We’re going to kick off today’s Cathedral Round-Up with a trip down memory lane.
This may come as some surprise, given my scintillating wit and gregarious nature, but I was not popular in school. If there was a social totem pole, I was a mud puddle about twenty yards to the left of the pole.
The first time I felt like I truly fit in–I belonged–was at nerd camp. This was a sort of summer camp your parents send you to when you’ve failed at Scouting and they hope maybe you’ll pick up chemistry or philosophy instead.
One evening, when I was gathered in the dorm with my new friends, a girl burst triumphantly into our midst, brandishing a book. “I have it,” she triumphed. “I have it! The book!”
The Book, which we all proceeded to read, and after camp ended, to discuss in what were my very first emails, was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The researchers found that during their informational presentations, the recruiters—no doubt in an attempt to bond with their audiences—frequently referenced “geek culture favorites” such as Star Trek and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, focused the conversation exclusively on highly technical aspects of the roles or referred to high school coding experience. …
In case you haven’t noticed or this is your first time visiting my humble blog, I am female. All of my friends at camp were female.
“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes, and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” the researchers write.
Dear Diversity Experts: In the words of the first real friend I ever had, please disembowel yourselves with a rusty spoon.
The study itself is not easily available online, so I will respectfully judge them based on summaries in HRE and Wired.
Short version: A couple of sociologist “gender researchers,” who of course know STEM culture very well, sat in on tech company recruiting sessions at Stanford and discovered that nerds talk about nerd things, OMG EWWW, and concluded that icky nerds doing their nerd thing in public is why women decide to go apply for more prestigious jobs elsewhere.
Now, I understand what it’s like not to get someone else’s references. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, NCIS, Sex in the City, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or the past X Starwars installments. I don’t watch sports, play golf, or drink alcohol.
But I don’t go around complaining that other people need to stop talking about things that interest them and just talk about stuff that interests me. It doesn’t bother me that other people have their interests, because I have plenty of room over here on my end of the internet to talk about mine.
But apparently these “Diversity Experts” think that the cultural icons of my childhood need to be expunged from conversation just to make people like them feel more comfortable.
Dear Correll and Wynn: when people like you stop assuming that everyone in your vicinity is interested in hearing about wine and yoga and golf, I’ll stop assuming that people who show some interest in my culture are interested in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Notice that the problem here is not that the women are being turned away, or discriminated against, or receiving fewer callbacks than male applicants. No, the problem is that the women think geek culture is icky and so don’t even bother to apply. They have decided that they have better options, but since someone decided that is imperative that all professions be 50% women (except plumbing, sewer workers, truckers, etc.) they must somehow be tricked into going into their second-choice field.
No one seems to have thought to, ahem, consult the actual women who work in Tech or who have STEM degrees or are otherwise associated with the field about whether or not they thought these sorts of geek cultural references were off-putting. No, we do not exist in Correll and Wynn’s world, or perhaps because our numbers are low, there just aren’t enough of us to matter.
STEM/tech exists in this weird limbo where women abstractly want more women in it, but don’t actually want to be the women in it. Take Wynn. She has a degree in English. She could have majored in Chemistry, but chose not to. Now she whines that there aren’t enough female engineers.
People routinely denigrate law and lawyers. Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, and people claim to hate lawyers, but lawyers themselves are treated with a great deal of courtesy and respect, and have no difficulties on the dating market.
STEM works inversely: people claim to hold scientists and mathematicians in great respect, but in practice they are much lower on the social totem pole. Lots of people would like good grades in math, but don’t want to hang out with the kid who does get good grades in math.
So feminists want women to be acknowledged as equally capable with men at things like “math” and “winning Nobel Prizes” and “becoming billionaire CEOS” (hey, I want those things, too,) but don’t want to do the grunt work that is most of what people in STEM fields actually do. They don’t want to spend their days around sweaty guys who talk about Linux kernels or running around as lab assistant #3. For a lot of people, tech jobs are not only kind of boring and frustrating, but don’t even pay that well, considering all of the education involved in getting them.
The result is a lot of concern trolling from people who claim to want more women in STEM, but don’t want to address the underlying problems for why most women aren’t all that interested in STEM in the first place.
Are there real problems for women in STEM? Maybe. I have female commentators who can tell you about the difficulties they’ve had in STEM communities. It is different being a female in a male-dominated field than being female in a balanced or female-dominated field, and this has its downsides. But “men said nerd things” or “men referenced porn” is not even remotely problematic. (I will note that men have problems in STEM fields, too.)
While we’re here, I’d like to talk about these “Diversity Experts” whom HRE cites as proof for their claims that women find geek culture off-putting. Their link heads not to a study on the subject, nor even an actual expert on anything, but an opinion piece by Kerry Flynn on Mashable:
The lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new issue, and yet top leaders in Silicon Valley still struggle to talk about it.
They struggle so much that this is an entire article about a female CEO talking about it. Talking openly about a thing is the same as struggling to talk about it, right?
The latest stumble comes from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking with MSNBC’s Ari Melber and Recode’s Kara Swisher at the media companies’ first town hall titled “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World,” which aired Sunday.
The latest stumble, ladies and gents! Wojcicki might be a female CEO of a tech giant, but what the hell does she know? Kerry Flynn knows much better than she does. Wojcicki had better shape up to Flynn’s standards, because Flynn is keeping track, ladies and gents.
According to Wojcicki, one reason for the lack of women in tech is its reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”
That kind of statement makes it seem like Wojcicki has forgotten about the diverse and minority perspectives that are fighting for representation in the industry. For instance, with the #IlLookLikeAnEngineer campaign, engineer Isis Wenger wrote about the sexism she faced working in tech and inspired a movement of women shutting down stereotypes.
See, women and minorities are trying to counter the perception of tech being a “very geeky male industry,” which Wojcicki obviously forgot about when she claimed that tech has a reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”
Kerry Flynn is very stupid.
The entire article goes on in this vein and it’s all awful. Nowhere does Flynn prove anything about women not liking The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.
What other interesting articles does Stanford Magazine hold for us?
So what happens when you send your kids to Stanford? Stanford Magazine has helpful interviews with recent grads. Yeji Jung got enmeshed in Social Justice, changed her major from pre-med to “comparative studies in race and ethnicity,” graduated, and went home to her parents to make collages.
I searched for Yeji Jung’s art, which is supposed to be making the world a better and more just place, and found almost nothing. This red cabbage and the lips in the Stanford Mag article are it. This does not look promising.
I bet her parents are very glad they worked their butts off for years making sure their kid got all As in her classes and aced SAT so she could come home from Stanford and paste paper together.
A quote from the article:
A thesis project to investigate the links between her Korean-American identity and the experiences of her Korean grandmothers took her to Seoul, South Korea, and Manassas, Va., to interview them in Korean.
Wait, you can get a degree from Stanford by interviewing your grandparents? Dude, I call my grandma every weekend! That should be worth at least a master’s.
“[My grandmothers’] lives are so deeply gendered in a way that I just have not experienced as someone who grew up in the U.S. One of my interview questions was framed as, ‘What did you study in college?’ [My grandmother in Virginia said,] ‘Oh, I didn’t go to college — girls in that day didn’t go to college. We went to work.’ That was a moment for me of, ‘Wow, I just have these assumptions about my life that are not a given.’
Girls in my grandmothers’ day went to college. Both of mine went to college. One of them earned a PhD in a STEM field; the other became a teacher. Teacher was a pretty common profession for women in my grandmother’s day. So was nurse.
I can take that a step further: my great-grandmother went to college.
Perhaps she meant was girls in Korea didn’t go to college in those days, though I’m sure Korea had needed plenty of nurses about 70 years ago, and frankly I’m not sure many men were going to college in those days.
