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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

17 mars 2018

Enlightenment Contested

Enlightenment Contested (Areo, February 25, 2018)

the intelligentsia (academics, media pundits, public intellectuals) have established a quasi-religious narrative which contends, among other things, that most demographic groups (sexes, races, classes) have nearly identical capacities

Yees...? Do go on!

And so it quietly begins. I have found yet another review of Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now! and eagerly started reading it. I am looking for, and expecting, an insightful and well-articulated critique of the book - which I have not yet read myself - and of Pinker's entire project. (I have yet to find one that satisfactorily gives voice to my own misgivings.)

Skimming through the preamble, I soon realize a number of things:

This is not a critique at all. If anything, it is an ovation. But not really. Not of the book, anyway.

It is not even a review. It is - or rather, it purports to be - an overview of the reception of Pinker's book. But it isn't, really. More of a critique of the criticism directed at the book. A review of reviews, so to speak. A critical one. Of the critical reviews, that is.

But that is not quite right, either. Because the text soon veers away from both the book, its subject, and its reception, and into a homespun and patchy definition of the Enlightenment (loosely based on Pinker's own patchwork)... and then into a long-winded, pompous and petulant diatribe against anything and everything that the authors find offensive in this world. Which they equate with what is actually, and self-evidently wrong in this world. They themselves, of course, are preternaturally objective and good, and know exactly what is right (including some pretty shady stuff). This is not an ideological statement on their part - it is just an apolitical fact. Of course.

I am not getting what I came for, apparently. Instead of moral support, I got another fight. So I make do. This should be interesting, I think to myself. I had better take notes.

So I guess this will be a review of a review of a review. Of sorts.

(Instructions to the reader: If you haven't already, please read the original text. Make notes. Keep the text available for reference. Then follow along.)

Having gotten this far, I switch into combat mode, and continue reading. And there it comes:

the intelligentsia (academics, media pundits, public intellectuals) have established a quasi-religious narrative which contends, among other things, that most demographic groups (sexes, races, classes) have nearly identical capacities

Yees...? Do go on!

the Enlightenment was committed to a vision that celebrated reason, lauded science, extolled moral and technological progress

Ok, so ’moral’ progress as well, then.

there are rational reasons for suspecting that [deGrasse Tyson’s] virtual colony would be an abysmal failure

Including the is-ought distinction? (Mentioned, unsatisfactorily, later in the text.)

human flourishing should be the measure of successful governance

Yes, that’s the ’ought’ (as good as it gets). But which humans, which flourishing, by what measure and distribution?

Really useful table. (Really!) I don’t fit on either side.

left-leaning romantics are particularly hostile to evolutionary psychology, a science that applies Darwinian principles to human nature

More so than right-leaning ones? (And for which reasons?)

Some, such as the postmodernists, are generally hostile to notions of objective truth altogether

Well, so are most philosophers, left and right, if you dig deep enough. At a pragmatic level, logic, naturalism and methodological objectivism suffice for rational and evidence-based discussion. And is there really more hostility to these tenets on the left than on the right?

modern socialists, value truth but believe that Western notions of science and progress have been ruinous of the planet and of other non-Western peoples

Not science. Some applications of technology - together with particular conceptions of ’liberty’ and ’progress’.

What ties many of these thinkers together is a commitment to a quasi-Rousseauian view of humans as creatures corrupted by the empty pleasantries of civilization

The degree to which humans are corrupt, or have been corrupted - with or without ’civilization’, abundance or technology - is a matter on which people differ wildly. The varying positions hardly track a left-right dichotomy, nor a ’scientism’-postmodernism one.

much of what passes for science...

Here comes the post-modernism.

This little phrase seems like a strange, almost Freudian, way of characterizing someone else’s characterization of... science? Who says what, exactly? And it is pretty vague, isn't it:  What does ’much’, ’passes for’ and ’science’ actually mean? To whom? (Remember the ’critical reflection’ part?)

