Pinker or Wright or even heard of them - e.g., in common understandings of male/female differences, diet (notably the Paleo diet, but not only that), the standing desk, the general trend toward exercise (often explained in terms of our being evolved from people who were active), the claim that one needs to get sunlight in the morning, the understanding that we need social connections "because we are social animals" -evolution has become a standard way of understanding human beings. I would argue that Wright was the public intellectual/ science journalist/ speculative thinker who did the most to bring evolutionary psych ideas into the mainstream, even if he later lost interest in talking about it publicly (which may be why Pinker deserves the nod). NOTE: I say this without meaning any endorsement of standard evolutionary psych (the mind as Swiss Army knife with modules independently selected for in the environment of evolutionary adaptation) - I'm not sure where I stand on Cosmides/Tooby et al, although I do feel certain that in some way evolutionary explanation is going to be core to understanding humanity. Now... has it affected how people actually behave in the world, and thus had influence? That's the question Tyler asks. Perhaps the diet, exercise, and etc. changes might qualify. Perhaps. Anyway, there's my case.

Not bad, but you need to back up a couple of decades to the 1970s to trace the post-1960s divergence that we're still living with. The basic split has been between the public intellectual biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, representing the Anglo-American mainstream of the human sciences going back through Galton and Darwin, v. public intellectual biologists Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and their friends who have, with great success, managed to demonize most of the historical Anglo-American mainstream as evil eugenicists, practically Nazis, other than St. Darwin himself. In other words, it's a battle for historical prestige among the old WASP top dogs and the new Ashkenazi top dogs.

Of course, the ethnic divide is highly permeable: James Q. Wilson (Irish Catholic) and Richard Herrnstein (Jewish) were major figures in the Anglo-American tradition, as is Pinker today. After all, that's the tradition that has gotten the most work done over the centuries. But the leftist Jewish public intellectuals like Gould, while they haven't contributed much to knowledge, have been highly successful at detracting from knowledge by smearing the reputations of many great scientists of the past and present.

Steve you give the Gould crowd too much credit. I went through a BA and a masters in biology without hearing much about them. I heard lots about Wilson and Pinkers take down of the blank slate.

Obviously, Gould wasn't a terribly historic biologist. But he was, and unfortunately remains, an influential public intellectual. For example, just last month how many idiots cited the everlasting author of S.J. Gould's "Mismeasure of Man" to justify the Richwining of Richwine in the crucial immigration debate?


What an arrogant, obnoxious post! Truth is, you do not strike me as that smart...so rather than call you a smart ass, I'll just suggest you are an ass.

Your readers

"What an arrogant, obnoxious post!"


Sullivan's intellectual leadership was also a key factor in uncovering the true facts concerning Trig Palin's parentage.

This was my first exposure to Sullivan. It seems he suffers from what Tyler is arguing against. No biggie.

Get a shotgun! Our current VP isn't a freaking clown...

It should be noted that (1) the moment Biden was put in front of the guns issue everyone sighed in relief (2) because we KNEW that it meant that nothing would happen BECAUSE (3) WE KNEW THEY KNEW IT TOO.

So, what was wrong with Andrew Sullivan?

some people see the world as zero sum (to make one better has to make another worse) and some people don't ... I don't think that is a function of IQ, but more of demeanor. you could do your part and not rile up the zero summers so much. why not frame this as the most influential written piece or speech? and narrow the topic a bit so it's not a complete crap shoot ... .which tends to gravitate toward crap. you reap what you sow, not a fallacy a reality.

If Tyler is right that Andrew Sullivan is the "most influential in the last 25 years," then how can Tyler's saying so possibly raise Sullivan's "status?" Is there a status higher than "most influential?" More to the point, if Tyler's imprimatur could raise Sullivan's status, wouldn't that necessarily imply that Cowen is more influential than Sullivan?

Actually Cowen lowered his own status by placing himself below Sullivan.

On a related note, would it be logically possible to identify the "most influential" private intellectual?

Stop thinking. You're hurting the blog.

"the “most influential” private intellectual?"

Surprisingly, that's not as hard as it sounds: William D. Hamilton is the obvious candidate.


Me. :P Nobody knows it, but I exert INCREDIBLE influence through my comments on other people's blogs. ;)

Political influence operates on multiple levels. A "public intellectual" may have influence on specific policy outcomes, and when he/she does his influence is often relatively visible. On the other hand, a public intellectual may have influence not on any particular policy but on the broad philosophical worldview of a significant swath of the electorate. That in turn effect many, many more policies overall and his/her influence is therefore much larger, though much less visible.

I'd argue that Sullivan's influence is of the first kind. He's had visible influence on a number of specific policy outcomes. But has he altered the philosophical outlook of large numbers of voters? I think not. I'll point to Noam Chomsky again as the obvious intellectual figure who has had that kind of influence. And that kind is ultimately the more important and long-lasting.

