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

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

From the article about Nichols:

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

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

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

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

Sounds like everyone’s getting mansplained these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I think happened:

The myth that is “America” got broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which book do you want me to read/review?

Cathedral Round-Up #29: Pinker, Truth, and Liars

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 Left responded in its usual, thoughtful, reasonable fashion, eg “If you ever doubted that Steven Pinker’s sympathies lie with the alt-right…” The author of the piece also called Pinker a “lying right-wing shitweasel” on twitter.

Of course this is nonsense; as Why Evolution is True has pointed out, Pinker is one of Harvard’s most generous donors to the Democratic party.

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:

Link to the original conversation


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