Thursday, March 28, 2013

Diversity and Academic Open Mindedness

I had an interesting recent conversation with a fellow academic that I think worth a blog post. It started with my commenting that I thought support for "diversity" in the sense in which the term is usually used in the academic context—having students or faculty from particular groups, in particular blacks but also, in some contexts, gays, perhaps hispanics, perhaps women—in practice anticorrelated with support for the sort of diversity, diversity of ideas, that ought to matter to a university.

I offered my standard example. Imagine that a university department has an opening and is down to two or three well qualified candidates. They learn that one of them is an articulate supporter of South African Apartheid. Does the chance of hiring him go up or down? If the university is actually committed to intellectual diversity, the chance should go up—it is, after all, a position that neither faculty nor students are likely to have been exposed to. In fact, in any university I am familiar with, it would go sharply down.

The response was that that he considered himself very open minded, getting along with people across the political spectrum, but that that position was so obviously beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse that refusing to hire the candidate was the correct response. 

The question I should have asked and didn't was whether he had ever been exposed to an intelligent and articulate defense of apartheid. Having spent my life in the same general environment—American academia—as he spent his, I think the odds are pretty high that he had not been. If so, he was in the position of a judge who, having heard the case for the prosecution, convicted the defendant without bothering to hear the defense. Worse still, he was not only concluding that the position was wrong—we all have limited time and energy, and so must often reach such conclusions on an inadequate basis—he was concluding it with a level of certainty so high that he was willing to rule out the possibility that the argument on the other side might be worth listening to.

An alternative question I might have put to him was whether he could make the argument for apartheid about as well as a competent defender of that system could. That, I think, is a pretty good test of whether one has an adequate basis to reject a position—if you don't know the arguments for it, you probably don't know whether those arguments are wrong, although there might be exceptions. I doubt that he could have. At least, in the case of political controversies where I have been a supporter of the less popular side, my experience is that those on the other side considerably overestimate their knowledge of the arguments they reject.

Which reminds me of something that happened to me almost fifty years ago—in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for President. I got into a friendly conversation with a stranger, probably set off by my wearing a Goldwater pin and his curiosity as to how someone could possibly support that position. 

We ran through a series of issues. In each case, it was clear that he had never heard the arguments I was offering in defense of Goldwater's position and had no immediate rebuttal. At the end he asked me, in a don't-want-to-offend-you tone of voice, whether I was taking all of these positions as a joke. 

I interpreted it, and still do, as the intellectual equivalent of "what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How could I be intelligent enough to make what seemed like convincing arguments for positions he knew were wrong, and yet stupid enough to believe them?

48 Comments:

At 1:10 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

It's a tough knot to untangle, I think. There are obviously obstacles to a deep understanding of a minority perspective, as you point out. This is DuBois's veil - to bring it back to racial questions that inspired the discussion.

But there's a compounding problem here that minority positions on intellectual questions are often (not always, but often is plenty good enough for these purposes) minority positions because they are simply not defensible positions. A prior evaluation that a position is indefensible then leads to a situation where majority proponents are ill-equipped to argue with the minority position.

There is a difference, in other words, between an opposition being ill-equipped to engage a minority position and the determination that the minority position ought to be given a seat at the table.

Take Marxian economics instead of Goldwater so that there's no particular bias in evaluating the case (and not people who think Marx had some good points and sympathies - I'm meaning the actual architecture of Marxian economics). I think it's reasonable to say that non-Marxian economists are very poorly equipped to dispute Marxian arguments and that in a debate the Marxian could very well run circles around them. This might not have been the case 100 years ago, particularly in certain countries or schools.

But is this a reason to make sure every economics department is well stocked with Marxians? I don't personally think so. We have Marxians in sociology and not in economics for a very good reason today: Marxian economics was concluded to be largely indefensible and Marxian sociology was determined to have much more to it.

Presumably in academia what we want is not a diversity of ideas per se, nor even a collection of the most talented proponents of diverse ideas. What we want is a collection of the most talented proponents of the available set of defensible ideas.

Right?

 
At 1:32 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

I don't think "anticorrelated" would be the right term, since diversity of ideas is almost never sought out anywhere, even in places with very little diversity of the "standard" variety.

Diversity of ideas is a genuinely hard thing for people to swallow, or even pretend to swallow.

I can't imagine how most people would cultivate tolerance for a diversity of ideas unless their own views had changed radically over their lifetimes AND they retained many of the friends and intellectual sparring partners they had accumulated along the way. I think this is what happened to me, but it is probably very uncommon.

 
At 1:58 PM, March 28, 2013, Anonymous Douglas Knight said...

An alternative question I might have put to him was whether he could make the argument for apartheid about as well as a competent defender of that system could... At least, in the case of political controversies where I have been a supporter of the less popular side, my experience is that those on the other side considerably overestimate their knowledge of the arguments they reject.

The last sentence seems to be a rebuttal to the first. If you expect him to overestimate his understanding of the opposing side, why bother asking him if he knows the opposing side?

 
At 2:11 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 3:03 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Josiah Neeley said...

This post puts me in mind of David Lewis' essay, Academic Appointments: Why Ignore the Advantage of Being Right? If one of the main goals of the academy is the pursuit of knowledge, then why shouldn't holding false views be held against a particular candidate when it comes to hiring, tenure, etc.?

