Public Intellectuals

By Sean Carroll | April 23, 2008 10:40 am

Via Eric Rauchway (of The Edge of the American West, but guest-blogging at Crooked Timber), here is a list of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals, as put together by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. (You can vote for your top five.) Here are the natural scientists they’ve chosen to include:

Bjørn Lomborg is also on the list, but I don’t count him as a natural scientist — Sunita Narain is also a close call, but seems to fall more on the activism side than pure environmental science. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker would also be there if you classified linguistics as a natural science. I also didn’t include economists, who are certainly social scientists in my classification. And V.S. Ramachandran I counted as more of a psychologist. This is a thankless task.

Note that the list is concerned with public intellectuals — people who have influenced the wide-ranging public discussion in some substantial way — so there’s no point in wondering why Lee Smolin is there but not Ed Witten. You are, however, allowed to wonder why there aren’t more physicists over all, and whether physicists should be blaming themselves or shaking impotent fists of rage at the selection committee. Either way, those biologists are kicking our butts.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • onymous

    Lomborg, Smolin… so “top public intellectual” can mean “one who disagrees with nearly every respectable person in his field, and instead of persuading others through peer-reviewed literature, appeals to the general public for support”?

  • Sean

    If the “respectable” people can’t be bothered to explain themselves compellingly to the general public — then, yeah.

  • Blake Stacey

    I’m honestly surprised that Smolin made the list and, say, Stephen Hawking didn’t.

  • onymous

    Ah, I see they allow voting, and not only for the people on their list. I don’t see Gore as adequately offsetting Lomborg; I’m writing in Hames Hansen.

  • Glenn McDavid

    I wondered why Freeman Dyson did not make the list.

  • onymous

    Err, James Hansen, that is. Typing is hard.

  • Neil B.

    His influence seems to be fading, but Jaron Lanier (virtual reality, AI, consciousness issues in conjunction with society etc. – not a narrow worker but wide-ranging) should still be on the list IMHO. BTW, some of the more virulent commenters on Pharyngula really ragged on him in a thread that got into the realness of consciousness etc. They said he stole ideas, didn’t deserve fame, etc, and was basically a slob. I think they were just piqued at his on-target and witty criticisms of their hero Daniel Dennett (on the list, but a deception-mongering Pied Piper in my opinion just like Wittgenstein, Ryle, and other ironically post-modernist explainers-away of consciousness.)

  • efp

    From physics, I would be inclined to nominate Brian Greene. But, I think part of the issue is that physics WON. I can’t think of any physics issues that are real topics of public controversy. Smolin probably made the list because he tried to manufacture one. What Greene is doing–education–is far more important.

  • Domenic

    Criteria: Although the men and women on this list are some of the world’s most sophisticated thinkers, the criteria to make the list could not be more simple. Candidates must be living and still active in public life. They must have shown distinction in their particular field as well as an ability to influence wider debate, often far beyond the borders of their own country.

    The comments so far are strange, and don’t seem to be taking into account these criteria—indeed, they fail to grasp the concept of public intellectual, in many cases, as opposed to (say) someone all the nerds have heard about. In this respect I think it’s almost a minimum that you have to write a popular science book, or at least give lots of general-public lectures. (And yes, there are counterexamples on the list.)

    But to be fair there is an overt bias toward controversy in the criteria themselves.

  • jeff

    virulent commenters on Pharyngula really ragged on him in a thread that got into the realness of consciousness etc. They said he stole ideas, didn’t deserve fame, etc, and was basically a slob.

    Pharyngula commenters calling anyone a slob is amusing. Adolescent groupthink at it’s finest. The more subtle paradoxes of consciousness are beyond them. But should Lanier be included? I haven’t seen or heard much of him lately. And can someone be considered a serious intellectual who has no non-honorary degrees?

  • Neil B.

    Jeff – I appreciate your snarky take on the Pharyngula crowd. I often think I might be reading “Little Green Footballs” but with different enemies. As for Jaron, I think “public intellectual” should be about accomplishments, quality, and presence in the public eye more than official marks of academic respectability. He may or may not still be justified in that top 100, I too think he’s slipped in visibility and output.

    PS: Speaking of consciousness, is there a quality blog/site etc. out there, especially for mysterians? I know about JCS, just wondering what else.

  • Brent

    There is only one computer scientist and he is really a physicist.

    Also, zero mathematicians. I know modern math is hardly part of public discourse, but you’d think there would be at least one with enough fame to land a spot on the list.

  • Kilroy was here

    “Fool’s names and fool’s faces often appear in public places.” Read that in a book for young people when I was about 10 years old. The wagon train was passing Independence Rock, and the protagonist was upset because his mother wouldn’t allow him to use some tar to add his name to the rock. His grandmother told him that. Stuck with me for 50 years now. Remember it every time I drive up Cow Creek Canyon and see “Zenchenko” painted in 3-foot high letters on the rocks above the falls. Mickey Zenchenko (now calls himself “Mike”) was kind of a second-rate kid, and painting & repainting his name like that over the last 40 years was probably the biggest idea he ever had in life.

