pseudo-Socratic Politics

Read that Atlantic profile of Stephen Miller yet? This part in particular jumped out at me:

That night was the culmination of a well-organized campaign of campus disruption. It had begun when Miller formed a chapter of Students for Academic Freedom—a national conservative pressure group [David] Horowitz had launched to expose the leftist “indoctrination” taking place at America’s universities. As the head of the Duke chapter, Miller was sent a 70-page handbook that provided detailed instructions for orchestrating a campus controversy. It included guidance on how to investigate faculty members’ partisan biases (special attention should be paid to professors of women’s studies and African American studies, the handbook noted); tips for identifying “classroom abuses” (“Did your professor make a politically-biased comment in class about the war in Iraq?”); and advice for drumming up publicity (“Appearing as a guest on your local talk radio station is probably easier than you think”). The handbook also urged students to invite controversial speakers to their schools, adding that if the administration declined to fund such visits, students should “issue a press release … questioning why they have refused your request to increase the scope of intellectual diversity on campus.”

The playbook was in many ways ahead of its time, but Miller recognized its merits—and executed flawlessly. After inviting Horowitz to speak at Duke, he seized on the pushback from some professors as evidence that the university was trying to stifle free speech. He wrote an incendiary op-ed in the student newspaper, The Chronicle, titled “Betrayal,” in which he claimed that “a large number of Duke professors” were determined to “indoctrinate students in their personal ideologies and prejudices”—and then presented a series of anonymous student testimonials as proof.

Amazingly enough, you can grab a later edition of that document for yourself. On the surface it seems quite innocuous:

Students for Academic Freedom is exclusively dedicated to the following goals:

  • To promote intellectual diversity on campus.
  • To defend the right of students to be treated with respect by faculty and administrators, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.
  • To promote fairness, civility and inclusion in student affairs.
  • To secure the adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights as official university policy, and the Student Bill of Rights as a resolution in student governments.

For a thorough treatment of our mission, please see the red Students for Academic Freedom booklet, pages 4-12.

That resembles the language of contemporary progressives, right? If you dig into the history and context, however, a sinister side starts to appear.

The proposed Academic Bill of Rights directs universities to enact guidelines implementing the principle of neutrality, in particular by requiring that colleges and universities appoint faculty “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession. Measured in this way, diversity can easily become contradictory to academic ends. So, for example, no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy, if that philosophy is not deemed a reasonable scholarly option within the discipline of political theory. No department of chemistry ought to be obligated to pursue “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor who teaches the phlogiston theory of heat, if that theory is not deemed a reasonable perspective within the discipline of chemistry.

These examples illustrate that the appropriate diversity of a university faculty must ultimately be conceived as a question of academic judgment, to be determined by the quality and range of pluralism deemed reasonable by relevant disciplinary standards, as interpreted and applied by college and university faculty. Advocates for the Academic Bill of Rights, however, make clear that they seek to enforce a kind of diversity that is instead determined by essentially political categories, like the number of Republicans or Democrats on a faculty, or the number of conservatives or liberals. Because there is in fact little correlation between these political categories and disciplinary standing, the assessment of faculty by such explicitly political criteria, whether used by faculty, university administration, or the state, would profoundly corrupt the academic integrity of universities. Indeed, it would violate the neutrality principle itself.

The first attempts at pushing the “academic freedom” line were clumsy and gave the game away too easily; for instance, Rick Santorum’s attempt in 2001 used much of the same language but mentioned “biological evolution” as a topic of controversy. But by 2003 it was clear that basic tactic of appropriating progressive language and concepts to push regressive ideas was powerful, the American far-Right just had to tune the messaging to appear as neutral as possible. By 2010, the date of the revised handbook, you either have to be quite adept at decoding dog-whistles or the patience to dig in deep to spot what was really going on. On page 31, well away from the lofty goals, you’ll find the giveaway alluded to above:

As you complete this process, you may begin to get a sense of which professors are particularly partisan in their teaching. If you know that a student is taking a class with one of these professors, make sure to ask whether they have encountered abusive actions in the classroom. Some departments are known for their ideological and partisan leanings. These include Cultural Studies, American Studies, English Literature, Women‘s Studies, African-American (or Black) Studies, Chicano/Latino/Hispanic Studies, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Studies, American-Indian Studies, and Asian-American Studies. Fertile ground is also found in the Political Science, Sociology and History departments, although to a lesser degree than the departments mentioned above.

