Personal epistemology, free speech, and tech companies

The NYT describes “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation, and in response Hacker News commenter throwaway13337 says, in part, “It’s not unchecked free speech. Instead, it’s unchecked curation by media and social media companies with the goal of engagement.” There’s some truth to the idea that social media companies have evolved to seek engagement, rather than truth, but I think the social media companies are reflecting a deeper human tendency. I wrote back to throwaway13337: “Try teaching non-elite undergrads, and particularly assignments that require some sense of epistemology, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of people have pretty poor personal epistemic hygiene—it’s not much required in most people, most of the time, in most jobs.”

From what I can tell, we evolved to form tribes, not to be “right:” Jonathan’s Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion deals with this topic well and at length, and I’ve not seen any substantial rebuttals of it. We don’t naturally take to tracking the question, “How do I know what I know?” Instead, we naturally seem to want to find “facts” or ideas that support our preexisting views. In the HN comment thread, someone asked for specific examples of poor undergrad epistemic hygiene, and while I’d prefer not to get super specific for reasons of privacy, I’ve had many conversations that take the following form: “How do you know article x is accurate?” “Google told me.” “How does Google work?” “I don’t know.” “What does it take to make a claim on the Internet.” “Um. A phone, I guess?” A lot of people—maybe most—will uncritically take as fact whatever happens to be served up by Google (it’s always Google and never Duck Duck Go or Bing), and most undergrads whose work I’ve read will, again uncritically, accept clickbait sites and similar as accurate. Part of the reason for this reasoning is that undergrads’s lives are minimally affected by being wrong or incomplete about some claim done in a short assignment that’s being imposed by some annoying professor toff standing between them and their degree.

The gap between elite information discourse and everyday information discourse, even among college students, who may be more sophisticated than their peer equivalents, is vast—so vast that I don’t think most journalists (who mostly talk to other journalists and to experts) and to other people who work with information, data, and ideas really truly understand it. We’re all living in bubbles. I don’t think I did, either, before I saw the epistemic hygiene most undergrads practice, or don’t practice. This is not a “kids these days” rant, either: many of them have never really been taught to ask themselves, “How do I know what I know?” Many have never really learned anything about the scientific method. It’s not happening much in most non-elite schools, so where are they going to get epistemic hygiene from?

The United States alone has 320 million people in it. Table DP02 in the Census at data.census.gov estimates that 20.3% of the population age 25 and older has a college bachelor’s degree, and 12.8% have a graduate or professional degree. Before someone objects, let me admit that a college degree is far from a perfect proxy for epistemic hygiene or general knowledge, and some high school dropouts perform much better at cognition, meta cognition, statistical reasoning, and so forth, than do some people with graduate degrees. With that said, though, a college degree is probably a decent approximation for baseline abstract reasoning skills and epistemic hygiene.

Almost anyone who wants a megaphone in the form of one of the many social media platforms available now has one. The number of people motivated by questions like “What is really true, and how do I discern what is really true? How do I enable myself to get countervailing data and information into my view, or worldview, or worldviews?” is not zero, again obviously, but it’s not a huge part of the population. And many very “smart” people in an IQ sense use their intelligence to build better rationalizations, rather than to seek truth (and I may be among the rationalizers: I’m not trying to exclude myself from that category).

Until relatively recently, almost everyone with a media megaphone had some kind of training or interest in epistemology, even they didn’t call it “epistemology.” Editors would ask, “How do you know that?” or “Who told you that?” or that sort of thing. Professors have systems that are supposed to encourage greater-than-average epistemic hygiene (these systems were not and are not perfect, and nothing I have written so far implies that they were or are).

Most people don’t care about the question, “How do you know what you know?” are fairly surprised if it’s asked, implicitly or explicitly. Some people are intrigued by it but most aren’t, and view questions about sources and knowledge to be a hindrance. This is less likely to be true of people who aspire to be researchers or work in other knowledge-related professions, but that describes only a small percentage of undergraduates, particularly at non-elite schools. And the “elite schools” thing drives a lot of the media discourse around education. One of the things I like about Professor X’s book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is how it functions as a corrective to that discourse.

