Remarks of  Alan Lightman and Stephen Pinker

at a colloquium to discuss the thematic issues within this volume


Presented to the MIT Communications Forum

“Public Intellectuals and the Academy”


December 2, 1999




Alan Lightman,

John Burchard Professor of Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Over the years, my wife and children have grown accustomed to seeing me drift off into the world of my own thoughts -- it might be during a car ride or listening to my daughter tell me a story, or I might even be talking myself -- when, I'm told, my face dissolves, my eyes get glassy, I'm gone, useless to them, an absent father and husband. Being a person who works with ideas  and books, an academic or a writer, is a terribly selfish activity, because it's hard to turn your mind off -- you're always at work, to the suffering of your family and friends. So I'd like to say a few things in justification of this kind of life, put it in larger perspective. In short, what is the role of the intellectual in the world at large? I wish my long suffering family and friends could be in this room at this moment to hear my defense. I'll begin with some remarks by a famous intellectual of the past, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a famous intellectual of the present, Edward Said. I then want to describe a sort of hierarchy of categories of the public intellectual and the increasing responsibilities as one moves up the hierarchy. I'll finish with a few remarks about the extraordinary recent phenomenon in which people trained in the sciences have become some of our leading public intellectuals.


Over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual in his great essay "The American Scholar," delivered not far from where we sit now. [Address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, 1837]. Emerson put forth the idea of the "One Man," by which he meant the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality -- the farmer, the professor, the engineer, the priest, the scholar, the statesman, the soldier, the artist. (If Emerson had lived today, surely he would have used the term "The One Person.") The intellectual is this whole person while thinking. Emerson's intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice. Emerson's intellectual preserves great ideas of the past, communicates them, and creates new ideas. He is the "world's eye." And he communicates his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. And finally, Emerson's intellectual does all of these things not out of obligation to his society, but out of obligation to himself. Public action is part of being the One Man, the whole person.

A more political tone to the concept of the public intellectual was suggested a few years ago by Edward Said of Columbia University, in a series of lectures called Representations of the Intellectual (1993 Reith Lecture). According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said's intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society. Said's ideas raise some interesting questions: How does the intellectual stand both outside society and inside society? How does the intellectual find common ground between what is of deeply personal and private interest and also what is of public interest? How does the intellectual engage him or herself with the changing issues of society while at the same time remaining true to certain unchanging principles?


Let me now define what I mean by the public intellectual today "Such a person is often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a "public intellectual."


Level I: Speaking and writing for the public exclusively about your discipline. This kind of discourse is extremely important, and it involves good, clear, simplified explanations of the national debt, the how cancer genes work, or whatever your subject is. A recent book that illustrates this level is Brian Green's excellent book The Elegant Universe, on the branch of physics called string theory.


Level II: Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it. A scientist in this Level II category might include a lot of biographical material, glimpses into the society and anthropology of the culture of science. For example, James Watson's The Double Helix. Or Steven Weinberg's essays about science and culture or science and religion in The New York Review of Books. Gerald Early's book, The Culture of Bruising, with essays on how racial issues are played out in prizefighting, would fit into this category. Or Steve Pinker's op ed piece in the The New York Times a year or so ago about the deeper meaning of President Clinton's use of language in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.


Level III: By invitation only. The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated. A Level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all. After he became famous in 1919, Einstein was asked to give public addresses on religion, education, ethics, philosophy, and world politics. Einstein had become a symbol of gentle rationality and human nobility. Gloria Steinheim has become a symbol of modern feminist thought. Lester Thurow has become a symbol of the global economy. Some other contemporary people I would place in this Level III category include: Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Steven Jay Gould, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Edward Said, Henry Louis Gates, Camille Paglia.


Of course, these various levels and categories are not as distinct as I have made them, boundaries are blurred, etc. One can move slowly and even unconsciously upward through these various levels I have described. But I would argue that one should be conscious of the movement, and especially the increasing degree of responsibilities. In particular, Level III should be entered with caution and respect. Here, there is the greatest responsibility. The public intellectual is often speaking about things beyond his or her area of expertise. Some people will refuse such an invitation, others will accept the responsibility that has been given them. Einstein, an inward and essentially shy person, but at the same time a man of great self confidence and awareness of his stature, and accepted the responsibility of the Level III public intellectual. Such a person must be careful, he must be aware of the limitations of his knowledge, he must acknowledge his personal prejudices because he is being asked to speak for a whole realm of thought, he must be aware of the huge possible consequences of what he says and writes and does. He has become, in a sense, public property because he represents something large to the public. He has become an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect. When Steven Jay Gould is asked to speak about the recent Kansas ruling that Creationism must be taught along side Evolutionary Biology in science classes, or when Salman Rushdie is asked to speak to the National Press Club about freedom of speech, these people have been asked to accept a great responsibility. They are private citizens but they are also public servants, they are individual thinkers but their individuality also dissolves and rises and merges with the spirits of all the men and women who have thought and imagined and struggled before them.

