I attended the Open Mind Conference hosted by Heterodox Academy (HxA), whose mission is “to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement.” HxA is my favorite of all the groups that are trying to bridge the ideological divide and bring some amount of civility back to our culture. I want desperately for it to succeed. If it fails there’s nothing else that I see that could take its place.
So it was especially disconcerting for me to come away from the conference feeling deeply disappointed. Since then I’ve been struggling to understand and then explain why I have that feeling. After several attempts to write this essay I think I’ve finally figured it out. First I’ll describe how and why I think HxA went off the rails, then I’ll describe how I think it can get back on.
I saw four distinctly different types of bias at the conference, resulting from two main causes. Cause number one is that HxA suffers from the malady Jonathan Haidt described in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion as “The Left’s Blind Spot.” Cause number two is that missing from the conference was the virtue of humility. The four biases that resulted from these causes were 1) anti-conservatism, 2) pro-WEIRD rationalist style of thought, 3) pro-academic, and 4) pro-intellectual. In this essay I describe what I mean by each of those causes and biases, using examples from the conference. At the end I offer four recommendations on how to move forward from here.
Cause Number One: The Left’s Blind Spot
Haidt suggests that to understand other people we should follow the sacredness. We should learn and understand the essential, core, unassailable moral value(s) upon which they base their lives; their sacred values.
I suggest that the liberalism and conservatism have different core moral values, and that since liberals enjoy nearly complete hegemony over academia conservative values are not merely not a priority, but worse, are actively disparaged and shunned.
I suggest that the core moral value of liberalism is an intuitive sense, a strong subconscious feeling, of care, empathy, sympathy, and compassion, and a feeling of protectiveness toward those who have difficulty protecting themselves. The core moral value of conservatism, on the other hand, is social capital: “the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties.” For my purposes here, we can think of social capital is as the intuitive sense that we humans are civilized beings, and part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s also sometimes called moral capital. In this essay I’ll use those terms interchangeably.
Haidt’s famous moral dumbfounding experiments illustrate social capital. A moderator asks test subjects if it’s wrong, for example, to clean a toilet with an American flag, or for a brother and sister to have safe protected sex just once, or for a family to eat its dog that was just killed by a car. The subjects say yes, it is wrong to do those things. The moderator then asks them to explain why those things are wrong, and then he or she refutes any reasons given by the subjects. For example there’s no chance the sister will get pregnant, and the siblings remember the experience fondly as a warm shared moment, so clearly neither of them is harmed either psychologically or physically be the experience. So, is it still wrong, and if so why? The subjects still maintain that it’s wrong, even if they can’t explain why. They’re dumbfounded.
I suggest that the subjects in Haidt’s experiment were defending social capital; the same thing conservatives defend, and, according to Haidt, “the left’s blind spot.”
Social capital is the “the miracle” that makes human civilization possible. It is that essential thing that makes us us, and allows us to cooperate with one another. In the U.S., one type of social capital is expressed in the motto E Pluribus Unum; out of many, one.
It’s not so much the desecration of the American flag, per se (although that’s part of it), that causes some people to recoil at the thought of it being used to clean a toilet, nor is it the desecration of a song that got some people so angry when NFL players kneeled during the National Anthem. On the surface those things seem siily. A flag is just a piece of cloth. A song is just an arrangement of words and musical notes. They’re objects. It’s nonsensical for a person to be upset when a cloth is used to clean a toilet, or if somebody kneels during a song. Who is harmed?
The answer is that it’s not the the piece of cloth or the musical notes that are at issue. It’s the violation of social capital. If you listen carefully to many, I’d even dare to say most, conservative arguments I think you’ll hear the defense of social capital. Social capital is conservatism’s core moral value.
If your moral matrix rests entirely on the Care and Fairness foundations, then it’s hard to hear the sacred overtones in America’s unofficial motto: E pluribus unum (from many, one). By “sacred” I mean the concept I introduced with the Sanctity foundation in the last chapter. It’s the ability to endow ideas, objects, and events with infinite value, particularly those ideas, objects, and events that bind a group together into a single entity. The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth.20 Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.
Social capital is also “The Left’s Blind Spot:”
If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.
I think it is probably true that most people on the left as well as on the right are unaware of the concept of moral capital in the same way that many people are unaware of the three principles of moral psychology or the concept of moral foundations theory. But the fact that a person is unaware of these things does not mean that that person doesn’t use them. Moral capital is a moral intuition of conservatism whether anyone is aware of what it’s called.
Since moral capital is effectively not a moral intuition on the left, and since academia and social science consist almost exclusively of people on the left, it hasn’t occurred to academia or social science or Heterodox Academy that moral capital might be a Rosetta Stone of sorts that helps to explain why conservatives feel alienated by academia and why acadmia is in such dire straits at the moment.
