Reliving Intellectual Flaws with A-List Influence

One last silhouette
Image via Flickr

“The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink,” Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society goes into great detail about the flaws intellectuals bring to bear upon society with their influence. Some of the behavior of A-Listers matches those of intellectuals, historically.

First, let’s use Sowell’s definition of intellectual, an occupational category — writers, academics and the like — whose works begin and end with ideas. Clearly this description matches bloggers who make their living based off their writing, via consulting, speaking and other services.

You might not like what they have to say, but you can’t deny the influence of A-List bloggers.

Everyone talks about them, celebrating their latest brilliance or condemning them with negative reactions.

The primary angst over A-Listers revolves around their backing perceived bad or old ideas that either hurt, stymie or deaden markets. This also represents the primary flaw of intellectuals in Sowell’s book.

Sowell supports his arguments using brutal examples of intellectuals supporting bad ideologies, including Nazi Germany, Stalin, Nixon and economic systems and failures, like communism.

Where Idea Generators Go Off the Rails

Intellectuals and Society hits on several key points, most importantly that intellectuals product — ideas — are not held to the same standards of vetting that other professions face.

For example a doctor cannot simply have a new idea about heart surgery and go practice it. A scientist has to test and prove his theory.

Another key criticism was the lack of pragmatic value that intellectuals bring to society. Basically, Sowell showed how the more popular an intellectual is the less likely that their ideas will actually impact their profession. Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Finally, Sowell slams intellectuals for their lack of accountability and their elitist justification systems. In essence, when flaws are exposed, intellectuals won’t back down from one of their own ideas publicly, using every justification possible, including their own elite status.

To me, the problems with the A-List are a mirror of the overall intellectual profile. These problems are not unique. We recreated yet another historical sociological flaw online.

However, I found the book to be too scathing in its criticisms.

In my opinion, The A-List is not even the primary cause behind a meme going over the edge.

In fact, based on the magic middle and the science of networks theories, A-Listers seem to get on board as a story rises and crests, then get credit for it. Their blessing (or disdain) often serves as the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae. As a result, their impact is debatable.

While the criticism all seemed accurate, the condemnation of all intellectuals seemed to far reaching. What about the good ideas? Are there none?

Of course, you could say as a blogger, I have a vested interest in saying that.

What do you think?


  • I haven’t read the book but he sounds bitter. As it is, there is a lot of negativity around us and I wouldn’t want to read something like this. Critique is all fine and dandy but it has to be balanced with something positive as well. If I wanted to be depressed, I would have gone back to school. Wait… I have! YIKES! 

    Great post though! 

    And there are a lot of good things that influential bloggers do too! I just can’t remember anything off the top of my head though. ;) I kid! 

    • Agreed: I definitely thought this guy was a bit angry. His flaws are spot on, but way, way too one-sided. Anytime we lean towards extreme views, we are likely erring in opinion, in my opinion.  Thanks for the smart comment!

  • I particularly like your point near the end that A-listers seem to get on board as a story crests and rises. I wrote about this nearly a year ago, with the idea that this is true in nearly all fields. When you think of grunge, you think of Nirvana, and yet there weren’t the innovators, they were merely there as it rose to popularity and get much of the credit for the genre. I think in most cases, even technology, we give popular credit to the wrong people. The history of radio as a technology is a great example of well. And in some cases, marketing and self-promotion can be one of the reasons for this. 

    •  I wish I could take credit for it, but this really came out of Technorati during  its heady days as the leading authority for blogs back in the mid 2000s.  Founder David Sifry noticed A Listers picking off topics from mid-tier bloggers, and pointed out that marketers would be better served targeting this magic middle instead of pursuing top blogs.

      Thanks for the great comment, Ken!

  • I’m going to have to let this float around in my head a bit. When I was in school, there was a definite divide between the jocks and the intellectual types (guess which group I was in!), so I am sensitive to intellectual bashing. I think people in the “intellectual” pigeon hole scare people who maybe don’t understand what they’re saying. The assumption seems to be, “I can’t understand you so I have to assume you are attacking me.”

    Now, I’m going to really put my foot in my mouth here, but it’s your fault.

    To me, I don’t see A-listers for the most part as intellectuals. I think a lot of people we classify as A-listers dumb themselves down. They play just hard enough to maintain status but not necessarily enough to please *themselves* with what they are doing. Money and/or ego starts to overshadow all. Social Media folk, in my experience, are not interested in the ideas as much as they’re interested in how those ideas will get them more followers. 

    Still rolling this around in my head, but those are my initial off-the-cuff reactions.

    Great post.

    •  You’ll love how Sowell delineates intellectuals in the book. He notes ideas don’t equate to wisdom.  He says intelligence is ideas + widsom.  Thus an intellectual (or an A Lister as in this conversation) isn’t necessarily (and usually not) intelligent. It’s a hard hitting book.

  • This book intrigues me, Geoff. 

  • Comparing A-list bloggers to intellectuals seems to be a bit of a stretch. More than a few genuine intellectuals might be rolling in their graves right now. :D

    But good points. The mechanism of “influence” is the same, with or without the IQ, insights or intellectual capacity. Great post, man.

    •  To Sowell’s credit, he delineates intellect and intelligence. The latter includes wisdom.  Thanks for the props!

  •  I need to let this digest and of course not having read the book SIGH.

    Yes, so let’s take that part below where some of today’s influencers picked off topics from mid-tier bloggers and then they are taking off with them.  Isn’t that what we all do?  Pay attention to what is happening around us and then finding what really resonates and solves the current challenges?

    Now back to everyone talking about intellectuals and their conversations – isn’t this where creative solutions come about…our willingness to listen, have open dialogues and even debates – then go internal and ask better questions – which produces solutions?

    Or are you pointing out that too many do not think for themselves and just sit in awe of an influencer and promoting influencer’s message?

    Or do I need more coffee?

  • The book sounds very interesting. In terms of the social media sphere, I don’t really think of most A-listers as intellectuals for some reason. I’ve no good reasoning for thinking that, but I do. And how are we defining an A-lister?

Comments are closed