The end goal of all this is confusion and frustration. They want progressives arguing with one another about what “diversity” and “inclusion” means, as it makes them susceptible to a re-framing of those terms via emotional pleas, conspiracy theories, and well-funded think tanks. The messaging has become so finely crafted that without the history you’d have no idea it was created to teach Young-Earth Creationism in schools.

Universities ought to be the arena in which political prejudice is set aside and open-minded investigation reveals the way the world works. But just when we need this disinterested forum the most, academia has become more politicized as well – not more polarized, but more left-wing. Colleges have always been more liberal than the American population, but the skew has been increasing. … The proportions vary by field: departments of business, computer science, engineering, and health science are evenly split, while the humanities and social sciences are decidedly on the left: the proportion of conservatives is in the single digits, and they are outnumbered by Marxists two to one. Professors in the physical and biological sciences are in between, with few radicals and Virtually no Marxists, but liberals outnumber conservatives by a wide margin.

The liberal tilt of academia (and of journalism, commentary and intellectual life) is in some ways natural. … A liberal tilt is also, in moderation, desirable. Intellectual liberalism was at the forefront of many forms of progress that almost everyone has come to accept, such as democracy, social insurance, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and judicial torture, the decline of war, and the expansion of human and civil rights. In many ways we are (almost) all liberals now.

But we have seen that when a creed becomes attached to an in-group, the critical faculties of its members can be disabled, and there are reasons to think that has happened within swaths of academia. In The Blank Slate (updated in 2016) I showed how leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. In a recent manifesto, Tetlock, together with the psychologists Jose Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, and Lee Jussirn, documented the leftward swing of social psychology and showed how it has compromised the quality of research. Quoting John Stuart Mill – “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that” – they called for greater political diversity in psychology the version of diversity that matters the most (as opposed to the version commonly pursued, namely people who look different but think alike).

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 377-378.

In practice, the tactic comes across as a pseudo-Socratic politic: on the surface it advances no unique ideas of its own, instead borrowing from other movements in an attempt to embrace, extend, and extinguish, but the “extinguish” bit gives away that there actually is a unique vision buried under layers of obfuscation and plausible deniability. Read the section on tabling on pages 43 to 46, for instance, and you’ll find the SAF advises their student groups to avoid debate, and instead focus on pushing a standardized message to recruit new members.

The tactic has a strong resemblance to trolling, hence why that Atlantic piece was subtitled “Trump’s Right-wing Troll.” And unfortunately, it’s just as effective.

 

Dispatches from “Enlightenment Now:” Intellectuals

One of the blog posts I’m working on demands that I give Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now an in-depth skim, and it’s dredging up all sorts of secondary things. I might as well take advantage of that, and spread the misery around.

For instance, are we sure Pinker isn’t a secret far-Right plant?

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bienpensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 43.

His hatred for “intellectuals” is astonishing, especially since the blurb for Enlightenment Now calls him one. Isn’t the whole thesis of the book that we should all become more enlightened, more intellectual? And yet it contains an endless parade of scorn for those who are known for their intelligence.

At various times Western intellectuals have also sung the praises of Ho Chi Minh, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Kim II-sung, Pol Pot, Julius Nyerere, Omar Torrijos, Slobodan Milogevié, and Hugo Chavez.

