I have nothing to say, but it’s okay (Good morning!). Actually, duck duties in the pouring rain (yes, I got soaked, but in a good cause), combined with overdue grocery shopping, has put a crimp in my day. But, mirabile dictu, I have five—count them, five—pieces that are worth your time to read. I’ll give a link to all of them in screenshots, though the second piece, from The Economist, is behind a paywall (judicious inquiry might yield a copy). And the indented bits are quotes from the article.
In this interview with Steve Pinker (published, in all places, at the Templeton-funded Nautilus), he discusses why Americans continue to defy social distancing and abjure masks despite the palpable health risks. It’s largely about tribalism, but part of that involves not just solidarity with the group, but distrust of “elitist” experts.
A few bits:
We turned to Steven Pinker for help with an answer. The professor of psychology at Harvard, author of widely discussed books, including How the Mind Works and most recently, Enlightenment Now, sees the deep-seated mindset, tribalism, at work in people’s defiance of health recommendations. But it’s more than a tribalism of being with your crowd. “There’s a moralistic component to this kind of tribalism, mainly that people tend to see their own tribes as victims of some kind of oppression or harm by some rival coalition,” Pinker says, his distinctive mass of gray hair filling the Zoom screen. “They believe their actions on behalf of the group, even if symbolic, are a kind of justice, a kind of settling the score, making a statement, advancing a moral cause—as strange as that may be to those of us who are not part of that coalition, and might even have contempt for that cause. But from the inside, it always feels as if your group has been victimized, has been a longstanding victim of a series of affronts and harms for which you seek redress. And that’s common in the invented histories and myths and narratives of many peoples.”
Pinker says it can be easier to understand the effect of tribalism by putting the shoe on the other foot. “Some of the people on the political right could, indeed, ask that question of the people showing up at Black Lives Matter rallies. They’re crowded together. They’re shouting. They’re chanting. A lot of them are not wearing masks. If we imagine answering that person’s question from the point of view of our buddies on the street protesting that Black Lives Matter, we can get probably some insight, even if we have our loyalties as to which is a legitimate cause and which is the not-so-legitimate cause. But you’re asking about psychology, about what people could possibly be thinking. Well, what could they be thinking in the street, shouting slogans without a mask? What could the public health experts be thinking, telling people it’s OK to do that?”
. . .Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, heads the Cultural Cognition Project at the university, which explores how cultural values shape public risk perceptions. He has shown, time and again, that the need to belong to a group, usually political or religious, overrides the facts of science. Kahan, who was unable to be interviewed, has written in Nature: “People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.”
Pinker agrees, but stresses that doing the right thing is never easy for anybody. “With coronavirus, it’s genuinely hard to know whether surfaces are potential vectors, whether six feet is enough or not enough, whether masks help or don’t help,” Pinker says. “From a scientist’s point of view, it’s not surprising the information would shift. That’s because our natural state is ignorance. We can only learn from data, and as the data comes in, our state of knowledge and best practices will change. But, partly because people think of experts as oracles, as opposed to experimenters and exploiters of trial and error, there’s a presumption that either the experts know what is the best policy from the get-go, or else they are incompetent and ought to be replaced. That’s opposed to what we know to be the correct situation in science—namely, no one knows anything, and you have to learn.”
A piece in The Economist describes the differences between justified complaints about racism and the view of those who, on both the Right and Left, “exploit racial divisions as a political tool.” One of the cures proposed by the anonymous author is free speech and a curbing of identity politics, as well as a list of tangible governmental policies that will reduce inequality.
A few excerpts:
This ideology also has some valid insights. Racism is sustained by unjust institutions and practices. Sometimes, as in policing, this is overt. More often, in countless small put-downs and biases, it is subtle but widespread and harmful.