Does anybody else feel Tyler is being pissy lately? But also, does anybody else feel the comment section isn't what it used to be? Tyler has been brave about allowing comments for a long time and he doesn't always get "Amens" like some GMU bloggers (*cough* Caplan *cough*). I respect Tyler a lot (and I hope he doesn't feel I'm being too familiar), but maybe he needs a break. He has certainly earned one (and I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment).

At best it indicates a great stagnation in political possibilities. I do wonder why he would give people here a hard time but when it comes to the million idiots who tolerate airport rape scanners he sides with the (obviously wrong) zeitgeist.

Y'all are underestimating Sullivan's influence. He also caused the US to enter the Iraq War, before changing his mind and causing the US to exit the Iraq War. He got Obama elected. Gay marriage is only one small matter in considering his impact on US history.

I was blind but now I see!

Karl Marx was extremely influential. I reject his ideas and do not consider him wise, but he was still influential.

I've got nothing against the guy, and have enjoyed a few things he has written, but this was and remains a ridiculous claim. There has been a great cultural shift on gay marriage because there had been a great cultural shift on the acceptability of gays and gay sex. Once that's accepted, there's a pretty clear path to getting people to think "sure, why not, doesn't hurt me" to gay marriage. I don't see how much of a case can be made for Sullivan having more than a de minimis impact on any of this. He wrote an article? Pretty weak.

I didn't think any of the prior comments were dismissive without a fair argument, and the person who makes a proposition bears the burden of persuasion. Responders need only provide counterexamples. Nevertheless, the Catholic in me feels guilty. :)

I'm disappointed that some of the comments to this post allege that it represents the type of person Tyler is rather than a response to the situation he was in, even if his backlash was inapropos. I think he was having a bad day.

I would have been interested in a more persuasive case for mister Sullivan and a comparative analysis with contenders for the title of most influential. That extraordinary bestowal requires extraordinary support.

Right. I'm sure Sullivan drives a lot of traffic here with occasional links, so it's good to butter him up, and thus it would have been good for business to have commenters all agree on the world-historicalness of Andrew Sullivan, but Tyler making a lame assertion and then getting offended that some of the dissenting comments are comparably lame is pretty funny.

Here's a more interesting angle on Sullivan's career, which got launched in America by his employment at The New Republic from 1986 onward. The New Republic has been more or less gay-owned and/or run from 1974 onward. Marty Peretz has taken a deep interest in a long series of promising young men, from the 17-year-old Al Gore through Sullivan to Jamie Kirchik. As Alexander Cockburn wrote:

"By 1968 Peretz was telling the late Blair Clark that 'I have been in love only three times in my life. I was in love with my college roommate. I am in love with the state of Israel and I love Gene McCarthy.'"

So, this history would suggest that if the most important issue of our time is gay marriage (a rather large "if," of course), then the most influential public intellectual of our time is not Andrew Sullivan for publishing an article in favor of it in The New Republic, but TNR's editor and owner, Marty Peretz.

I'm not sure Sullivan was influential as much as he was the first person talking about gay marriage. The only real obstacle to homophobia is bigotry, once the bigotry is gone gay marriage becomes obvious and you just need to wait for the novelty to wear off. I just don't think his voice was a driving force in the mainstream and I'm not sure gay marriage would have come any later if he was not involved.

I would argue for someone like Dawkins or Hitchens. While they haven't caused a singular legislative difference I can't think of any other two individuals who've had the same effect in not only making atheism acceptable in the mainstream, but also making it acceptable to criticize religious beliefs. Not only are there a lot more figures who are a lot more comfortable being openly non-religious and critical of religion, but it's still those two who are really pushing the debate (posthumously in Hitchens' case).

If you're willing to waive the "intellectual" requirement Rush Limbaugh would probably also qualify, I feel that excluding him on those grounds runs the risk of elitism, then again that's a bit of a requirement when talking about public intellectuals.

How about a new exercise? Who's the most influential public intellectual for 'the other side'?

Limbaugh is the correct answer. He is indeed very intellectual, as you would know if you ever actually listened to him, and/or were not an elitist bigot. He is however extremely childish, which makes him nearly impossible to endure -- but no more so than Krugman.

Do the math on the years he has been pontificating, times number of hours per week, times the millions of listeners. People have to actively seek him out, and they still do. They aren't just thumbing through a Time Magazine at the dentist's office, skimming over whichever tired hack is spewing the same old liberal boilerplate that particular election cycle. He is a name-brand force, and he is irreplaceable. Like it or not.

I have no idea whether Sullivan is actually influential -- that is, if our world would be any different if he were never born -- but then, neither do you.

But I certainly hope not. He is a very simple, non-thoughtful man.

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