217: Is Anti-Intellectualism a Good Thing?

Chris Spangle, Gregory Lenz, Cat Anagnos discuss the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in America, and if it is a good thing for our public discourse.

Topic 1: Peak Anti-Intellectualism

“The great object of education is to acquaint the youthful man with himself, to inspire in him self-trust.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson


  • Definition of Anti-Intellectualism: opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.
  • Important Facts: A new Pew Research Center poll released on Monday revealed that there is one U.S. institution perceived through a larger partisan divide than even the media: It’s college.



  • For the first time, a majority of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Fifty-eight percent say that colleges “are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew.



  • In other words, the Wall Street banks are more popular with Republican voters than Stanford, Harvard or the University of Akron.



  • Just two years ago, a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, rated universities’ effect as positive.



  • Pew noted, “this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP,” but in particular the poll found that positive views of colleges among Republicans under the age of 50 sunk by 21 percentage points from 2015 to 2017.



  • While Republican views of colleges and universities remained largely the same throughout much of the Obama administration, 65 percent of self-identified conservatives now say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country.



  • Positive views of colleges dropped even among Republicans who hold a college or graduate degree, declining by 11 percentage points during the last two years.



  • Democrats and independents who lean Democrat, on the other hand, continue to hold a positive attitude toward such institutions, with 72 percent saying they approve of higher education.



  • While Pew conducted the study, it was a Salon.com article that really thrust this issue into arena of public debate among Mainstream media analysis and commentary panels. Salon’s analysis was:


    1. “Republican politicians in recent years have pushed back on the four-year degree, building upon their long-hyped attack on institutes of higher education as bastions of liberal indoctrination.

      Last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses.” The Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill last month allowing college administrators to expel students for “disrupting” college speakers.

      It’s likely no coincidence that just as conservatives decry the scourge of “political correctness” on liberal arts campuses, their campaign to undermine the institutions that defend a growing diversity of voices among students and faculty is bearing fruit.

Arizona Republicans recently threatened to cut funding by 10 percent from public institutions that offer courses and events that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or advocate “solidarity” based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender.

Donald Trump’s threats to defund the University of California at Berkeley following a February melee in protest of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance harken back to Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor of California, during which he pledged “to clean up the mess at Berkeley” caused by “a small minority of hippies, radicals and filthy speech advocates.”

The right has long decried the ivory towers of academia, but now that those ivory towers are increasingly filled with members of marginalized communities, such attacks are beginning to resonate with average Republicans.

Between Election Day last November and April 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has documented at least 330 incidents of bias on university campuses. More than 135 incidents since the start of the 2016 academic school year, the SPLC reports, have involved recruitment efforts by white supremacists.”


  • Other relevant articles:



  • Important Questions:


    1. What is foundation or principle in question? Intellectualism or the accepted beliefs and consensus opinion of society’s “experts” on matters within the hard and social sciences.
    1. What historically relevant lessons exist? How so?


  • The track records of “experts”:


        1. Club of Rome: Forty years ago, The Limits to Growth, a report to the Club of Rome, was released with great fanfare at a conference at the Smithsonian Institution. The study was based on a computer model developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and designed “to investigate five major trends of global concern—accelerating industrial development, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.”

The goal was to use the model to explore the increasingly dire “predicament of mankind.”

The MIT researchers concluded, “If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”

With considerable understatement, they added, “The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” In other words: a massive population crash in a starving, polluted, depleted world.

Population: The Limits researchers noted, “Unless there is a sharp rise in mortality, which mankind will strive mightily to avoid, we can look forward to a world population of around 7 billion persons in 30 more years.” In addition, they suggested that in 60 years there would be “four people in the world for everyone living today.”

In fact, average global life expectancy rose from 60 to nearly 70 years. On the other hand, the global fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime) fell from about 6 per woman in 1970 to 2.8 today and continues to fall.

World population stood at 3.8 billion in 1972, which means that a four-fold increase in 60 years would have yielded a total world population of 15 billion by 2030.

Food: In 1972, the Limits researchers noted that about 1.4 billion hectares of land was being cultivated and projected that if current crop yields did not improve 3 billion hectares would be needed by 2000 to feed a projected population of 7 billion.