I often idly wonder if elites push SJW nonsense to remove competitors. Yeji Jung is probably a very bright young woman who would have made an excellent doctor or medical researcher. Instead she has shuffled off to irrelevance.
Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.
But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.
Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?
It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.
But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.
Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:
The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.
… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”
… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”
In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.
Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.
He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.
A bit of summary:
Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …
Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.
Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.
But continuing with Nichols’s argument:
Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.
And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.
Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.
I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:
The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”
It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”
But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:
One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.
This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.
Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.
Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …
The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …
Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …
Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …
Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.
and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)
It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.
Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.
Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:
Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.
If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)
But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.
Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.
For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.
But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.
Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.
Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:
Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.
At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”
Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:
“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]
Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…
To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.
The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.
Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.
Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.
Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.
Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …
When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …
How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.
As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.
I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.
Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …
As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:
“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “
Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.
If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.
Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.
Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.
The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”
The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:
Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.
If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.
The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.
Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.
Looks like Dean Faust is stepping down and Lawrence Bacow is stepping up. Bacow has an S.B. in economics from MIT, a J.D. from Harvard Law, and an M.P.P. and Ph.D. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
I don’t know much about Bacow, but I’m sure I’ll learn once he takes over writing Faust’s column in Harvard Magazine. Overall he looks like a “safe” (ie dull) choice. His work at Tufts involved a expanding financial aid (Harvard already has extremely good financial aid, so there’s not much to do there) and diversity initiatives.
Harvard has a couple of other newcomers. Economist Bridget Terry Long will be the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Long’s CV is long (no pun intended) and filled with the sorts of awards and commiittee memberships appropriate to an Ivy League striver, like the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Long’s research focuses on getting more poor and dumb (excuse me, unprepared) students into college. I don’t have time to review her entire corpus, but I read her most recent paper, “Does Remediation Work for All Students? How the Effects of Postsecondary Remedial and Developmental Courses Vary by Level of Academic Preparation.” (Co-author: Angela Boatman.) The paper is fine, if rather oddly written (by my standards.)
[Results: placing borderline low-performing students into first-level remedial classes in the University of Tennessee system may be worse than just letting them try their best in regular courses; but really dumb kids actually do benefit from remedial courses. Obvious Conclusions that I didn’t see directly stated: Cut-off score for inclusion in remedial classes in U of Tenn system is too high.]
Long’s research looks fine; I don’t think it’s bad to look at whether a remedial program is actually helping students or whether a financial aid program is working (aside from my conviction that students who can’t do college-level work don’t belong in college.) It’s not exactly groundbreaking work, though. Harvard has plenty of folks like Reich and Pinker who are paving new intellectual (and technical ground); Long’s research seems underewhelming by comparison.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin has been tapped to lead the Radcliffe Institute. From Harvard Mag’s article about her:
Brown-Nagin, who holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in history from Duke, is best known for her contributions to the history of the civil-rights movement. Her 2011 book Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement won the Bancroft Prize for U.S. history, and is widely regarded as a definitive text on the legal and social history of civil rights in the United States. Her current book project explores the life of Constance Baker Motley, an African-American lawyer, judge, and politician who was an attorney in Brown v. Board of Education. …
Brown-Nagin is a sophisticated, nuanced thinker on the significance of diversity and representation in democratic institutions. In a recent Columbia Law Review article titled “Identity Matters: The Case of Judge Constance Baker Motley,” she wrote:
“Motley did endorse greater representation of women and racial minorities in the judiciary. Her argument for diversity on the bench did not turn on the view that women and people of color have a different voice or would reach different or better decisions than white men. Motley advocated judicial diversity because, she believed, inclusion reinforced democracy. By affirming openness and fairness, the mere presence of women and racial-minority judges built confidence in government. …”
Radcliffe is a women’s college that Harvard officially absorbed in 1999; the Radcliffe Institute came with it. According to Wikipedia:
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard shares transformative ideas across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The Institute comprises three programs:
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program annually supports the work of 50 artists and scholars, with an acceptance rate of around 5 percent each year.
The Academic Ventures program is for collaborative research projects and hosts lectures and conferences.
Yale Law is the most prestigious lawschool in the entire US (Harvard Law is probably #2). YL’s professors, therefore, are some of the US’s top legal scholars; it’s students are likely to go on to be important lawyers, judges, and opinion-makers.
If you’re wondering about the coat of arms, it was designed in 1956 as a pun on the original three founders’ names: Seth Staples, (BA, Yale, 1797), Judge David Daggett aka Doget, (BA 1783), and Samuel Hitchcock, (BA, 1809), whose name isn’t really a pun but he’s Welsh and when Welsh people cross the Atlantic, their dragon transforms into a crocodile. (The Welsh dragon has also been transformed into a crocodile on the Jamaican coat of arms.)
(For the sake of Yale’s staple-bearing coat of arms, let us hope that none of the founders were immoral in any way, as Harvard‘s were.)
Gideon Yaffe presents a theory of criminal responsibility according to which child criminals deserve leniency not because of their psychological, behavioural, or neural immaturity but because they are denied the vote. He argues that full shares of criminal punishment are deserved only by those who have a full share of say over the law.
He proposes that children are owed lesser punishments because they are denied the right to vote. This conclusion is reached through accounts of the nature of criminal culpability, desert for wrongdoing, strength of legal reasons, and what it is to have a say over the law. The heart of this discussion is the theory of criminal culpability.
To be criminally culpable, Yaffe argues, is for one’s criminal act to manifest a failure to grant sufficient weight to the legal reasons to refrain. The stronger the legal reasons, then, the greater the criminal culpability. Those who lack a say over the law, it is argued, have weaker legal reasons to refrain from crime than those who have a say, according to the book. They are therefore reduced in criminal culpability and deserve lesser punishment for their crimes. Children are owed leniency, then, because of the political meaning of age rather than because of its psychological meaning. This position has implications for criminal justice policy, with respect to, among other things, the interrogation of children suspected of crimes and the enfranchisement of adult felons. …
He holds an A.B. in philosophy from Harvard and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford.
I don’t think you need a degree in philosophy or law to realize that this is absolutely insane.
Even in countries where no one can vote, we still expect the government to try to do a good job of rounding up criminals so their citizens can live in peace, free from the fear of random violence. The notion that “murder is bad” wasn’t established by popular vote in the first place. Call it instinct, human nature, Natural Law, or the 6th Commandment–whatever it is, we all want murderers to be punished.
The point of punishing crime is 1. To deter criminals from committing crime; 2. To get criminals off the street; 3. To provide a sense of justice to those who have been harmed. These needs do not change depending on whether or not the person who committed the crime can vote. Why, if I wanted to commit a crime, should I hop the border into Canada and commit it there, then claim the Canadian courts should be lenient since I am not allowed to vote in Canada? Does the victim of a disenfranchised felon deserve less justice than the victim of someone who still had the right to vote?
Since this makes no sense at all from any sort of public safety or discouraging crime perspective, permit me a cynical theory: the author would like to lower the voting age, let immigrants (legal or not) vote more easily, and end disenfranchisement for felons.
The age of human rights has been kindest to the rich. Even as state violations of political rights garnered unprecedented attention due to human rights campaigns, a commitment to material equality disappeared. In its place, market fundamentalism has emerged as the dominant force in national and global economies. In this provocative book, Samuel Moyn analyzes how and why we chose to make human rights our highest ideals while simultaneously neglecting the demands of a broader social and economic justice. …
In the wake of two world wars and the collapse of empires, new states tried to take welfare beyond its original European and American homelands and went so far as to challenge inequality on a global scale. But their plans were foiled as a neoliberal faith in markets triumphed instead.