...is simply a narrative...

Well, there is necessarily an element of narrative, in science as well as in any other human endeavor to make sense of the world. There is no such thing as purely objective science; no observation without theory, filter and interpretation.

...employed by the privileged to justify the status quo

Depending on what, exactly, is employed, this could be either a political or an empirical statement, or both. It could be either true or false, given different perspectives and definitions.

an idealization of hunter-gatherer peoples as living idyllic lives 
 Life before civilization was one of ’affluence,’ equality, and relative peace

Even if we quantify these value-laden concepts, we will never reach a consensus based on empirical facts. It is quite possible that some of our ancestors had easy access to plenty of food, lived in non-hierarchical groups and seldom fought each other. It is quite possible that some didn’t. Maybe they all did. Or didn’t. Maybe one day - though I highly doubt it - we could even agree on the empirical facts. So what? It doesn’t tell us much about what we should do or say about our current situation. None of us would want to go back (granted one or two exceptions). Noone disputes the fact that most of us live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

Western Civilization does not represent progress, but instead exploitation and technological terror
 technologies that are destroying the earth
technologies in conjunction with avarice and sundry diseases, led Europeans to imperialize and exploit much of the planet
 Science, from this perspective, is a political tool often wielded to justify barbaric crimes and systematic marginalization

There’s a whole lotta equivocatin’ goin’ on here.

Given particular defintions and examples, it’s not unreasonable to say that ’exploitation’ and ’technological’ ’terror’ have been both causes and effects of ’Western Civilization’.

But of course, it’s rarely the case that ’technology’, in itself, does anything at all. It’s the application. This may seem a moot point when it comes to ’technology’ in the sense of some (but certainly not all) cultural practices, but it is a crucial distinction when it comes to hardware.

We are destroying the world. With or without any fancy technology. We have been doing it since the Stone Age. Technology can - and does - allow us to leverage our destructive behavior and impact. Regardless of our historical trajectory, and regardless of technologial level, we need to curb that impact. We can use technology to leverage those efforts, too. (And it doesn’t matter where you stand on the Spaceship-Earth issue.)

Science - distinct from both technology and ’civilization’ - is just that: a tool. Its use can be ’political’ in at least three distinct ways:

1. The word ’science’ can be misused to give credence to unscientific or unsound claims.

2. Science, the tool, can be used a-morally, which sometimes leads to destructive and immoral outcomes. (And that use, in itself, may be immoral).

3. Or science can be used immorally, intentionally or unintentionally.

faith in progress

What does this entail? The (circular) notion that ’progress’ is good? Or the belief that progress is taking place? Or that the amount of ’progress’ outweighs any negative correlates - empirical or moral. What is progress? A collection of (positive) empirical facts, or trends? Any collection?

dense prose and impenetrable jargon


denounce basic scientific facts about human nature

Sounds bad. As long as we’re talking about empirical facts. What is ’human nature’, by the way? Which facts, exactly? How ’basic’ are those, really? (Race is certainly not ’basic’. Neither is gender. But I realize I am pushing it now.)

cultural relativism that discourages students from contending that any cultural practice is better than another

Mostly bad. But tactfulness is nice.

this relativism is generally confident that modern capitalism is worse than other economic systems

In-joke aside, even if anti-capitalism is correlated with post-modernism (or whatever), that isn’t the issue, right? Because, naturally, you’re not saying that capitalism is scientific, or scientifically proven to be better than anything else. Right?

a grotesque caricature of Literary Studies

OK, so now we’re down to a handful of anecdotes (sorry, ’qualitative samplings’ - that’s science, right?) from a narrow branch of academia. Well, exactitude and precision are scientific virtues. Generalization is a bitch, though.