For most people, floating a factually incorrect conspiracy theory online isn’t going to negatively affect their lives. If someone is a nurse and gives a patient a wrong medication or incorrect medication, that person is not going to be a nurse for long. If the nurse states or repeats a factually incorrect political or social idea online, particularly but not exclusively under a pseudonym, that nurse’s life likely won’t be affected. There’s no truth feedback loop. The same is true for someone working in, say, construction, or engineering, or many other fields. The person is free to state things that are factually incorrect, or incomplete, or misleading, and doing so isn’t going to have many negative consequences. Maybe it will have some positive consequences: one way to show that you’re really on team x is to state or repeat falsehoods that show you’re on team x, rather than on team “What is really true?”

I don’t want to get into daily political discourse, since that tends to raise defenses and elicit anger, but the last eight months have demonstrated many people’s problems with epistemology, and in a way that can have immediate, negative personal consequences—but not for everyone.

Pew Research data indicate that a quarter of US adults didn’t read a book in 2018; this is consistent with other data indicating that about half of US adults read zero or one books per year. Again, yes, there are surely many individuals who read other materials and have excellent epistemic hygiene, but this is a reasonable mass proxy, given the demands that reading makes on us.

Many people driving the (relatively) elite discourse don’t realize how many people are not only not like them, but wildly not like them, along numerous metrics. It may also be that we don’t know how to deal with gossip at scale. Interpersonal gossip is all about personal stories, while many problems at scale are best understood through data—but the number of people deeply interested in data and data’s veracity is small. And elite discourse has some of its own possible epistemic falsehoods, or at least uncertainties, embedded within it: some of the populist rhetoric against elites is rooted in truth.

A surprisingly large number of freshmen don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, or that novels are fiction. Not a majority, but I was surprised when I first encountered confusion around these points; I’m not any longer. I don’t think the majority of freshmen confuse fiction and nonfiction, or genres of nonfiction, but enough do for the confusion to be a noticeable pattern (modern distinctions between fiction and nonfiction only really arose, I think, during the Enlightenment and the rise of the novel in the 18th Century, although off the top of my head I don’t have a good citation for this historical point, apart perhaps from Ian Watt’s work on the novel). Maybe online systems like Twitter or Facebook allow average users to revert to an earlier mode of discourse in which the border between fiction and nonfiction is more porous, and the online systems have strong fictional components that some users don’t care to segregate.

We are all caught in our bubble, and the universe of people is almost unimaginably larger than the number of people in our bubble. If you got this far, you’re probably in a nerd bubble: usually, anything involving the word “epistemology” sends people to sleep or, alternately, scurrying for something like “You won’t believe what this celebrity wore/said/did” instead. Almost no one wants to consider epistemology; to do so as a hobby is rare. One person’s disinformation is another person’s teambuilding. If you think the preceding sentence is in favor of disinformation, by the way, it’s not.

A simple solution to peer review problems

Famous computer scientist and Roomba co-founder Rodney Brooks writes about the problems of peer review in academia. He notes that peer review has some important virtues even as the way it’s currently practiced generates many problems and pathologies too. Brooks says, “I don’t have a solution, but I hope my observations here might be interesting to some.” I have a partial solution: researchers “publish” papers to arXiv or similar, then “submit” them to the journal, which conducts peer review. The “journal” is a list of links to papers that it has accepted or verified.

That way, the paper is available to those who find it useful. If a researcher really thinks the peer reviewers are wrong, they can state why, and why they’re leaving it up, despite the critiques. Peer-review reports can be kept anonymous but can also be appended to the paper, so that readers can decide for themselves whether the peer reviewers’ comments are useful or accurate. If a writer wishes to be anonymous, the writer can leave the work as “anonymous” until after it’s been submitted for peer review, which would allow for double-blind peer review to occur.

Server costs for things like simple websites are almost indistinguishable from zero today, and those costs can easily be borne by the universities themselves, which will find them far lower than subscription costs.

What stands in the way? Elsevier and one or two other multi-billion-dollar publishing conglomerates that control the top journals in most fields. These giants want to maintain library fees that amount to thousands of dollars per journal, even if the journal editors are paid minimally, as are peer reviewers and so on. Only the companies make money. Academics live and die based on prestige, so few will deviate from the existing model. Publishing in top journals is essential for hiring, tenure, and promotion (the tenure model also generates a bunch of pathologies in academia, but we’ll ignore those for now).

There are pushes to change the model—the entire University of California system, for example, announced in 2019 that it would “terminate subscriptions with world’s largest scientific publisher in push for open access to publicly funded research.” In my view, all public funding bodies should stipulate that no research funded with public money can be published in closed-access journals, and foundations should do the same. There is no reason for modern research to be hidden behind paywalls.

