Cathedral Round-Up: Should I read Nichols or Pinker?

Harvard Mag had interesting interviews/reviews of both Tom Nichols’s “Death of Expertise” and Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“.

From the article about Nichols:

Several years ago, Tom Nichols started writing a book about ignorance and unreason in American public discourse—and then he watched it come to life all around him, in ways starker than he had imagined. A political scientist who has taught for more than a decade in the Harvard Extension School, he had begun noticing what he perceived as a new and accelerating—and dangerous—hostility toward established knowledge. People were no longer merely uninformed, Nichols says, but “aggressively wrong” and unwilling to learn. They actively resisted facts that might alter their preexisting beliefs. They insisted that all opinions, however uninformed, be treated as equally serious. And they rejected professional know-how, he says, with such anger. That shook him.

Skepticism toward intellectual authority is bone-deep in the American character, as much a part of the nation’s origin story as the founders’ Enlightenment principles. Overall, that skepticism is a healthy impulse, Nichols believes. But what he was observing was something else, something malignant and deliberate, a collapse of functional citizenship.

What are people aggressively wrong about, and what does he think is causing the collapse of functional citizenship?

The Death of Expertise resonated deeply with readers. … Readers regularly approach Nichols with stories of their own disregarded expertise: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians who’ve gotten used to being second-guessed by customers and clients and patients who know little or nothing about their work. “So many people over the past year have walked up to me and said, ‘You wrote what I was thinking,’” he says.

Sounds like everyone’s getting mansplained these days.

The Death of Expertise began as a cri de coeur on his now-defunct blog in late 2013. This was during the Edward Snowden revelations, which to Nichols’s eye, and that of other intelligence experts, looked unmistakably like a Russian operation. “I was trying to tell people, ‘Look, trust me, I’m a Russia guy; there’s a Russian hand behind this.’ ” But he found more arguments than takers. “Young people wanted to believe Snowden was a hero.”

I don’t have a particular opinion on Snowdon because I haven’t studied the issue, but let’s pretend you were in the USSR and one day a guy in the government spilled a bunch of secrets about how many people Stalin was having shot and how many millions were starving to death in Holodomor (the Ukrainian genocide.) (Suppose also that the media were sufficiently free to allow the stories to spread.)

Immediately you’d have two camps: the “This guy is a capitalist spy sent to discredit our dear leader with a hideous smear campaign” and “This guy is totally legit, the people need to know!”

Do you see why “Snowden is a Russian” sounds like the government desperately trying to cover its ass?

Now let’s suppose the guy who exposed Stalin actually was a capitalist spy. Maybe he really did hate communism and wanted to bring down the USSR. Would it matter? As long as the stuff he said was true, would you want to know anyway? I know that if I found out about Holodomor, I wouldn’t care about the identity of the guy who released the information besides calling him a hero.

I think a lot of Trump supporters feel similarly about Trump. They don’t actually care whether Russia helped Trump or not; they think Trump is helping them, and that’s what they care about.

In other words, it’s not so much “I don’t believe you” as “I have other priorities.”

In December, at a JFK Library event on reality and truth in public discourse, a moderator asked him a version of “How does this end?” … “In the longer term, I’m worried about the end of the republic,” he answered. Immense cynicism among the voting public—incited in part by the White House—combined with “staggering” ignorance, he said, is incredibly dangerous. In that environment, anything is possible. “When people have almost no political literacy, you cannot sustain the practices that sustain a democratic republic.” The next day, sitting in front of his fireplace in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, and daughter, Hope, he added, “We’re in a very perilous place right now.”

Staggering ignorance about what, I wonder. Given our increased access to information, I suspect that the average person today both knows and can easily find the answers to far more questions than the average person of the 80s, 50s, or 1800s.

I mean, in the 80s, we still had significant numbers of people who believed in: faith healing; televangelists; six-day creationism; “pyramid power”; crop circles; ESP; UFOs; astrology; multiple personality disorder; a global Satanic daycare conspiracy; recovered memories; Freudianism; and the economic viability of the USSR. (People today still believe in the last one.)

One the one hand, I think part of what Nichols is feeling is just the old distrust of experts projected onto the internet. People used to harass their local school boards about teaching ‘evilution’; today they harass each other on Twitter over Ben Ghazi or birtherism or Russia collusion or whatever latest thing.