I want to end with a few brief remarks about a recent new feature in the geography of the public intellectual: many more such people, these days, have come from the sciences. I think I have a part of an explanation. For many years, it was considered a taboo, a professional stigma, for scientists to spend any time at all in writing for the general public. Such an activity was considered a waste of precious time, a soft activity, even a feminine activity. The proper job of a scientist was to penetrate the secrets of the physical world. Anything else was a waste of time, it was dumbing down. The tide began to change in the 1960s with the books Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman, and The Double Helix  by James Watson. Then the big sea change occurred in the 1970s. I think of such books as Migraine and Awakenings  by Olive Sacks, Lives of a Cell  by Lewis Thomas, Ever Since Darwin  by Stephen Jay Gould, Dragons of Eden  by Carl Sagan, The Ascent of Man  by Jacob Brownoski, Disturbing the Universe  by Freeman Dyson, The First Three Minutes  by Steven Weinberg. These popular books, written by major scientists with unquestionable stature in their scientific fields, had the effect of legitimizing public discourse as a worthwhile activity for scientists. When I myself began publishing essays in the early 1980s, and I know that I was influenced by the examples of Thomas, Gould, and Sagan. In the last ten years, we have seen an explosion of popular books written by scientists, and a fraction of these authors will move into the Levels II and III that I have described. Just a few words about my own case: My professional career began as a physicist, but I was always passionate about th humanities and the arts as well, from a young age. After becoming an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard, in the mid 1970s, I started in the late 1970s writing popular articles about science, magazine pieces, encyclopedia articles. The stigma within the scientific community of this kind of soft activity was very real at that time, and I could feel it. However, I had spent a couple of years at Cornell and was inspired by Carl Sagan. In the 1980s, my public activities drifted into essays about the human side of science, and then in the 1990s, books of fiction based upon the scientific mentality. My next book will take the final reckless leap, a novel about the American obsession with speed, efficiency, and money, and what this obsession has done to our minds and our spirits. The novel has no science in it all, yet I think it has been shaped by my having lived in that world and its mentality.



Stephen Pinker,

Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I sympathize with Alan Lightman’s account of the effect of book-writing on family life. The only difference is that in my case, every once in a while my wife will notice me briefly drifting into contact with reality.

When I showed a draft of my first trade book to a colleague for comments, he predicted, accurately, “Your life will never be the same.” There is the wonderful perk of meeting people outside the usual academic circuit -- from writers and journalists to minor celebrities such as Noel Redding (drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Ken Dryden (goalie for the multiple-Stanley-cup-winning Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s). But there is also the adoption of an entirely new mindset about my area of research and about why we in the academy do what we do.


I think of writing trade books not just as “popularizing science” (which many academics equate with dumbing down), but as forcing me to take a bird’s eye view of my field. Academic research, according to the cliché, is the attempt to learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. Presenting one’s field to an audience of nonspecialists is a way to reverse this progression (though one hopes, not by learning less and less about more and more until you know nothing about everything). It forces one to remember a field’s proudest accomplishments -- the ones we often forget about in graduate teaching because they are no longer controversial and hence become part of the banal conventional wisdom. It forces one to organize hodgepodges, to consolidate cottage industries.

It also forces one to question basic assumptions. Having to explain an idea in plain English to someone with no stake in the matter is an excellent screen for incoherent or contradictory ideas that somehow have entrenched themselves in a field. Most teachers have had the experience of realizing part way through a sentence that the theory they are in the midst of explaining makes no sense. One sweats, one pads the sentence with fillers, buying time to figure out how to repair the theory or offer some alternative, and then, as the full stop approaches, one speaks quickly and indistinctly and nonchalantly hoping the students won’t pay attention, all the while praying that no hand shoots up to request a clarification (and if it does, resisting the temptation to blow it off with the suggestion that it is a stupid question). That kind of epiphany happens even more often when explaining a field to a general audience.

I have found that the habits necessary for writing for a general audience – putting issues in larger perspective, spelling out background assumptions, writing in a direct, concrete style – are just as useful in academic writing as in popular writing. I no longer maintain a sharp distinction between the two styles. My most recent book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, reports the results of my research for the past twelve years. It is written as a trade book but I would not have done it all that differently if I had written it as an academic book.