Instead of talking about how Shakespeare’s works illuminate evolved aspects of human nature, many students learn to “deconstruct” popular texts, learn to uncover “hidden tensions” in popular poems, and learn how class conflict best explains the killer’s behavior in the Halloween film series

Ooh, this sounds awfully biased, er... bad. So, some literature studies are scientific, or at least academic, and others aren’t? Or maybe literature (studies) isn’t science at all, but some of it is good and some of it bad? What makes the difference? (I’m not saying there isn’t one.)

science-based social policy

If I wanted to dispel unwarranted suspicions of ’scientism’, I would be careful to distinguish ’social policy based - purportedly - solely on a collection of scientific facts’ from ’social policy based on normative grounds, supported by science’.

a sacred narrative that doesn’t explicitly reject science or reason, but that subordinates it to the defense of perceived victims’ groups

The operative word being ’subordinates’. Well, science is subordinated to policy. That doesn’t mean that policy negates or overrules scientific facts. (Another interesting word is ’sacred’. Funny how it keeps coming up, in this text and in others like it.)

people are taught, if not explicitly, then by observation, that they do not need to dispute controversial ideas that challenge the narrative; rather, they can simply derogate the person who forward them, can indict him or her of nefarious motives, and let the moral disapproval of the intelligentsia remove him or her from the sphere of respectable public discourse

Wouldn’t that mean that the ’oppressors’ themselves are being oppressed? That seems to be a problem for both sides. (And it might explain some of the surliness and incoherence in this text.)

We must, of course, distinguish between ’narrative’ as interpretation, perspective, and normative evaluation; and ’narrative’ as empirical or theoretical consensus. I have read enought back-and-forths to know that there are extremists on both sides who refuse, or fail, to keep the two apart. And that is a problem. A big one. Empirical consensus must be achieved before normative differences can be productively discussed. Those who cannot or will not enter the circle of (more or less) settled empirical facts should be excluded from consideration - not used as an excuse to further one’s own political agenda.

There is also a larger circle; that of unsettled empirical facts and theories. A complementary argument applies here: Theories and hypotheses must be open to discussion - even if those theories spring from different ideological wells. They most often do. You can neither accept nor refute scientific arguments based on their ideological origin or impetus. You must accept ideological differences and at the same time frame your arguments generally (scientifically). Just as Habermas tells us to do.

It’s hard to imagine that the book would have instigated such a controversy had he speculated (without evidence) that all group differences are caused by the environment

That seems neither strange nor controversial. First, the ’normal-science’ view is being challenged. This simply means that most biologist, at the time, did not reckon with any major genetic differences. Novel propositions will, and should, be scrutinized. Second, even though research on genetic differences should not be shied away from, labelling them ’race’ and saying that they ’likely explain differences among human civilizations’ is crude, insensitive, speculative and normative (exact wording and defintions are important here) - not to mention that it seems at least as radical as saying that ’all group differences are caused by the environment’ - even from a purely scientific perspective. (Surely, you must know this?)

When one violates the new orthodox narrative, one’s work is almost invariably mischaracterized and one is then publicly flagellated for being a moral fiend

Except for the word ’moral’, this seems like business as usual, regardless of arena, field or finding. Many Nobel laureates spend parts of their lectures lamenting (or snickering at) years of derision and solitary work. (In supposedly ’value-free’ fields such as physics and chemistry.) The ’moral’ part is no mystery either: Human biology is inextricably linked with morality, in a number of ways. And no matter what your own position is, you will feel morally challenged by any opposition.

the very act of forwarding scientifically respectable, evidence supported hypotheses about sex differences constitutes discrimination and harassment

But it wasn’t the act. It was the statements. Notice that the position that ”efforts by the company to reach equal representation of women in technology and leadership [are] ’unfair, divisive, and bad for business’” is a subjective, normative and speculative claim, regardless of any scientific data.