We could, of course, see a general decline in intellectual abilities as the population of the US itself is drawn increasingly from low-IQ backgrounds and low-IQ people (appear to) outbreed the high-IQ ones, but I have yet to see whether this has had time to manifest as a change in the amount of general knowledge people can use and display, especially given our manifestly easier time actually accessing knowledge. I am tempted to think that perhaps the internet forced Nichols outside of his Harvard bubble and he encountered dumb people for the first time in his life.

On the other hand, however, I do feel a definite since of malaise in America. It’s not about IQ, but how we feel about each other. We don’t seem to like each other very much. We don’t trust each other. Trust in government is low. Trust in each other is low. People have fewer close friends and confidants.

We have material prosperity, yes, despite our economic woes, but there is a spiritual rot.

Both sides are recognizing this, but the left doesn’t understand what is causing it.

They can point at Trump. They can point at angry hoards of Trump voters. “Something has changed,” they say. “The voters don’t trust us anymore.” But they don’t know why.

Here’s what I think happened:

The myth that is “America” got broken.

A country isn’t just a set of laws with a tract of land. It can be that, but if so, it won’t command a lot of sentimental feeling. You don’t die to defend a “set of laws.” A country needs a people.

“People” can be a lot of things. They don’t have to be racially homogenous. “Jews” are a people, and they are not racially homogenous. “Turks” are a people, and they are not genetically homogenous. But fundamentally, people have to see themselves as “a people” with a common culture and identity.

America has two main historical groups: whites and blacks. Before the mass immigration kicked off in 1965, whites were about 88% of the country and blacks were about 10%. Indians, Asians, Hispanics, and everyone else rounded out that last 2%. And say what you will, but whites thought of themselves as the American culture, because they were the majority.

America absorbed newcomers. People came, got married, had children: their children became Americans. The process takes time, but it works.

Today, though, “America” is fractured. It is ethnically fractured–California and Texas, for example, are now majority non-white. There is nothing particularly wrong with the folks who’ve moved in, they just aren’t from one of America’s two main historical ethnic groups. They are their own groups, with their own histories. England is a place with a people and a history; Turkey is a place with a people and a history. They are two different places with different people and different history. It is religiously fractured–far fewer people belong to one of America’s historically prominent religions. It is politically fractured–more people now report being uncomfortable with their child dating a member of the opposite political party than of a different race.

Now we see things like this: After final vote, city will remove racist Pioneer Monument Statue:

As anticipated, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Monday to remove the “Early Days” statue from Civic Center’s Pioneer Monument, placing the century-plus old bronze figures in storage until a long-term decision about their fate can be made.

The decision caps off a six-month long debate, after some San Franciscans approached the commission in August 2017 to complain about the statue, which features a pious but patronizing scene of a Spanish missionary helping a beaten Indian to his feet and pointing him toward heaven.

In February the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend removing “Early Days” despite some commissioners expressing reservations about whether the sculpture has additional value as an expose of 19th century racism.

Your statues are racist. Your history is racist. Your people is racist.

What do they think the reaction to this will look like?

 

But before we get too dark, let’s take a look at Pinker’s latest work, Enlightenment Now:

It is not intuitive that a case needs to be made for “Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” stable values that have long defined our modernity. And most expect any attack on those values to come from the far right: from foes of progressivism, from anti-science religious movements, from closed minds. Yet Steven Pinker argues there is a second, more profound assault on the Enlightenment’s legacy of progress, coming from within intellectual and artistic spheres: a crisis of confidence, as progress’s supporters see so many disasters, setbacks, emergencies, new wars re-opening old wounds, new structures replicating old iniquities, new destructive side-effects of progress’s best intentions. …

Pinker’s volume moves systematically through various metrics that reflect progress, charting improvements across the last half-century-plus in areas from racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying, to car accidents, oil spills, poverty, leisure, female empowerment, and so on. …

the case Pinker seeks to make is at once so basic and so difficult that a firehose of evidence may be needed—optimism is a hard sell in this historical moment. … Pinker credits the surge in such sentiments since the 1960s to several factors. He points to certain religious trends, because a focus on the afterlife can be in tension with the project of improving this world, or caring deeply about it. He points to nationalism and other movements that subordinate goods of the individual or even goods of all to the goods of a particular group. He points to what he calls neo-Romantic forms of environmentalism, not all environmentalisms but specifically those that subordinate the human species to the ecosystem and seek a green future, not through technological advances, but through renouncing current technology and ways of living. He also points to a broader fascination with narratives of decline …

I like the way Pinker thinks and appreciate his use of actual data to support his points.

