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Naomi Wolf And The Danger Of Universal Genius

February 8, 2011

The world is full of smart people, but intelligence doesn’t help if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Object lesson number one may be the smartest living person.  Freeman Dyson’s biggest contributions are in quantum electrodynamics, but he has turned his hand to many subfields and made serious contributions.  He has won the Lewis Thomas prize and the Max Planck medal.  For my purposes, though, the important thing about him is that his intellect is famously nonspecialist.  Many physicists don’t and can’t do engineering, but Dyson can go from contemplating the actions of particles whose existence I can’t grasp to calculating the strain on a starship using uncontrolled nuclear reactions as a rocket motor.

The problem with Dyson, according to a recent profile in The Atlantic by Kenneth Brower, is that he doesn’t know when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He’s very, very smart.  We all know he’s very, very smart.  Being smart is no protection from being wrong; any intellect processing bad or incomplete information is likely to produce bad conclusions.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Dyson is a climate change denialist.  He’s put the considerable heft of his name and scientific reputation behind an idea that usually attracts anti-science crackpots.  But Dyson is not a climate scientist, so he makes elementary blunders.  Brower notes:

Many of Dyson’s facts on global warming are wrong, as the scientists who have done actual research on the subject point out, but more disconcerting is the selective way he gathers his information and the peculiar conceptual framework into which he inserts it.

It is true that plants grow better with increases in carbon dioxide. (Photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide and sunlight into organic compounds, so the more CO2 and sunlight, the better, up to a point.) If a plant’s survival depended only on its metabolism—if all it had to do was photosynthesize—then increased CO2 in the atmosphere might indeed be a good thing. But plants happen to grow in these little universes we call ecosystems, where they are sustained by complex webs of interdependency with fungi, microbes, animals, and other plants. Much of this mutually dependent life is adapted to narrow temperature and rainfall regimes, and these biomes are collapsing everywhere.

Plants do grow better with increased CO2, but not when deprived of water. Water is a vanishing commodity in the American West, where I live, and where, like the Australians and Sudanese and many others, we are enduring a succession of increasingly prolonged and severe droughts.

The thing about Dyson is that he knows he’s out of his depth in climate science.  He told Charlie Rose (Brower’s paraphrase):

He did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not argue the details with anybody; he had not given much time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real answers, but what he knew for sure was that the global-warming experts did not know the answers, either.

He knows he doesn’t know the details, he knows he can’t hang in a conversation about specifics, but he’s sure he’s right anyway.  Brower goes on to explore several theories about why Dyson is tilting at windmills, all of which is a very interesting read and not very germane to my point.  My point here, really, is to offer one possible explanation for how Naomi Wolf could go so far off the rails.  I won’t say that it’s the most compelling explanation, or even the one I buy.  In fact, it’s really among the more charitable explanations.

Naomi Wolf is very smart.  Her BA is from Yale and she was a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford.  Rhodes Scholar is quite a credential.  But feminism is a big field, and rape is not her area.  Though in recent discussions she has touted her twenty-something years of experience with rape survivors, rape is not the focus of any of her books.  She hasn’t that I know of run a rape crisis shelter or an organization specific to sexual assault issues, and it’s my understanding that she has done relatively little direct work with rape survivors, many years ago.  It hasn’t been her primary area, whether academically or in the trenches. 

Maybe that’s why rape survivors are now making and wearing shirts that say, “Naomi Wolf Does Not Speak For Me.”  Maybe she simply doesn’t realize that when she turns her formidable intellect to subjects she doesn’t know well, she is likely to jump to bad conclusions.  That’s one possible explanation for why she would conclude that a man may stick his penis in a sleeping woman without prior approval.  It’s elementary that that’s rape, and her failure or refusal to understand it is as ridiculous as Dyson saying that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must mean more trees.

There is further evidence that Wolf simply conflates being smart with being right.  Not long ago at Oxford, Wolf said (according to Sophie, who was there and reported firsthand the day after the event):

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too privileged to represent the Other! (Shouting again, here.) That old line’s just yet another way to silence women! Don’t underestimate the power of the Human Imagination! (Touching her chest.) I may never have experienced life as an Indian woman in a bordello, but that doesn’t mean I can’t speak! An actual quote here was: “YOU CAN SPEAK FOR ANYONE – er – I MEAN ABOUT ANYONE YOU WANT!”

That’s the sort of thing someone says when they don’t understand that being smart is not the same thing as knowing what you’re talking about.  It’s not a new problem for Wolf; one of the criticisms of Promiscuities was that she was trying to fit the whole world into the particular experience of one privileged white woman.

This is not the only explanation.  As I said above, it is among the more charitable.  Given that her two books after The Beauty Myth were generally not well received, one could conclude that she has made a decision to recast herself and market to antigovernment progressives, for whom Assange is a touchstone, in which case defending Assange at all costs is simply a business decision.  To accept that, one would have to accept that Wolf is a completely unprincipled, dishonest mercenary.  There is some evidence for that conclusion.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. LoriA permalink
    February 8, 2011 4:11 pm

    “The problem with Dyson […] is that he doesn’t know when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    I think those who have no remotely objective sense of their own limitations, or who have perhaps lost it, are disqualified from being ‘geniuses’ in the broader sense of the word. You can be a math genius or an athletic genius or a literary genius, but if you never know (/ realize/ acknowledge) when you’re doing something wrong or bad, especially inside your area of expertise, you don’t earn the title of ‘genius, period.’ And we all fuck up to some extent.

  2. February 12, 2011 9:15 am

    Lois McMaster Bujold has a quote that’s applicable here: “All the geniuses I ever met were so just part of the time. To qualify, you only have to be great once, you know. Once when it matters.”

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