Coronavirus and the need for urgent research has also pushed biomed and medicine towards the “publish first” model. Peer review seems to be happening after the paper is published in medRxiv or bioRxiv. One hopes these are permanent changes. The problems with the journal model are well known but too little is being done. Or, rather, too little was being done: the urgency of the situation may lead to reform in most fields.

Open journals would be a boon for access and for intellectual diversity. When I was in grad school for English (don’t do that, by the way, I want to reiterate), the peer reviewer reports I got on most of my papers were so bad that they made me realize I was wasting my life trying to break into the field; there is a difference between “negative but fair” and “these people are not worth trying to impress,” and in English lit the latter predominated. In addition, journals took a year, and sometimes years, to publish the papers they accepted, raising the obvious question: if something is so unimportant that it’s acceptable to take years to publish it, why bother? “The Research Bust” explores the relevant implications. No one else in the field seemed to care about its torporous pace or what that implies. Many academics in the humanities have been wringing their hands about the state of the field for years, without engaging in real efforts to fix it, even as professor jobs disappear and undergrads choose other majors. In my view, intellectual honesty and diversity are both important, and yet the current academic system doesn’t properly incentivize or reward either, though it could.

For another take on peer review’s problems, see Andrew Gelman.

Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

This guy was wrongly and somewhat insanely accused of sexual impropriety by two neo-puritans; stories about individual injustice can be interesting, but this one seems like an embodiment of a larger trend, and, although the story is long and some of the author’s assumptions are dubious, I think there’s a different, conceivably better, takeaway than the one implied: don’t go into academia (at least the humanities) or journalism. Both fields are fiercely, insanely combative for very small amounts of money; because the money is so bad, many people get or stay in them for non-monetary ideological reasons, almost the way priests, pastors, or other religious figures used to choose low incomes and high purpose (or “purpose” if we’re feeling cynical). Not only that, but clerics often know the answer to the question before the question has even been asked, and they don’t need free inquiry because the answers are already available—attributes that are very bad, yet seem to be increasingly common, in journalism and academia.

Obviously journalism and academia have never been great fields for getting rich, but the business model for both has fallen apart in the last 20 years. The people willing to tolerate the low pay and awful conditions must have other motives (a few are independently wealthy) to go into them. I’m not arguing that other motives have never existed, but today you’d have to be absurdly committed to those other motives. That there are new secular religions is not an observation original to me, but once I heard that idea a lot of other strange-seeming things about modern culture clicked into place. Low pay, low status, and low prestige occupations must do something for the people who go into them.

Once an individual enters the highly mimetic and extremely ideological space, he becomes a good target for destruction—and makes a good scapegoat for anyone who is not getting the money or recognition they think they deserve. Or for anyone who is simply angry or feels ill-used. The people who are robust or anti-fragile stay out of this space.

Meanwhile, less ideological and much wealthier professions may not have been, or be, immune from the cultural psychosis in a few media and academic fields, but they’re much less susceptible to mimetic contagions and ripping-downs. The people in them have greater incomes and resources. They have a greater sense of doing something in the world that is not primarily intellectual, and thus probably not primarily mimetic and ideological.

There’s a personal dimension to these observations, because I was attracted to both journalism and academia, but the former has shed at least half its jobs over the last two decades and the latter became untenable post-2008. I’ve enough interaction with both fields to get the cultural tenor of them, and smart people largely choose more lucrative and less crazy industries. Like many people attracted to journalism, I read books like All the President’s Men in high school and wanted to model Woodward and Bernstein. But almost no reporters today are like Woodward and Bernstein. They’re more likely to be writing Buzzfeed clickbait, and nothing generates more clicks than outrage. Smart people interested in journalism can do a minimal amount of research and realize that the field is oversubscribed and should be avoided.

When I hear students say they’re majoring in journalism, I look at them cockeyed, regardless of gender; there’s fierce competition coupled with few rewards. The journalism industry has evolved to take advantage of youthful idealism, much like fashion, publishing, film, and a few other industries. Perhaps that is why these industries attract so many writers to insider satires: the gap between idealistic expectation and cynical reality is very wide.

Even if thousands of people read this and follow its advice, thousands more persons will keep attempting to claw their way into journalism or academia. It is an unwise move. We have people like David Graeber buying into the innuendo and career attack culture. Smart people look at this and do something else, something where a random smear is less likely to cost an entire career.