As a conservative, my core value of moral capital was violated several times throughout the course of the day by panelists at Heterodox Academy’s Open Mind Conference. A couple examples are below. In today-speak, I was “offended.” I suspect that the panelists either were unaware they were offending conservatives or they didn’t care. All of academia is a “safe space” for them. Either way, they were exhibiting some of the very behaviors that make academia a hostile space for non-liberals, causing conservatives to self-segregate out of it. Who wants to live, study, or work in a place where they’re so openly disliked?
Cause Number Two: Lack of Humility
Humility in the way I’m using it for the purpose of this essay is the notion of “What if we’re wrong?” It’s epistemic modesty, the opposite of epistemic certainty, which unfortunately seemed to be in the air at the Open Mind Conference, where viewpoint diversity was the hammer and every problem was a nail.
Academia’s reputation at present is shattered. One would think that the thinking of those in charge of a group that assigned itself the task of fixing it would be something along the lines of “Obviously, we screwed up. How, exactly, did we do that?” and they’d be interested in asking the people they’re driving away why that’s happening. They’d exhibit humility, or epistemic modesty.
Maybe, I’d be so bold as to suggest, this was not a coincidence. As Thomas Sowell illustrates in his essay Fact Free Liberals: Part IV, there’s truth to the statement that conservatives tend to think liberals are good people with bad ideas, but liberals tend to think that conservatives are bad people.
Epistemic modesty is, according to Jerry Z. Muller in his book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present, one of the “Recurrent Conservative Assumptions and Predispositions.” I have no interest in arguing in this essay whether Muller is right that epistemic modesty is a characteristic trait of conservative thought. Rather, I find his definition of the term useful:
Conservatives have also stressed the cognitive element of human imperfection, Insisting upon the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world. They warn that society is too complex to lend itself to theoretical simplification, and that this fact must temper all plans for institutional innovation. Such epistemological modesty may be based upon philosophical skepticism as in the case of Hume, or a religiously derived belief in the limits of human knowledge, as in the case of Burke or de Maistre, or on some general sense of the fallibility of human knowledge, as in the case of Friedrich Hayek or Edward Banfield. (pp. 10-11)
Again, I ask the reader to let go of the question as to whether Muller is right that epistemic modesty is a defining trait of conservatism. Instead, I ask that you try to get a feel for the concept of humility that he’s describing, captured in the following from the Wikipedia entry for humility:
Mahatma Gandhi is attributed as suggesting that attempting to sustain truth without humility is doomed to become a “arrogant caricature” of truth.
Part of my struggle to get a handle on precisely why I was disappointed with the Open Mind Conference played out in real time as I was interviewed by YouTuber Benjamin Boyce about my reactions.
At the time of the interview I hadn’t yet completely figured out what it was about the conference that bothered me. Boyce was intrigued by the first Twitter Thread I made in the immediate aftermath of the Open Mind Conference in which I vented some of my feelings as I sat on a bench across the street from Penn Station in New York City, waiting for the train that would take me home to Washington, D. C. The following quote from his interview of me summarized my feelings in that moment (emphasis added):
Stephen M.: 28:27 – The overall feeling I have by the end of the day after I left there was I just sat through a day full of, “Aren’t we great? Don’t we just get it? And aren’t we smart and aren’t we intellectual and don’t we just know what the right things are and what should be done?” Now, I’ll admit that’s unfair to most of the people there. Like I just said, I think everybody is, is trying to do the right thing and um, but still I have that feeling by the end of the day. That’s real too. So one of the things, if I could say that that meeting was missing, if I could put into one word, it would be humility.
I think the two causes I just described, the left’s blind spot and its lack of humility, might become more clear as I describe the four biases I saw at the conference.
Bias #1: Anti-Conservatism
The anti-conservative bias is the easiest to see. Jon Haidt himself apologized for it in his closing remarks (transcript):
I just noticed something near the end of the day, which was that I’d like to apologize to the audience for the lack of viewpoint diversity because I was looking at the schedule; as far as I can tell, there were three conservatives today, like almost everybody. There were 28 speakers and they were only three that I’m guessing were right of center. And so we’re, you know, we kind of failed to have a full range of views.
I would not suggest that there should be a 50-50 mix of liberals and conservatives. I’m not a fan of affirmative action. But I would suggest that for the sake of heterodoxy and viewpoint diversity HxA should have ensured there was at least one on each panel. Doesn’t this seem self-evident? Is it really true that Jon Haidt “just noticed,” at the end of the day, that there were so few conservatives on the panels? Given the reason Heterodox Academy exists, and its own stated goals, how is this even possible? Wouldn’t heterodoxy be job one at its own event? Shouldn’t it think of that ahead of time? Did nobody within the organization think of this as it was planning the event? Or notice? The mind reels.
The marked absence of conservatives from the discussions means there was nobody there who might say “Wait a minute now, there might be another way to interpret this.” Had that been the case the conversations might have been quite different, and possibly more productive. Without such contestation, it’s awfully difficult for one to see the plank in one’s own eye, and to understand what it is that one doesn’t understand. It’s ironic, is it not, that Heterodox Academy’s Open Mind Conference was, in the final analysis, not very heterodox, or open?
