Academia is the public sphere

Richard Hanania argues that brilliant people are toiling away in academia, being excluded or ignored by the ‘public sphere’:

5. Yglesias on what he learned founding Vox. I can relate to the point that talent is limited. CSPI does talent recruitment on a smaller scale, and there aren’t many Hananias, Lemoines, etc. One of my beliefs is that a lot of people who are brilliant are wasting away in academia, and it would be good to bring them into the public sphere. I’m against people trying to become professors, at least in the social sciences, not only because of the political bias of universities or whatever, but because making it in academia requires brains and a strong work ethic, and if you have those qualities and are interested in ideas, there are limitless opportunities out there and we need you in the real world.

Academia is the public sphere. Professors from top institutions, especially in important, headline-grabbing fields such as economics, epidemiology, or physics, not uncommonly get considerable media coverage and play a major role in public discourse, more so than other professions and individuals, including even billionaires (I explain this in more detail in my post Money Does Not Buy Popularity, Power, or Influence).

Academia is pretty much a necessity. The belief that you can make a lot of money as a ‘highly effective person’ in the private sector and then switch and become a ‘thought leader’ later in life once you have your financial life in order, is likely not going to work (at least not unless you are as rich and famous as Elon Musk or Bill Gates). It’s one or the other. Those unpaid internships, costly and time-consuming degrees, meager stipends, etc. is part of building those invaluable intellectual connections and credibility. You cannot just buy those things.

Obviously, graduating from a top institution, such as Stanford, Harvard, or Berkeley helps greatly. There is a good reason why those schools are so competitive, because it isn’t just about the knowledge or the degree per say, but the considerable social clout that is bestowed, too. Much like how USMA graduates automatically become second lieutenants, which technically outranks even the highest enlisted rank, graduates from top intuitions similarly get an instant reputational or status boost in the private sector (as unfair as this may seem).

It took Elon Musk $200+ billion dollars, some of which went to buying Twitter for $43 billion, founding a $1 trillion dollar car company, and a space company, to make himself focal in the public debate, versus someone like Stanford professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who despite presumably having a sub-billion-dollar net worth, has played a major role in the discourse over the past 2 years regarding Covid. Same for Stanford University professor John Ioannidis, who also had a major impact on discourse during the pandemic despite not being that rich.

Since 2013 or so we’ve been in something of an ‘academia boom’. Math videos on YouTube not uncommonly get as many views as ‘mainstream stuff’ (e.g. fitness, celebrity gossip, politics, etc.). For example, videos by German theoretical physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder routinely get hundreds of thousands of views. A video she made 13 days ago about nuclear waste got 223k views. A video about taking math notes with Vim + LaTeX got 418,471 views as of Sep 21, 2022. By comparison, Fox News’ broadcast of Trump’s announcement of his 2024 re-election run for president, only got 306k views.

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University whose blog, Marginal Revolution, not uncommonly gets hundreds of comments per post. This is comparable to the NYTs (although I am talking about specific columnists, not the entire website). Tyler’s October 2022 article “Classical liberalism vs. The New Right,” got 567 comments. By comparison, the March 10th 2020 Nicholas Kristof NYTs article, 12 Steps to Tackle the Coronavirus, got 1865 comments. Sure, that is a lot more, but we’re talking one of the most famous columnists in the world writing for arguably the biggest newspaper in the world talking about the biggest pandemic ever, just as the pandemic was breaking out. The typical NYTs article gets far fewer comments.

Joe Rogan is a possible exception to this, but he’s also putatively the most successful podcaster in the world in a very saturated field, with a net worth exceeding $100 million. This goes for the entrainment industry overall. The Rock also makes tens of millions of dollars; has anyone inquired into his political views? Arnold had some political success, but again, he’s one the wealthiest and most iconic entertainers ever (and political success is not the same as being a thought leader; no one is going to be asking Herschel Walker for his takes on economics). [0]

Same for Jordan Peterson, who leveraged his credentials as a psychologist to a lucrative and highly influential public intellectual career. Or Sam Harris. The list goes on…not just well-known academics from top institutions, but also lesser-known individuals from mid-ranking colleges are also finding success, such as on Substack, podcasts, and Twitter, earning incomes comparable to even tech jobs. [1] I follow a dozen or so political Substacks, and the typical article may get 50 or so likes, which may not sound like much, but when you run the numbers it works out out to tens of thousands or more of dollars or profit per year, and this is just with Substack; likely there are other sources of income, such as Amazon, ad revenue and product placement on YouTube or podcasts, etc.