We’re in the midst of a new-puritan revival and yet large parts of the media ecosystem are ignoring this idea, often because they’re part of it.

It is grimly funny to have read the first story linked next to a piece that quotes Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . it is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions.” Ideology is back, and destruction is easier the construction. Our cultural immune system seems to have failed to figure this out, yet. Short-form social media like Facebook and Twitter arguably encourage black and white thinking, because there’s not enough space to develop nuance. There is enough space, however, to say that the bad guy is right over there, and we should go attack that bad guy for whatever thought crimes or wrongthink they may have committed.

Ideally, academics and journalists come to a given situation or set of facts and don’t know the answer in advance. In an ideal world, they try to figure out what’s true and why. “Ideal” is repeated twice because, historically, departures from the ideal is common, but having ideological neutrality and an investigatory posture is preferable to knowing the answer in advance and judging people based on demographic characteristics and prearranged prejudices, yet those traits seem to have seeped into the academic and journalistic cultures.

Combine this with present-day youth culture that equates feelings with facts and felt harm with real harm, and you get a pretty toxic stew—”toxic” being a favorite word of the new clerics. See further, America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. If you feel it’s wrong, it must be wrong, and probably illegal; if you feel it’s right, it must be right, and therefore desirable. This kind of thinking has generated some backlash, but not enough to save some of the demographic undesirables who wander into the kill zone of journalism or academia. Meanwhile, loneliness seems to be more acute than ever, and we’re stuck wondering why.

The college bribery scandal vs. Lambda School

Many of you have seen the news, but, while the bribery scandal is sucking up all the attention in the media, Lambda School is offering a $2,000/month living stipend to some students and Western Governors University is continuing to quietly grow. The Lambda School story is a useful juxtaposition with the college-bribery scandal. Tyler Cowen has a good piece on the bribery scandal (although to me the scandal looks pretty much like business-as-usual among colleges, which are wrapped up in mimetic rivalry, rather than a scandal as such, unless the definition of a scandal is “when someone accidentally tells the truth”):

Many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

This may be an overly cynical take, but to what extent do universities act like ethics-free, law-free zones? They accept students (and their student loan payments) who are unlikely to matriculate; they have no skin in the game regarding student loans; insiders understand the “paying for the party” phenomenon, while outsiders don’t; too frequently, universities don’t seem to defend free speech or inquiry. In short, many universities are exploiting information asymmetries between them and their students and those students’s parents—especially the weakest and worst-informed students. Discrimination against Asians in admissions is common at some schools and is another open secret, albeit less secret than it once was. When you realize what colleges are doing to students and their families, why is it a surprise when students and their families reciprocate?

To be sure, this is not true of all universities, not all the time, not all parts of all universities, so maybe I am just too close to the sausage factory. But I see a whole lot of bad behavior, even when most of the individual actors are well-meaning. Colleges have evolved in a curious set of directions, and no one attempting to design a system from scratch would choose what we have now. That is not a reason to imagine some kind of perfect world, but it is worth asking how we might evolve out of the current system, despite the many barriers to doing so. We’re also not seeing employers search for alternate credentialing sources, at least from what I can ascertain.

See also “I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.” In a social media age, why are we not seeing more of these pieces? (EDIT: Maybe we are? This is another one, scalding and also congruent with my experiences.) Overall, I think colleges are really, really good at marketing, and arguably marketing is their core competency. A really good marketer, however, can convince you that marketing is not their core competency.

“Oh, the Humanities!”

It’s pretty rare for a blog post, even one like “ Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities,” to inspire a New York Times op ed, but here we have “Oh, the Humanities! New data on college majors confirms an old trend. Technocracy is crushing the life out of humanism.” It’s an excellent essay. Having spent a long time working in the humanities (a weird phrase, if you think about it) and having written extensively about the problems with the humanities as currently practiced in academia, I naturally have some thoughts.

Douthat notes the decline in humanities majors and says, “this acceleration is no doubt partially driven by economic concerns.” That’s true. Then we get this interesting move:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

There is likely some truth here too. In this reading, the humanities have turned from traditional religious feeling and redirected the religious impulse in a political direction.

Douthat has some ideas about how to improve:

First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I think number two is particularly useful, number three is reasonable, and number one is fine but somewhat unlikely and not terribly congruent with my own inclinations. But I also think that the biggest problem with the humanities as currently practiced is the turn from uninterested inquiry about what is true, what is valuable, what is beautiful, what is worth remembering, what should be made, etc., and toward politics, activism, and taking sides in current political debates—especially when those debates are highly interested in stratifying groups of people based on demographic characteristics, then assigning values to those groups.