The overall tone of the day, despite the theme of Heterodoxy, left this conservative, even though he was physically present, feeling intellectually and ideologically left out.
For example, at 20:58 of Session Three: Big Questions and Heterodox Answers (transcript), Angus Johnston said the following (emphasis added);
Um, and, you know, I think one of the things that’s gone largely, uh, unremarked upon, uh, in so far today, is the fact that we are in the middle of- of a tremendous civic crisis in this country, right? We, you know, setting aside, um, all of the stuff that the Trump administration has been doing, uh, since it came to office, two of the last five presidential elections in the United States have resulted in the person who lost the popular vote taking office. That’s a crisis,
Now, one can argue that Johnston’s position is a purely non-partisan appeal to reason and common sense. One man one vote, right? And the person with the most votes wins, right? That’s what democracy means, does it not? What’s wrong with that? How difficult is this to understand? It’s self-evident. Anyone who doesn’t see it must be blinded by their partisanship. Right? Actually, no.
Johnston’s sentiment is an example of an “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxy” (from Heterodox Academy’s original “Problem” web page) of precisely the sort that arises when everybody in a group is on the same ideological team and there’s nobody present from the other team to challenge its views.
This particular orthodoxy about the popular vote is a pernicious anti-conservative, and frankly anti-liberty, bias that shows a stunning lack of appreciation for some of the most fundamental principles of freedom and the Constitution and sacred American values. The fact that comments like his go unchallenged in a room full of highly educated academics is evidence of how far to the left the Overton window has moved in academia, and an indication of how deeply pervasive are the biases that permeate it.
Does it seem like I’m angry about this? If so, then good. Because I am, and I was at the time; squirming in my seat at the Open Mind Conference. And I want to convey to the reader how forcefully academia drives conservatives away.
Bias comes in many forms, not all of them overt. It doesn’t always appear as open disgust toward me and people like me by national figures, as in Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment or Obama’s “cling to their guns and their religion.” It can also take the form of derision toward fundamental values, ideals, principles, and institutions – sacred values – of liberty and America in which I believe; or toward moral intuitions that are part of who I am. Even if the average conservative might not be able to describe the reason for or the value of the electoral college, he knows it’s an essential part of the social capital that makes liberty possible, so his ire is raised when its proper functioning is derided as a crisis. In the hope it will help to better convey what I’m trying to convey in this essay, I’m going to spend a few paragraphs unpacking why Johnston’s “crisis” comment is (to me) so egregious.
In What Makes People Vote Republican? Haidt observes:
In The Political Brain, Drew Westen points out that the Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don’t understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.
As a conservative at the Open Mind Conference I felt like a religious person in a room full of shoppers. (More about this below, in the discussion of Bias #2.) Johnston’s electoral college comment is an example of the shopping mentality. It demonstrates a lack of nuanced thought. It sees only the surface and it fails to understand the deeper meaning. It’s important to understand this distinction because it goes to my points about left’s blind spot, anti-conservative bias, and the WEIRD rationalist cognitive style.
If the United States were a single large entity containing a single monoculture then electing a president by popular vote might make sense, but neither of those conditions is true; not even close.
Each state is a semi-sovereign entity in its own right. Some are geographically small, some large. Some have relatively huge populations, others relatively tiny ones. How can the states and the people within them be represented fairly in a national government? If by population, then the populous states might overrun the smaller ones. If by state, then the smaller ones would have disproportionately more power than the larger ones. The solution is known as “The Great Compromise” of the Constitutional Convention. In Congress, the House of Representatives is based on population, and the Senate represents each state equally.
The electoral college is distributed the same way, and for the same reasons. It protects the states and the populations within them from the tyranny of the majority. The Founders didn’t use the term, but the reason the electoral college exists is arguably to protect viewpoint diversity, and specifically the viewpoint of the electoral minority.
On top of that, according to Colin Woodard in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, the population of the continent is not homogeneous. See Figure 1: This map shows the US really has 11 separate ‘nations’ with entirely different cultures, from Business Insider. The eleven ‘nations’ of North America are unevenly distributed across the the 48 states. Add Hawaii and Alaska and there are probably anywhere from two to, maybe six or so more.
But even that’s not the whole story. The United States is in the process of segregating itself into ideological enclaves. The case for this is made in two books, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray, and The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. One need look no further than recent electoral maps to see the evidence of this. Figure 2: 2016 Presidential Election Results in 3D, from Blueshift.io shows a three-dimensional image of the county-by-county results of the 2016 Presidential election. Counties won by President Trump are shown in red, those won by Hillary Clinton in blue. The margin of victory of each candidate in each county is indicated by the height of the column representing that county.
If nationwide popular vote determined Presidential elections, then candidates would be forced to focus most of their energies in only the small geographic areas with the tall blue spikes. There’d be little reason for candidates to have a sense of the entire nation. They’d need only to pander to the liberal coastal elites. Presidential elections determined solely by popular vote would essentially disenfranchise ten of the eleven ‘nations’ within the country. In The American Nations and the 2016 Presidential Election Woodard explains how Trump won.