    If everyone voted for Mickey, he might be added to the list of “Top 100 Public Intellectuals”. As Mickey himself might say, who says only real intellectuals should be on the list?

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    It’s tough to think of a way a physicist could take her deep knowledge of physics and use it to get involved in “public life.” The biologists have it easy — a little extrapolation from your subject matter gets you sociobiology and all sorts of neo-Victorian ideas that you can toss around in articles about war, politics, gender, anything really. Pity the physicist who must begin “treat voters as a network of dipoles where up is Obama and down is Clinton…”

    The only real route for a physicist is Chomsky’s — just take all those good Enlightenment notions from your science and apply it to the world.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    There must be some mistake – Ben Stein was not even on the list.

  • A.J.


    Carl Sagan seems like a better model than Chomsky. But then, maybe I’m confused about the definition of public intellectual.

  • Haelfix

    Brian Greene, Kachru, Roger Penrose, Lisa Randall and Stephen Hawking are conspicously missing.

    I’d also put Weinberg in there (since he publishes a lot in various widely read journals, often on intellectually interesting subjects).

    As for astrophysicists, Rees probably deserves to be up there.

  • Blake

    “but Jaron Lanier (virtual reality, AI, consciousness issues in conjunction with society etc. – not a narrow worker but wide-ranging) should still be on the list IMHO. BTW, some of the more virulent commenters on Pharyngula really ragged on him in a thread that got into the realness of consciousness etc. They said he stole ideas, didn’t deserve fame, etc, and was basically a slob.”

    That would a notable criticism, if it were true, which it apparently is not.

  • Lab Lemming

    If they are looking for shear impact, negative or positive, then A. Q. Khan should be on the list. He may not be much of a role model, but there is no doubt that his physics has had a profound impact on the world today.

    Contributors to FP are naturally over represented, but that’s life for you.

    While it is sad that there are no chemists or geologists, I can’t actually think of any who ought to qualify.

  • Just Another Grad Student

    Ehhh…Brian Greene?

  • Elliot


    there are a lot of other people I might include:

    Singer/Songwriters: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Prine, Steve Earle, and Smokey Robinson to name a few.

    Certainly some other scientists that might be on my list: Murray Gell Mann, Michael Turner, Raphael Bousso, Louis Crane, and Stuart Kaufmann.

    And why not Barack Obama?


  • Blake Stacey

    The Blake who wrote comment #18 was not me, although I was going to say much the same thing.

    I’d suggest Alan Sokal as a physicist who has had a noticeable influence on intellectual discourse; the preface to his new book, Beyond the Hoax, has some interesting comments on the nature and role of “public intellectuals” in general.

  • Nameless here

    I noticed something interesting: six of the public figures on the list don’t have en.wikipedia entries. (Thérèse Delpech, Fan Gang, Ivan Krastev, Minxin Pei, Lilia Shevtsova, Yan Xuetong). Isn’t that odd?

    (I didn’t try looking up all 100 – I noticed one of the omissions by accident, used a script to find the rest, and verified them all manually with wikipedia’s internal search engine.)

  • Ellipsis

    All intellectuals aspiring to go public would do well to read e.e. cummings poem on the topic. 😉

  • Eugene

    That’s a poor list.

  • Adrian Burd

    I do find it mildly amusing that there seems to be an increasing amount of “biology envy” amongst physicists these days – something of a reversal
    of fortunes.

    As for translating a physicists “deep knowledge of physics” into public life, quite a few seem to have done a very good job of it – John Barrow (disclaimer – he was my PhD supervisor), Paul Davies, Stephen Weinberg, Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, Feynman, Dyson ……

    Translating biology for consumption in public life is a far harder job than some here seem to think. Everybody (including quite a few physicists) has their own
    pet ideas about biology – it’s something they’ve directly experienced every day of their lives. Consequently, there’s a great deal of misconception that has to be dealt with.

    I would hazard a guess (without any evidence apart from personal experience) that the general public’s knowledge and understanding of modern biology is at a similar level to their understanding of modern physics. So, putting either into the public realm is a difficult task.

  • John Baez

    I think part of being a “public intellectual” is the willingness to take public stands on issues that you aren’t really a trained expert on – often issues where the very notion of expertise is suspect, like politics. But, you have to be an expert on something, or people think you’re just another loudmouth.

  • Mike

    Obviously the list depends sensitively on how one defines “public intellectual.” I don’t gather from the list that one must be a renegade. In this case, I’m very surprised the list excludes

    Stephen Hawking

    After all, how many of these folks have been on the Simpsons! Hawking’s book may have sold more copies than any other person’s on this list… I say ‘may have’ because I didn’t check but I’m under the impression that “A Brief History…” was a fantastic best seller, breaking all kinds of records. Furthermore, Hawking has come to symbolize the esoteric genius to the general public, even if we physicists think maybe some other people deserve as much or more attention in that regard.

  • Professor R

    Hi Sean,
    I too am surprised at the omission of Steven Hawking, given the criteria stated.

