Corners of the Internet #2
Razib Khan stands up to the mob, Jordan Peterson leaves UToronto, Arif Ahmed on Cambridge, N.S. Lyons on intolerant minorities, Cochrane on Fed nominees, Freddie deBoer on reading, WFB on Roosevelt
In June of last year, Arnold Kling wrote,
What does it say about contemporary culture that so many heavyweights are writing on epistemology? This seems to me an indictment of: social media, certainly; political discourse, certainly; higher education, probably; journalism, probably.
This may fit with a historical pattern. The barbarians sack the city, and the carriers of the dying culture repair to their basements to write.
A central interest of mine is to learn and practice methods for arriving at verifiable knowledge. But in the world we live in, the best structures and practices for promoting sound epistemology are increasingly under assault by barbarians hostile to truth and civilization. So I repair to my basement to write.1
Barbarians at the gate
In response to an egregious hit piece against the recently deceased E. O. Wilson—which among other things betrayed severe misunderstanding of the normal distribution and alleged racism for use of common scientific terms like “ant colony”—Razib Khan rallied a vigorous response.
After a quick flurry of emails and direct messages, a few of us agreed this shouldn’t be allowed to stand without a rebuttal.
Other scientists of some stature shared our disgust, but disagreed; they argued against dignifying something so unworthy with a response. It would give Scientific American undeserved oxygen and attention. Engagement with a publication that to many seems to have lost its way risked being more reward than rebuke. To be candid, I felt their approach, probably perfectly standard in past decades, was wholly out of step with today’s dispensation, when attacks on science are legion, genuine fear of the social-media mob is rampant in academia and whole careers are “canceled” on a specious basis. Ignored long enough, the lie becomes canon.
Emphasis added. Of course, standing against the mob comes at a price and at least two signatories to the letter bowed out under the pressure. Perhaps more troubling than the fallout on Twitter is that Scientific American refused to publish the rebuttal.
Jordan Peterson is another prominent academic who has run afoul of the mob a time or two. This week he announced he will be leaving his tenured professorship at University of Toronto, in part due to the guilt by association graduate students have experienced for working with him.
I loved my job. And my students, undergraduates and graduates alike, were positively predisposed toward me. But that career path was not meant to be. . .
My students are also partly unacceptable precisely because they are my students. I am academic persona non grata, because of my unacceptable philosophical positions. And this isn’t just some inconvenience. These facts rendered my job morally untenable. How can I accept prospective researchers and train them in good conscience knowing their employment prospects to be minimal?
At his lecture on Tuesday night [November 23, 2021] it became clear how much the tide has turned. In Cambridge’s largest lecture hall, before a sold-out audience, the first people to speak were the university proctors. The proctors hold an 800-year-old office whose principal duty is to uphold free speech in the university – as they reminded us in their speech. Their presence was the clearest possible signal that, this time around, the university fully supported Peterson’s invitation and his right to speak. The contrast with his cancellation just two years ago could hardly have been greater.
In a recently released podcast conversation with Peterson and fellow Cambridge professor James Orr, Ahmed gives more background into the circumstances that helped enable the reinstatement.
Cambridge is unusual in British academia, and maybe unusual in Western academia more generally, in that it and Oxford are both self-governing. What that means is that the supreme body that decides what it does is the main body of senior academics, so all lecturers, professors and so on and there’s about seven thousand of those. That’s called Regent House and has supreme authority, and there’s an executive body called the council which handles most day-to-day business and the council often makes proposals on which there is no vote and it doesn’t propose a vote and one of the telling things is that the council put forward this proposal which was on a matter of fundamental value. I can't think of anything more important to a university than its view on freedom of speech.
It put forward this change, it did not offer a vote. When I made my objections, it didn't offer a vote. When I made my objections, it didn't negotiate, it didn't say “well, I can see the point of this, maybe we should have wider consultation”. There was no attempt at consultation, no attempt at a vote, it just tried to push it through. So the difficulty was in getting a vote in the first place. Once we got a vote, as it turned out, these things worked well. (emphasis added)
Once the vote was secured, the result decisively favored the pro-speech policy. Notwithstanding troubling evidence that intolerance is on the rise among professors themselves, this experience suggests that the battle for liberal values can still be won if faculty can circumvent administration. Failing this, policy implementation tends to be captured by the most vicious, ideologically possessed faction within the university.