To these decades-old causes, one may add the fact that humankind’s flaws have never been so visible as in the twenty-first century. … our failures are more visible than ever through the digital media’s ceaseless and accelerating torrent of grim news and fervent calls to action, which have pushed many to emotional exhaustion. Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,” can be disheartening, especially when students’ rage and pain are justified and real. In such situations, Pinker’s vast supply of clear, methodical data may be a better tool to reignite hope than my painful anecdotes of pre-modern life.

Maybe Nichols is on to something about people today being astoundingly ignorant…

Pinker’s celebration of science is no holds barred: he calls it an achievement surpassing the masterworks of art, music, and literature, a source of sublime beauty, health, wealth, and freedom.

I agree with Pinker on science, but Nichols’s worldview may be the one that needs plumbing.

Which book do you want me to read/review?

13 thoughts on “Cathedral Round-Up: Should I read Nichols or Pinker?

  1. Nichols is just a narrative pusher. I heard this ‘death of expertise’ at work. It sounded like propaganda, so I googled it and found his old blog. My guess is the American Library Association and other ‘professional’ leftist organizations have been using this line- whether it comes from Nichols originally or not.

    There’s actually more expertise in the world. The narrative pushers are having problems competing with people who actually know stuff. And, naturally, if people are dumb enough to listen to narrative pushers, they are also dumb enough to listen to snake oil salesmen, who tend to out-perform the narrative pushers.

    This would be why they like laws, government jobs, approved publishers, etc…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, there’s no doubt that by “political literacy” Nichols means “agreeing with my positions”. Besides, after decades of being told by “experts” like Nichols that believing in Russian conspiracies was McCarthyism, now we’re suddenly supposed to turn on a dime and believe in them, just because Nichols wants to reverse the results of an election he didn’t like? Sorry, no dice. Also, as SFC Ton points out above, it’s not as if the “experts” have exactly covered themselves in glory the last fifty years; the criminal justice “Reforms” of the 1960’s that gave us thirty years of murder and mayhem, missing the collapse of Communism, the Iraq “WMD”, nutrition “science”, the Syrian false flag chemical attack, Hillary’s unstoppable march to the White House, etc, etc. Honestly, you would have actually done better to have done the exact polar opposite of what the “Experts” recommended in all these cases. I mean, why the Hell should anyone listen to these people?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nichols seems to ignore the idea of empty credentialism, from what I’ve seen of him. I’d be curious to see his argument addressed directly, but the last few decades have suggested that expert opinion can actually be worse than faith healing and its ilk (I’m thinking of diet, medications, and a few other fields). Furthermore, “expert” opinions often seem to sort along political lines. In trying to become an informed voter a few years back, I came to realize that a variety of Nobel winners are in complete, diametric opposition over things as straightforward as statistics and “facts.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a longer post on this coming up, but I think “experts” can be divided into roughly two categories and Nichols conflates them. Experts who produce physical items, eg, people who build airplanes, clearly produce things that work. I don’t understand what keep airplanes in the sky and the whole idea of airplanes is completely unbelievable, but clearly airplanes actually do fly, so I believe the experts know what they’re doing in the case of airplanes. I don’t know how computers work or how to raise cattle, but clearly there are experts who know these things and I trust them, because I can easily verify their expertise via their products.

      Then there are idea experts. These are academics. “Trust me, I’m an expert on Freudian psychoanalysis and this is definitely a case of repressed memories of the childhood oral-anal fixation stage.” These experts don’t have tangible products we can use to test their accuracy and will often argue against anything that could actually test their accuracy. They’re often wrong with wrongsauce.

      So when Nichols says that experts are usually right, I think he’s conflating these two groups. There are the experts who keep planes in the sky, who are usually right.. and then the experts who estimate the chances that the Soviet Union is going to fall, and those experts are often wrong. And Nichols is in the latter category.

      Like

  3. To hell with these “authorities”. It’s their own fault for pushing so many lies. The Low fat craze has lead to a huge health crisis. Their attacks on the former White America, it just goes on and on. What he doesn’t admit and confuses is I bet there’s much less disbelief in hard sciences, even though recently there was a report that (I think) 50% or so of the papers could not be replicated). If someone says,”so many Coulombs of charge through a wire of size, etc. gives me…”, well it’s likely to be true but just about anything the social sciences say is tinged with lies and bullshit.

