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Social Science = Rationalism, Rationalism = Pedantry, Pedantry Exacerbates the Ideological Divide

Dear Jon Haidt and Liz Joyner,

The difference between the two of you and many other liberals is sagacity. You have it, they don’t.

Please forgive the oversimplification in the subject line of this post. By the end of it I hope you’ll understand.

In my conversations with liberals, especially those in academia, their thinking tends to be summarized by the phrase “Show me the evidence,” where it seems that the only thing that counts as evidence in their mind is either a) peer reviewed studies that directly support my observation/opinion/assertion with little if any room for alternate interpretations, or b) a direct quote in which a person said, word-for-word, what I understand to be the spirit and intent of what they said.

The concept of looking past the literal to see and understand the spirit and intent of another person’s ideas, or that evidence type must match assertion type, seems external to left wing thought and argumentation. Again, this seems especially true of liberals in academia. They’re the worst; so steeped are they in the scientific method. The ability to put one’s self into the head of another person and in an honest and open way try to genuinely see the world as they see it – in other words the capacity of empathy, rightly understood* – seems to be missing from the left wing moral senses and logic.

More often than not the liberal position is an example of the concept behind Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and other essays; that the only valid knowledge is what he calls “technical” knowledge – what most people call book learning – and that “practical” knowledge that comes only from experience and sagacity is little more than superstition and blind faith.

This seems to me to be of a piece with other concepts I’ve expressed previously, like a) I think even Moral Foundations Theory and  The Righteous Mind, even though they’re the leading edge of current social thinking and understanding of conservatives, still seem a bit reductive – WEIRD – and therefore miss some important emergent aspects of morality and ideology, and b) how, it seems to me, that distinguishing characteristics which separate left from right include the following from one of my recent blog posts:

  1. epistemic confidence/arrogance vs epistemic humility
  2. Primacy of feelings of sympathy** vs primacy of a sense of social capital
  3. Presentism vs a longer, ‘arc of history’ mindset

To that list I might add pedantry vs sagacity. This could be thought of as the subject of the sections in The Righteous Mind called The Left’s Blind Spot and The Conservative Advantage, where the blind spot is associated with unimaginative, pedantic, rationalism, and the advantage is associated with emergent, sagacious, holistic “big” thinking (for lack of a better word). In a way, it’s a theme of the entire book.

I read Scott Wagner’s book The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives, and I’ve had many personal conversations with him. Scott’s a great guy whose heart is in the right place and his intentions are only the best and he’s trying REALLY hard to bridge the ideological divide and some of his data and observations are terrific, and his web site Reach the Right and its videos do indeed move the needle toward greater understanding, but his book and his thinking are to me frustratingly pedantic. He does a good job of translating studies and statistics into layman’s language, but he seems to lack the moral or social imagination – the sagacity – to see beyond the data to what is likely actually going on in the liberal and conservative righteous mind (e.g., this post).

Examples of writing that to me does exhibit sagacity include Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, What Makes People Vote Republican, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

I think one of the main, implicit, between the lines, messages of The Righteous Mind is that we all need to think bigger; have more generosity of spirit, more actual empathy*, toward one another (as opposed to the liberal moral sense of “care”**).

Kicking this idea up a notch, I think Western culture itself suffers from this same malady. The Rationalist Delusion is still in full force, but very few people see it because it’s hiding in plain sight because of this;

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. ( http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/09/18/intuitive-mind/ )

That right there seems to be one of the big reasons for the political divide and the animosity that flows back and forth across it. Western culture itself is a moral matrix – a consensual hallucination – in which the matrices of left and right float like ships in a sea, and through which we evaluate both of them. But because western culture still suffers from the rationalist delusion even the best of its analyses tends to tilt strongly left and to miss the larger picture. 

Do you feel like you understand what I’m getting at? I sure hope so. The two of you are the only people on the left I’ve talked with who seem tuned to my frequency. If you don’t understand then I’m adrift at sea by myself. And if that’s the case then maybe I’m the one who doesn’t get it. But that’s hard for me to believe because all of this feels so right to my social senses.


* as opposed to sympathy, commiseration, pity, compassion, etc. These seem to be all rolled up into the liberal emergent moral sense of “care.”**

** The heartache one feels when one sees suffering in others, and the urge, above all other urges, to relieve that suffering


2 thoughts on “Social Science = Rationalism, Rationalism = Pedantry, Pedantry Exacerbates the Ideological Divide

  1. It makes sense to me that liberals would want to stand firmly on academic standards of evidence since we have had to spend so much time swimming against the current of cultural assumptions that were originally invented as excuses for the oppression of women and minorities, but have been around for so long they feel like common sense.


    Posted by paulliverstravels | October 7, 2017, 7:50 am


  1. Pingback: The Blame for the Current State of Partisan Rancor Rests in Academia | The Independent Whig - April 17, 2017

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