Why should intellectuals and artists, of all people, kiss up to murderous dictators? One might think that intellectuals would be the first to deconstruct the pretexts of power, and artists to expand the scope of human compassion. (Thankfully, many have done just that.) One explanation, offered by the economist Thomas Sowell and the sociologist Paul Hollander, is professional narcissism. Intellectuals and artists may feel unappreciated in liberal democracies, which allow their citizens to tend to their own needs in markets and civic organizations. Dictators implement theories from the top down, assigning a role to intellectuals that they feel is commensurate with their worth. But tyrannophilia is also fed by a Nietzschean disdain for the common man, who annoyingly prefers schlock to fine art and culture, and by an admiration of the superman who transcends the messy compromises of democracy and heroically implements a vision of the good society.

pg. 451

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space. A satellite photograph of Korea showing the capitalist South aglow in light and the Communist North a pit of darkness vividly illustrates the contrast in the wealth-generating capability between the two economic systems, holding geography, history, and culture constant. Other matched pairs with an experimental group and a control group lead to the same conclusion: West and East Germany when they were divided by the Iron Curtain; Botswana versus Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe; Chile versus Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro — the latter a once-wealthy, oil-rich country now suffering from widespread hunger and a critical shortage of medical care.

pg. 95

This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naive hope. The Enlightenment has worked — perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph is so unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well. Far from being an insipid consensus, these ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt. When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble — a reason to live.

pg. 11

In 2016, a majority of Americans named terrorism as the most important issue facing the country, said they were worried that they or a family member would be a victim, and identified ISIS as a threat to the existence or survival of the United States. The fear has addled not just ordinary citizens trying to get a pollster off the phone but public intellectuals, especially cultural pessimists perennially hungry for signs that Western civilization is (as always) on the verge of collapse.

pg. 196

Intellectual culture should strive to counteract our cognitive biases, but all too often it reinforces them.

pg. 53

(The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.)

pg. 248

I used to think that Trumpism was pure id, an upwelling of tribalism and authoritarianism from the dark recesses of the psyche. But madmen in authority distill their frenzy from academic scribblers of a few years back, and the phrase “intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not oxymoronic. Trump was endorsed in the 2016 election by 136 “Scholars and Writers for America” in a manifesto called “Statement of Unity.” Some are connected to the Claremont Institute, a think tank that has been called “the academic home of Trumpism.” And Trump has been closely advised by two men, Stephen Bannon and Michael Anton, who are reputed to be widely read and who consider themselves serious intellectuals. Anyone who wants to go beyond personality in understanding authoritarian populism must appreciate the two ideologies behind them, both of them militantly opposed to Enlightenment humanism and each influenced, in different ways, by Nietzsche. One is fascist, the other reactionary — not in the common left-wing sense of “anyone who is more conservative than me,” but in their original, technical senses.

pg. 452

Pinker is apparently unaware of the right-wing think tank machine, which props up shady characters as “intellectuals” in order to advance the interests of wealthy donors. Those 136 “scholars and writers” include Newt Gingrich and Peter Thiel, FYI. The organizer of the manifesto is F.H. Buckley, a member of the Heartland Institute, and said Institute is notorious for promoting climate change denial. Steve Bannon may consider himself an intellectual, but belief is not the same as reality, and Michael Anton is arguably more ridiculous.

I know, I know, you could argue that Pinker’s focusing just on the “literary intellectuals” as per C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.” Sorry, that’s not plausible. Notice the lack of any qualifiers for some of these quotes, as well; Pinker is including a significant majority of all intellectuals in his tirades, at minimum.

[feels a tap on his shoulder]

Er, uh what-

What makes one person more intellectually able than another? Can the entire distribution of human intelligence be accounted for by just one general factor? Is intelligence supported by a single neural system? Here, we provide a perspective on human intelligence that takes into account how general abilities or ‘‘factors’’ reflect the functional organization of the brain. By comparing factor models of individual differences in performance with factor models of brain functional organization, we demonstrate that different components of intelligence have their analogs in distinct brain networks. Using simulations based on neuroimaging data, we show that the higher-order factor ‘‘g’’ is accounted for by cognitive tasks corecruiting multiple networks. Finally, we confirm the independence of these components of intelligence by dissociating them using questionnaire variables. We propose that intelligence is an emergent property of anatomically distinct cognitive systems, each of which has its own capacity.

