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What Went Wrong? Michael Shermer Misses The Obvious

Michael Shermer, author of The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People, writing in Skeptic Magazine, ponders What Went Wrong? Campus Unrest, Viewpoint Diversity, and Freedom of Speech.  Shermer suggests six reasons for the current anti-free speech crusade on college campuses, and makes some recommendations as to how the problem might be solved. I think Shermer is on the right track but he doesn’t follow it all the way to the end.  I suggest that a) Shermer’s causes are actually symptoms, b) he fails to see the real root cause of the symptoms, and therefore c) his recommendations will relieve some symptoms but not cure the disease.  I further suggest what the real disease might be, and additional steps that can be taken to cure it.

Shermer offers five proximate (immediate) causes and one ultimate (deeper) cause. His proximate causes are:

  1. Moral Progress,
  2. Transition from a Culture of Honor to a Culture of Victimhood
  3. From Anti-Fragile to Fragile Children
  4. Puritanical Purging
  5. Virtue Signaling

His Ultimate Cause is a Lack of Viewpoint Diversity

The causes Shermer sees and the solutions he suggests are similar to those of Heterodox Academy: The lack of viewpoint diversity limits the imagination and narrows the mind, and through those it stifles scientific and even social progress and turns education into indoctrination.  The solution to these problems, they suggest, is to increase viewpoint diversity on college campuses through a variety of means.

I agree with the analyses and recommendations of Shermer and Heterodox, and I applaud and encourage their recommendations. 

But the analyses seem to me to fall short of hitting the bull’s-eye of the ultimate root cause of the problems, and the suggestions therefore seem more palliative than curative.  I suggest there’s an even deeper ultimate cause, the solution of which in turn requires “deeper” steps beyond those recommended by Shermer and Heterodox.

Here’s a PowerPoint-ready summary of my reasoning followed by a listing of some of the evidence that supports it:


1/6) WEIRD (Platonic) and Holistic (Aristotelian) cognitive styles predate modern viewpoints by more than two millennia, as described by Arthur Herman in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

2/6) Modern Viewpoints – e.g. Haidt’s moral matrices, Sowell’s Visions, Oakeshott’s Rationalism, Oakley’s Pathological Altruism, and ideologies generally – seem to follow from, not lead to, cognitive styles.

3/6) The WEIRD (Platonic) cognitive style is fatally flawed by reductive analytical methods and thinking that miss the forest of complex human nature for the trees of specific circumstances and ideas.

4/6) The WEIRD (Platonic) cognitive style underlies ALL of Shermer’s causes (evidence below), and is therefore the real “Ultimate Cause”

5/6) Improving viewpoint diversity treats only the symptoms of the anti-free speech movement, not the underlying disease of WEIRD cognition that ultimately causes it.

5/6) The best way to treat the disease of WEIRD cognition is by teaching a) the forest of human nature, i.e., Moral Foundations TheoryThe Righteous Mind, and related sources, and b) “critical thinking” like  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and ideas in books like You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself, starting as early as possible in the education system and continuing throughout it.

Supporting evidence:

A/J) Reductive WEIRD cognition removes objects from context,

B/J) Reductive WEIRD cognition is less in touch with human nature

B/J) WEIRD cognition is more prone to The Rationalist Delusion, described by Oakeshott in 1947 as Rationalism in Politics

C/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition is more prone to the false belief that morality/ideology/politics is like shopping

D/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition is more prone to Cognitive Distortions like those described in The Coddling of the American Mind

E/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition is more prone to naïve realism, described in Chapter 4 of The Happiness Hypothesis, starting on P. 71

F/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition is more prone to inquisition like that described by Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition

G/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition, from the “Cult of Reason” and The Terror of the French Revolution to today’s campus protesters, is more prone to persecution and purging of non-PC thoughts and the people who think them

H/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition, along with one-foundation matrix, is more prone to the Culture of Fragility, Victimhood, and Signaling.

I/J) WEIRD rationalist cognition infects all ideologies, but one-foundation thinking tends to exacerbate it and all-foundation thinking tends to moderate and control it.

I/J) Holistic, Human-nature-(i.e., Moral Foundations Theory)-based, context-aware, cognition mitigates all of above.  See The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

In Sum:

Increased viewpoint diversity treats symptoms but not the disease.

The disease is WEIRD thinking.

WEIRD thinking is just another name for Haidt’s Rationalist Delusion, Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics , Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors, Oakley’s Pathological Altruism, etc., etc.

WEIRD thinking is fatally flawed by reductive analysis that misses the forest of human nature for the trees of specific circumstances and ideas.

WEIRD thinking infects all ideologies, but one-foundation thinking exacerbates it and all-foundation thinking somewhat mitigates it.

WEIRD thinking underlies ALL of  Shermer’s causes, Proximate AND Ultimate

The main message of practically every single one of Haidt’s major academic papers, popular books, and video lectures could be thought of as:

“Stop thinking WEIRDly, start thinking holistically.”

WEIRD thinking is arguably the greatest single cause for partisan divisiveness and rancor, and for  Coddled Minds in academia, beyond even moral foundations.

It’s so obvious it’s hiding in plain sight.


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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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