In the vernacular of the Heterodox Academy’s Open Mind Conference, the reason the electoral college exists is to protect viewpoint diversity, and in particular minority viewpoints.
Contrary to Johnston’s claim, the fact that the popular vote winner lost the election is NOT a “crisis” at all. Rather, it’s a feature, a virtue, of the American system and the principles it is designed to protect; specifically, THE feature that Heterodox Academy purports to be about; viewpoint diversity. So it’s ironic, to me, to hear it labeled as a crisis, and then go unchallenged, at the Open Mind conference of a supposedly heterodox academic group. Morality blinds.
Just because the anti-conservative bias demonstrated here is surreptitious, conducted via a proxy argument about popular vote rather than via a direct attack against conservatives as in Hillary’s deplorables comment or Obama’s clinger comment, doesn’t mean it’s not real.
This introduces another example of the moral blindness that was evident at the Open Mind Conference. At 17:20 into Session Seven: Opportunities in the Classroom: What Professors Can Do To Make A Difference (transcript), John Zimmerman says:
And again, I’m not saying that’s good, I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just offering that as an example, right, that on every issue, every position Trump has taken, reasonable and decent people can and do disagree about it. But, reasonable and decent people don’t call a continent a shit hole. They don’t. That’s a distinction that should be at the heart of all of this. The distinction between political beliefs and political behavior.
I agree with Zimmerman’s sentiment about reasonable and decent people, so let’s unpack it a bit.
Keeping in mind that the reason Heterodox Academy even exists is because of the hostile climate that academia is for conservatives, the question arises, of all of the examples he could have used, why did he use this one? Why did he use the platform of HxA’s Open Mind conference to push his own personal agenda? If he really wants to understand why conservatives self-select out of academia, and if he really wants to increase viewpoint diversity within it, mightn’t it have been smarter of him, and more appropriate for the discussion, and more compatible with the mission of Heterodox Academy, to use as an example something that was said by somebody on the left that no reasonable person would ever say? And then to point out how it might alienate conservatives and thereby contribute to the lack of viewpoint diversity within academia? Something like, oh, I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here, the following, from the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, quoted in the LA Times:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?
The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that.
Or then-candidate Barack Obama, summarized in The Guardian, in April of 2008:
Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
In Political Diversity Will Improve Psychological Social Science on Heterodox Academy’s blog, Lee Jussim points out that liberal hegemony over social science affects things like the types of questions that get asked, the framing of the questions, the designs of the studies, the data that is examined, and the conclusions that are drawn. When there’s nobody there to challenge the orthodoxies of left-wing thought the intellectual environment becomes sort of a mutual admiration society of self-fullfilling prophesies, “scientific” “proofs” of the superiority of left with thought. Zimmerman’s comment, and the absence of pushback against it, I suggest, is evidence of exactly that sort of thing.
With multiple comments throughout the day like Zimmerman’s, and the absence of challenges to them, HxA demonstrated to this conservative that it has not only so far failed to truly “get” the nature of the problem it has chosen to “stand athwart,” or the people it drives away, at times it even exacerbates it.
Look. I get it. The concept of uncomfortable learning is not lost on me. I understand that viewpoint diversity will inevitably lead to the voicing of opinions with which I disagree or that I dislike. But it is particularly galling when a day-long conference of a group dedicated to bursting the ideological, cognitive, intellectual, and academic bubble within which it is trapped exemplifies that very bubble.
Bias #2: WEIRD Rationalism
The second bias, WEIRD rationalism, is nuanced and may be difficult for some to see, which is why it is particularly insidious, and why in this section I make the effort to explain it as fully as I can.
WEIRD rationalsim is a style of thought; a way of perceiving and thinking about the social world. Earlier I mentioned moral sacred values. It seems to me that WEIRD rationalism is an intellectual sacred value of the left that, due to the left’s dominance within academia, is boxing out (to use a term from basketball) non-liberal cognitive styles. For evidence of this I submit the following sources, as well as the discussion below:
1) Chapter 3: Visions of Knowledge and Reason, from A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowll
2) Liberals Think More Analytically (More WEIRD) Than Conservatives
3) American Liberals and Conservatives Think As If From Different Cultures
These quotes from The Righteous Mind help to describe WEIRD rationalism and how it differs from the way of thinking that is getting boxed out, holistic empiricism:
Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.
Related to this difference in perception is a difference in thinking style. 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).
But when holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule.
If WEIRD and non-WEIRD people think differently and see the world differently, then it stands to reason that they’d have different moral concerns. If you see a world full of individuals, then you’ll want the morality of Kohlberg and Turiel—a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. You’ll emphasize concerns about harm and fairness. But if you live in a non-WEIRD society in which people are more likely to see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions, then you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals. You’ll have a more sociocentric morality, which means (as Shweder described it back in chapter 1) that you place the needs of groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. If you do that, then a morality based on concerns about harm and fairness won’t be sufficient. You’ll have additional concerns, and you’ll need additional virtues to bind people together.
