The Case Against Public Intellectuals
A higher-than-you-might-expect number of people I know have the opinion that education probably basically doesn’t do anything that will benefit society. Or maybe that learning basic maths and English is beneficial, but geography classes and history classes and physics classes might not do all that much, and university education probably doesn’t really provide you with any skills. It might signal you have some skills, because you were able to get into a good university and had the willpower and intelligence required to pass all the courses, but it doesn’t really bestow many skills upon you. The reason that lots of people I know believe this, as far as I can tell, is not that they are well-versed in the research on the effects of education, or even that they have personal experience that makes them think that education isn’t that useful. It’s because they’ve read Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I also read and very much enjoyed a few months ago. Caplan’s claim, in short, is that the ‘human capital’ model of education (i.e. education makes you a more productive worker) is wrong, and the ‘signalling’ model (i.e. education signals that you’re likely to be a productive worker) is right.
But I think there’s a danger here. Caplan is a good writer - his books are more fun to read than most non-fiction books, and they’re much more fun to read than most literature reviews about the effect of education on skills and knowledge. Here’s a briefing note from UCL that is fairly short and goes over some of the literature - it’s much more boring than the Case Against Education. The briefing note claims the following:
The most convincing quantitative studies from the literature suggests that signalling plays a relatively limited role. This, coupled with causal evidence of the wider non-pecuniary benefits of education, implies that failing to invest in education, particularly at critical ages and stages, would be a very risky strategy for governments to adopt.
I don’t really know if this is true or not - I basically know nothing about the evidence surrounding the signalling/human capital debate. There are reasons to think it may be untrue - you can imagine that these researchers might be the sorts of people have a preconception that university education is beneficial, so maybe the researcher allegiance effect is a problem here. But it could be true - it seems at least plausible that these researchers have delved into the literature and impartially come to the view that the compelling evidence really is on the side of the human capital model.
But if it is true that the really good evidence is on the side of the human capital guys, it seems like a problem that loads of people are convinced that the signalling model is true because someone who is really good at writing interesting books made the case for the signalling model. Even if the human capital guys are totally wrong, it still seems like a problem that so many bright people I know have barely considered the human capital argument at all. I also have a sort of hunch that the experts most likely to be public intellectuals or get mainstream attention are the ones with heterodox views - there’s a reason that people who know Jordan Peterson is but they don’t know who, uhhh, [whichever clinical psychologist is most aligned with mainstream thought in clinical psychology] is.
I also think people often mistakenly believe that the opinions of public intellectuals are representative of the field as a whole, or even believe that they’re an expert in any field they happen to opine on. When Jordan Peterson talks about the Gender Wage Gap, he says things like ‘any social scientist worth their salt will do X’, where X is something that social scientists are very clear that you should not do (discussed here). When Chomsky speaks about foreign policy, I think laypeople are often bedazzled by his academic prestige, and assume that what he’s saying is the consensus of foreign policy experts. I could be wrong about this - but when I’ve spoken to random Peterson fans especially, appeals to his academic background are fairly common, even if the particular thing he’s said that we’re discussing doesn’t really have anything to do with psychology.
If this blog ever gets insanely famous, a big concern of mine is that people will assume what I say is well researched or broadly representative of the academic literature. Sometimes I say stuff I just think of after reading half a journal paper. Sometimes I write about political science and reference a couple of papers I’ve read without really knowing what I’m talking about. The last thing I would ever want is for someone to think that because I had said something, it was probably true. It might be true, but it might be nonsense! I might have totally misunderstood the research that I have read, or done a lousy job of trying to get a sense of the literature as a whole. I think this is also probably true of other people who write blogs - I bet sometimes Scott Alexander or Noah Smith or whoever put out posts without really knowing what they’re talking about. That’s fine! You can add value by just putting out into the world your hunch based on a small amount of research - but I hope that people don’t take those kinds of articles as the final word on any issue. Basically, whatever I’m saying might be nonsense, and that will remain the case even if I get extremely rich and famous - please adjust your views of my writing accordingly.