That said, I’m not the first person to say as much and have zero impact. Major structural forces stand in the way of reform. The current grad-school-to-tenure structure kills most serious, divergent thinking and encourages a group-think monoculture. Higher-ed growth peaked around 1975; not surprisingly, the current “culture wars” or “theory wars” or whatever you want to call them got going in earnest in the 1980s, when there was little job growth among humanities academics. And they’ve been going, in various ways, ever since.

Before the 1980s, most people who got PhDs in the humanities eventually got jobs of some kind or other. This meant heterodox thinkers could show up, snag a foothold somewhere, and change the culture of the academic humanities. People like Camille Paglia or Harold Bloom or even Paul de Man (not my favorite writer) all have this quality. But since the 1980s, the number of jobs has shrunk, the length of grad school has lengthened, and heterodox thinkers have (mostly) been pushed out. Interesting writers like Jonathan Gottschall work as adjuncts, if they work at all.

Today, the jobs situation is arguably worse than ever: I can’t find the report off-hand, the Modern Language Association tracks published, tenure-track jobs, and those declined from about a thousand a year before 2008 to about 300 – 400 per year now.

Current humanities profs hire new humanities profs who already agree with them, politically speaking. Current tenured profs tenure new profs who already agree. This dynamic wasn’t nearly as strong when pretty much everyone got a job, even those who advocated for weird new ideas that eventually became the norm. That process is dead. Eliminating tenure might help the situation some, but any desire to eliminate tenure as a practice will be deeply opposed by the powerful who benefit from it.

So I’m not incredibly optimistic about a return to reason among humanities academics. Barring that return to reason, a lot of smart students are going to look at humanities classes and the people teaching them, then decide to go major in economics (I thought about majoring in econ).

I remember taking a literary theory class when I was an undergrad and wondering how otherwise seemingly-smart people could take some of that terrible writing and thinking seriously. Still, I was interested in reading and fiction, so I ignored the worst parts of what I read (Foucault, Judith Butler—those kinds of people) and kept on going, even into grad school. I liked to read and still do. I’d started writing (bad, at the time) novels. I didn’t realize the extent to which novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel are awfully close to nonfiction.

By now, the smartest people avoid most humanities subjects as undergrads and then grad students, or potential grad students. Not all of the smartest people, but most of them. And that anti-clumping tendency leaves behind people who don’t know any better or who are willing to repeat the endless and tedious postmodernist mantras like initiates into the cult (and there is the connection to Douthat, who’d like us to acknowledge the religious impulse more than most of us now do). Some of them are excellent sheep: a phrase from William Deresiewicz that he applies to students at elite schools but that might also be applied to many humanities grad students.

MFA programs, last time I checked, are still doing pretty well, and that’s probably because they’re somewhat tethered to the real world and the desire to write things other humans might want to read. That desire seems to have disappeared in most of humanistic academia. Leaving the obvious question: “Why bother?” And that is the question I can no longer answer.

Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

What happened to the academic novel?

In “The Joke’s Over: How academic satire died,” Andrew Kay asks: What happened to the academic novel? He proffers some excellent theories, including: “the precipitate decline of English departments, their tumble from being the academy’s House Lannister 25 years ago — a dignified dynasty — to its House Greyjoy, a frozen island outpost. [. . .] academic satires almost invariably took place in English departments.” That seems plausible, and it’s also of obvious importance that writers tend to inhabit English departments, not biology departments; novels are likely to come from novelists and people who study novels than they are from people who study DNA.

But Kay goes on to note that tenure-track jobs disappeared, which made making fun of academics less funny because their situation became serious. I don’t think that’s it, though: tenure-track jobs declined enormously in 1975, yet academic satires kept appearing regularly after that.

But:

When English declined, though, academic satire dwindled with it. Much of the clout that English departments had once enjoyed migrated to disciplines like engineering, computer science, and (that holiest of holies!) neuroscience. (Did we actually have a March for Science last April, or was that satire?) Poetry got bartered for TED talks, Words­worth and Auden for that new high priest of cultural wisdom, the cocksure white guy in bad jeans and a headset holding forth on “innovation” and “biotech.”

