[Ideas] could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was.Indeed, The Origin of Species was a best seller when it was first published.
Regardless of some of the rather pedestrian instances he cites, Gabler says that we're not only living in a 'post-Enlightment age', in which science and rationality have given way to orthodoxy, faith, opinion and superstition, we're living in a 'post-idea age', in which people are not even thinking anymore.
In part, he says, this is because we're in the Information Age, where the glut of facts available to us means we don't have time to process it all. We prefer knowing things to thinking about them. Twitter, he says, makes the instantaneous exchange of inane information so easy that that's all we're exchanging.
To a large extent we agree, particularly if all you are tuned into is popular culture, where the loudest most obnoxious 'pundit' wins, celebrity gossip rules, and adherence to truth is tenuous at best. Tale-telling way outscores factuality.
What about at universities? Gabler says:
There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.This is certainly largely true, at a time in history when the smallest fundable unit is rewarded, in contrast with new and innovative big ideas. Unless they are patentable. This is in a sense a careerist, bourgeois takeover of one of the main places one might expect new ideas to come from. But even this isn't all that new: the really great ideas come from individuals with skill and luck to be in the right context. Many of them would never have made it in the institutional world, where we have to work for a living and hence have to play the game, not make too many waves, etc.
There are those, including Gabler's examples of big thinkers, such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, who have successfully crossed the line from the academy to popular culture, and have written best-sellers that engage the public, though Gabler wishes the likes of Pinker and Dawkins were more mainstream. But it's a rare thinker who can translate complex, nuanced ideas for the public. Not only are scientists still frowned upon for writing popular books, but it's damned difficult to write about science in an engaging way, and without dumbing down. Or without becoming an idealogue, and selling grand but rather empty or wholly contrived ideas not constrained by serious testing, which it could be argued both of these 'public intellectuals' have become. Most celebrity scientists are past their prime, and usually in a hungry-media society, way less conceptually deep or innovative than the image suggests. But, of course, the public love the things they sell, which are usually very well done for what they are.
Ideas are out there, if you stray away from the big media outlets. They aren't hidden -- you can find interesting, non-ideological thinking in some literary magazines these days, even some newspapers still, particularly outside the US, some radio (as you all know, we're partial to the BBC ourselves), some places on the web, including many blogs.
But, how much of it is science? The Enlightenment period which inaugurated modern science about 300 or 400 years ago, engendered the kind of empirical, systematic science that we have institutionalized by now. It can nibble away at the truth, and it can generate massive facts (and factoids). Industrialized as it is now, it can guarantee new, if incremental, knowledge and usually will also generate unexpected facts.
Such discoveries are rife in the life sciences, and we now know scads more about almost any area of biology you want to name. But that is not the same as great new conceptual understanding, of the Darwin or Einstein variety. They and other leaders in conceptual science commented about the stifling nature of universities even in their time. Rare indeed are such things, but at least in the past people were trying. Today, grand theorizing is a big seller, but truly transformative ideas are rare as hen's teeth. The same basic ideas in biology -- theory, if you will -- have been around for well over a century.
It may be that while we don't understand everything about evolution or genetics, we understand enough that our basic theory hasn't changed. Maybe it will, because maybe what we don't understand will force us to new insights of a profound nature. But the institutionalized, industrialized, bureaucratized nature of science does not give any hints as to what they might be, or when it may happen. There are all sorts of speculative wonderments being proposed, such as antimatter, Bosons, multiple universes, and all that. How much will play out, or be relevant to what we want to know about life, is impossible to tell. We have just published a commentary on this subject in regard to evolution and genetics ("Is life law-like?" in the journal Genetics), where we question the basic nature of the current 'theory' in biology, in the context of laws of nature....but we did not discover the next Great Idea (if there is to be one) about life.
It would be more interesting, for us at least, to be able to live in an era when such new, really fundamental insights were dropped into our awareness -- as in Darwin's, Einsteins, or Newton's time. The closest example that may give MT readers a taste of what it would be like, is probably the acceptance of continental drift and its implications for geology. Hopefully, something new like that is in the offing. But don't hold your breath (just get back to writing your next grant application)!