Hampshire, Adam, et al. “Fractionating human intelligence.” Neuron 76.6 (2012): 1225-1237.

Whoa whoa whoa, what’s a study that refutes the idea of a single-factor measure of intelligence doing here?! Shoo! Go away, you’re off topic!

[hears something scamper away]

That’s better.

Howard Gardner’s brilliant conception of individual competence has changed the face of education in the twenty-three years since the publication of his classic work, Frames of Mind. Since then thousands of educators, parents, and researchers have explored the practical implications and applications of Multiple Intelligences theory–the powerful notion that there are separate human capacities, ranging from musical intelligence to the intelligence involved in self-understanding. The first decade of research on MI theory and practice was reported in the 1993 edition of Multiple Intelligences. This new edition covers all developments since then and stands as the most thorough and up-to-date account of MI available anywhere. Completely revised throughout, it features new material on global applications and on MI in the workplace, an assessment of MI practice in the current conservative educational climate, new evidence about brain functioning, and much more.

Gardner, Howard E. Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books, 2008.

THAT’S IT!! I’m ending this blog post right now!

NOW You Can Celebrate

I’ve seen a lot of people jumping for joy about Ireland’s referendum, such as PZ Myers and Marcus Ranum. Problem is, the initial results were based on exit polling data, and they’re not always reliable. The people most likely to respond are the people most passionate about a subject, for instance. They also miss out on early voters, who don’t necessarily visit the polling booth, and voters that show up late. Nate Silver cribbed some excellent discussion of exit polls from Mark Bluemthnal, and while that info dates from 2008 and 2004, respectively, exit polls are routinely argued over well after the election itself. Hence why I sat on my hands.

The Eighth Amendment, which grants an equal right to life to the mother and unborn, will be replaced. The declaration was made at at Dublin Castle at 18:13 local time. The only constituency to vote against repealing the Eight amendment was Donegal, with 51.9% voting against the change. […]

Reacting to the result, the taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar, who campaigned in favour of liberalisation, said it was “a historic day for Ireland,” and that a “quiet revolution” had taken place. Mr Varadkar told crowds at Dublin Castle the result showed the Irish public “trust and respect women to make their own decision and choices.” He added: “It’s also a day when we say no more. No more to doctors telling their patients there’s nothing can be done for them in their own country, no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea, no more stigma as the veil of secrecy is lifted and no more isolation as the burden of shame is gone.” […]

Mr Varadkar said he understood that those who had voted against repeal would be unhappy. He said he had a message for them: “I know today is not welcome and you may feel this country has taken the wrong turn, that this country is not one you no longer recognise. “I want to reassure you that Ireland today is the same as it was last week, but more tolerant, open and respectful.”

OK, NOW it’s time to raise my hands. I’m a bit puzzled why declaring mothers and fetuses to have equal rights was considered an argument against abortion, given that we live in a universe where the Violinist argument exists, but no matter: this is a solid victory for human health, and a boon for the impoverished and/or unlucky.

Back to Basics

A friend asked for an explainer on Bayesian statistics, and I instinctively reached for Yudkowsky’s only to find this at the top:

This page has now been obsoleted by a vastly improved guide to Bayes’s Theorem, the Arbital Guide to Bayes’s Rule. Please read that instead. Seriously. I mean it.

You can see why once you’ve clicked the link; it asks for your prior experience, then tailors the explanation appropriately. There’s also some good diagrams, and it tries to explain the same concept multiple ways to hammer the point home. Their bit on p-values is on-point, too.

Speaking of stats, I’ve also been drawn back into a course on probability I started years ago. MIT OpenCourseware has a lot of cool offerings, but this entry on probability has been worth my attention. While E.T. Jaynes’ Probability Theory still has my favourite treatment of the subject, the video lectures are easier to parse and proceed at a faster clip.

An Unexpected Non-Surprise

Shoot, are you Canadian or not? For those not, I’ll give a one-paragraph primer on Canadian politics.