In a tightly-focused tour of the history of distributive ideals, Moyn invites a new and more layered understanding of the nature of human rights in our global present. From their origins in the Jacobin welfare state
Which chopped people’s heads off.
to our current neoliberal moment, Moyn tracks the subtle shifts in how human rights movements understood what, exactly, their high principles entailed.
Like not chopping people’s heads off?
Earlier visionaries imagined those rights as a call for distributive justice—a society which guaranteed a sufficient minimum of the good things in life. And they generally strove, even more boldly, to create a rough equality of circumstances, so that the rich would not tower over the rest.
By chopping their heads off.
Over time, however, these egalitarian ideas gave way. When transnational human rights became famous a few decades ago, they generally focused on civil liberties — or, at most sufficient provision.
Maybe because executing the kulaks resulted in mass starvation, which seems kind of counter-productive in the sense of minimum sufficient provision for human life.
In our current age of human rights, Moyn comments, the pertinence of fairness beyond some bare minimum has largely been abandoned.
By the way:
Huh. Why would anyone think that economic freedom and human well-being go hand-in-hand?
At the risk of getting Pinkerian, the age of “market fundamentalism” has involved massive improvements in human well-being, while every attempt to make society economically equal has caused mass starvation and horrible abuses against humans.
Moyn’s argument that we have abandoned “social justice” is absurd on its face; in the 1950s, the American south was still racially segregated; in the 1980s South Africa was still racially segregated. Today both are integrated and have had black presidents. In 1950, homosexuality was widely illegal; today gay marriage is legal in most Western nations. Even Saudi Arabia has decided to let women drive.
If we want to know why, absurdly, students believe that things have never been worse for racial minorities in America, maybe the answer is the rot starts from the top.
The first ruling dramatically stopped the unconstitutional Muslim ban in January 2017, when students from the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) mobilized overnight to ground planes and free travelers who were being unjustly detained. The students’ work, along with co-counsel, secured the first nationwide injunction against the ban, and became the template for an army of lawyers around the country who gathered at airports to provide relief as the chaotic aftermath of the executive order unfolded.
Next came a major ruling in California in November 2017 in which a federal Judge granted a permanent injunction that prohibited the Trump Administration from denying funding to sanctuary cities—a major victory for students in the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (SFALP) …
And on February 13, 2018, WIRAC secured yet another nationwide injunction—this time halting the abrupt termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). … The preliminary injunction affirms protections for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers just weeks before the program was set to expire.
The Rule of Law Clinic launched at Yale Law School in the Spring of 2017 and in less than one year has been involved in some of the biggest cases in the country, including working on the travel ban, the transgender military ban, and filing amicus briefs on behalf of the top national security officials in the country, among many other cases. The core goal of the clinic is to maintain U.S. rule of law and human rights commitments in four areas: national security, antidiscrimination, climate change, and democracy promotion.
Meanwhile, Amy Chua appears to be the only sane, honest person at Yale Law:
In her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (Penguin, 2018), Amy Chua diagnoses the rising tribalism in America and abroad and prescribes solutions for creating unity amidst group differences.
Chua, who is the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law, begins Political Tribes with a simple observation: “Humans are tribal.” But tribalism, Chua explains, encompasses not only an innate desire for belonging but also a vehement and sometimes violent “instinct to exclude.” Some groups organize for noble purposes, others because of a common enemy. In Chua’s assessment, the United States, in both foreign and domestic policies, has failed to fully understand the importance of these powerful bonds of group identity.
Unlike the students using their one-in-a-million chance at a Yale Law degree to help members of a different tribe for short-term gain, Amy Chua at least understands politics. I might not enjoy Chua’s company if I met her, but I respect her honesty and clear-sightedness.
Why Children Follow Rules focuses upon legal socialization outlining what is known about the process across three related, but distinct, contexts: the family, the school, and the juvenile justice system. Throughout, Tom Tyler and Rick Trinkner emphasize the degree to which individuals develop their orientations toward law and legal authority upon values connected to responsibility and obligation as opposed to fear of punishment. They argue that authorities can act in ways that internalize legal values and promote supportive attitudes. In particular, consensual legal authority is linked to three issues: how authorities make decisions, how they treat people, and whether they recognize the boundaries of their authority. When individuals experience authority that is fair, respectful, and aware of the limits of power, they are more likely to consent and follow directives.
Despite clear evidence showing the benefits of consensual authority, strong pressures and popular support for the exercise of authority based on dominance and force persist in America’s families, schools, and within the juvenile justice system. As the currently low levels of public trust and confidence in the police, the courts, and the law undermine the effectiveness of our legal system, Tom Tyler and Rick Trinkner point to alternative way to foster the popular legitimacy of the law in an era of mistrust.
Speaking as a parent… I understand where Tyler is coming from. If I act in a way that doesn’t inspire my children to see me as a fair, god-like arbitrator of justice, then they are more likely to see me as an unjust tyrant who should be disobeyed and overthrown.
On the other hand, sometimes things are against the rules for reasons kids don’t understand. One of my kids, when he was little, thought turning the dishwasher off was the funniest thing and would laugh all the way through timeout. Easy solution: I didn’t turn it on when he was in the room and he forgot. Tougher problem: one of the kids thought climbing on the stove to get to the microwave was a good idea. Time outs didn’t work. Explaining “the stove is hot sometimes” didn’t work. Only force solved this problem.
Some people will accept your authority. Some people can reason their way to “We should cooperate and respect the social contract so we can live in peace.” And some people DON’T CARE no matter what.
So I agree that police, courts, etc., should act justly and not abuse their powers, and I can pull up plenty of examples of cases where they did. But I am afraid this is not a complete framework for dealing with criminals and legal socialization.
Welcome to our final post of “Times the Experts were Wrong,” written in preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)
Part 3 Wars:
WWI, Iraq, Vietnam etc.
How many “experts” have lied to convince us to go to war? We were told we had to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction, but the promised weapons never materialized. Mother Jones (that source of all things pro-Trump) has a timeline:
November 1999: Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball”—a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs—enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intel officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intel on to senior policymakers. …
11/6/00: Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million; $18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales. …
Jan 2002: The FBI, which favors standard law enforcement interrogation practices, loses debate with CIA Director George Tenet, and Libi is transferred to CIA custody. Libi is then rendered to Egypt. “They duct-taped his mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo,” an FBI agent told reporters. … Under torture, Libi invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. …
Feb 2002: DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” …
9/7/02: Bush claims a new UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report states Iraq is six months from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no such report. …
9/8/02: Page 1 Times story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon cites anonymous administration officials saying Saddam has repeatedly tried to acquire aluminum tubes “specially designed” to enrich uranium. …
Tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”—Rice on CNN …
“We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.”—Cheney on Meet the Press
Oct 2002: National Intelligence Estimate produced. It warns that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities”—an assessment based largely on Curveball’s statements. But NIE also notes that the State Department has assigned “low confidence” to the notion of “whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.” Cites State Department experts who concluded that “the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.” Also says “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” are “highly dubious.” Only six senators bother to read all 92 pages. …
10/4/02: Asked by Sen. Graham to make gist of NIE public, Tenet produces 25-page document titled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It says Saddam has them and omits dissenting views contained in the classified NIE. …
2/5/03: In UN speech, Powell says, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Cites Libi’s claims and Curveball’s “eyewitness” accounts of mobile weapons labs. (German officer who supervised Curveball’s handler will later recall thinking, “Mein Gott!”) Powell also claims that Saddam’s son Qusay has ordered WMD removed from palace complexes; that key WMD files are being driven around Iraq by intelligence agents; that bioweapons warheads have been hidden in palm groves; that a water truck at an Iraqi military installation is a “decontamination vehicle” for chemical weapons; that Iraq has drones it can use for bioweapons attacks; and that WMD experts have been corralled into one of Saddam’s guest houses. All but the last of those claims had been flagged by the State Department’s own intelligence unit as “WEAK.”