As good as this description is, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what I’m driving at when I say academia has a bias in favor of rationalism (i.e., liberalism) and against the holistic thought (i.e., conservatism).
One of the ways in which I believe the education system fails our kids is through inadequate instruction on what constitutes evidence and how to make a persuasive argument. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote in National Review an article entitled The Errors of the Militant Atheist in which he asserts that “Evidence for a type of claim must be of the same kind as that for the claim being made.”
The two cognitive styles of WEIRD rationalism and holistic empiricism, almost inherently by their very nature, often make different types of claims, and therefore require different types of evidence. But it seems that academia values only one type of assertion and therefore only one type of evidence, which puts all other types at a disadvantage before the search for knowledge and the process of learning even begin. This idea is important to the point I’m trying to make, so I quote Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at length. I added the bold font for emphasis:
Science, at least in the sense defined by the scientific revolution, is a process for formulating non-obvious, reliable predictive rules through controlled experiment. This means that not all claims are scientific claims and only a specific type of claim is scientific. Scientific claims are claims that can be validated or falsified through a scientific process — namely, controlled experiment. When the physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously dismissed a paper as “not even wrong,” that was what he meant: Because the claim made could not be adjudicated by scientific means, it did not even qualify as a scientific claim, and therefore could not even be proven wrong.
Some people claim that only scientific claims are meaningful, but this is clearly nonsense. Scientific claims are one specific type of empirical claim, but, for starters, there are plenty of other meaningful empirical claims one can make.
The claim “I had John over for dinner at my house last night” is clearly an empirical claim, clearly meaningful, and yet clearly not scientific. One cannot design a scientific experiment to prove the claim, but one can still produce evidence for (“Here’s a selfie we took over dessert”) or against (“But Sally said she saw you down at the pub last night”). But for the evidence to be meaningful, it has to be of the same kind as the claim being made.
Another type of empirical claim is “Julius Caesar invaded Gaul.” What type of empirical claim is this? It’s a historical claim. It’s not a scientific claim — even if you could reproduce the invasion of Gaul in a lab, it wouldn’t tell you anything about what actually went on over 2,000 years ago. But it’s clearly a meaningful claim, and one that can be empirically investigated — using evidence of the same kind as the claim itself, that is to say, historical evidence. Similarly, then, of the claim “Jesus of Nazareth was publicly executed, and found three days later alive, possessed of a body, with open wounds and yet uninconvenienced by them.” Christians do, in fact, provide voluminous evidence to support the claim. Maybe the evidence is not enough to prove the claim, but it is clearly admissible evidence — historical evidence.
Now, are there meaningful non-empirical claims?
Well, yes. There are claims of logic, for starters.
The claim (a + b)^2 = a^2 + b^2 + 2ab is not an empirical claim in any meaningful sense of the word. It is a logical claim, and a specific type of logical claim — a mathematical claim. The evidence for or against it must be of the same type: mathematical. You can’t design an experiment to prove it, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that it’s true because Caesar invaded Gaul. It wouldn’t make sense either to say that all the great mathematicians have believed it — you have to actually respond to the claim on its merits.
Are there non-mathematical claims of logic? Well, yes. There are the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction. And then there are metaphysical claims. Metaphysical claims are claims based on a certain type of logic — metaphysical logic. For example, the claim that a universe of finite causes cannot explain its own existence and so must find its source in some infinite ground of existence, an uncaused cause, is a logical claim, which can be debated using a specific set of logical tools, just like mathematical claims. Maybe it’s wrong. But it’s a logical claim, not a scientific claim.
So, just as there are different ways of thinking, so too are there different types of claims, and therefore different types of evidence. Liberal-dominated academia mostly favors just one type of assertion, and just one type of evidence. It stacks the deck against non-liberal ideas, and the types of evidence that match them, before any discussions, or learning, even begin. It rules out entire realms of potential knowledge.
Gore Brunelli gets to the heart of the idea I’m trying to convey in his June 21, 2018 essay How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion, in which, for my purposes here, “religion” equates to the style of thinking – holistic empiricism – that is eschewed by academia in favor of the WEIRD rationalism.
What was Taleb saying? In effect, that science and religion deal with different aspects of reality. Science gives you insights into the structure of the world around us, religion guides your behavior in it.
If I change a few words in the above quote it remains apropos:
What was Taleb saying? In effect, that WEIRD rationalism and holistic empiricism deal with different aspects of reality. WEIRD rationalism gives you insights into the structure of the world around us, holistic empiricism guides your behavior in it.
Continuing, from Brunelli, and using “religion” as a proxy for the cognitive style of holistic empiricism and “rational” or “scientific” as proxies for WEIRD rationalism:
Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past.
This makes religion an evolutionary record of solutions which persisted long enough, by helping those who held them to persist
It’s telling that while Christianity has been around for 2000 years, every modern revolutionary ideology (from international communism to national socialism) has failed to produce a self-sustaining community.
Every revolutionary social experiment either imploded, or had to make critical concessions to traditional ideas, concessions that are not admitted by the proponents of their modern variants.
