“A grudging willingness to admit error does not suffice; you have to cultivate a taste for it.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)
I used to believe that all rigidly dogmatic people were knuckle-dragging idiots, and that all professors with PhDs were intellectuals. But life and graduate school have long since disabused me of these youthful delusions. The truth is far more messy and complicated, and far less comforting: dogmatists and intellectuals are, I’ve discovered, much to my chagrin, actually quite hard to differentiate. Truth be told, I frequently find it hard to tell them apart. The dogmatic person can be, like the genuine intellectual, exceptionally bright and highly articulate; they can also be well-educated, well-read, and well-informed. So if you think—as does Steven Pinker—that you can separate the wheat from the chaff with IQ tests and snazzy credentials, prepare to be sorely disappointed. Smart people with MAs and PhDs are often blinded by bias.
I’ve only been able to find one discernible difference between dogmatists and intellectuals, a single telltale sign, though I’ll readily admit that it’s highly subjective: real intellectuals surprise you from time to time. They praise something you didn’t expect them to praise. They attack something you didn’t expect them to attack. And they change their minds occasionally. For instance, an old friend of mine recently jettisoned his longstanding skepticism concerning climate change. His reasons for doing so were thoroughly intellectual: “I used to be a ‘climate skeptic’ until I realized that the argumentative patterns of ‘climate skeptics’ are the same as that of ‘Holocaust Revisionists.’ While I can’t do climate science, I can do pattern recognition.” Alas, dogmatic people never surprise you like this. All to the contrary, the dogmatic person’s position on pretty much any subject is entirely predictable—indeed, tediously and nauseatingly predictable.
An old college buddy of mine is a case in point. He was always quite politically conservative, even when we were in undergrad, but he was an intellectual back then—first and foremost—and that made arguing with him till three in the morning thoroughly delightful, regardless of our differences. But arguing with him is no longer delightful. He’s become dogmatically neoconservative in middle age, and, as a consequence, conversation with him has become pointless, repetitive, and boring—despite the fact that he’s extremely well-read and highly intelligent. On good days, talking to him is like talking to an answering machine that answers all questions with one of ten prerecorded responses. On bad days, talking to him is like talking to a doctor who prescribes the same three prescriptions to all of his patients, all day long, regardless of what they say to him. He used to be a conservative intellectual. Now he’s just a conservative.
If you wish to minimize the amount of error in what you say and write, you need to cultivate two things: (1) smart friends, and (2) an openness to criticism. The first is obvious to most people; the second is not, which is unfortunate, because it’s the sine qua non. You have to let your smart friends know that you really don’t mind being corrected, that you welcome criticism, even nit-picking criticism. You have to somehow communicate to them, preferably through your actions, as opposed to your words, that you’re the kind of person who appreciates a friend who’ll tell you when you’ve got a snot on your face or some lettuce between your teeth. If you don’t let them know from time to time that you’re cool with criticism, they may stop providing it. If you go ballistic whenever your friends disagree with you, your friends will eventually learn how to stay silent or tell you what you want to hear. If you’re sufficiently delusional, this can be undeniably fun for a spell: after all, “safe spaces” can be so warm and cozy. But we’re dealing here with the heroin happiness of a high that can’t last. At some point, the whole thing’ll come crashing down like a shattered house of mirrors. You’ll wake up from the dream and into the fable: about that foolish Emperor, and his snazzy new clothes.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)