I’m not going to quote the whole article, so if you’re fuzzy on the details, go read the whole darn thing.
If you had access to the actual documents from the CIA, DIA, British intelligence, interrogators, etc., you could have figured out that the “experts” were not unanimously behind the idea that Iraq was developing WMDs, but we mere plebes were dependent on what the government, Fox, and CNN told us the “experts” believed.
For the record, I was against the Iraq War from the beginning. I’m not sure what Nichols’s original position was, but in Just War, Not Prevention (2003) Nichols argued:
More to the point, Iraq itself long ago provided ample justifications for the United States and its allies to go to war that have nothing to do with prevention and everything to do with justice. To say that Saddam’s grasping for weapons of mass destruction is the final straw, and that it is utterly intolerable to allow Saddam or anyone like to gain a nuclear weapon, is true but does not then invalidate every other reason for war by subsuming them under some sort of putative ban on prevention.
The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor… a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians, a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the therms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty … a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.
Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime … but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. ..
Those concerned that the United States is about to revise the international status quo might conside that Western inaction will allow the status quo to be revised in any case, only under the gun of a dictator commanding an arsenal of the most deadly materials on earthy. These are the two alternatives, and sadly, thee is no third choice.
Professor Nichols, I would like to pause here.
First: you think Trump is bad, you support the President under whom POWs were literally tortured, and you call yourself a military ethicist?
Second: you, an expert, bought into this “WMD” story (invented primarily by “Curveball,” an unreliable source,) while I, a mere plebe, knew it was a load of garbage.
Third: while I agree Saddam Hussein killed a hell of a lot of people–according to Wikipedia, Human Rights Watch estimates a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed or “disappeared” in the last 25 years of Ba’th party rule, the nine years of the Iraq war killed 150,000 to 460,000 people (depending on which survey you trust,) and based on estimates from the Iraq Body Count, a further 100,000 have died since then. Meanwhile, instability in Iraq allowed the horrifically violent ISIS to to sprout into existence. I Am Syria (I don’t know if they are reliable) estimates that over half a million Syrians have died so far because of the ISIS-fueled civil war rampaging there.
In other words, we unleashed a force that is twice as bad as Saddam in less than half the time–and paid a lovely 2.4 TRILLION dollars to accomplish this humanitarian feat! For that much money you could have just evacuated all of the Kurds and built them their own private islands to live on. You could have handed out $90,000 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq in exchange for “being friends with the US” and still had $150 BILLION left over to invest in things like “cancer treatments for children” and “highspeed rail infrastructure.”
Seriously, you could have spent the entire 2.4 trillion on hookers and blow and we would have still come out ahead.
It’s asking a group of candidates to re-enact a presidential order given 12 years ago, while Hillary Clinton isn’t even being asked about decisions in which she took part, much less about her husband’s many military actions. …
Instead, Republican candidates should change the debate. Leadership is not about what people would do with perfect information; it’s about what people do when faced with danger and uncertainty. So here’s an answer that every Republican, from Paul to Bush, could give:
“Knowing exactly what we know now, I would not have invaded when we did or in the way we did. But I do not regret that we deposed a dangerous maniac like Saddam Hussein, and I know the world is better for it. What I or George Bush or anyone else would have done with better information is irrelevant now, because the next president has to face the world as it is, not as we would like to imagine it. And that’s all I intend to say about second-guessing a tough foreign-policy decision from 12 years ago, especially since we should have more pressing questions about foreign policy for Hillary Clinton that are a lot more recent than that.”
While I agree that Hillary should have been questioned about her own military decisions, Iraq was a formally declared war that the entire Republican establishment, think tanks, newspapers, and experts like you supported. They did such a convincing job of selling the war that even most of the Democratic establishment got on board, though never quite as enthusiastically.
By contrast, there was never any real Democratic consensus on whether Obama should remove troops or increase troops, on whether Hillary should do this or that in Libya. Obama and Hillary might have hideously bungled things, but there was never enthusiastic, party-wide support for their policies.
This makes it very easy for any Dem to distance themselves from previous Dem policies: “Yeah, looks like that was a big whoopsie. Luckily half our party knew that at the time.”
But for better or worse, the Republicans–especially the Bushes–own the Iraq War.
The big problem here is not that the Republican candidates (aside from Trump and Rand Paul) were too dumb to come up with a good response to the question (though that certainly is a problem.) The real problem is that none of them had actually stopped to take a long, serious look at the Iraq War, ask whether it was a good idea, and then apologize.
The Iraq War deeply discredited the Republican party.
Ask yourself: What did Bush conserve? What have I conserved? Surely being a “conservative” means you want to conserve something, so what was it? Iraqi freedom? Certainly not. Mid East stability? Nope. American lives? No. American tax dollars? Definitely not.
The complete failure of the Republicans to do anything good while squandering 2.4 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives is what triggered the creation of the “alt” right and set the stage for someone like Trump–someone willing to make a formal break with past Republican policies on Iraq–to rise to power.
In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die.
Her story was initially corroborated by Amnesty International and testimony from evacuees. Following the liberation of Kuwait, reporters were given access to the country. An ABC report found that “patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors… fled” but Iraqi troops “almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die.”
Kuwaiti babies died because Kuwaiti doctors and nurses abandoned them. Maybe the “experts” at the UN and in the US government should vet their sources a little better (like actually find out their last names) before starting wars based on the testimony of children?
And then there was Vietnam. Cold War “experts” were certain it was very important for us to spend billions of dollars in the 1950s to prop of the French colony in Indochina. When the French gave up, fighting the war somehow became America’s problem. The Cold War doctrine of the “Domino Theory” held that the loss of even one obscure, third-world country to Communism would unleash an unstoppable chain-reaction of global Soviet conquest, and thus the only way to preserve democracy anywhere in the world was to oppose communism wherever it emerged.
Of course, one could not be a Cold War “expert” in 1955, as we had never fought a Cold War before. This bi-polar world lead by a nuclear-armed communist faction on one side and a nuclear-armed democratic faction on the other was entirely new.
Atop the difficulties of functioning within an entirely novel balance of powers (and weapons), almost no one in America spoke Vietnamese (and no one in Vietnam spoke English) in 1955. We couldn’t even ask the Vietnamese what they thought. At best, we could play a game of telephone with Vietnamese who spoke French and translators who spoke French and English, but the Vietnamese who had learned the language of their colonizers were not a representative sample of average citizens.
In other words, we had no idea what we were getting into.
I lost family in Vietnam, so maybe I take this a little personally, but I don’t think American soldiers exist just to enrich Halliburton or protect French colonial interests. And you must excuse me, but I think you “experts” grunting for war have an extremely bad track record that involves people in my family getting killed.
While we are at it, what is the expert consensus on Russiagate?
At the same time, there is a growing consensus among reporters and thinkers on the left and right—especially those who know anything about Russia, the surveillance apparatus, and intelligence bureaucracy—that the Russiagate-collusion theory that was supposed to end Trump’s presidency within six months has sprung more than a few holes. Worse, it has proved to be a cover for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracies to break the law, with what’s left of the press gleefully going along for the ride. Where Watergate was a story about a crime that came to define an entire generation’s oppositional attitude toward politicians and the country’s elite, Russiagate, they argue, has proved itself to be the reverse: It is a device that the American elite is using to define itself against its enemies—the rest of the country.
