22 December 2016

Truth and justice at universities, not “or”

A friend whose opinion I trust asked people what they thought of a talk by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s summary of the talk is here. His thesis is universities can search for truth or be agents for social justice, but not both. Weirdly, Haidt says that individuals can pursue both truth and justice, but an institution cannot, for reasons that are never explored.

Haidt says there are few conservatives in university positions, citing Higher Education Research Institute data. Haidt then presumes that being on one political side precludes understanding of others. He does this by demonstrating that much reasoning is “motivated,” which is an idea that has lots of empirical support. However, he makes hasty generalization in arguing that because people often engage in motivated reasoning, they always do this. He makes another hasty generalization by arguing that only other people can dissuade researcher from incorrect views, neglecting the possibility that evidence can do so.

And this is about the last portion of Haidt’s talk that is driven by data.

Haidt is concerned that the political homogeneity of universities will trickle down to students. Evidence does not support this. Professors may largely lean to the political left, but their students are not much affected by this. See here and here.

He goes on to make lots of similar assertions about how students and professors are scared. “Professors all over the country are changing their teaching,” he claims. But his assertions are just that: assertions. He presents no data to support these claims. Well, unless you count a screenshot of a Vox article. (One which did not go unchallenged, incidentally.)

Haidt goes on to expound his thesis to say that universities have created a culture of victimhood, and how universities teach that other people are literally “members of good and bad groups.” He does so again through selected anecdotes, not data.

Haidt clearly implies that teaching that people can be “members of good and bad groups” is somehow wrong. He presumes that all political views have prima facie validity. He ignores many cases of political ideas have been shown to be empirically, factually wrong, but that are still bandied about as “common sense” by politicians. I would also like to ask Haidt would be whether he thinks German Nazis of the 1940s were just misunderstood.

At one point, Haidt says, “I’m not denying there’s oppression,” but I can’t help but wonder why this is a throwaway sentence compared to the amount of time he spends attempting to build the case for “victim culture.” He argues that certain statements are inviolable, like, “America has endemic racism / sexism,” but doesn’t address whether or not that is true. Again, Haidt is apparently operating from the point of view that has as as starting point that “America is racist / sexist” and “America is not racist / sexist” are equally plausible.

He says certain patterns that might be correlated with racism or sexism are “invitations to get to work” to find out if they are true or not. I like that Haidt is advocates empiricism, but what is missing is at what point hypotheses should be abandoned. We have seen the “Doubt is our product” strategy used many times to bring faux respectibility to discredited ideas.

Haidt also takes the liberty of defining “social justice” as he has experienced it. I suggest it is at least plausible that other people might disagree with his definition.

Haidt claims he is not on the left or the right. My impression is that Haidt, in trying to understand the origins of political disagreement, has attempted to be fair in understanding the basis for political viewpoints. Unfortunately, I think that objectivity in seeking the basis for people’s views has made him unwilling to critique them unevenly, leaving him to proclaim, “Everyone does it.” But as David Frum wrote:

“They all lie” is a sentiment that most benefits the most egregious liars.

I agree with many of the individual cases Haidt presents. But this is not surprising when you build your case on the best supporting anecdotes.

Weirdly, at the very end, Haidt unravels his own thesis, saying you can only effect change if you commit to truth. But again, this is a throwaway line that runs counter to his headline (which is 90% of communication effort). Haidt’s headline argument would make academia irrelevant. We can only tell the truth as long as it doesn’t matter. If we try to effect change, we’re spin doctors.

External links

Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice
The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

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