But then the ideology takes a wrong turn, by seeking to impose itself through intimidation and power. Not the power that comes from persuasion and elections, but from silencing your critics, insisting that those who are not with you are against you, and shutting out those who are deemed privileged or disloyal to their race. It is a worldview where everything and everyone is seen through the prism of ideology—who is published, who gets jobs, who can say what to whom; one in which in-groups obsess over orthodoxy in education, culture and heritage; one that enforces absolute equality of outcome, policy by policy, paragraph by paragraph, if society is to count as just.
. . . The pity is that these ideas will not solve America’s problems with race. They will not eliminate inequality because they are a poor way to bring about beneficial change. Unless you can freely analyse causes and question orthodoxies you will not be able to solve problems. And unless you can criticise people and practices without fear of being called out, you will not be able to design effective policies and then go on to refine them.
The new race theory blocks progress in another way, too. The barriers to racism can be dismantled only when they are exposed—and so they must be, however painful. But the false idea that ingrained racism will forever block African-Americans at every turn is a barrier in its own right.
And, by focusing on power and division, this ideology only creates more space for some on the right to exploit race as a tool. A fundamental belief in power above persuasion frustrates coalition-building. Essential allies are not carried along, but forced along. When every transaction at work, at home, or at the school gate is seen through a prism of racial power, no encounter between different races can be innocent.
. . . . Liberals can help in America, too. Much of the material gulf between African-Americans and whites can be bridged with economic policies that improve opportunity. You do not need to build a state based on identity. Nor do you need tools like reparations, which come with practical difficulties and have unintended consequences. Economic policies that are race-neutral, which people qualify for because of poverty, not the colour of their skin, can make a big difference. They have a chance of uniting Americans, not dividing them. If the mood now really is for change, they would be politically sellable and socially cohesive.
Our Briefing lays out what some of these policies might look like. Top of the list is tackling the housing segregation that is central to America’s racial economic inequality. The reform of zoning laws and the grant of rent-assistance vouchers are the chief ingredients. That would bring many benefits, improving public services and lessening violence. More integrated housing would integrate schools too and, given America’s locally financed education, mean that more would be spent on black children. Affordable measures, including advice and modest cash grants, have been shown to boost graduation from college. A third tool is the tax system. The earned-income tax credit tops up wages of working adults. A child allowance would cut poverty. A baby bond would help shrink the wealth gap.
In this piece in Quillette, Lawrence Krauss argues (correctly, I think), that science is not structurally racist: that is, there are no longer built-in barriers to the advancement of ethnic minorities. This doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t barriers, but that they rear up before minorities even get a chance to do science. That’s why, despite fervent efforts by every biology department I know to hire blacks and Hispanics, as well as procure minority graduate students, we aren’t succeeding. That’s not because there’s discrimination at the hiring and grad-school level, but that the pool of people reaching that stage is tiny. And that’s because there’s a lack of opportunity beginning early on: even before school starts.
During the academic strike called for by the APS [American Physical Society], it was emphasized that the proportion of black physicists in national laboratories such as the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois (where one #strike4blacklives organizer works) is much smaller than the percentage of blacks in the population at large. It was implied that systematic racism in the profession was responsible for this, although no explicit data supporting this claim was presented.
In fact, there is a simpler explanation. There are fewer tenured black physicists at universities and laboratories because there are fewer black PhD physicists. There are fewer black PhD physicists because there are fewer black physics graduate students. There are fewer black graduate students because there are fewer black undergraduates who major in physics. This latter fact is a cause for concern. But the root cause lies in inequities that arise far earlier in the education process. These cannot be addressed by affirmative action policies at the upper levels of practicing professional scientists.
Well, affirmative action policies could help remedy the problem, but, argues Krauss, one has to abrogate the duty of science to adhere to the policy that “quality alone [is] the final discriminator.” Some will disagree with this, and for this statement Krauss has been demonized widely. I’ve argued that some form of affirmative action is useful here, but science departments throughout the U.S. have failed miserably, simply because the pool of people is so small. We need to adopt the kind of policies that the Economist article describes, and try as hard as we can to ensure equal opportunity for all from the outset. As scientists we can start doing this by doing outreach in minority communities. But that’s not nearly enough because, after we sell our field to others, we go home to our prosperous digs while the targets of our actions return to a life bereft of opportunity.