Of which, N. S. Lyons writes,
Unfortunately for those dreaming of harnessing a majority anti-woke popular will, the truth is that, as statistician and philosopher Nassim Taleb has explained in detail, it’s typically not the majority that sets new societal rules, but the most intolerant minority. If the vast majority generally prefers to eat Food A instead of Food B, but a small minority is absolutely insistent on eating Food B and is willing to start chopping the heads off of anyone who disagrees and serves Food A – and the majority doesn’t care enough to get all bloody dying on this particular culinary hill – all restaurants will soon be serving only Food B, the new national cuisine. This is especially true if the intolerant minority already holds a disproportionate position of influence within the system.
In influential corners of many institutions, from school boards to corporate HR, the intolerant minority already holds disproportionate influence on the system. Might such influence ascend to the commanding heights of our central bank?
Lisa Cook is superbly qualified, by written word, experience, and connections -- if the job is to bring the Administration and progressive supporters' racial policies to the Fed. That might mean requiring DEI or ESG practices at banks, or to companies that banks lend to, directing credit to some areas or by race, and strengthening the DEI initiatives and race based hiring and promotion practices within the Fed. (emphasis added)
Needless to say, price stability seems far from a priority consideration in these appointment decisions even amid raging inflation.
Reading is losing
Freddie deBoer points to a growing tendency to dismiss opposing views without bothering to read or understand them.
I’m sure Dr. Sweet would admit that you can’t refute a book with tweets; to his credit, his thread as much as says so. In fact he specifically invites Hari into deeper conversation, which is humane and responsible. Sadly, if you dig around in the replies to the thread you’ll find many people who very much believe that a bunch of 280-character missives can dismiss Hari’s entire argument, that a collection of excerpts from a book they’ll never read have been debunked by references to studies they’ll never understand. We could have a whole conversation about this phenomenon, where people become convinced that a particular argument has been exposed as misrepresenting studies despite the fact that they read nothing of the given studies themselves. (Arguments for being more responsible with data sure do tend to lead people to be irresponsible with data.) But even in a simpler sense, I would hope that we could all understand that everything we might see on social media is limited and contextual, and that such spaces serve the public intellect when they point to more reading and work against it when they function as substitutes for more reading.
Recent evidence does not look promising for reading. Average books read (including partial books) declined substantially in 2021, with the biggest decline among college graduates, who read about six fewer books in 2021 than they did between 2002 and 2016.
On the topic of reading. . .
One of the books I enjoyed most last year was William F. Buckley’s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century. It is a compilation of obituaries he wrote during his lifetime, many of which were quite tender and moving even when written about people I had never heard of. Reading it made me reflect on my own mortality and that of my loved ones.
It also included a handful of rather scathing obituaries. Though WFB had many friends across the political isle—several of whom requested that he speak at their funerals—he sometimes used obituaries of especially prominent figures as an opportunity to highlight the darker side of their legacy, particularly when the mainstream view bordered on hagiography. Such was the case with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Though criticism of the famous first lady borders on heresy for some—and I have done no serious study of her life to judge these criticisms on their merits—this passage struck me as interesting.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s approach to solving human problems, so charming in its Franciscan naivete, was simply: do away with them—by the most obvious means. The way to cope with Russia was to negotiate. . . The way for everyone to be free in the world is to tell the UN to free everyone. . . The way to solve the housing shortage is for government to build more houses. . . [She insisted] on the leaving out of the concrete, complex factor, which is why they call it “undifferentiated” goodness. Negotiation with Russia, you see, implies there is something we are, or should be prepared to yield. . . Latin American poverty is something that grows out of the pores of Latin American institutions and appetites, and cannot seriously be ameliorated by mere transfusions of American cash. . . And the way to get houses built is to reduce their cost so that poor people can buy them, without paying crippling wages to monopoly labor unions, or crippling prices to manufacturing concerns that have to pay the taxes of a government which among other things decides it needs to get into the housing business. . .
Mrs. Roosevelt’s principal bequest, her most enduring bequest, was the capacity to so oversimplify problems as to give encouragement to those who wish to pitch the nation and the world onto humanitarian crusades which, because they fail to take reality into account, end up plunging people into misery.
I guess you could say he saw the world a little differently than she did.
This by no means implies I am any kind of intellectual heavyweight however.