Who is in my tribe?

Non-tribal Public Intellectuals

In the late 1980s, my favorite band was 10,000 Maniacs. Their first album was “In My Tribe.” An odd note is that the original album included a cover of “Peace Train,” and they subsequently took it off the album because of controversial views attributed to the original artist, Cat Stevens.

I am alarmed by the political tribalism that we see in the United States today. So “my tribe” consists of people who share that concern—folks like Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Sullivan, and Bari Weiss.

I want to encourage a non-tribal intellectual style. I am eager to read Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset. Based on the reviews, I would agree with her praise for what she calls the scout mindset and also with her disparagement of what she calls the soldier mindset.

I have gone so far as to devise a scoring system for op-ed pieces, podcasts, long blog posts and essays written by public intellectuals. This system awards points for:

  • playing devil’s Advocate as an interviewer, leading the person interviewed to clarify and defend a position

  • thinking in Bets by stating the odds that something will turn out to happen or turn out to be proven true

  • admitting to Caveats about one’s own views by acknowledging potential weak points

  • participating in a structured Debate, as in Intelligence Squared. While it need not be that formal, there must be a clearly-defined affirmative, and each side must get at least 10 minutes (or the equivalent in written words) to count as participating in a debate.

  • helping to Kick off a conversation by writing an essay, a book, or a blog post, or saying something on a podcast, that subsequently produces some long-form non-tribal discussion in response. This could be a single symposium dedicated to the Kickoff idea, or it could be several separate pieces written in response to it. Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” idea has kicked off a lot of discussion. His “state-capacity libertarianism” also kicked off much discussion. A discussion is tribal, and hence disqualified from earning a point, if all of the praise for the Kickoff piece comes from one political tribe, and the other side either ignores it or disparages it.

  • showing a mind that is Open to reconsideration. You say, “I now change my mind about this issue, because. . .” or “I would change my mind about this issue if it were to turn out that. . .” or “I have not made up my mind about this issue, because. . .”

  • showing an interest in Research methods. That is, you do not just cite a study because it supports your point of view, but you look into why different studies show different results and/or you look at how a given study’s methods might skew the results.

  • Steel-manning an opposing point of view. This is exactly like participating in a structured debate, except that you represent both sides. There must be a specific proposition that is the affirmative. If you are arguing for the affirmative, then you must argue for the negative as carefully as someone who believes the negative would argue for it.

I associate each category with a letter; A, B, C, D, K, O, R, S, respectively.

With these scoring categories in mind, here are some public intellectuals who are in my tribe, in that I believe that they model these behaviors.

For those who are on substack, I have provided links. Zvi Mowshowitz is on substack, but the blog that gets my attention is here. Zvi is actually the scoring leader in the first version of a game that I call Fantasy Intellectual Teams, about which I will say more in subsequent posts.

A few more remarks, and then I will close this first post:

  1. I wish that I had more left-of-center folks on this list. I would welcome additions from that part of the intellectual universe.

  2. Just because you are a fan of an intellectual does not mean that said intellectual would score points under the above system. On the contrary, many intellectuals who are very popular on Twitter would score poorly.

  3. In fact, one can imagine a system of negative points, for straw-manning, employing epithets (“cultural Marxist,” “free-market fundamentalist”), confirmation bias (“this one chart. . .”), preaching to the choir, demonizing, bullying, insulting, and so on. Pretty much 99 percent of tweets that go viral would earn negative points. Interestingly, in my observation the intellectuals listed above are not only earn many positive-points categories but also would be charged with very few negative points.

  4. Megan McArdle does a remarkable job steel-manning within the confines of the space for a newspaper column.

  5. Scott Alexander is a monster in the B, R, and S categories.

  6. Other strong multi-category intellectuals include Tyler Cowen, John McWhorter, and Andrew Sullivan.