Another great benefit of writing for the public is being forced to explain a puzzle that everyone cares about except, apparently,  the academics who ought to know the most about it. In the case of my main area of expertise, language, I have been asked to write or speak (usually on short notice) about topics such as Politically Correct language, the Boston accent, Bill Clinton’s testimony about his sexual relationships, the future of English, and the brouhaha about the word “niggardly.” It isn’t easy to find discussions of such phenomena in the textbooks or journals, but I enjoy piecing together an explanation from what is out there, and when the explanation succeeds, it underlines the soundness and usefulness of the field in general.

Being accessible to the general public has disadvantages at well. And obvious one is time. Professors are supposed to divide their professional time among teaching, research, and administration. Writing and speaking to the press and public is a fourth major responsibility – once the word gets out that a professor is willing and able to communicate, reporters and radio stations from all over the world will call asking for sound bites, commentary, balance, and other bon mots. Since time is finite, something else has to give: sleep, mostly, but also some of the time devoted to the other responsibilities.

Reporters often ask me if another disadvantage to being a “public intellectual” is a loss of esteem within one’s own discipline, the result of professional jealousy and an arrogance of the academic that equates explaining with dumbing down. The example always presented to me is Carl Sagan, star of Cosmos, the Johnny Carson Show, and Parade Magazine, who was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences. (The scientists who blackballed him should realize the harm they have done to the public image of science by painting us all as petty, arrogant snobs.)

My answer is that even in the unlikely event that that popular writing kept me out of the National Academy, it would be worth it, but that in any case my experience has been different. I don’t know what people say behind my back, but the reaction from most of my academic colleagues has been “Thanks for writing the book; I gave one to my mother and she finally understands what I do.”  (On the other hand, I have found that a tiny number of academics, who might resent a writer for other reasons, try to compensate for the wide reach of a popular book the don’t like by increasing their level of vituperation in proportion.) I also get asked whether the administration looks down on popularization, as some kind of shirking of professional duties. Far from it, at least at MIT. All levels of the administration have encouraged me to share ideas with the public. I am happy to acknowledge President Chuck Vest in particular, who has unfailingly provided moral support.

If one does decide to write for the public, how does one go about it? Perhaps the best advice I received was from an editor who discussed trade book writing with me well before I began to write my first one. Worried about the obvious pitfall of writing in too academic a manner, I self-deprecatingly suggested that I had to learn how to reach truck drivers and chicken pluckers. She corrected me: truck drivers and chicken pluckers don’t buy many books, and it’s an arrogant academic stereotype to assume that anyone who doesn’t teach in a university must drive a truck or pluck chickens. “You shouldn’t be trying to speak to truck drivers, she said; you should be trying to speak to your college room-mate – someone who is as smart and as intellectual as you are, but who happened to go into some other line of work and does not know the jargon or background material.” It was good advice, extirpating any tendency I might have had to condescend to the reader.

One also has to decide to be positive about one’s field and colleagues, which does not come easy to most academics, especially those in controversial fields. What do we do in our graduate seminars? Pick a paper apart, to show how idiotic the author is, and then do the same thing the next week, and the next, and so on. This won’t do with a general audience – they don’t want to hear about a bunch of wrong theories and bad experiments; they want to learn what we really do know. And that requires the writer to actually like something, publicly – a terrifying step for most academics.

Another pitfall is to treat the writing of a trade book as some kind of holiday from serious writing, or worse, as a quick way to earn enough money for a new kitchen. Every year I see dozens of really bad popular science books, which look like undergraduate lectures written in a hurry in cutesy motherese. A decent trade book requires as much concentration, brainwork, and sheer time as one’s best research projects.      

A final thought about why I write for the public. One can think about why we academics do what we do in two very different ways. On one view, research results are passed from one academic to another within a closed circle of specialists, with the public occasionally seeing trickle-downs such as a new laser or a cure for a disease. I have come to a different view, from seeing how excited ordinary educated people are by the kinds of issues we study – for  many of them, the idea that one can get paid for studying consciousness, or language and thought, is an inconceivable luxury.

Most educated people enjoy science for the same reason they enjoy the opera or going to the Grand Canyon – they appreciate beauty for its own sake. On this view research results are always worth sharing with the public, practical applications or no. They pay for the research with their tax dollars, and they have the interest and the right to share in the sheer intellectual pleasure of coming to know how things work. I think it is refreshing to think of the role of an academic as spreading information not just to colleagues and 18-to-21-year olds but to human beings in general.