Yet for its advocates, the questionable veracity of the Russiagate story seems much less important than what has become its real purpose—elite virtue-signaling. Buy into a storyline that turns FBI and CIA bureaucrats and their hand-puppets in the press into heroes while legitimizing the use of a vast surveillance apparatus for partisan purposes, and you’re in. Dissent, and you’re out, or worse—you’re defending Trump.
“Russia done it, all the experts say so” sounds suspiciously like a great many other times “expert opinion” has been manipulated by the government, industry, or media to make it sound like expert consensus exists where it does not.
Let’s look at a couple of worst case scenarios:
Nichols and his ilk are right, but we ignore his warnings, overlook a few dastardly Russian deeds, and don’t go to war with Russia.
Nichols is wrong, but we trust him, blame Russia for things it didn’t do, and go to war with a nuclear superpower.
But let’s look at our final fail:
Failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union
This is kind of an ironic, given that Nichols is a Sovietologist, but one of the continuing questions in Political Science is “Why didn’t political scientists predict the fall of the Soviet Union?”
In retrospect, of course, we can point to the state of the Soviet economy, or glasnost, or growing unrest and dissent among Soviet citizens, but as Foreign Policy puts it:
In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. …
Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse may in part be attributed to a sort of historical revisionism — call it anti-anti-communism — that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime’s stability and legitimacy.Yet others who could hardly be considered soft on communism were just as puzzled by its demise. One of the architects of the U.S. strategy in the Cold War, George Kennan, wrote that, in reviewing the entire “history of international affairs in the modern era,” he found it “hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance … of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”
I don’t think this is Political Science’s fault–even the Soviets don’t seem to have really seen it coming. Some things are just hard to predict.
Sometimes we overestimate our judgment. We leap before we look. We think there’s evidence where there isn’t or that the evidence is much stronger than it is.
And in the cases I’ve selected, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Maybe Vietnam was a worthwhile conflict, even if it was terrible for everyone involved. Maybe the Iraq War served a real purpose.
WWI was still a complete disaster. There is no logic where that war makes any sense at all.
When you advocate for war, step back a moment and ask how sure you are. If you were going to be the canon fodder down on the front lines, would you still be so sure? Or would you be the one suddenly questioning the experts about whether this was really such a good idea?
Professor Nichols, if you have read this, I hope it has given you some food for thought.
Welcome back. In preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, I have made a list of “times the experts were wrong.” Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)
Part 2: Law, Academia, and Science
If you’ve had any contact with the court system, you’re probably familiar with the use of “expert testimony.” Often both sides of a case bring in their own experts who give their expert testimony on the case–by necessity, contradictory testimony. For example, one expert in a patent case may testify that his microscopy data shows one thing, while a second testifies that in fact a proper analysis of his microscopy data actually shows the opposite. The jury is then asked to decide which expert’s analysis is correct.
If it sounds suspicious that both sides in a court case can find an “expert” to testify that their side is correct, that’s because it is. Take, for example, the government’s expert testimony in the trial of Mr. Carlos Simon-Timmerman, [note: link takes you to AVN, a site of questionable work-friendliness] accused of possessing child pornography:
“When trial started,” said Ramos-Vega, “the government presented the Lupe DVD and a few other images from the other DVDs that the government understood were also of child pornography. The government presented the testimony of a Special Agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deals with child pornography and child exploitation cases. She testified that Lupe was ‘definitely’ under 18. The government then presented the testimony of a pediatrician who testified that she was 100 percent sure that Lupe was underage.”
The experts, ladies and gents.
After the prosecution rested its case, it was Ramos-Vega’s turn to present witnesses.
“The first witness we called was Lupe,” he said. “She took the stand and despite being very nervous testified so well and explained to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that she was 19 years old when she performed in the videos for littlelupe.com. She also allowed us to present into evidence copies of her documents showing her date of birth.”
So the Customs Special Agent and the pediatrician were both LYING UNDER OATH about the age of a porn star in order to put an innocent man in prison. There were multiple ways they could have confirmed Lupe’s age (such as checking with her official porn star information on file in the US, because apparently that’s an official thing that exists for exactly this purpose,) or contacting Lupe herself like Mr. Simon-Timmerman’s lawyer did.
The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” …
“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” …
Santae Tribble served 28 years for a murder based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog.
Professor Nichols, you want to know, I assume, why we plebes are so distrustful of experts like you. Put yourself, for a moment, in the feet of an ordinary person accused of a crime. You don’t have a forensics lab. Your budget for expert witnesses is pretty limited. Your lawyer is likely a public defender.
Do you trust that these experts are always right, even though they are often hired by people who have a lot more money than you do? Do you think there is no way these experts could be biased toward the people paying them, or that the side with more money to throw at experts and its own labs could produce more evidence favorable to itself than the other?
Now let’s expand our scope: how do you think ordinary people think about climate scientists, medical drug studies, or military intelligence? Unlike drug companies, we commoners don’t get to hire our own experts. Do you think Proctor and Gamble never produces research that is biased toward its own interests? Of course; that’s why researchers have to disclose any money they’ve received from drug companies.
From the poor man’s perspective, it looks like all research is funded by rich men, and none by poor men. It is sensible to worry, therefore, that the results of this research are inherently biased toward those who already have plenty of status and wealth.
The destruction of expertise: “Studies” Departments
Here is a paper published in a real, peer-reviewed academic journal:
The hope for multicultural, culturally competent, and diverse perspectives in science education falls short if theoretical considerations of whiteness are not entertained. [Entertained by whom?] Since whiteness is characterized [by whom?] as a hegemonic racial dominance that has become so natural it is almost invisible, this paper identifies how whiteness operates in science education such that [awkward; “to such an extent that”] it falls short of its goal for cultural diversity. [“Cultural diversity” is not one of science education’s goals] Because literature in science education [Which literature? Do you mean textbooks?] has yet to fully entertain whiteness ideology, this paper offers one of the first theoretical postulations [of what?]. Drawing from the fields of education, legal studies, and sociology, [but not science?] this paper employs critical whiteness studies as both a theoretical lens and an analytic tool to re-interpret how whiteness might impact science education. Doing so allows the field to reconsider benign, routine, or normative practices and protocol that may influence how future scientists of Color experience the field. In sum, we seek to have the field consider the theoretical frames of whiteness and how it [use “whiteness” here instead of “it” because there is no singular object for “it” to refer to in this sentence] might influence how we engage in science education such that [“to such an extent that”] our hope for diversity never fully materializes.
Apologies for the red pen; you might think that someone at the “School of Education” could write a grammatical sentence and the people publishing peer-reviewed journals would employ competent editors, but apparently not.
If these are “experts,” then expertise is dead with a stake through its heart.
But the paper goes on!
The resounding belief that science is universal and objective hides the reality that whiteness has shaped the scientific paradigm.
See, you only think gravity pulls objects toward the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/second^2 because you’re white. When black people drop objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, they fall 10m/s^2. Science textbooks and educators only teaching the white rate and refusing to teach the black rate is why no black nation has successfully launched a man into space.
Our current discourse believes that science and how we approach experimentation and constructing scientific explanations is unbiased, and on the surface, it may seem justified (Kelly 2014). However, this way of knowing science in the absence of other ways of knowing only furthers whiteness an White supremacy through power and control of science knowledge. As a result, our students of Color are victims of deculturization, and their own worldviews are invalidated, such as described by Ladson-Bilings (1998a).
For example, some Aboriginal people in Australia believe that cancer is caused by curses cast by other people or a spiritual punishment for some misdeed the sufferer committed. Teaching them that cancer is caused by mutated cells that have begun reproducing out of control and can’t be caused by a curse is thus destroying a part of their culture. Since all cultures are equally valuable, we must teach that the Aboriginal theory of cancer-curses and the white theory of failed cellular apoptosis are equally true.