There are two main parties on the federal level: the Liberals (centre-Left) and the Conservatives (centre-Right), who swap power every five to ten years. There are also a constellation of lesser parties, of which the New Democratics (Left) have enjoyed the most success in recent years. Each province has localised versions of the federal parties, though their ideological relations can vary widely from place to place; for instance, Alberta’s New Democratic Party is currently fighting with their British Columbia counterparts over an oil pipeline, British Columbia’s right-wing party are the Liberals, and Quebec…. they’re off doing their own thing.

Ontario, our largest province, tends to follow the federal system quite closely. The Ontario Liberal party has been in power for nearly fifteen years, and as you’d expect that’s led to corruption scandals. Given that centrists hold an electoral edge, and the two Left-ish parties split the progressive vote, the most likely outcome would be a switch from the centre-Left Liberals to the centre-Right Progressive Conservatives during this year’s election.

Except, mere months before the election, the PC leader stepped down over sexual assault allegations. This triggered a scramble for a new leader, which turned ugly when the disgraced leader tried to regain power, only to bow out again as the negative press mounted. Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough to tank the PC’s poll numbers and their success at the polls seemed much more likely than not.

So you can imagine most people’s disgust when a Trump clone by the name of Doug Ford managed to win the PC leadership in a mysterious upset. Oh joy, a “belligerent bully” who wished to run government like a business on policies that made no sense would be in control of our largest province. I was in a state of despair.

Then, unexpectedly, the least surprising thing happened.

CBC's Ontario poll tracker, showing a PC nosedive and an NDP rise.

The controversial leader generated controversy and acrimony, which has led to a dip in popularity for the PC’s (official colour: blue). Rather than switch to the scandal-plagued Liberals, though, PC voters are switching to the cleaner NDP (official colour: orange). Fearing a split of the progressive vote could put the PC’s into power anyway, Liberal voters (official colour: red) are shifting over to the NDP too. (Green party voters are off doing their own thing).

That movement hasn’t been enough to assure an NDP victory, as CBC’s Poll Tracker still figures the PC’s have a 95% chance of a majority or minority government. But with two and a half weeks to go, no shortage of new PC scandals, and press coverage that’s overjoyed at the change in fortunes, this could create a bandwagon effect that puts a coalition of two Left-ish parties into power.

I’m hoping the Ontario political landscape follows the usual rules of politics, and rejects the typical Liberal-Conservative tango.

Sam Harris “Corrects” the Record

Whelp, less than thirty-eight hours after my blog post Sam Harris finally deleted that old video. However, spotting that made me realise I’d missed his explanation for why he edited the episode. That was probably by design, the description to the podcast episode drops no hint that it’s there.

As before, I’ve done some light editing, but also included time-stamps so you can check my work.

[3:17] Just a little housekeeping for today’s episode. A few episodes back, I presented audio from an event I did with Christian Picciolini in Dallas, and that was a fun event, I enjoyed speaking with Christian a lot […]

[3:51] But unfortunately, in that podcast, Christian said a few things that don’t seem to have been strictly true, and as the weeks have passed and that podcast has continued streaming I’ve heard from two people who consider his remarks to have been unfairly damaging to their reputations. This is a problem that I am quite sensitive to, given what gets done to me, by my critics. Somewhat ironically, Christian seems to rely on the Southern Poverty Law Center for much of his information, but this is an organization, as many of you know, which is undergoing a full moral and intellectual self-immolation. In fact, Christian is confused enough about the stature of that organization that he retweeted an article from the SPLC website wherein I am described as a racist recruiter for the alt-right. […]

We’re barely a minute in, and Harris has badly distorted the record. One of Picciolini’s tweets references the Southern Poverty Law Center, true, but he also cites tweets by David Duke, The Daily Stormer, Wikipedia (and before you start, I checked the citations and it’s legit), Joe Rogan, YouTube recordings of Molyneux, and his experiences talking to families with Molyneux-obsessed members. Yet that one reference to the SPLC somehow translates into “much of his information?”

Harris also misrepresents that SPLC article. They didn’t declare him to be a recruiter, self-declared members of the alt-Right said that Sam Harris helped lead them to the alt-Right.

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