Each year Edge.org asks a “big” question, gathers responses to it from some of today’s most important thinkers, and publishes the results in a book. In this post I propose one idea in response to three recent annual questions.
The annual question for 2014 was What scientific idea is ready for retirement? The responses were published in the book This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series). Here’s how the question was posed:
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?
WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?
Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
The 2012 question was What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? which resulted in the book This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (Edge Question Series). Here’s the full text of the question:
Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called “beautiful” or “elegant”. Historical examples are Kepler’s explanation of complex planetary motions as simple ellipses, Bohr’s explanation of the periodic table of the elements in terms of electron shells, and Watson and Crick’s double helix. Einstein famously said that he did not need experimental confirmation of his general theory of relativity because it “was so beautiful it had to be true.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?
Since this question is about explanation, answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.
In 2009 Edge.org asked What will change everything? and published the answers in This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future (Edge Question Series). The question reads as follows:
Through science we create technology and in using our new tools we recreate ourselves. But until very recently in our history, no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever indicated by choice, by vote, how this process should play out.
Nobody ever voted for printing. Nobody ever voted for electricity. Nobody ever voted for radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, television. Nobody ever voted for penicillin, antibiotics, the pill. Nobody ever voted for space travel, massively parallel computing, nuclear power, the personal computer, the Internet, email, cell phones, the Web, Google, cloning, sequencing the entire human genome. We are moving towards the redefinition of life, to the edge of creating life itself. While science may or may not be the only news, it is the news that stays news.
And our politicians, our governments? Always years behind, the best they can do is play catch up.
Nobel laureate James Watson, who discovered the DNA double helix, and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, recently were awarded Double Helix Awards from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for being the founding fathers of human genome sequencing. They are the first two human beings to have their complete genetic information decoded.
Watson noted during his acceptance speech that he doesn’t want government involved in decisions concerning how people choose to handle information about their personal genomes.
Venter is on the brink of creating the first artificial life form on Earth. He has already announced transplanting the information from one genome into another. In other words, your dog becomes your cat. He has privately alluded to important scientific progress in his lab, the result of which, if and when realized, will change everything.
WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?
“What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
In response to to ALL of these questions I offer the following single idea in two parts. This idea comes from my interpretation of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Part one of this idea responds to the 2014 question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
The idea that should be retired and abandoned is the notion that the following images offer a scientifically correct representation of the dynamic between liberal and conservative psyches and patterns of thought:
In short, many believe that liberals and conservatives are equally right/wrong and insightful/blind about human nature and each other, just in different ways. This idea is the fundamental assumption – the “given” that “everybody knows” – often unwritten or unspoken, upon which seemingly all political discussion rests. It’s the reason that so many people think compromise is an unalloyed good and the bridge across the political divide; since both sides get some things right and some things wrong, then the obvious solution to practically any partisan disagreement is for both sides to meet in the middle.
The belief represented by the above images and summarized in the above paragraph is wrong. And because it is wrong it is a roadblock that prevents a truer, deeper, understanding of the political divide, which in turn prevents us from seeing and implementing more effective ways to ameliorate problems associated with it.
In interviews with Bill Moyers and Steven Colbert Haidt says that based on his research conservatives have a better grasp of human nature than do liberals. And starting on page 337 of The Righteous Mind, he says he learned things about conservatism that literally floored him. These things go a long way toward describing this conservative advantage. Here’s the passage:
As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?
I kept reading. Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and nstitutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11).
Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.
The implied contention that both sides are equally insightful and equally blind is belied by Haidt’s assertion that conservatives have a better grasp of human nature than do liberals, and by the passages quoted above. He even dedicates an entirety of Chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind to describing what he calls “The Conservative Advantage,” which he summaries as follows:
Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters since 1980. Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats. Republicans speak more direcdy to the elephant. They also have a better grasp of Moral Foundations Theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.
I presented the Durkheirnian vision of society, favored by social conservatives, in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued. I contrasted this vision with the liberal Millian vision, which is more open and individualistic. I noted that a Millian society has difficulty binding pluribus into unum. Democrats often pursue policies that promote pluribus at the expense of unum, policies that leave them open to charges of treason, subversion, and sacrilege.
How can this be? If both sides are equally insightful and equally blind, then how is it that conservatives have an advantage? How is it that they understand human nature better than liberals do?
The answers to these questions are important because in the realm of politics, human behavior, and setting public policy, having an accurate understanding of human nature is everything. There’s nothing else TO understand.
Part two of this idea answers these questions, and responds to both of the other two Edge.org annual questions: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?, and What will change everything? by offering a description of the dynamic that is scientifically correct.
Jonathan Haidt’s small set of simple principles solve much of the deep puzzle of the political divide. His findings, and the writings of liberal and conservative thinkers through the centuries (as Haidt suggest, for example, on page 338 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), show that the correct picture is more like this:
The smaller circle is shown as a dotted line because there is sometimes a small amount of leakage of one or more of the the binding foundations into the liberal realm. This Venn diagram is little more than a different way to show Haidt’s data, which he depicts in the following three images by Haidt:
It is scientifically incorrect to depict the psycho-dynamic between left and right with the first set of pictures; as if one side is from Mars and the other is from Venus.
