The reason that we ask is that Wired magazine in an article this month "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up," by Jonah Lehrer, discusses Veblen's analysis of Zionism and Jewish intellectualism.
The results of his thinking 92 years ago, summarized by the magazine, are provocative.
In 1918, sociologist Thorstein Veblen was commissioned by a popular magazine devoted to American Jewry to write an essay on how Jewish “intellectual productivity” would be changed if Jews were given a homeland. At the time, Zionism was becoming a potent political movement, and the magazine editor assumed that Veblen would make the obvious argument: A Jewish state would lead to an intellectual boom, as Jews would no longer be held back by institutional anti-Semitism. But Veblen, always the provocateur, turned the premise on its head. He argued instead that the scientific achievements of Jews — at the time, Albert Einstein was about to win the Nobel Prize and Sigmund Freud was a best-selling author — were due largely to their marginal status. In other words, persecution wasn’t holding the Jewish community back — it was pushing it forward.
The reason, according to Veblen, was that Jews were perpetual outsiders, which filled them with a “skeptical animus.” Because they had no vested interest in “the alien lines of gentile inquiry,” they were able to question everything, even the most cherished of assumptions. Just look at Einstein, who did much of his most radical work as a lowly patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. According to Veblen’s logic, if Einstein had gotten tenure at an elite German university, he would have become just another physics professor with a vested interest in the space-time status quo. He would never have noticed the anomalies that led him to develop the theory of relativity.
Predictably, Veblen’s essay was potentially controversial, and not just because he was a Lutheran from Wisconsin. The magazine editor evidently was not pleased; Veblen could be seen as an apologist for anti-Semitism. But his larger point is crucial: There are advantages to thinking on the margin. When we look at a problem from the outside, we’re more likely to notice what doesn’t work. Instead of suppressing the unexpected, shunting it aside with our “Oh shit!” circuit and Delete key, we can take the mistake seriously. A new theory emerges from the ashes of our surprise.
Modern science is populated by expert insiders, schooled in narrow disciplines. Researchers have all studied the same thick textbooks, which make the world of fact seem settled. This led Kuhn, the philosopher of science, to argue that the only scientists capable of acknowledging the anomalies — and thus shifting paradigms and starting revolutions — are “either very young or very new to the field.” In other words, they are classic outsiders, naive and untenured. They aren’t inhibited from noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities....more...