    I think John Baez’s comment is very interesting and I agree. Ideally, a public intellectual should be an expert on something, and also have the willingness to take public stands on issues outside their expert field – too often the very best minds will not take the latter step, which is why I admire scientists like Dawkins (statements on religion) and Hawking (statements on climate change)…Cormac

  • Elliot

    An interesting (and true) story. At a physics symposium around 98-99 (The Pritzker Symposium on Inflationary Cosmology) Stephen Hawking was there. During a break I was standing nearby and he was emailing Al Gore re: climate change.


  • Neil B.

    Once I found out that Hawking wasn’t on the list (it never occurred to me to check! – then I saw late comments and found Blake’s early lament), I was shocked! How can it be? Any theories? We should write to them to complain?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I tend to agree it’s a poor list, but I think events are largely driving inclusion. With Intelligent Design and “climate skepticism” running wild and loose, and a public who loves nothing more than a good fight, the roster isn’t that surprising. “String Wars” round out the fascination with controversy.

  • Sandy

    I know you are not going to stop giving Lee Smolin s**t, but he is a pretty good ambassador for physics. I found his books to be upbeat and inclusive, and he makes science sound fun. I only read Three Roads to Quantum Gravity and The Life of the Cosmos, I agreed with most of his conjectures. But, even if you don’t, the way someone writes about science is more important (for the public discourse) than whatever theories they happen to have. Of course the list left off lots of great people.

  • Sean

    Speaking only for myself, I don’t think that I “give Lee Smolin s**t.” I disagree with him strongly on certain matters of substance, and I don’t think that his presentation of the state of play in modern theoretical physics is especially accurate. But I applaud him very sincerely for his efforts to talk to a wider audience — I very much wish that others would also do so.

  • Ginger Yellow

    Freeman Dyson should be on the list, and I’m not just saying that because he went to my school. He regularly opines outside his field.

  • Sandy

    Not you particularly Sean, just various voices on this blog.

  • Elliot

    Another oversight Cornell West


  • Maureen

    The biologists get a boost, I think, from having catchier titles for their popular science books. Diamond wrote one called “Why is Sex Fun?” after all.

  • Sean

    Not to mention Bonk.

    But A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe, The First Three Minutes — these are all pretty cool titles.

  • Sandy

    The sad thing is, I doubt the list creators actually read the works of L. Smolin, or E.O. Wilson, or the couple other hard scientists. They probably just found the names that were most in the news the last year or so. It is a sad fact that scientists don’t affect the public discourse much, something we have discussed on CV. When scientists do talk to the press, the inevitable land mines and misunderstandings lead to lots of criticism from colleagues. The only solution is just to lighten up and be more open with less infighting. Stick together, knowing the press always gets it wrong in some way.

  • Gordon

    If self-promotion and half-baked ideas are criteria, then Lee Smolin fits the list.
    Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, and Freeman Dyson obviously
    belong on the list. If self-promotion and arrogance are criteria, then,
    of course, James Hansen belongs; but if he makes the list, be sure to
    place Wheeler’s student, Fred Singer there. Lovelock hasnt really appeared much
    in public since GAIA. Wilson and Diamond are fine. Perhaps Brian Greene and Michio Kaku.
    Sandy: Smolin is “a pretty good ambassador for physics” ??—didn’t you mean
    “isn’t” . I assume that was a typo.
    Hmmm and Jennifer Ouellette, of course….:)

  • negentropyeater

    Is there an anglo-saxon obsession for lists ?
    Pardon my being French, I don’t understand the point of it.
    Maybe someone can explain.

  • Neil B.

    negentropyeater, obsession with lists is said to be “anal-retentive”, to use a term that is officially a clinical category despite the snicker factor. The Anglo-Saxon-Teutonic culture is supposed to be rather anal-retentive, especially due to Calvinist influence FWIW. As for scientists being said not to have much influence or to be widely read, well, they are more read than philosophers qua philosophers are. Who can now name modern equivalents of Bertrand Russel, Heidegger, not to mention Wittgenstein, or Kant, Hume etc? Sure Dennett is on the list, but he’s a hack on a hatchet job mission of denying even that conscious experience really exists etc.

  • John Merryman

    Only one computer scientist?

    I thought the medium was the message.

    How about Carver Mead?

  • John Baez

    negentropyeater writes:

    Is there an anglo-saxon obsession for lists ?

    I don’t know if the obsession for lists is “Anglo-Saxon” – I would have thought it was American. Think of Dave Letterman’s “top ten” lists, or Irving Wallace’s The Book of Lists.

    The best thing about lists is that they’re good for starting discussions, often involving what was left off the list.

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  • Orion

    Neil deGrasse Tyson

  • Chanda

    I have to second Neil deGrasse Tyson. And Stephen Hawking. I have found Brian Greene to be sort of orthogonal to my taste (stylistically), but I can see how compelling arguments for him could be made.

    As for mathematicians, Ian Stewart has written a number of wonderful books on mathematics for the public that have sold fairly well. I don’t see his name on the list, however, which is too bad. Pity he hasn’t stirred up enough controversy to have the press banging down his door. (sarcasm)

    Anyway, it sounds like this list was more about who is in fashion and less about who has made substantive lasting contributions to discourse in and out of the academy.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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