It is scientifically correct to depict it with the circle-in-a-circle Venn diagram; as if the two sides were from Flatland and Spaceland.
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING! And PROFOUNDLY SO! It changes ALL the presumptions and ALL the assumptions that “everybody knows,” upon which ALL political debate rests!! Practically every conclusion that “everybody knows” about the differences between liberals and conservatives can be, and should be, reexamined and reinterpreted through the lens of Haidt’s findings. It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure, but just ain’t so.
It’s a paradigm-shifting idea that’s hiding in plain sight in the pages of The Righteous Mind. It’s an idea that might have been seen if academic social science were not a liberal tribal moral community, but instead contained a minimal critical mass of conservative thinkers.
The correct Venn paradigm of a smaller circle within the larger one also EXPLAINS everything. It explains, for example, the thinking of the Philosophes of the French Revolution (small circle), and the thinking of the American Founding generation and Revolution(large circle); of Jean Jacques Rousseau (small circle), and of Edmund Burke (large circle); of the occupy movement and the Ferguson protesters (small circle), and of the Tea Party movement (large circle); of John Maynard Keynes (small circle), and of Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith (large circle); it explains why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, as Haidt describes beginning on page 334 of The Righteous Mind (emphasis added):
In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Qyestionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right)’ Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think?
What else indeed?
The correct Venn diagram also explains the truism that conservatives think liberals are good people with bad ideas, but liberals think conservatives are bad people. When half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and understanding are essentially unavailable to one’s subconscious intuitions (the “Fast” thinking elephant) and conscious reason (the “Slow” thinking rider press secretary; see Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman), one is left with no cognitive alternative for understanding people who think differently but to conclude that there’s something mentally wrong with them. What else could one think? Haidt continues:
You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:
Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.
Thomas Sowell observes that this phenomenon has been characteristic of small circle thought since its beginnings in the eighteenth century:
From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.
T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”
But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”
This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.
The correct Venn diagram explains disinvitation season (small circle); it explains the psychologies behind the liberal and conservative narratives Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and that Thomas Sowell describes in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles and The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy); It explains why, upon reading The Righteous Mind, R. R. Reno observed:
Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye, yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.
It even explains the rash of politically correct thought control that has been breaking out on college campuses that Steven F. Hayward and Jonathan Chait recently described and Haidt Tweeted about on 2/21/15 and 1/30/15 respectively. When one “knows” that the other side is so obviously mentally deficient, one is not only justified but duty bound to ensure that its ideas never see the light of day.
Proper treatment of a disease requires proper diagnosis of its cause. If the disease is the political divide and the demonization that flows across it, and the cognitive distortions and sloppy logic that Haidt, Lukianoff, Hayward, Steele, McBrayer, Rauch, Sowell, and many others describe, then THE DIAGNOSIS REPRESENTED BY THE FIRST SET OF PICTURES DOES NOT IDENTIFY THE CAUSE!!!
And since the diagnosis is incorrect, prescriptions to treat it, like The Asteroids Club and concepts like No Labels, seem (to me) to be the social equivalent of putting band-aids on bullet wounds. They address the surface appearances (e.g., “a party of tradition and stability vs a party of change”, as if they’re Yin and Yang) but they ignore the real damage underneath (e.g., the insidious rot of cognitive distortions and the absence of moral facts, the tribal moral communities of academia and the media, the resulting virtual absence of intellectual diversity, and the resulting conservatism as counter culture.) And in so doing they do little more than kick the can of the current status quo of misinformed flat-earth thinking about psychologies of left and right a little further down the road, and therefore actually prevent us from thinking with a more enlightened and scientifically accurate understanding of fundamental human nature.
The moment one grasps the concept of the Venn diagram is a moment of epiphany; a moment of “I-shoulda-had-a-V-8,” slap yourself on the forehead, clarity. Take a moment. Do as Haidt suggests in his TED talk and listen to the wisdom from the Zen master Seng-ts’an: “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease.” And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right — and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out — check in with Seng-ts’an. Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. If you can do this, then, I submit, you’ll see the wisdom of the correct Venn diagram of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism. You’ll have your own V-8 moment.
If I were to write a book it would be about this. I’d use Haidt’s data and Sowell’s analyses, and that of many others like Daniel Kahneman, and examples from history like those above, to explain why the current paradigm is wrong, and why the Venn paradigm is right. I’d use the correct paradigm to explain why increasing intellectual diversity through education would be the most effective way to bring the liberal-dominated culture out of the molasses-like morass of the flat-earth society we’re currently mired in and into the real world. I’d explain what my program would entail (e.g., one or two modules that could be covered in a week or less, in each school subject in each school year), and how I’d implement it (e.g., small pilot program(s) in one or two receptive schools or school systems, or in a “lab” school like at the University of Chicago) and how I’d grow it (e.g., slowly, by building on successes and using them to gradually expand to more and more schools and school systems.)
I’m open to suggestions, or help, toward making that happen.