The reason why Jews became intellectuals

By Jonah Lehrer, February 10, 2011
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In 1919, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen was commissioned by a popular magazine devoted to American Jewry to write an essay on how "Jewish productivity" would be changed if Jews were given a homeland.

Zionism was then becoming a potent political movement, and the magazine editor assumed 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 antisemitism.

But Veblen, always the provocateur, turned the premise on its head. He argued instead that the creative achievements of the Jews - at the time, Einstein was about to win the Nobel Prize and Freud was a bestselling author - were due largely to their marginal status.

In other words, persecution wasn't holding the Jewish community back - it was pushing it forward. Antisemitism, according to Veblen, gave Jews a "sceptical animus." Because they were perpetual outsiders, they were able to question everything, even the most cherished of assumptions.

Einstein made his discoveries as a lowly patent clerk

"It is by loss of allegiance that the Jew finds himself in the vanguard of modern inquiry," Veblen wrote. Just look at Einstein, who did much of his most radical work as a lowly patent clerk in Bern. According to Veblen's logic, if Einstein had gained tenure at an elite German university, he would have become just another physics professor with a vested interest in the status quo. He would never have noticed the anomalies of space-time.

The editor of the magazine refused to publish Veblen's essay. Veblen - a Lutheran from the American Midwest - was accused of being an apologist for antisemitism. But his larger point is important: there are advantages to thinking on the margin. When we look at a problem from an outsider perspective - when we contemplate theoretical physics as if we were patent clerks - we are more likely to come up with our most creative ideas. This is why so many of our most important innovations come from the fringes, from the upstarts and innocents and exiles. It is also, Veblen says, why Jewish thinkers have played such an outsized role in intellectual history.

To better understand the benefits of the outside perspective, consider a website called InnoCentive.com. The structure of the site is simple: huge multinational corporations post their hardest scientific problems, attaching a monetary reward to each "challenge". If the problem is successfully solved, then the "solver" gets a reward. The challenges on the site are incredibly varied, and include everything from a food company looking for a "Reduced Fat Chocolate-Flavoured Compound Coating" to an electronics firm trying to design a lithium-ion battery for a solar-powered computer. More than 200,000 solvers have registered on the site, with people coming from every conceivable scientific discipline and more than 170 countries.

The most impressive thing about InnoCentive, however, is its effectiveness. In 2007, Karim Lakhani, a professor at the Harvard Business School, began analysing hundreds of challenges posted on the site. According to Lakhani's data, nearly 50 per cent of the difficult problems posted on InnoCentive were solved within six months. Think, for a moment, about how strange this is: a disparate network of strangers managed to solve challenges that Fortune 500 companies like Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly and General Electric - companies with research budgets of billions of dollars - had been unable to solve. Sometimes, the problems were solved within days of being posted.

Furthermore, the problem-solvers on InnoCentive were most effective at the margins of their field. Chemists didn't solve chemistry problems: they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems. "Our results showed that the further the solvers rated the problem from their own field, the more likely they were to discover the answer," Lakhani writes. The amateurs solved more because they knew less.

There is, of course, something extremely counter-intuitive about this data. We assume technical problems can be solved only by people with technical expertise; the engineer most likely to find the answer is the one most familiar with the terms of the question. But the people on the inside of the domain often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap, as they hit the same dead-ends as the corporate scientists. As a result, the impossible problem stays impossible. It's not until an outsider tries to solve the challenge that the solution is found.

And because Jews are outsiders, Veblen believed that Jewish intellectuals were blessed with a unique, sceptical perspective. They questioned everything because they belonged nowhere and were continually evicted from the inside. Such evictions were always cruel and often tragic - but they also helped Jewish thinkers imagine radical new answers to the hardest of questions.

Jonah Lehrer's latest book, 'Proust Was a Neuroscientist', is published by Canongate

    Last updated: 10:48am, February 10 2011