Compared to seemingly instant [2] viralness of people in academia, such as on Substack or YouTube, it’s not like someone without a degree, who works in IT for example, can have the same instant success. There are two major favors: likely the superior verbal skills of the former, which helps greatly when writing. And second, the connections and credibility that comes with academia. Academia, unlike other professions, is a sort of social network in and of itself, and unlike Facebook or Instagram, a much more exclusive one. The private sector encourages or even mandates secrecy and confidentiality, such as NDAs. Academia is the opposite, emphasizing or valuing collaboration. Sure, the IT worker may earn more in the short term, but unlike the writer, does not have a platform, which helps in the long term. The platform has the obvious benefit of being a springboard for multiple income streams and is valuable in its own right, much like owning real estate that generates recurring monthly rental income.

Regarding political bias or conformity, I don’t think one can generalize this to all colleges or academia as a whole. I think it largely depends where. At low or mid-ranking institutions, such as Evergreen, the pressure to conform is probably the greatest, as recent protests and controversy has suggested. There isn’t much going for those schools academically, so conformity is probably an effective way to stay in good standing, because it’s not like your options are that great otherwise (you’re not going to be landing any NYTs gigs).

But as one moves to the top tiers, the opposite seems to be true. Consider the examples again of Dr. Ioannidis and Bhattacharya of Stanford, both whom had a lot of success and media coverage challenging conventional left-wing/mainstream Covid narratives. Or Harvard professor Roland Fryer, whose fame and reputation grew in 2016 as a consequence of publishing an important study which challenged commonly held notions of anti-black bias in officer-involved shootings (that is, until he was done-in by a sexual harassment scandal in 2019). Or Dr. Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago, whose controversial research on abortion vs. crime, prison, etc. has not exactly made him endeared to the left, but his career has not suffered for it, but actually thrived, with many best-selling books and a popular podcast. That’s not to say high-ranking institutions are immune to conformity or bias, but it’s probably not as bad or the consequences of stepping out of line are not as injurious.

High-ranking journals have an incentive to publish potentially controversial findings that go against the grain of political correctness, provided of course it’s sufficiently rigorous. If a publication declines to publish something for politically-motivated reasons or for fear of political retaliation, reputationally it stands to lose to a competing publication.

[0] Kareem Abdul Jabbar may be another counterexample, but again, we’re talking one of the most famous basketball players ever, and he’s been in the public spotlight for decades, and he was boosted by the likes of Jon Stewart. Academia success is different in that it’s almost instant, not requiring decades of paying one’s dues or media connections.

[1] A Substack blog with 1,000 subscribers at $10/month/subscriber, is 6 figures (even after subtracting Substack’s 10% cut). That’s about the same as an entry or mid-level tech job. Plus, the value of the platform (which is worth a lot too) and other sources of income.

[2] This may seem too good to be true, but the adage “if you build it they will come” really does seem to apply. I have witnessed it myself on many occasions. For example Rob Henderson who “writes about human nature, psychology, social class, TV shows, movies, political and social divisions” has B.A in Psychology from Yale and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Cambridge, had literally overnight success with his Susbtack blog. His inaugural article “What People Got Wrong About the Film Parasite” published in March 2022 got 30 ‘likes,’ highly indicative of being a success. Sure, maybe he had some connections earlier that could explain this success, but that proves my earlier point of the power of academia in terms of networking and building credibility quicky, which is like taking a shortcut, compared to many decades in the private sector.

1 comment

  1. Excluding the pandemic, does being in academia mean anything in real world power spheres? For example, does the CIA or DOD care about academic opinions regarding Ukraine, Iran, etc? West Point graduates yes, Harvard no. Same with religion. Jesuits have influence in the Catholic church, MIT graduates not so much.
    Is there any proof outside of medicine that elites are taking cues from academia or substack writers?

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