The Ideas Industry image

The Ideas Industry

It must be frustrating for Tom Nichols to have released his book The Death of Expertise and then found, through no fault of his own, that Daniel Drezner was releasing The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas at the same time. The two books are, in some ways, eerily similar. They both address the decline of scholarly authority and the rise of popularising narratives in the early twenty-first century, attempting to provide an explanation for both of them (which is an understandable impulse in the age of Trump). They both draw comparisons between the fields of academia, business, politics and foreign affairs. Their dust jackets are even the same colour. Yet Drezner’s book, though marginally less readable, is clearly superior: it includes the main strengths of Nichols’ book, but incorporates them into a far larger story that illuminates more, and excludes less. As a result, it looks set to be one of the most important books of the year. It also, as it happens, has some fascinating points of application to Christian theologians, pastors and writers.

The argument of the book is fairly easy to summarise. In Isaiah Berlin’s famous dictum, the world is made up of hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing; foxes know many little things. And in the marketplace of ideas, hedgehogs (“thought leaders” who know one big thing, and champion it tirelessly) are thriving at the expense of foxes (scholars and intellectuals who know many little things, and are better at criticism and nuance than advocacy). The Ideas Industry is shaped more by TED talks, in which a simple idea is presented to an admiring audience without any response or criticism from other experts in the field, than by rigorous back-and-forth between mutually critical and learned academics. There are various reasons for this, but the main ones are herded together in the book’s subtitle: “pessimists, partisans and plutocrats.”

The parts played by pessimists (those who believe the past was better, and that modern people simply will not listen to careful debate) and partisans (not just in politics, but in any material cause that prompts strong loyalties) are relatively obvious. If people feel they don’t have time for nuance, and society as a whole is more polarised on civic questions than it has been in generations, then you would expect the marketplace of ideas to be dominated by strongly worded, simple, frequently promoted messages. What I had not given much thought to, on picking up the book, was the part played by plutocrats: the people who fund the Ideas Industry. Elucidating this, without descending into cheap cynicism, name-calling or (too much) score-settling, is the most insightful contribution of The Ideas Industry.

Wealthy people and corporations, Drezner explains, fund the Ideas Industry through sponsorships, grants, think tank foundations, speaking honoraria, consulting fees and charitable endowments. And because they do, they generally channel funding towards individuals and institutions who see solutions to the world’s problems in the same ways they do. They are naturally inclined towards bold, new initiatives that require a big idea, high capacity leadership, a strong support network, and suitable levels of funding—and if they can lean in favour of free markets and globalisation, then so much the better. So when it comes to financial backing, it is easy to see why the hedgehogs out-meme the foxes. When you add in the power of personal branding in the social media age, and the lucrative possibilities in publishing or television, which are also far easier to capitalise on for someone with a simple idea (Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, Malcolm Gladwell, Clayton Christensen, et al) than someone with a more complex, nuanced one (the myriad of academics you’ve never heard of), it tips the balance even further in favour of the hedgehogs: the “thought leaders.”

Drezner supports his case with a wide range of both qualitative and quantitative data, by way of universities, think tanks, lecture circuits, businesses, books, journals, NGOs and governments. Though, like many readers, I do not have the expertise to assess his thesis adequately—leading to the amusing irony, which he is clearly aware of, that his book risks achieving precisely what he is decrying—there are enough case studies of overconfidence, in which a “thought leader” persuades the world of something that other experts and intellectuals consider overstated or even spurious, to make his argument seem plausible. Yet the book does not end on a sour note. In fact, it concludes with a fascinating piece of diagnostic self-disclosure that I will return to in a moment.

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with theologians and pastors? Three things in particular struck me.

The first is that the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, “thought leaders” and scholars, exists every bit as much in evangelicalism as it does in the mainstream—and with very similar results. The Christian subculture of which I am a part is just as prone to brand-building, turning everything into a manifestation of our pet issue, repetitious publishing and oversimplification as the business world. We are also just as fixated (if not more so!) on quick, simple solutions which do not require nuance, stress-testing or detailed thought; and to add to the problem, the solutions are often borrowed from the “thought leaders” in the business world. The first time I noticed this was when I saw Mark Driscoll (peace be upon him) citing Michael Gerber’s E-myth, which I had come across ten years before in a business context, but examples could be multiplied (The Spider and the Starfish, The World is Flat, Gladwell on expertise, and so on). Evangelicalism needs foxes. Which, in a roundabout way, is similar to the point Alan Jacobs was making in Harper’s a couple of years ago.

The second, which flows from this, is that the problems associated with patronage exist in evangelicalism as well, which can be (although need not necessarily be) theologically stultifying. Drezner points out that the best defence against the spread of influential, but badly thought through, ideas is the natural critique that comes from colleagues and other thinkers in your discipline. But when a person becomes sufficiently senior, others in their field who wish to be published become increasingly wary of crossing them, since their influence is likely to be helpful in securing tenure, book contracts, board appointments or whatever. Consequently, the people most qualified to challenge a person become those most cautious about doing so, since their future prospects might be adversely affected. It is, in effect, patronage, with all the bad (as well as the good) that goes with it. And although I don’t want to be cynical—and my personal experience has been very positive here, both with “influencers” and publishers—I suspect it happens in evangelical circles too, and for pretty much the same reasons.

But the third is the most challenging to me personally, and I think the best way of making the point is simply to quote what Drezner says in his conclusion. I doubt it will require excessive contextualisation to bring home its significance:

As my career has progressed, I have experienced the benefits of greater intellectual success, and the effects frankly scare the hell out of me. My intellectual style has evolved, and not always in a good way. With success has come confidence, and a large dollop of arrogance. I have said “yes” to writing assignments that, in retrospect, I should have declined because I lacked the time or expertise to do them justice. As I write and speak more, I read less. It has become more difficult to replenish my intellectual capital beyond listening to others speak at conferences. The more international business class flights I take, the more impatient I become with quotidian responsibilities on the ground.

Let the reader understand.

Daniel Drezner has written a great book, and probably the best non-theological non-fiction book I’ve read this year. Check it out.

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