And I think this makes sense: much of what English departments began producing in the 1980s and 1990s is nonsense that almost no one takes seriously—even the people who produce it, and it’s hard to satirize total nonsense:

Most satire relies on hyperbole: The satirist holds a ludicrously distorted mirror up to reality, exaggerating the flaws of individuals and systems and so (ideally) shocking them into reform. But what happens when reality outpaces satire, or at least grows so outlandish that a would-be jester has to sprint just to keep up?

What English departments are doing is mostly unimportant, so larger cultural attention focuses on TED talks or edge.org or any number of other venues and disciplines. Debating economics is more interesting than debating deconstructionism (or whatever) because the outcome of the debate matters. In grad school I heard entirely too many people announce that there is no such as reality, then go off to lunch (which seemed a lot like reality to me, but I was a bit of a grad-school misfit).

A couple years ago I wrote “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?“, which attempts to explain some of the ways that academia came to be infested by nonsense. Smart people today might gaze at what’s going on in English (and many other humanities) departments, laugh, and move on to more important issues—to the extent they bother gazing over at all. If the Lilliputians want to chase each other around with rhetorical sticks, let them; the rest of us have things to do.

Decades of producing academic satire have produced few if any changes. The problems Blue Angel and Straight Men identified remain and are if anything worse. No one in English departments has anything to lose, intellectually speaking; the sense of perspective departed a long time ago. At some point, would-be reformers wander off and deal with more interesting topics. English department members, meanwhile, can’t figure out why they can’t get more undergrads to major in English or more tenure-track hires. One could start by looking in the mirror, but it’s easier and more fun to blame outsiders than it is to look within.

Back when I was writing a dissertation on academic novels, a question kept creeping up on me, like a serial killer in a horror novel: “Who cares?” I couldn’t find a good answer to that question—at least, not one that most people in the academic humanities seemed to accept. It seems that I’m not alone. Over time, people vote with their feet, or, in this case, attention. If no one wants to pay attention to English departments, maybe that should tell us something.

Nah. What am I saying? It’s them, not us.

“University presidents: We’ve been blindsided.” Er, no.

University presidents: We’ve been blindsided” is an amazing article—if the narrative it presents is true. It’s amazing because people have been complaining about political correctness and nothing-means-anything postmodernism since at least the early ’90s, yet the problems with reality and identity politics seem to have intensified in the Internet age. University presidents haven’t been blindsided, and some of the problems in universities aren’t directly their fault—but perhaps their biggest failure, with some notable exceptions (like the University of Chicago), is not standing up for free speech.

I don’t see how it’s impossible to see this coming; the right’s attack on academia has its roots in the kind of scorn and disdain I write about in “The right really was coming after college next.” As I say there, I’ve been hearing enormous, overly broad slams against the right for as long as I’ve been involved in higher education. That sort of thing has gone basically unchecked for I-don’t-know how long. It’s surprising not to expect a backlash, eventually, and institutions that don’t police themselves eventually get policed or at least attacked from the outside.

(Since such observations tend to generate calls of “partisanship,” I’ll again note that I’m not on the right and am worried about intellectual honesty.)

There is this:

“It’s not enough anymore to just say, ‘trust us,'” Yale President Peter Salovey said. “There is an attempt to build a narrative of colleges and universities as out of touch and not politically diverse, and I think … we have a responsibility to counter that — both in actions and in how we present ourselves.”

That’s because universities are not politically diverse. At all. Heterodox Academy has been writing about this since it was founded. Political monocultures may in turn encourage freedom of speech restrictions, especially against the other guy, who isn’t even around to make a case. For example, some of you may have been following the Wilifred Laurier University brouhaha (if not, “Why Wilfrid Laurier University’s president apologized to Lindsay Shepherd” is an okay place to start, though the school is in Canada, not the United States). Shepherd’s department wrote a reply, “An open letter from members of the Communication Studies Department, Wilfrid Laurier University” that says, “Public debates about freedom of expression, while valuable, can have a silencing effect on the free speech of other members of the public.” In other words, academics who are supposed to support free speech and disinterested inquiry don’t. And they get to decide what counts as free speech.

If academics don’t support free speech, they’re just another interest group, subject to the same social and political forces that all interest groups are subject to. I don’t think the department that somehow thought this letter to be a good idea realizes as much.