Even though they were promoted as “rational” and “scientific” by their supporters, these systems failed in practice. How can this be? It’s because people wrongly assumed “rational” is whatever seemed like a good idea at the time, without taking into consideration uncertainty, the fact that you can’t predict how systems evolve over time.
Remember what Richard P. Feynman said:
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
Taleb presents the concept of ecological rationality:
The only definition of rationality that I found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is that of survival –and indeed, unlike the modern theories by psychosophasters, it maps to the classics. Anything that hinders one’s survival at an individual, collective, tribal, or general level is deemed irrational.
Judging people on their beliefs is not scientific
There is no such thing as “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action
The rationality of an action can only be judged by evolutionary considerations
Rationality is risk management, period.
In contrast to modern “rationalist” mythology, this view of rationality is grounded in evolutionary logic. A behavior is deemed rational by virtue of it contributing to evolutionary success at various levels. An idea is deemed rational by virtue of it inspiring rational behavior.
And finally, we come back to Haidt, and his critique of Sam Harris in Haidt’s essay Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion. In this quote, as in the Taleb quote above, if the concept of religious thinking is replaced by the concept of holistic thinking then Haidt’s argument still applies:
In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris gives us a standard liberal definition of morality: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering… To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.” He then goes on to show that the Bible and the Koran, taken literally, are immoral books because they’re not primarily about happiness and suffering, and in many places they advocate harming people.
Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins.
But academia does just that. Per Haidt:
my field is not very scholarly. We are focused on experiments and methods. We are not even scholarly about the experiments and methods used 30 years ago; we are too caught up in the present.
This was what I came to see when i did a post doc at Chicago, in cultural psych; the anthropologists lived in a world of books and ideas. The psychologists lived in relatively recent journal articles
By virtue of its bias in favor of WEIRD rationalism, academia does the same thing to the conservative cognitive style of holistic empiricism, the types of assertions conservatives tend to make, and the types of evidence that support them, that Sam Harris does to religion. It eliminates them by definition before study even begins. It rules out types of knowledge – practical knowledge, described below in Bias #4: Intellectualism – and ways of thinking – holistic empiricism – which is to say, conservatism itself, before study even begins. The absence of viewpoint diversity within academia is to its real problems as a fever is to the flu virus.
BIAS #3: Pro-Academic
In the business world it’s standard practice to get outside help when faced with wicked problems.
A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.
The absence of viewpoint diversity within academia is nothing if not a wicked problem. If academia were run like a normal business the FIRST thing one would expect it to do is seek oustide help. But no, it does the opposite. Now THAT is dumbfounding. I just don’t get it.
I mean, think about it. Heterodox Academy recognizes that academia has a bubble problem. It acknowledges that everyone inside the bubble thinks the same way, so there’s nobody to challenge the status quo of entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies. It knows that the bubble problem is harming science, the advancement of knowledge, and the reputations of every person and institution involved. It has taken upon itself the mission of breaking academia out of the bubble and repairing its shattered reputation. So what does it (so far) do? It restricts membership to people already inside the bubble.
I’ve been told by HxA members that it has plans to rectify this problem. But the question is, why does it have the problem in the first place? The fact that it initially restricted membership to only those people who cause the problem in the first place seems to me counterintuitive to the whole enterprise. It’s baffling.
Bias #4: Intellectualism
The fact that HxA has so far (I understand the goal is to change this) restricted membership to academics leads to the last of the four biases I saw at the conference; intellectualism.
One of the topics that came up during the day was the phenomenon of right-leaning campus groups inviting celebrities and so-called trolls and provocateurs to speak. Here’s Alice Dreger, at the 1:09:22 mark of Session 3: Big Questions, Heterodox Answers: (transcript)
Yeah, you know, I mean, to my mind, the problem with these celebrity speakers being cray- being paid crazy amounts of money to come in and then we have to pay for all the securities. Most of them are not intellectuals, so why are we spending university money on non-intellectuals? [applause] I mean, I- I think the most basic question should not be “Can we tolerate this point of view?” It’s, “Is there any academic content here? Is there anything that looks like research-based thinking? Any kind of innovative thinking here that is something like what we would expect at a university level? Something that will educate an undergraduate to a high level, or are we just bringing in somebody to shout slogans so everybody can tweet it and argue about it?”
Note the applause from the audience, and the fact that she stresses intellectualism as the bar that must be met in order for an invited guest to be allowed to appear on a college campus. Can a school group not invite a satirist? A comedian? A political cartoonist? Would Dilbert creator Scott Adams be acceptable? An Iraq war veteran? Any of the people profiled by Mike Rowe in his “Dirty Jobs” TV show? Mike Rowe? Gary Sinise? Joe Mantegna? Ted Nugent? Alice Cooper? A rock and roll band? Would a representative from Charlie Hebdo be allowed? Where’s the “academic content” in any of those? Who defines what that even means? Or what “intellectual” means? And then who decides which invitees meet those criteria and which ones don’t?