I do agree with Krauss that our main duty is to do science, and, while we should do our best to give everyone an opportunity to do science if they want to, we are not suited to be social engineers. As Krauss says:
Assistant professors of physics cannot solve racial inequality in our society. The professional responsibility of individual scientists, especially young scientists, is to do the best science they can, and to train their students as best they can. It is not to become part of a social movement, however well-intentioned that movement may be.
To see a better statement of this idea vis-à-vis official stands of universities and their academic departments, read the Kalven Report that, until recently, held sway at the University of Chicago. (Sadly, it’s dissolving as our University is deciding to take ideological stands). No, it’s not our duty to become part of a social movement, but as an evolutionary biologist whose work was funded by the public, I at least feel an onus to give back to the public by showing people how great the study of evolution is. Is that kind of outreach helpful in increasing diversity and equity? Who knows?
Several readers have sent me a multi-page list of demands, signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty, students, and staff, directed at their school as a cure for the systemic and pervasive racism they see in that institution. Although the motivation is laudable, the execution is poor, with many items almost fascistic in their requirements. This is a true document of Authoritarian Leftism.
There have been two pieces of pushback. One is by Samantha Harris, a Princeton alum writing at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE):
Here she describes two of the demands, one of which is clearly illegal:
The petition includes a long list of “demands,” several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) Princeton’s leadership should categorically reject these illiberal demands and make clear that the fundamental rights of its students and faculty are non-negotiable and will not be subordinated to political expediency.
The most chillingly illiberal demand in the petition asks Princeton to:
[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.
The threat of discipline for speech, research, and publication that is subjectively deemed “racist” by a committee of ideologically motivated Princeton faculty is an anti-intellectual, frontal assault on free speech and academic freedom at Princeton that would shut down entire avenues of inquiry, research, and discussion. How, exactly, would such a committee determine whether faculty expression or research is “racist”? A look at some recent demands for faculty discipline is illustrative.
. . .In a terrific article last month in Inside Higher Ed, University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman argued that faculty must rally behind academic freedom in this historic moment — one he compared to 1950s-era efforts to purge universities of Communist-leaning faculty. Zimmerman wrote:
The biggest myth about the McCarthy period is that purges of university faculty were imposed upon an unwilling professoriate. In fact, most American faculty members embraced the campaign to remove Communist or left-leaning colleagues. They took loyalty oaths, condemned “fellow travelers” and did everything else they could to protect the university from its supposed Red enemy.
Noting that universities are “repeating all the same patterns” today, Zimmerman urged his colleagues to stand up for the academic freedom rights of unpopular colleagues:
Our university leaders are busily issuing new loyalty oaths, declaring allegiance to Black Lives Matter, and everyone else is expected to follow along. That can’t be good for our democracy, or for our universities. It’s not even good for Black Lives Matter! Like any other social movement, BLM can only benefit from a full and free discussion of it.
If met, the Princeton faculty’s demand for a committee to police speech, research, and publication for signs of racism would be the end of academic freedom at the Ivy League university. And while one would hope that any free-minded academics at Princeton would simply leave the university under such oppressive circumstances, it is more likely that, given the challenges of the academic job market (particularly for faculty with dissenting views), they would instead opt for self-censorship.
Finally, Joshua Katz, a Princeton professor of Humanities and Classics, has written a “Declaration of Independence” (presumably from the letter of demands), also outlining those parts of the demands that would nearly destroy his school as a high-quality University.
One quote and then I will leave you to your reading. But at least look first at the letter of demands. What’s remarkable about that letter is that these days it is so unremarkable: it’s a boilerplate of every grievance of the offended.
Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.
But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.
“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma.
. . . “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?
As Andrew Sullivan would say, “See you next Friday.” Actually, I’ll see you this afternoon and tomorrow morning.
h/t: Merilee, pyers, Paul