The idea that “trust us” is good enough doesn’t seem to be good enough anymore. In the U.S., the last decade of anti-free-speech and left-wing activism on campus has brought us a Congress that is in some ways more retrograde than any since… I’m not sure when. Maybe the ’90s. Maybe earlier. Yet the response on campus has been to shrug and worry about pronouns.

Rather than “touting their positive impacts on their communities to local civic groups, lawmakers and alumni,” universities need to re-commit to free speech, open and disinterested inquiry, and not prima facie opposing an entire, large political group. Sure, “Some presidents said they blame themselves for failing to communicate the good they do for society — educating young people, finding cures for diseases and often acting as major job creators.” But, again, universities exist to learn what’s true, as best one can, and then explain why it’s true.

Then there’s this:

But there was also an element of defensiveness. Many argue the backlash they’ve faced is part of a larger societal rethinking of major institutions, and that they’re victims of a political cynicism that isn’t necessarily related to their actions. University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, for one, compared public attitudes toward universities with distrust of Congress, the legal system, the voting system and the presidency.

While universities do a lot right, they (or some of their members) also engaging in dangerous epistemic nihilism that’s contrary to their missions. And people are catching onto that. Every time one sees a fracas like the one at Evergreen College, universities as a whole lose a little of their prestige. And the response of many administrators hasn’t been good.

Meanwhile, the incredible Title IX stories don’t help (or see Laura Kipnis’s story). One can argue that these are isolated cases. But are they? With each story, and the inept institutional response to it, universities look worse and so do their presidents. University presidents aren’t reaffirming the principles of free speech and disinterested research, and they’re letting bureaucrats create preposterous and absurd tribunals. Then they’re saying they’ve been blindsided! A better question might be, “How can you not see a reckoning in advance?”

“The right really was coming after college next”

Excuse the awkward headline and focus on the content in “The right really was coming after college next.” Relatively few people point out that college has been coming after the right for a very long time; sometimes college correctly comes after the right (e.g. Iraq War II), but the coming after is usually indiscriminate. I’ve spent my entire adult life hearing professors say that Republicans are stupid or people who vote for Romney or whoever are stupid. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised when the right eventually hits back?

A few have noticed that “Elite colleges are making it easy for conservatives to dislike them.” A few have also noticed that we ought to be working towards greater civility and respect, especially regarding ideological disagreement; that’s one purpose of Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy. Still, on the ground and on a day-to-day level, the academic vituperation towards the right in the humanities and most social sciences (excluding economics) has been so obvious and so clear that I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a backlash.

Because I’m already imagining the assumptions in the comments and on Twitter, let me note that I’m not arguing this from the right—I find that I’m on the side of neither the right nor the left, in part because neither the right nor the left is on my side—but I am arguing this as someone who cares about freedom of speech and freedom of thought, which have never been free and have often been unpopular. It’s important to work towards understanding before judgment or condemnation, even though that principle too has likely never been popular or widely adopted.

It seems to me that homogeneous, lockstep thought is dangerous wherever it occurs, and increasingly it appears to be occurring in large parts of colleges. One hopes that the colleges notice this and try to self-correct. Self-correction will likely be more pleasant than whatever political solution might be devised in statehouses.

 

Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of something I’ve noticed about teaching and consulting: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy disproportionate time and mental energy.* There’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which negatively impacts interactions with the vast majority of normal, reasonable people.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because the bottom 5% can be noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the few represent the whole—even if, intellectually, one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in consulting.

Something about the human mind seems to make one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. I didn’t realize this at first, so a small number of negative experiences affected me much more than they should have. There’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. Now, when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable or at least not representative of the whole, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole. Behind every irrationally unhappy person there are probably 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have read stories about crazy social justice warriors or censorious students—like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale brouhaha. Sure, these stories are in fact outrageous, but, again, they’re also salient because they’re unusual. Because they’re unusual, they make the news (and these kinds of events do represent a problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances sometimes ask me about the activists students suppressing speech. Yeah, I do, a little, but not very much. The vast, overwhelming majority of college students, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority! As Nassim Taleb says, “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority.” A motivated minority, especially given the college-complaint apparatus, can create a lot of bureaucratic hassle.

Professors and other students often feel a kind of chilling effect, and one related to my essay, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, suffers from defensive posture problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

It’s easy for outsiders to say teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized. It would be helpful for more administrations to make public statements like the University of Chicago’s, confirming a commitment to free speech and open inquiry.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it? No one, or almost no one, rallies for free speech and free inquiry.


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

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