I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but from where I sat Dreger’s comment was tone deaf, elitist, smug, condescending, insulting. It’s precisely the sort of thing that got academia into its current mess – an actual crisis – in the first place, and the kind of thing HxA has taken upon itself to “stand athwart.”
And if shouting slogans is a bad thing, then where’s Dreger’s outrage at the shout-downs, shut-downs, signs, slogans, vandalism, and violence of the illiberal left? Where’s the “academic content” in any of that? THAT is the problem , NOT the intellectualism, or lack thereof, of speakers. If she really wants to go down the path of condemning non-intellectuals, then I ask again, where’s her outrage against the mobism of the illiberal left? That a person would sit on a panel at a so-called Open Mind conference and be so closed minded is dumbfounding.
I am the first person in my family to go to college. My mother was a telephone operator and my father was a welder. My grandparents on my mom’s side immigrated from England; he joined the US Army, she was a bookkeeper. My grandfather on my father’s side also was in the U.S. Army, in WWI. I remember him telling a story about watching airplanes in a dog fight over head; “pop pop pop pop pop.” In the family we have souvenir vases fashioned from shell casings from Verdun.
Having earned a college degree I am considered the intellectual in the family. I struggled to achieve a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. (Readers might be gratified to know that I never designed a bridge they might drive across. 😉 ) I later went to school at night after work to earn a Masters degree in Systems Management.
But in the rare air of PhD-heavy Heterodox Academy I’m probably not an intellectual. I’m terrible at extemporaneous speaking. I fumble and stumble and lose my train of thought. I wouldn’t survive two minutes in a live debate. I do not have a PhD, and I’m absolutely certain that I was far from the sharpest tool in the shed of the Times Center where the conference was held. I’m better in writing, where I have the time to organize my thoughts and words, and even then it’s hard work, and as for my writing style, well, I’m no Hemingway. I grew up near Boston in reliably blue, overflowing with elite universities, coastal elite, Massachusetts, but intellectually and dispositionally I’m from flyover country. Should I not be allowed to speak on campus? Where would Alice Dreger draw the line?
From where I sit, Dreger’s comment showed me that the chasm HxA seeks to bridge is wider than it may know, and enlightened me to the other biases and causes within the academic bubble beyond that of mere revulsion toward conservatives. If HxA members really, honestly, truly, believe that only intellectuals should be allowed to speak, then the problem is far worse than it looks. It is precisely that sort of intellectual snobbery that is part of the reason academia is presently in such dire straits. And incidentally, also part of the reason that Trump won.
Intellectual snobbery leads to another problem I saw at the conference; The notion that some ideas are settled to the point that debate about them or speakers who advocate them need not be entertained – for example flat earth, KKK, Nazis, and Al Queda. As I recall, nobody on any of the panels came right out and said that. Instead, the conversation danced around it, questioning where is the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. Even that, in my way of seeing things, is a bridge too far, for reasons that SHOULD be obvious to intellectuals and academics.
First, because excluding selected viewpoints harms education for reasons explained by HxA. “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” If our kids are not exposed to those ideas then they will be ill-equipped to deal with them in the real world if and when they encounter them. Second, and importantly, is the fact that liberty is never more than one generation away from being lost, and it is the responsibility of the current generation to help the next one understand the great price that has been paid to achieve it, and why and how it is so fragile (there’s that social capital again). And third, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Several of the core beliefs upon which liberalism rest are themselves the intellectual and scientific equivalent of flat earthism. My essay in Areo Magazine entitled Understanding Human Nature is the Best Way of Fixing Our Political Culture discusses several of them. And finally, there’s a huge difference between book smarts and street smarts. Academia is overflowing with book smarts, but street smarts, not so much. Michael Oakeshott’s book Rationalism in Politics and other essays could be adapted into a story about Rationalism in Academia.
As I argued my Quillette essay Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics, I believe it’s not differences in WHAT people think – their viewpoints – that defines the ideological divide, it’s HOW they think; the psychological profiles from which viewpoints follow. So far, Heterdox Academy seems to be fixating on the WHAT, and ignoring the HOW. The lack of viewpoint diversity – the WHAT – within academia is far from the worst of its problems. but so far, due to liberal hegemony within academia, it’s being ignored.
The focus on viewpoints doesn’t even come close to addressing what seems to me to be the real root cause of academia’s problems. This is partly why I’m so frustrated. By restricting membership to academics, HxA creates a textbook Catch-22: a problem for which the solution is prevented by the very things that cause it.
The most important things in life are not measurable; things like music, art, relationships, camaraderie, love, respect, empathy, tolerance, inclusiveness. They can’t be understood via experiment and method alone (Oakeshott’s “technical” knowledge, or book smarts). They’re knowable primarily through experiencing them (Oakeshott’s “practical” knowledge, or street smarts). A simple, non-partisan, example is cooking. You can read cookbooks all your life, but you’ll never be a good cook until you get into the kitchen and to it. A lot. For a long time. As the founders observed during the writing of the Constitution, experience is the surest guide.
The mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. We live in a world full of relationships, NOT a world full of objects, some of which happen to walk around on two legs.