(However, both Google and NLRB operated with a very strange defintion of ’stereotype’ and ’harrassment’, and I do think that they both acted wrongly. Google could have argued, consistently, that gender differences might exist but that the particular women they hire perform just as well as men. Or that gender differences might exist within the company but that they would rather hire more women than men anyway. Or even that sending a memo about gender differences was bad karma, regardless of its veracity. The problem for Google, as I understand it, was that the memo didn’t breach any contract, so in order to fire Damore the only option was to appeal to ’unprotected speech’. The real reason for Google wanting to fire him, I assume, was the karma.)

Still, the decision that the firing was acceptable because ”statements about immutable traits linked to sex — such as women’s heightened neuroticism and men’s prevalence at the top of the IQ distribution — were discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment” is problematic - scientific references or not. (And having read both the memo and the decision in full, I think this is a fair depiction of the case.)

As the cases of [...] Damore (and many others) illustrate, this freedom is under assault from the intelligentsia

A private employer? ”Intelligentia”?

What make this assault particularly insidious is that many who lead it are ostensibly dedicated to science, to humanism, and to free inquiry

Are those the ”respectable outlets and pundits”?

when issues that touch upon the new orthodoxy’s sacred narrative arise, Vox is almost as bad as any articulate campus crusader

OK, so despite being a left-leaning outlet that ”grapple[s] intelligently with conservative ideas”, Vox isn’t all that ”hyper-rational”, or at least not always that friendly to conservative (?) ideas? Well, boo-hoo!

We don’t mean to single out Vox, but they are a great illustration of this problem precisely because they can be so reasonable about other issues. They appear cool-headed, rational, and open. And they assiduously mischaracterize before they attack, so that fair-minded observers think, ’Well, if that is what Damore (substitute Charles Murray, J. P. Rushton, Nicholas Wade, et cetera) wrote, then he deserves to be chastised’

In contrast to which other outlets, of any brand? Are you honestly comparing Vox unfavorably to any number of not-so-rational (conservative) outlets? On the grounds that Vox, despite being left-leaning, actually is one of the few mostly ’rational’ outlets at all? Wow!

It requires a commitment to treating people as individuals, not as token representations of broader aggregates such as racial or sexual or religious groups

Which would include hiring 50 % women as programmers at Google, based solely on merit, despite there being 80 % men applying for the jobs.

Modesty forbids me to bring up other notable exceptions from the not-so-distant past to this seemingly innocuous rule. (Incidentally, note how race is suddenly unimportant.)

Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry certainly still plague modern society. And it is laudable that modern thinkers are devoted to defending those who have been victimized by iniquitous discrimination. But this defense doesn’t require the ritualized slandering of those who forward controversial but judiciously worded theories that challenge implausible notions of demographic similarity and cultural equality

It’s funny how conservatives always view yesterday’s injustices as plainly wrong - and worthy of slander in hindsight - but still insist that today’s notions of equality are ’implausible’.

The informal censoring of speech is not just an assault on Enlightenment values, it is also quite probably counterproductive. It leaves a void for extremists to fill because moderates are too afraid to speak or write about controversial topics. And as the censorship increases in intensity, the appeal of these extremists increases as well. They might be vile, but at least have the courage to say what they think, and at least they talk about easily perceived differences without resorting to implausible explanations. The result is a dwindling center, vacated by those who sympathize with moderate philosophies, but who are disgusted by the censoriousness of the intellectuals who now propound them. As this intellectual center unravels, the values of the Enlightenment unravel with it as extremism on both sides replaces free inquiry and dispute with name-calling and mutual hostility.

Yep! So stop whining about censorship and just state your facts and opinions.

We should all fear that the Enlightenment might have been an ephemeral moment, a transient ray of light striking a dark world, that may give way again to the barbarism of passion and prejudice. And that fear should motivate us to give vigorous defense to reason, to science, to humanism, and to progress. Pinker’s book is a stirring call to do just that. Cheers to those who heed his message.

And that’s how you book-end a review (of reviews) that isn’t a review: with a rant about the Enlightenment that isn’t about the Enlightenment.

By the way: Have you actually read Jonathan Israel?

Somehow this seems relevant here: The Intellectual We Deserve

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