Or Le and Matias are full of shit. Le doesn’t have his PhD, yet, so he isn’t an official expert, but Matias is a professor with a CV full of published, peer-reviewed articles on similar themes.
Every single degree awarded paper published on such garbage degrades the entire concept of “experts.” Sure, Nichols is a professor–and so is Matias. As far as our official system for determining expertise, Nichols, Matias, and Stephen Hawing are all “experts.”
Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children.
White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.
(Oh, look, someone discovered regression to the mean.)
You don’t need an “expert” to tell you that black men might get discriminated against.
How do you become an “expert” in anti-racism? Do you have to pass the implicit bias test? Get a degree in anti-racist studies?
Do you think, for whatever reason, that a guy who gets paid to do anti-racist research might come up with “racism” as an answer to almost any question posed?
“The guy who gets paid to say that racism is the answer said the answer is racism” does not actually prove that racism is the answer, but it is being presented like it does.
Blue check has failed to mention any obvious counters, like:
a. Mysteriously, this “racism” only affects black men and not black women (this is why we’ve had a black female president but not a black male one, right?)
b. Regression to the mean is a thing and we can measure it (shortly: The further you are from average for your group on any measure [height, intelligence, income, number of Daleks collected, etc.,] the more likely your kids are to be closer to average than you are. [This is why the kids of Nobel prize winners, while pretty smart on average, are much less likely to win Nobels than their parents.] Since on average blacks make a lot less money than whites, any wealthy black family is significantly further from the average black income than a white family with the same amount of money is from the average white income. Therefore at any high income level, we expect black kids to regress harder toward the black mean than white kids raised at the same level. La Griffe du Lion [a statistics expert] has an article that goes into much more depth and math on regression to the mean and its relevance.)
c. Crime rates. Black men commit more crime than black women or white men, and not only does prison time cut into employment, but most employers don’t want to employ people who’ve committed a crime. This makes it easier for black women to get jobs and build up wealth than black men. (The article itself does mention that “The sons of black families from the top 1 percent had about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000,” but yeah, it’s probably just totally irrational discrimination keeping black men out of jobs.)
“Experts” like this get used to trot a simple, narrative-supporting line that the paper wants to make rather than give any real or uncomfortable analysis of a complex issue. It’s dishonest reporting and contributes to the notion that “expert” doesn’t mean all that much.
Tetraethyllead (aka lead) was added to automobile fuels beginning in the 1920s to raise fuel economy–that is, more miles per gallon. For half a century, automobiles belched brain-damaging lead into the atmosphere, until the Clean Air Act in the 70s forced gas companies to cut back.
Plenty of people knew lead is poisonous–we’ve known that since at least the time of the Romans–so how did it end up in our gas? Well, those nice scientists over at the auto manufacturers reassured us that lead in gasoline was perfectly safe, and then got themselves on a government panel intended to evaluate the safety of leaded gas and came to the same conclusion. Wired has a thorough history:
But fearing that such [anti-leaded gas] measures would spread, … the manufacturing companies demanded that the federal government take over the investigation and develop its own regulations. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican and small-government conservative, moved rapidly in favor of the business interests.
… In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley [the inventor of leaded gas] published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged a minor health risk at most, insisting that the use of lead compounds,”compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”
It was obvious in advance that he’d basically written the conclusion of the federal task force. That panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely. It had no place for Alexander Gettler or Charles Norris [scientists critical of leaded gas] or, in fact, anyone from any city where sales of the gas had been banned, or any agency involved in the producing that first critical analysis of tetraethyl lead.
In January 1926, the public health service released its report which concluded that there was “no danger” posed by adding TEL to gasoline…”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.
The task force did look briefly at risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. The researchers had indeed found lead residues in dusty corners of garages. In addition, all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists announced. After all, none of the test subjects showed the extreme behaviors and breakdowns associated with places like the looney gas building. And the worker problem could be handled with some protective gear.
I’m not sure how many people were killed globally by leaded gas, but Wired notes:
It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease.
The UN estimates that the elimination of lead in gas and paint has added 2.4 trillion, annually, the global economy.
Leaded gas is a good example of a case where many experts did know it was poisonous (as did many non-experts,) but this wasn’t the story the public heard.
Yes, this one is silly, but I have relatives who keep bringing it up. “Scientists used to say there are 9 planets, but now they say there are only 8! Scientists change what they think all the time!”
Congratulations, astronomers, they think you lost Pluto. Every single time I try to discuss science with these people, they bring up Pluto. Scientific consensus is meaningless in a world where planets just disappear. “Whoops! We miscounted!”
(No one ever really questioned Pluto’s planetary status before it was changed, but a few die-hards refuse to accept the new designation.)
Scientists weren’t actually wrong about Pluto (“planet” is just a category scientists made up and that they decided to redefine to make it more useful,) but the matter confused people and it seemed like scientific consensus was arbitrary and could change unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, normal people who don’t have close contact with science or scientists often struggle to understand exactly what science is and how it advances. They rely, sporadically, on intermediaries like The History Chanel or pop science journalists to explain it to them, and these guys like to run headlines like “5 things Albert Einstein got Totally Wrong” (haha that Albert, what a dummy, amirite?)
So when you question why people distrust experts like you, Professor Nichols, consider whether the other “experts” they’ve encountered have been trustworthy or even correct, or if they’ve been liars and shills.
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.
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?
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.
A Memorial to the Enslaved People Who Enabled the Founding of Harvard Law School
On a clear, windy afternoon in early September at the opening of its bicentennial observance, Harvard Law School unveiled a memorial on campus. The plaque, affixed to a large stone, reads:
In honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School
May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory
Harvard Law School was founded in 1817, with a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr. Royall’s wealth was derived from the labor of enslaved people on a sugar plantation he owned on the island of Antigua and on farms he owned in Massachusetts.
“We have placed this memorial here, in the campus cross-roads, at the center of the school, where everyone travels, where it cannot be missed,” said HLS Dean John Manning ’85. …
Harvard University President Drew Faust… also spoke at the unveiling, which followed a lecture focused on the complicated early history of the school.
“How fitting that you should begin your bicentennial,” said Faust, “with this ceremony reminding us that the path toward justice is neither smooth nor straight.” …
Halley, holder of the Royall Professorship of Law, who has spoken frequently about the Royall legacy, read aloud the names of enslaved men, women, and children of the Royall household from records that have survived, “so that we can all share together the shock of the sheer number, she said, “and a brief shared experience of their loss.”
“These names are the tattered, ruined remains, the accidents of recording and the encrustation of a system that sought to convert human beings into property,’ she said “But they’re our tattered remains.”
This commemorative issue also contains an interview with ImeIme Umana, Harvard Law Review’s 131st president, “How Have Harvard Scholars Shaped the Law?”:
How has legal scholarship changed since the Law Review began publishing more than a century ago?
Scholarship certainly has changed over time, and these pieces, whether or not they acknowledge it to a great extent, are consistent with the changing nature of the legal field in that they bring more voices to the table and more diverse perspectives. If you look back at our older scholarship, you’ll tend to see more traditional, doctrinal, technical pieces. now, they’re more aspirational, more critical, and have more social commentary in them. It’s a distinction between writing on what the law is and writing on what the law should be, and asking why things are the way they are.
What Kind of scholarship do you find especially meaningful?
I’m really passionate about the sate of the criminal legal system and civil rights. The cherry on top within those topics is scholarship that proposes new ways of thinking or challenges the status quo.
