The much- (and unjustly) maligned Steven Pinker wrote the cover story for this month’s Skeptic Magazine, which is available free at the link below (click on screenshot).
The topic is the so-called “post-truth” era in which we live: an era in which reason is said to be expendable and the truth is only what is presented as truth.
Steve begins with an argument he’s made before but bears repeating, and is relevant on the claim of postmodernism is that “truth” is determined solely by those who have power or hegemony:
In his book The Last Word, the philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that truth, objectivity, and reason are not negotiable. As soon as you start making a case against them, you are making a case, which means you are implicitly committed to reason. Nagel calls this argument Cartesian, after Descartes’ famous argument that just as the very fact that one is pondering one’s existence shows that one must exist, the very fact that one is examining the validity of reason shows that one is committed to reason. A corollary is that we don’t defend or justify or believe in reason, and we certainly do not, as it is sometimes claimed, have faith in reason. As Nagel puts it, each of these is “one thought too many.” We don’t believe in reason; we use reason.
. . . As soon as you try to argue that we should believe things by any route other than reason, you’ve lost the argument, because you’ve appealed to reason. That is why a defense of reason is unnecessary, perhaps even impossible.
The “post-truth” era simply means, according to Pinker, that politicians lie, and that sometimes their lies are not only adamantly represented as truth, but also widely accepted as truth. I’ve known this personally since the repeated lies of our government in Vietnam. But those lies didn’t last: they were shown to be false by the very process of rational examination that is now maligned. The only genuine post-truth climate is one represented by Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government deliberately expunges any data that could be used to falsify its claims. And even in that novel, Winston Smith—whose job is to revise printed history—and his inamorata Julia clearly realize that the government is constantly lying.
But the main reason we should retire the posttruth cliché is that it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling. The implication is we may as well give up on reason and truth and just fight the bad guys’ lies and intimidation with lies and intimidation of our own. We can aim higher.
Steve goes on to explain why humans evolved to seek truth, giving several examples from hunter-gatherer societies, succinctly summed up with the aphorism “reality is a powerful selection pressure”, and explains why he persists in using data to persuade people to change their minds, an effort that many deem futile.
Humans are of course irrational in some ways: we have cognitive biases that make us cling to what’s palpably false, there are optical illusions and false conclusions drawn from what we experience in everyday life (e.g., the belief that a spiraling tetherball cut free will continue to move in a spiral path), and so on. Pinker gives a long laundry list of weaknesses in our rationality. But we’re still descended from humans whose existence depended on apprehending truth, and still retain the faculties and dependence on evidence that enables us to find truth.
The weaknesses in reason include what Pinker calls pluralistic ignorance, which he defines as “the spiral of silence, in which everyone believes that everyone else believes something but no one actually believes it.” To wit:
How does a false belief keep itself levitated in midair? Michael Macy and his colleagues show that a key factor is enforcement. Not only does the belief never get challenged, but group members believe they must punish or condemn those who don’t hold it—out of the equally mistaken belief that they themselves may be denounced for failing to denounce. Denunciation is a signal of solidarity with the group, which can lead to a cascade of pre-emptive, self-reinforcing denunciation, and sometimes to “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” like witch hunts and other bubbles and manias. Sometimes the bubble can be punctured by a public exclamation that the emperor is naked, but it takes an innocent boy or a brave truth-teller.
When I read this, it immediately brought to mind the behavior of the “cancel culture”, particularly on college campuses, a culture that thrives on denunciation and demonization. I’ll give an example in a later post today: the palpably false belief by some students and faculty at Williams College that the college, and its English department in particular, are infested with “structural racism.” There is not a scintilla of evidence for this, but many students believe it so firmly that they are now demanding the firing of English professors and are about to engage in a student boycott of all English classes.