The Limits analysts did note that if crop yields doubled (which they did not expect) that land devoted to producing crops would only increase marginally—which is what actually happened. The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization reports that since 1960 cropland has expanded from 1.4 billion to 1.5 billion hectares

Nonrenewable resources: Probably the most notorious projections from the MIT computer model involved the future of nonrenewable resources. The researchers warned: “Given present resource consumption rates and the projected increase in these rates, the great majority of currently nonrenewable resources will be extremely expensive 100 years from now.” To emphasize the point they pointed out that “those resources with the shortest static reserve indices have already begun to increase.”

Environment: In most of the Limits model runs, the ultimate factor that does humanity in is pollution. In their model pollution directly increases human death rates and also dramatically reduces food production.

In fact, as the world economy has grown, global average life expectancy has increased from 52 years in 1960 to 70 years now. It must be acknowledged that globally, pollution [PDF] from industrial and agricultural production continues to rise. But the model assumed that pollution would increase at exponential rates. However, many pollution trends have not increased exponentially in advanced countries.

One of the odder features of the Limits computer model is that it basically ignores one of the most robust feedback mechanisms in the world—markets and price systems. The modelers warn against placing our faith in the technological solutions, pointing to the collapse of the whaling industry as an example. They argue that improvements in whaling technology ended up destroying that industry.

They completely overlook the fact that whaling occurred in an open access commons in which everyone has incentive to kill as many whales as possible to make sure that their competitors didn’t benefit from them.

Similarly, today wherever one identifies an environmental problem, one can be sure that it is occurring in the moral equivalent of an open access commons. In fact, the depletion of whales and rising price of whale oil encouraged entrepreneurs to seek new form of lighting; in this case, turning gooey crude oil into kerosene.


  • Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth: 18 examples of the spectacularly wrong predictions made around 1970 when the “green holy day” (aka Earth Day) started:

    1. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”

    2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment.

    3. The day after the first Earth Day, the New York Times editorial page warned, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”

    4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich confidently declared in the April 1970 issue of Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

    5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” wrote Paul Ehrlich in a 1969 essay titled “Eco-Catastrophe! “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”

    6. Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the 1970 Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

    7. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness.

    8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

    9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

    10. Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”

    11. Barry Commoner predicted that decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America’s rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.

    12. Paul Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in 1970 that “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during “smog disasters” in New York and Los Angeles.

    13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945.” Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out. (Note: According to the most recent CDC report, life expectancy in the US is 78.8 years).

    14. Ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”

    15. Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.

    16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

    17. In 1975, Paul Ehrlich predicted that “since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it.”

    18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

  • Central Planning Social Policies at every level of US Government: busing, integration of public schools in the American south post the Civil Rights Act being adopted, etc…


    1. Are there a moral implications? A great number of them
    1. If so, what is it and what reasoning is the existing morality premised on? Man’s ability to discover knowledge through reason is a “positive”


  • What caused higher education to become viewed as a negative thing?



  • What were the seminal moments?



  • When did Americans stop aspiring to education and allow a lack of it to make them feel inferior and distrustful?



  • What’s the current state of higher education?



  • Are the majority of Republicans wrong?



  • What comprises a “good” education or “knowledge”?



  • What should one be able to do upon being “educated”?



  • What demonstrable skills or abilities should one be able to display or know?



  • What is “intellectualism” defined as by those who were about growing opposition to it?



  • What does peak anti-intellectualism mean for the future?



  • What effect will growing anti-intellectualism have on libertarianism? In what ways? Positive or negative?



  • American Politics and Political movements in general?
  • Relevant Lessons or Related Ideas (Mentally unpack the topic by explaining and referencing the historical setting and philosophically driven divide behind the reasoning of the opposing left / right / libertarian divide):


  • Different Perspectives (Individual Co-Host Opinion and Analysis)



  • Application to Libertarianism:


    1. How does it apply?
    1. Is it congruent with libertarianism?
    1. If so, how?
    1. If not, how would a libertarian solve the problem?
    1. Explain the reasoning behind the libertarian approach, not just the design of the solution:

Thank you for listening to all of the We Are Libertarians podcasts.

Support Our Work