One of my favorite articles is [Assistant] Professor Andrew Crespo’s “Systemic Facts” [published in the June 2016 Harvard Law Review], because it does just that. The thesis is that courts are institutionally positioned to bring about systemic change, and that they can use their position to collect facts that they are institutionally privy to. It calls on them to do that such that we might learn more about how the legal system is structured.
I’ve noticed the increased emphasis on criminal law lately, especially bail reform.
The Law Review was founded 130 years ago, and now you are its president. Do you ever get caught up in thinking about the historical implications of running such a well-known and influential publication?
… Looking at it through a historical lens, the diversity of the student body and Law Review editors and authors is especially meaningful, as it makes legal institutions more inclusive, and therefore the law more inclusive. It’s important to keep pushing in that direction and never become complacent. The history is very important.
You are the first black woman who was elected to serve as president of the Law Review. Why do you think it took so long for that to happen?
Ive thought about it a lot and I just don’t know the answer. My thought is that it just tracks the lack of inclusion of black women in legal institutions, full stop. It’s a function of that. There’ always more we can be doing to be more inclusive. The slowness of milestones like this might have a broader cause than just something specific to the Law Review.
It probably tracks closer to the inclusion of Nigerian women at Harvard than black women. Umana is Nigerian American, and Nigerian Americans score significantly better on the SAT and LSAT than African Americans. (Based on average incomes, Nigerian Americans do better than white Americans, too.) So I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that significant black firsts at HLR are due to the arrival of more Nigerian and Kenyan immigrants, rather than the integration of America’s African American community.
While reading about ImeIme Umana, I noticed that American publications–such as NBC News–describe her as a “native” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By contrast, Financial Nigeria proudly claims her as a “Nigerian American”:
Born to Nigerian immigrant parents originally from Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria, Umana is a resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, United States. Umana graduated with a BA in Joint Concentration in African American Studies and Government from Harvard University in 2014. She is currently working on a Doctor of Law degree (Class of 2018) at the Harvard Law School.
The issue is full of fascinating older photographs with minimalist captions, because the graphic design team prefers white space over information.
For example, on page 58 is a photo of a collection of students and older men (is that Judge Learned Hand in the first row?) captioned simply 1926 and “Stepping up: by 1925, lawyers could pursue graduate degrees (LL.M.s and S.J.D.s) at HLS.
<- Seated in the front row is this man. Who is he? Quick perusal of a list of famous Indians reveals only that he isn’t any of them.
There is also an Asian man seated directly behind him whose photo I’ll post below. You might think, in our diversity obsessed age, when we track the first black editor of this and first black female head of that, someone would be curious enough about these men to tell us their stories. Who were they? How did they get to Harvard Law?
After some searching and help from @prius_1995, I think the Indian man is Dr. Kashi Narayan Malaviya, S.J.D. HLS 1926, and the Asian man is Domingo Tiongco Zavalla, LL.M. 1927, from the Philippines. (If you are curious, here are the relevant class lists.)
In Allahabad, during a meeting attended by Uma Nehru, Hriday Nath Kunzru and Dr. Kashi Narayan Malaviya, M. K. Acharya made the link between the politics of the nation and the plight of Hinduism very clear…
(Unfortunately, it appears that he has a more famous relative named Madan Mohan Malaviya, who is coming up in the search results. His great-grandson is single, however, if any of you ladies are looking for a Brahmin husband.)
Steven Pinker recently gave a short speech at Harvard (where he works) on how hearing certain facts without accompanying leftist counter-arguments causes people to become “infected” with right-wing thoughts:
The difference between Pinker and the Left is that Pinker is (trying) to be honest. Pinker believes in truth. He believes in believing true things and discussing true things. He believes that just because you believe a true thing doesn’t mean you have to go down this road to believing other, in his opinion untrue, things. You can believe more than one true thing. You can simultaneously believe “Blacks commit more homicide than whites” and believe “Blacks should not be discriminated against.”
By contrast, the Left is not trying to be honest. It is not looking for truth. It just wants to win. The Left does not want people to know that crime stats vary by race, that men and women vary in average interests and aptitudes, that communism is an atrociously bad economic system. Merely saying, “Hey, there are things you can’t say out loud without provoking a very loud controversy from the left,” has provoked… a very loud controversy from the left:
The Left is abusing one of its own because merely saying these things out loud is seen as a betrayal of Leftist goals.
And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ —George Orwel, 1984
I was really excited about this book when I picked it up at the library. It has the word “numbers” on the cover and a subtitle that implies a story about human cultural and cognitive evolution.
Regrettably, what could have been a great books has turned out to be kind of annoying. There’s some fascinating information in here–for example, there’s a really interesting part on pages 249-252–but you have to get through pages 1-248 to get there. (Unfortunately, sometimes authors put their most interesting bits at the end so that people looking to make trouble have gotten bored and wandered off by then.)
I shall try to discuss/quote some of the book’s more interesting bits, and leave aside my differences with the author (who keeps reiterating his position that mathematical ability is entirely dependent on the culture you’re raised in.) Everett nonetheless has a fascinating perspective, having actually spent much of his childhood in a remote Amazonian village belonging to the Piraha, who have no real words for numbers. (His parents were missionaries.)
Which languages contain number words? Which don’t? Everett gives a broad survey:
“…we can reach a few broad conclusions about numbers in speech. First, they are common to nearly all of the world’s languages. … this discussion has shown that number words, across unrelated language, tend to exhibit striking parallels, since most languages employ a biologically based body-part model evident in their number bases.”
That is, many languages have words that translate essentially to “One, Two, Three, Four, Hand, … Two hands, (10)… Two Feet, (20),” etc., and reflect this in their higher counting systems, which can end up containing a mix of base five, 10, and 20. (The Romans, for example, used both base five and ten in their written system.)
“Third, the linguistic evidence suggests not only that this body-part model has motivated the innovation of numebers throughout the world, but also that this body-part basis of number words stretches back historically as far as the linguistic data can take us. It is evident in reconstruction of ancestral languages, including Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Autronesian, and Proto-Indo-European, the languages whose descendant tongues are best represented in the world today.”
Note, though, that linguistics does not actually give us a very long time horizon. Proto-Indo-European was spoken about 4-6,000 years ago. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is not as well studied yet as PIE, but also appears to be at most 6,000 years old. Proto-Niger-Congo is probably about 5-6,000 years old. Proto-Austronesian (which, despite its name, is not associated with Australia,) is about 5,000 years old.
These ranges are not a coincidence: languages change as they age, and once they have changed too much, they become impossible to classify into language families. Older languages, like Basque or Ainu, are often simply described as isolates, because we can’t link them to their relatives. Since humanity itself is 200,000-300,000 years old, comparative linguistics only opens a very short window into the past. Various groups–like the Amazonian tribes Everett studies–split off from other groups of humans thousands 0r hundreds of thousands of years before anyone started speaking Proto-Indo-European. Even agriculture, which began about 10,000-15,000 years ago, is older than these proto-languages (and agriculture seems to have prompted the real development of math.)
I also note these language families are the world’s biggest because they successfully conquered speakers of the world’s other languages. Spanish, Portuguese, and English are now widely spoken in the Americas instead of Cherokee, Mayan, and Nheengatu because Indo-European language speakers conquered the speakers of those languages.
The guy with the better numbers doesn’t always conquer the guy with the worse numbers–the Mongol conquest of China is an obvious counter. But in these cases, the superior number system sticks around, because no one wants to replace good numbers with bad ones.
In general, though, better tech–which requires numbers–tends to conquer worse tech.
Which means that even though our most successful language families all have number words that appear to be about 4-6,000 years old, we shouldn’t assume this was the norm for most people throughout most of history. Current human numeracy may be a very recent phenomenon.