And yet, academia is geared nearly entirely toward book smarts and against street smarts; toward logic processing and against story processing. Toward technical knowledge and against practical knowledge. Toward WEIRD rationalism and against holistic empiricism. The dynamic between academia and conservatism is like the dynamic between Sam Harris and religions. The latter is eliminataed before study even begins.
This, not the lack of viewpoint diversity, is the root cause of what’s wrong with academia. The lack of viewpoint diversity is nothing more than collateral damage, a side effect. It’s relationship to the root cause of academia’s problems is like that of a fever to the flu virus. It’s a symptom, not a cause.
Conclusion and Recommendations
If conservatism were a house then Heterodox Academy, and beyond that social science, and beyond that academia, might be able to describe some of the facts about it that they see from the outside looking in, but they have little idea what it is like to live inside it, and therefore little grasp of what they’re doing that drives conservatives away.
Effective solutions to wicked problems require accurate diagnoses of their root causes. So far what I’ve seen from Heterodox Academy is lots of solving but not much diagnosing. Viewpoint diversity is its hammer and every problem is a nail.
The good news is that Heterodox Academy seems to be coming around to the idea that viewpoint diversity alone might be insufficient to solve academia’s problems. It recently asked in its blog What Are the Limits of Viewpoint Diversity? I suggest that those limits have a lot to do with the fact that it’s not WHAT people think that divide them, it’s HOW they think. Improving viewpoint diversity alone doesn’t come close to bridging that gap. The problem is much more pervasive and far more insidious than HxA seems to realize.
Ryan Fasio recently wrote in Quillette that “Almost all meaningful human interactions, relationships, and achievements occur outside of politics – in the market economy and in civil society. Family, friendship, work, religion, charity, community, and culture are where human happiness are forged.” He’s talking about social capital. But because of the left’s blind spot, it’s lack of humility, it’s WEIRD style of thought, its intellectualism, and its academic bias, those are the very things it is driving away, and conservatives along with them.
An astute reader might have noticed that many of the sources I link to in this essay come from Heterodox Academy or its members. It seems the group has forgotten the findings and conclusions of some of its own work. Would that it had put its own lessons to use.
If Heterodox Academy really wants to achieve its goals then it’s going to have to a better job of diagnosing what’s really going on. It’s going to have to do whatever it can get inside the house of conservatism and see the world from that perspective. It’s going to have to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening.
Based on these observations, I offer four recommendations that I think might help HxA move closer to its goals. First, the theme of the next Open Mind Conference should be “A Day Of Listening.” The day’s mission should be for HxA to gain a deeper understanding of the people whose viewpoints are missing from academia, and how and why academia alienates those people and drives them away. The approach of the day should be that of active listening, modeled after YouTuber @BenjamindABoyce. Or maybe he should M.C. Second, the ratio of liberal and conservative panelists, which was 25 to 3 at this conference, should be reversed. As HxA likes to say, quoting John Stuart Mill, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Third, a significant proportion of the panelists should be from outside academia. It seems counterintuitive to believe, as HxA apparently does, that if the problem is that everybody within academia thinks the same way, then the solution is going to come from those people. HxA needs outside help. Fourth, the process for achieving the mission of the day should be for HxA members to let go of for and against, and commit to actively listening to the panelists for the purpose of gaining an intuitive grasp of where they’re coming from.
I watched Haidt speak in a video in which he said he didn’t understand capitalism until his forties.
How on earth could anyone be so entirely clueless and still be considered “elite”? That word, elite, has become synonymous with useless but dangerous leftists who think they can and should run the world.
He’s the same guy who didn’t realize until the end of the day they hadn’t bothered to invite more than three center-right speakers. That didn’t happen by accident, and he didn’t just notice it. He’s either really stupid, which I don’t think is true, or he’s disingenuous to the point of just being a plain liar.
There’s a civil war being pushed by the radicals on the left and if the freaks aren’t stopped pretty soon the left will be wiped out by people on the right…you know, the mostly quiet owners of the majority of the much-discussed 300 million weapons who happen to staff most of the armed and police forces and who are losing patience and tiring of the left destroying our cultures and countries. I see this popping up all over the web. People are preparing.
We’re running out of time. The “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and religion” have had enough.
I’ve said many times that Leftist thought is of the sort easily spread by memes (“Love is Love!” “Equality”!) while conservative thought requires much more time, work, intelligence, and subtlety to understand.
Agree, which is why this essay is so long. I did the best I could to fully explain the conservative moral sense. Quillette and Areo both rejected it, both included its length in their reasons. Even our forms of communication, in a way, are stacked against conservatism.
Have you gotten any response from any HxA people? This seems like an excellent set of recommendations. If they don’t respond, I’d very very concerned that they are high on their own supply, and guilty of just being yet another bubble.
Yes I’ve received positive responses from HxA members. They *want* feedback. They invite it.
Excellent stuff. Academia’s approach to knowledge and truth tends to lead to only one set of acceptable conclusions. The HOW becomes the WHAT.