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How Heterodox Academy Defeats Itself

Heterodox Academy exists because a small number of academics recognized that academia is in a bubble that insulates it from the rest of the world and that this damages not only the reputations of social scientists, academic professionals in general, and academia as a whole, but also science and education themselves

I believe that the members of Heterodox Academy (HxA) are good-hearted, well-intentioned, intelligent, educated, individuals who are trying to do the right thing. They deserve praise for their efforts, respect for their goals, and admiration for their achievements.  

But I think the structure and the approach they have chosen for themselves create systemic roadblocks that discourage the things that need to be encouraged and encourage the things that created the problem in the first place. HxA is trying to pop the bubble with the very tools that created it. I think that won’t work. I think it’ll make things worse. I think HxA has built the structure of a textbook Catch-22:  A problem for which the solution is prevented by the very circumstances that ceated it.    

The bubble has three aspects; constituency, ideology, and intellect. Constituency refers to the pool of individuals from which HxA draws its members. Ideology is, I hope, fairly self explanatory. Intellect refers to cognitive style – the way of thinking, the intellectual approach – that’s embraced and employs. There’s a chicken and egg relationship between the bubbles. It’s difficult to discern which is inside the other.  But the point remains: Each bubble exacerbates the other two.  Together they create an environment of a sort of cognitive incest; a groupthink that feeds on, encourages, and affirms itself.

One would think that a group interested in breaking itself out of such a bubble would solicit people, ideologies, and intellects from outside of it. But as far as I can tell none of those things are happening. Instead the opposite is happening.   

Heterodox Academy restricts its membership to academics. For any other industry this can be a good thing. The people within an industry – be it medicine, finance, law, real estate, construction, farming, policing, whatever –  tend to be similar to each other. They tend to value the same sorts of ideals and they tend to employ similar cognitive styles. This can, over time, refine, enhance, improve the performance of the industry.  But it’s anathema for the education industry whose entire purpose is to expand rather than focus the thinking of the people within it and the people who use it.  The same could be said for the journalism and news industries, but that’s a topic for a different time.    

This exacerbates the other two bubbles.

The ideological bubble is liberalism; the liberal moral matrix. Studies show that academia in general, but the social sciences in particular, are for all practical purposes ideologically purely liberal. See, for example, two articles by HxA member Lee Jussim here, and here.  Indeed, the driving motivation of the creation of HxA was the recognition that academia is stuck inside the liberal bubble. HxA’s web site states:

 in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left (Problem page)

When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged. (Home page)

One of the deleterious effects of the liberal moral matrix is that those who live in it tend to be the most clueless about the general population of the country.  Catch-22.

The intellectual bubble is the tendency of academics to be WEIRD thinkers, where WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.  Academics in the social sciences are almost purely liberal, and studies show that Liberals Think More Analytically (More ‘Weird’) than Conservatives. WEIRD thinking is described in Chapter 5: Beyond WEIRD Morality, of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, as follows:

Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object)

The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.

A longer excerpt from that chapter is here. Studies that further describe WEIRD thinking include The Weirdest People in the World

Note that the definition of analytical thinking within the parentheses in the quote above is the same as the definition of the fallacy of composition, here and here:

The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part).

One of the deleterious effects of WEIRD thinking is that it shuts down entire avenues of inquiry and potential sources of knowledge and insight. It prevents “seeing the whole context and the relationships among the parts” and instead rests mostly on the fallacy of composition. As one prominent social scientist explained:

My field is not scholarly in any way. We are totally focused on experiments and methods. We are not even scholarly about the experiments and methods used 30 years ago; it’s too caught up in the present.

Interestingly, liberals tend to focus on the ethic of autonomy, whereas conservatives tend to focus on the ethic of community.  The former concentrates on the independence and self-determination of individuals, the latter on helping individuals form into cohesive cooperative groups. It’s not a coincidence, then, that liberals tend to think in terms of “detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object” whereas conservatives tend to favor “seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts.”  (See The Righteous Mind )

Given all of this, if one wanted to repair the damage being done to science and to education and to the reputations of scientists and academics as HxA claims, then what would be the most obvious, most logical, thing to do?

Would it not be to 1) make a determined effort to invite, recruit, solicit, encourage, welcome, people from outside the academic bubble, 2) do the same for people with non-liberal ideologies, and 3) do the same for non-WEIRD thinkers?  

But what does HxA actually do? The opposite, on all counts.  It restricts its membership to academics, which in a real way precludes non-liberal ideologies and non-WEIRD thinkers.  HxA may point to the self-identified ideologies of its members as being from all parts of the political spectrum, but its actual behavior suggests otherwise.  By its very structure and through its very approach  it has created a system, a social structure, that Nudges people toward the very things HxA purports to want to thwart and away from the very things that might do just that.  The analyses and opinions it produces and promotes bear this out. 

Based on my own experience reading HxA’s blog and participating in the comments it has become quite clear to me that HxA has a strong tendency to dismiss non-WEIRD holistic evidence as not-evidence, non-WEIRD thinking as poor thinking, and the ideas that follow from it as therefore non-relevant and/or unfounded. Ideas and arguments from 1) outside-the-bubble people like Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Roger Scruton, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Jerry Z. Muller, Dinesh D’Souza, Ben Shapiro, and others and 2) outside-the-bubble organizations like The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The CATO Institute, the Young America’s Foundation, and The Buckley Program at Yale, and 3) outside-the-bubble arguments by intellectuals who counter the WEIRD inside-the-bubble status quo  – e.g., The Mann/Ornstein Thesis Is Even Worse Than It Looks or Extremely Non-Partisan – may as well not exist. Or, when they are recognized, it’s often to dismiss them as not relevant.  HxA has performed deep, careful, analyses of the claims of James Damore in his Google memo, Amy Was in her essay, and Lindsay Shepherd in her inquisition.  Those analyses mostly vindicate all of them.  But when it comes to looking into the psychology, evidence, and reasoning of the people who persecuted them, and why they thought it was not only OK but their duty to do so, from HxA we hear…..crickets.  HxA may like to think it is taking a balanced, non-partisan, “scientific” approach and positions, but the reality is that it is as partisan as any other group.   

No matter how many times or in how many different ways I try to explain all of this in the comments of HxA’s blog the overwhelming response I get from academics is a textbook Motte and Bailey retreat behind rhetorical tactic of “show me the study,” and the suggestion than unless/until I can do so that I’m the one who doesn’t get it and who lacks “evidence” and whose arguments are weak.  When I once suggested that HxA include an interview of Dennis Prager in their “Half Hour of Heterodoxy” video series the response I got was that Prager is “not an academic.”  It’s a Catch-22 of WEIRDness.

The irony here is that HxA founder Jonathan Haidt is the Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU and the head of Ethical Systems, which rests on the premise that the key to improving ethical behavior within a company or within a discipline is to put in place a structural system that encourages desirable results and discourages undesirable ones.  HxA has done just that but in reverse.  It has created a systemic structure that encourages research done by academics, relies on WEIRD methods, and supports the liberal narrative – e.g., Let’s just say it: Republicans are the problem, by Mann and Ornstein.  In other words, by its very structure and approach, HxA feeds the monster it says it wants to kill, and starves the very things that might kill it. HxA stays inside the bubble it claims to want to pop, and shuns things from outside of it that have the best chance to pop it. In a very real sense HxA no-platforms and demotes the very things it most needs to create a platform for and promote. 

As well intentioned, good hearted, and noble as it appears to be on the surface, in the final analysis HxA harms its own cause more than it helps it.


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