“The invention of number is attainable by the human mind but is attained through our fingers. Linguistic data, both historical and current, suggest that numbers in disparate cultures have arisen independently, on an indeterminate range of occasions, through the realization that hands can be used to name quantities like 5 and 10. … Words, our ultimate implements for abstract symbolization, can thankfully be enlisted to denote quantities. But they are usually enlisted only after people establish a more concrete embodied correspondence between their finger sand quantities.”
Some more on numbers in different languages:
“Rare number bases have been observed, for instance, in the quaternary (base-4) systems of Lainana languages of California, or in the senary (base-6) systems that are found in southern New Guinea. …
Several languages in Melanesia and Polynesia have or once had number system that vary in accordance with the type of object being counted. In the case of Old High Fijian, for instance, the word for 100 was Bola when people were counting canoes, but Kora when they were counting coconuts. …
some languages in northwest Amazonia base their numbers on kinship relationships. This is true of Daw and Hup two related language in the region. Speakers of the former languages use fingers complemented with words when counting from 4 to 10. The fingers signify the quantity of items being counted, but words are used to denote whether the quantity is odd or even. If the quantity is even, speakers say it “has a brother,” if it is odd they state it “has no brother.”
What about languages with no or very few words for numbers?
In one recent survey of limited number system, it was found that more than a dozen languages lack bases altogether, and several do not have words for exact quantities beyond 2 and, in some cases, beyond 1. Of course, such cases represent a miniscule fraction of the world’s languages, the bulk of which have number bases reflecting the body-part model. Furthermore, most of the extreme cases in question are restricted geographically to Amazonia. …
All of the extremely restricted languages, I believe, are used by people who are hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists, eg, the Munduruku. Hunter gatherers typically don’t have a lot of goods to keep track of or trade, fields to measure or taxes to pay, and so don’t need to use a lot of numbers. (Note, however, that the Inuit/Eskimo have a perfectly normal base-20 counting system. Their particularly harsh environment appears to have inspired both technological and cultural adaptations.) But why are Amazonian languages even less numeric than those of other hunter-gatherers from similar environments, like central African?
Famously, most of the languages of Australia have somewhat limited number system, and some linguists previously claimed that most Australian language slack precise terms for quantities beyond 2…. [however] many languages on that continent actually have native means of describing various quantities in precise ways, and their number words for small quantities can sometimes be combined to represent larger quantities via the additive and even multiplicative usage of bases. …
Of the nearly 200 Australian languages considered in the survey, all have words to denote 1 and 2. In about three-quarters of the languages, however, the highest number is 3 or 4. Still, may of the languages use a word for “two” as a base for other numbers. Several of the languages use a word for “five” as a base, an eight of the languages top out at a word for “ten.”
Everett then digresses into what initially seems like a tangent about grammatical number, but luckily I enjoy comparative linguistics.
In an incredibly comprehensive survey of 1,066 languages, linguist Matthew Dryer recently found that 98 of them are like Karitiana and lack a grammatical means of marking nouns of being plural. So it is not particularly rare to find languages in which numbers do not show plurality. … about 90% of them, have a grammatical means through which speakers can convey whether they are talking about one or more than one thing.
Mandarin is a major language that has limited expression of plurals. According to Wikipedia:
Some languages, such as modern Arabic and Proto-Indo-European also have a “dual” category distinct from singular or plural; an extremely small set of languages have a trial category.
Many languages also change their verbs depending on how many nouns are involved; in English we say “He runs; they run;” languages like Latin or Spanish have far more extensive systems.
In sum: the vast majority of languages distinguish between 1 and more than one; a few distinguish between one, two, and many, and a very few distinguish between one, two, three, and many.
From the endnotes:
… some controversial claims of quadral markers, used in restricted contexts, have been made for the Austronesian languages Tangga, Marshallese, and Sursurunga. .. As Corbett notes in his comprehensive survey, the forms are probably best considered quadral markers. In fact, his impressive survey did not uncover any cases of quadral marking in the world’s languages.
Everett tends to bury his point; his intention in this chapter is to marshal support for the idea that humans have an “innate number sense” that allows them to pretty much instantly realize if they are looking at 1, 2, or 3 objects, but does not allow for instant recognition of larger numbers, like 4. He posits a second, much vaguer number sense that lets us distinguish between “big” and “small” amounts of things, eg, 10 looks smaller than 100, even if you can’t count.
He does cite actual neuroscience on this point–he’s not just making it up. Even newborn humans appear to be able to distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 of something, but not larger numbers. They also seem to distinguish between some and a bunch of something. Anumeric peoples, like the Piraha, also appear to only distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 items with good accuracy, though they can tell “a little” “some” and “a lot” apart. Everett also cites data from animal studies that find, similarly, that animals can distinguish 1, 2, and 3, as well as “a little” and “a lot”. (I had been hoping for a discussion of cephalopod intelligence, but unfortunately, no.)
How then, Everett asks, do we wed our specific number sense (1, 2, and 3) with our general number sense (“some” vs “a lot”) to produce ideas like 6, 7, and a googol? He proposes that we have no innate idea of 6, nor ability to count to 10. Rather, we can count because we were taught to (just as some highly trained parrots and chimps can.) It is only the presence of number words in our languages that allows us to count past 3–after all, anumeric people cannot.
But I feel like Everett is railroading us to a particular conclusion. For example, he sites neurology studies that found one part of the brain does math–the intraparietal suclus (IPS)–but only one part? Surely there’s more than one part of the brain involved in math.
The IPS turns out to be part of the extensive network of brain areas that support human arithmetic (Figure 1). Like all networks it is distributed, and it is clear that numerical cognition engages perceptual, motor, spatial and mnemonic functions, but the hub areas are the parietal lobes …
(By contrast, I’ve spent over half an hour searching and failing to figure out how high octopuses can count.)
Moreover, I question the idea that the specific and general number senses are actually separate. Rather, I suspect there is only one sense, but it is essentially logarithmic. For example, hearing is logarithmic (or perhaps exponential,) which is why decibels are also logarithmic. Vision is also logarithmic:
The eye senses brightness approximately logarithmically over a moderate range (but more like a power law over a wider range), and stellar magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale. This magnitude scale was invented by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 150 B.C. He ranked the stars he could see in terms of their brightness, with 1 representing the brightest down to 6 representing the faintest, though now the scale has been extended beyond these limits; an increase in 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of 100. Modern researchers have attempted to incorporate such perceptual effects into mathematical models of vision.
So many experiments have revealed logarithmic responses to stimuli that someone has formulated a mathematical “law” on the matter:
Fechner’s law states that the subjective sensation is proportional to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity. According to this law, human perceptions of sight and sound work as follows: Perceived loudness/brightness is proportional to logarithm of the actual intensity measured with an accurate nonhuman instrument.
p = k ln S S 0
The relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic. This logarithmic relationship means that if a stimulus varies as a geometric progression (i.e., multiplied by a fixed factor), the corresponding perception is altered in an arithmetic progression (i.e., in additive constant amounts). For example, if a stimulus is tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 1), the corresponding perception may be two times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1). If the stimulus is again tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 3 x 3), the corresponding perception will be three times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1 + 1). Hence, for multiplications in stimulus strength, the strength of perception only adds. The mathematical derivations of the torques on a simple beam balance produce a description that is strictly compatible with Weber’s law.
In any logarithmic scale, small quantities–like 1, 2, and 3–are easy to distinguish, while medium quantities–like 101, 102, and 103–get lumped together as “approximately the same.”
Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how people develop the ability to count past 3, but this is getting long, so we’ll continue our discussion next week.