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Public intellectuals and the vanity trap

The last few years have brought into view a new generation of public intellectuals, selling books in big numbers, doing talks at TED and other events, and gaining star status. This has had the virtue of engaging a much wider public in the world of ideas. In the UK, for example, the rise of impressive, articulate scientist-communicators has contributed to a marked re-engagement, and re-enchantment, with science over the last two decades.

But this trend has also brought with it some less desirable behaviours. I remember once taking part in a conversation with Samuel Huntington, a very successful public intellectual who, late in life, achieved new fame through his claims that we were seeing a ‘clash of civilisations’. The discussion centred around the characteristics of best-selling non-fiction books. Huntington’s conclusion was that, to succeed, a book needed a good title which summarised the argument - an argument which could, itself, be summarised in a couple of sentences (for example in the introduction to a short radio interview). Most significantly, and perhaps surprisingly, he judged it just as important that the argument was, in important respects, wrong. That guaranteed plenty of controversy to fuel the sales.

Huntington had his tongue in his cheek. But on a more serious note, he also commented that many of his peers had become bored of the scrutiny of academic life and taken off into a lifestyle where the only events they attended were ones where they were keynote speakers, and the only people they engaged with were fans. This stratosphere of public adulation, he warned, was turning great minds into great performers who were losing the capacity to think.

Rough egalitarianism

One of the best features of academic life is the rough egalitarianism which forces even the grandest professors to deal with critics, however much lower their status. This happens through peer review, book and article reviews, and conferences, as claims and arguments are subjected to rigorous examination (or at least they should be).

For some of the new public intellectuals, by contrast, different rules apply. All publicity is good publicity. But deigning to engage with critics risks undermining the confidence of their readers (especially if they really are wrong). So the smart approach seems to be to ignore critics altogether for fear of drawing attention to their arguments.

A good recent example of what should happen is Thomas Piketty. The extraordinary publicity he received, as his book on capitalism sold by the truckload, could have led him to become immune to criticism. Instead, he took care to respond to his many critics, trading statistics, interpretations and arguments in ways that further enhanced his reputation. The argument isn’t over – a recent analysis of the role of housing in inequality, for example, casts a very different light on his claims. But it will ultimately be resolved by evidence and analysis, not assertion.

Arguing about innovation

Piketty joined Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s economics brains trust, alongside luminaries such as Joseph Stiglitz. One of the other advisers has taken a different stance. Mariana Mazzucato is the author of an interesting and important recent book on the ‘Entrepreneurial State’, which made the case for government involvement in innovation. The book has been widely read and reviewed, and helped to rebut the simplistic view that governments play little or no part in innovation. Its arguments are pretty mainstream in the innovation studies field which never adopted the extreme free market positions she critiques, and the book doesn’t explore the many nuances and dilemmas that quickly arise when states try to be entrepreneurial (the most sophisticated analysis of this is still Jane Jacobs’ book ‘Systems of Survival’ – sadly unread by the economists involved in this debate). But for people unfamiliar with the literature on innovation policy, Mazzucato’s book provided a readable guide to the role of public funding in nurturing everyday technologies like the iPhone or SatNav.

For a time Mariana had a fellowship at Nesta. We had asked her to work on turning the broad brush strokes of her book into more practical ideas about what governments should do. Few would dispute that governments have a decisive role to play in supporting innovation. But all the important questions come after this: exactly how should this support be provided? What types of agency work best, using which types of finance and which kinds of expertise? Why are there so many stories of failure, as well as stories of success? After a few months Mariana acknowledged that she wasn’t well-placed to answer these questions. This sort of policy work was neither her strength nor her interest, and she preferred to stick with diagnosis rather than prescription.

This prompted my colleague Stian Westlake to look in more detail at what the policy implications of her work might be. In blogs he set out, in some depth, both the strengths and weaknesses of her books, and her many talks and articles. While sympathising with their broad thrust, he found that many of the elements which were original in the book were problematic. Some were errors of diagnosis and description (for example, in the incorrect descriptions of innovation agencies in countries from Finland to Brazil). Some were errors of emphasis – in particular, greatly understating the importance of development in research and development (which led to the very misleading suggestion that the US government deserves the primary credit for things like iPads). Others were logically flawed prescriptions for governments, particularly on the ways in which they might take equity in innovative firms.

These criticisms were offered in a constructive spirit – it’s only through critique and argument that ideas advance and evolve.  But more than a year on Mariana has not responded to these criticisms (except to complain about being criticised). Yet, if her analysis really is as flawed as Stian suggests, then it will be problematic, to say the least, if policymakers follow it. If her work is in fact solid, then she should show why, and put her case point by point, refuting Stian’s refutations in the way that Piketty has responded to his critics. Intellectuals who, like her, have received very generous public funding over many years, surely have a duty to engage.

Vanity trap

If they don’t, the risk is that many of the brightest intellectuals get caught in a vanity trap. They find themselves so much in demand, called upon to repeat their best speeches again and again, or to offer soundbites on news programmes, that they are left with very little time to think. Soon, they become too grand to engage in debate. And then, after a time, they become so concerned with embellishing their brand that they find it hard to admit to error. In this way, the very people who should be most helping societies to learn become the enemies of learning.

This problem is particularly acute in the study of business. Michael Porter is a good example of the tendency to ignore critics. A very highly paid consultant and adviser, his work has been very influential, but also widely criticised for being misleading, logically confused, and unethical (many of his business theories promoted a fairly predatory approach to competition). But he has been careful not to take on his critics (for example on the flaws of his ideas about clusters), and when recently he shifted ground radically with the idea of ‘shared value’, he made no mention of the debt he owed to his critics who had been making very similar points for years.

Porter isn’t alone. A surprising proportion of the top 50 management thinkers  celebrated not long ago in London (the Thinker50) have never engaged in the sort of serious, rigorous debate that marks out genuine disciplines. As a recent Nesta blog showed, thought often develops best through argument, not through well-polished speeches. But these thinkers are probably better described as great communicators, and, in most cases, you’d be hard-pressed to find any writings in which they deal systematically with critics who’ve pointed out their inconsistencies, the claims which clash with the evidence, or the predictions which never materialised.

I learned from my mentor Michael Young that you should seek out your severest critics – they will be the most valuable people for you. He assumed that the goal of research was to understand the world better, not just to become richer or more famous. He was always grateful for sharp criticism, because it left him better able to make his case. Every thinker has an ego, and some vanity. But I suspect that the really great ones are confident enough to see the cut and thrust of critique as a compliment, not as an insult.

Readers may be interested in this reply from Professor Mazzucato on 14 April 2016


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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