    I lost all faith in our government after 9-11 where a building, building 7, fell the same speed as a rock dropped in air for roughly 108 feet and it was supposedly from fire. Since gravity is the same on rocks and buildings this means the building was…held up by air, (like the rock since it fell the same speed), and they’re telling me it was fire???that made it fall??? Noticing the bottom 11 floors, (108 feet), were not vaporized by the fires to where they were the density of air I don’t believe a damn word they say.

    All you can do is sift through the lies because to be decent propaganda they have to tell a little truth. All you can do is line up the preponderance of evidence but you can never really be sure unless you have scientifically valid observations like the fall of building 7.

    Some have said Snowden was an attack on the NSA by the CIA. Snowden was a supposed training drop out, leg broke, from the Rangers. Another drop out from the Rangers, Timothy McVeigh(Oklahoma City bombing). Here’s a documentary video a guy shot at Camp Grafton, North Dakota 03 August 1993. The guy doing the documentary was just going around filming. At this time the Federal Government says Timothy McVeigh was out of the service working gun shows. Who do you see at 0:45 in this video?

    Longer versions for more info and context.

    Like

  4. “Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,””

    This is an interesting point. One very pernicious effect of social media and the digital age in general is that so much bad news travels so fast, but many of the previous implicit rules of “journalism” still holds in that if it bleeds, it leads.

    “Bad news” travels so fast and captures our attention much more comprehensively than positive, good, ect news. In fact, I recall something about a study where social media users interact something like 30% more with bad news or posts that make them angry then posts that make them sad, glad, and positive.

    What people don’t realize – because they really don’t know much about history – is that we are likely living in one of the best times to be alive in contrast to prior history.

    There’s no Black plague and frequent possible death from viruses, diseases, ect. Your chance of being killed by an invading army is no longer around 25%. The chances of being killed in general via violent means is virtually nil for most people – even in groups that have the highest homicide victim percentages. The mongols aren’t at your door about to slaughter and raze your city to the ground. Your chance of starving in somewhere like the US is essentially impossible. Infant mortality is almost unheard of. You can communicate with your family in seconds rather than days. Help is a click or phone call away, unlike any period in history. Travel is safer than it ever could have been in the times from the Silk Road to the golden age of Pirates in the Caribbean.

    Now is one of the best possible times to be alive. There is so much possibility. In a weird twist and curse of fate, it’s the sheer amount of time we have available to us – made possible my modern technology and advances – that we can concentrate our time on worry, risk, and the various effects of ists and isms.

    While there are definitely things to worry about – like crazy trans activists using the government to force surgeries on my kids – it’s preferable to being on a coastal village in the 10th century Britain and wondering if the Vikings were going to show up and if I and my family might survive.

    Like

  5. “Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,””

    This is an interesting point. One very pernicious effect of social media and the digital age in general is that so much bad news travels so fast, but many of the previous implicit rules of “journalism” still holds in that if it bleeds, it leads.

    “Bad news” travels so fast and captures our attention much more comprehensively than positive, good, ect news. In fact, I recall something about a study where social media users interact something like 30% more with bad news or posts that make them angry then posts that make them sad, glad, and positive.

    What people don’t realize – because they really don’t know much about history – is that we are likely living in one of the best times to be alive in contrast to prior history.

    There’s no Black plague and frequent possible death from viruses, diseases, ect. Your chance of being killed by an invading army is no longer around 25%. The chances of being killed in general via violent means is virtually nil for most people – even in groups that have the highest homicide victim percentages. The mongols aren’t at your door about to slaughter and raze your city to the ground. Your chance of starving in somewhere like the US is essentially impossible. Infant mortality is almost unheard of. You can communicate with your family in seconds rather than days. Help is a click or phone call away, unlike any period in history. Travel is safer than it ever could have been in the times from the Silk Road to the golden age of Pirates in the Caribbean.

    Now is one of the best possible times to be alive. There is so much possibility. In a weird twist and curse of fate, it’s the sheer amount of time we have available to us – made possible my modern technology and advances – that we can concentrate our time on worry, risk, and the various effects of ists and isms.

    While there are definitely things to worry about – like crazy trans activists using the government to force surgeries on my kids – it’s preferable to being on a coastal village in the 10th century Britain and wondering if the Vikings were going to show up and if I and my family might survive.

    It’s truly a great time to be alive.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s