Pinker goes on to give ways to counteract these mass delusions, including adopting “the technique discovered long ago by rabbis: first have your yeshiva students make the strongest possible argument on one side of a Talmudic dispute, then force them to switch sides.” (This in fact is a tactic I used when I taught “Evolution vs. Creationism” as a non-majors course at the University of Maryland. I assigned a series of debates on areas of evolution, and then assigned students to argue the position that was the opposite of their own.) In Pinker’s view, the counters to falsity are becoming stronger, so, as the many fact-checking sites attest, it becomes easier to show up widespread untruths for what they are. The Internet has been immensely valuable in this way:
Even everyday fact-checking has been has been revolutionized by the urban legend tracking site snopes.com and by Wikipedia, which is now 80 times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and pretty much as accurate. (A recent cartoon captioned “Life before Google” shows a man on a barstool musing, “I wonder who played the skipper on Gilligan’s Island,” and his companion answering, “I guess we’ll never know.”)
LOL, as they say. But I remember those times. And so, says Pinker, we live in an area in which rationality is in general growing, but is also bimodal, so there are outliers in which delusion dominates (this is also the argument he makes for well-being and morality in The Better Angels of Our Nature).
One of those outliers comprises American colleges and universities, which in theory should be the guardians not only of truth, but also of methods for seeking truth. Professors have tenure, students pay lots of money for their education, and these institutions have credentialing abilities that make students seek them out for certification in knowledge and skills. But, as you know if you read here, things aren’t all beer and skittles on campus:
Yet despite these perquisites, universities have become notorious as monocultures of left-wing orthodoxy and the illiberal suppression of heterodox ideas (I won’t review the latest follies, but will mention just two words: Halloween costumes). As the civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate has put it, “You can say things in Harvard Square that you can’t say in Harvard Yard.”
Disinvitations and deplatforming are rife—mainly by students and alumni from the Left—and certain areas of the humanities have become so invested in Regressive Leftist ideology that it becomes impossible to even mention some ideas. Pinker discusses the causes of this conundrum, but whatever the cause the results are clear:
Some of this regression is a paradoxical byproduct of the fantastic progress we have made in equality. Vanishingly few people in universities actually hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic attitudes (though they may have different views on the nature of these categories or the causes of group differences). That means that accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia can be weaponized: since everyone reviles these bigotries, they can be used to demonize adversaries, which in turn spreads a terror of being demonized. The accusations are uniquely noxious because it is virtually impossible to defend oneself against them.
Most of us, I think, including me, have to constantly police our views lest they lead to us being called out as bigots or tainted as impure. For example, despite my interest in cleaning up the excesses of the Left rather than repeating the endless denunciations of Trump (views I share, but which are so ubiquitous that it bores me to repeat them), I’m often chastised for bashing the Left instead of making this website into a clone of HuffPost. The result is that when I’m about to criticize Democrats, for instance, I’m obliged to repeat that I hate Republicans and would never vote for any.
And although many readers have said that we needn’t pay much attention to “PC follies” in universities, Pinker gives at least three reasons why we should, one being Andrew Sullivan’s statement that “We all live on campus now.” The result is this:
The regressive left is an incubator of the alt-right. I’ve seen it happen, including to former students. When they see that certain opinions are unexpressable, when they see speakers being deplatformed and people being assaulted or demonized for citing certain facts or advancing certain ideas, they conclude, “You can’t handle the truth!” Since they can’t discuss heterodox ideas with students and faculty in universities, they retreat into an alternative universe of discourse, mainly internet discussion groups, in which these ideas harden and grow more extreme in the absence of critical engagement. When the nuanced, statistical, multifactorial, qualified, tentative and ethically sensitive versions of taboo hypotheses are squelched on campus, the simplistic, all or- none, single-factor, exaggerated, invidious versions blossom outside it. This happens in discussions of capitalism, the causes of being transgender, and differences between ethnic groups and sexes
It’s Pinker’s own willingness to call out the follies of the Regressive Left that has led to his own demonization as a member of the alt-right (not to mention his characterization as a misogynist and white supremacist), despite the fact that he’s a Democrat who donated a sizable sum to that party. He’s also chastised for his conviction that we can progress both materially and morally—a conviction that angers the Chicken Littles of the Left, whose motivating belief is that things are not only getting worse (or at least are as bad as ever), but create a situation that can’t be fixed except by adopting their own remedies.