Active contributors to our Blog are mainly intellectuals. Most of us have advanced degrees and have been professors at the college level. We would all agree with Sowell that: "There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. ... journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges — the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge."
I think, on balance, intellectual contributions to society have been for the good. Sowell thinks othewise: "...certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place.
He gives, as his first example, the extreme Islamic terrorists "consumed with a set of ideas". Yes, it is ideas that drive them to suicide attacks against innocent civilians, but I do not consider Islam (or any fundamentalist religious-driven ideology) to be primarily intellectual. A better example (not mentioned by Sowell) might be the Global Warming alarmists, but, that too, may be classified as a fundamentalist "religion" :^)
Sowell's best examples are the mass-murdering dictators of the 20th century. It is understandable that leading intellectuals in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia would become apologists or even admirers for the sake of their family's survival. But, how to explain leading intellectuals living in western democracies and therefore free to express their opinions who, never-the-less gave the dictators cover? Sowell writes "Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave labor camps. ... Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps -- slated for extermination -- if he had succeeded." (The column is based on his recently published book Intellectuals and Society.)
One of my favorite stories (not from Sowell) is of the 1930's American intellectual attracted by the idea of Communism who decided to move his family to Russia. Of course, he was was aware of the possibility conditions in the "worker's paradise" were not as good as his fellow intellectuals claimed, so he told his wife he would write a letter from Russia. "If it is written in red ink," he told her, "That means conditions are bad and there is censorship, so you should not come." Well, a couple months later she received a letter in black ink! "Conditions in Russia are wonderful! You can buy anything in the markets, except red ink!"
Intellectuals are so smart they can construct misconceptions so ingenious that even they themselves are taken in by them. Some ideas are so foolish that it takes an intellectual to believe them. (Like the Omnipotent God who can create something so heavy that even He, Himself, cannot lift it :^)