Ultimately, Lewis concludes that ignoring the wrongness of a candidate's views functions as a kind of mutual non-aggression pact. We know that there are other academics in positions of power who hold false views, and we implicitly agree not to hold people's false views against them in exchange for which they implicitly agree not to hold our true views against us.

Lewis doesn't mention it, but this argument probably wouldn't apply to what you might call fringe views, positions that command almost no support in the academy. Since it is unlikely that, say, those who espouse pro-apartheid views would ever be in a position to punish fellow academics for taking an anti-apartheid position, then the grounds for ignoring the falsity of their position is weakened.

 
At 3:06 PM, March 28, 2013, Anonymous Rebecca Friedman said...

Douglas Knight:

A) To get -him- to -realize- that he doesn't. Overestimations are errors that should be pointed out. "I know he's wrong, let's not bother to tell him" is not an attitude that leads to much useful discourse.

B) In case he in fact -did- know them. Anyone, even my father, can, on occasion, be wrong. Making assumptions in place of verifying your evidence is, again, rarely helpful in academic discourse.

 
At 3:15 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Blackadder:

I wasn't assuming that the department was one for which views on apartheid were immediately relevant. If it was, faculty members would (hopefully) be able to distinguish an applicant who really held a defensible position from one who didn't.

In my hypothetical, we already know that the applicant is competent in his field--that's why he is a finalist in the job search. The question is whether having people around with heterodox views that they can defend is an asset or a liability.

Taking Daniel's example of Marxists, I think for a physics department, a candidate being an able Marxist would be an asset, since other members of the faculty could talk with him and learn the arguments for Marxism. In the case of economics, if Marxism is really indefensible one need not hire Marxists to teach economics.

Similarly, an economics department should think that a candidate being an articulate and intelligent creationist is an asset--a biology department perhaps not.

 
At 3:21 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Blackadder: Lewis's conclusion doesn't seem useful, at least not based on my reading of your summary. If the goal of academia is the pursuit of knowledge, then it is only arguments, not views, which are capable of containing "wrongness."

For example, science works this way (or at least is supposed to in theory): all hypotheses are welcomed, but it is withstanding the tests of a single agreed-upon scientific method that determines the acceptance of a given hypothesis.

Thus, two competing hypotheses can both enjoy high levels of support. (For example, there currently exist multiple popular hypotheses about how/why hominins evolved away from our mostly quadrupedal ancestors several millions of years ago). When that happens there is a genuine diversity of ideas!

 
At 3:27 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

David -
re: "Taking Daniel's example of Marxists, I think for a physics department, a candidate being an able Marxist would be an asset, since other members of the faculty could talk with him and learn the arguments for Marxism. In the case of economics, if Marxism is really indefensible one need not hire Marxists to teach economics."

Hmmm... I'm not sure I agree. I think there's a general interest in hiring people who do not get taken in by indefensible ideas, of whatever variety. That says something about their thought process, doesn't it?

We ought to give them a wide berth, of course. We don't expect physicists to know good economics or economists to know good physics. But the more egregious cases ought to be a concern even if its not directly relevant to the field, I think.

I think it's also important for something like being pro-apartheid that that speaks to their capacity to work with colleagues and students. Where do you draw the line? Segregationists are in but racists are out? Admirers of Nazi logistics are in but anti-Semites are out? I think there's a reasonable interest here, although obviously there's a question of degree.

 
At 3:34 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger PH said...

"I wasn't assuming that the department was one for which views on apartheid were immediately relevant. If it was, faculty members would (hopefully) be able to distinguish an applicant who really held a defensible position from one who didn't."

Ah. I (perhaps like Blackadder, though I won't speak for him) was envisioning a situation in which the applicant was a historian who had done well-regarded work on South Africa, but thought apartheid was justifiable (for reasons not related to obvious errors in basic facts). Then the standard John Stuart Mill question might arise: Should we stay as far away from this guy as possible, or welcome a challenge to the standard thinking?

Though this is not what you meant, I think it is an interesting question in its own right.

 
At 3:55 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Huff:

I agree with your point--but then, I don't think apartheid is indefensible. It isn't the policy I would have recommended for South Africa, but neither is the one man, one vote policy they ended up pressured into.

I think a good historian of South Africa who was pro-apartheid would be an asset to a history department. Not only would he make arguments that might perhaps be right, he would also give people a better understanding of the actual history, since it was partly a result of people accepting such arguments.

 
At 4:07 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel:

1. Note that your position would exclude Newton from a physics department. More generally, someone might be very good in one area, very bad in another.

2. But a further point, in the case I discussed, is that I'm not talking about choosing not to hire someone who has obviously been "taken in by indefensible ideas," since I don't believe the person I was speaking with had an adequate basis to be confident the ideas were indefensible.

 
At 4:22 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Yosifon said...

Have you ever heard an intellectually coherent argument in support of the existence of unicorns? No? Does your view of diversity thereby compel us to hire an academic interested in making that claim? I am generally uninterested in the political views of my colleagues, as it it not relevant to the job of an academic. I do, however, strive for diverse intellectual agendas, research methodologies, topics of study, manners of presentation, all of which are relevant to the academic life.

 
At 4:42 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

re: "1. Note that your position would exclude Newton from a physics department. More generally, someone might be very good in one area, very bad in another."

I'm not saying it ought to be a hard decision rule - I'm saying it's a reasonable thing to take into account. Besides, Newton knew enough to keep it under wraps, which itself shows some awareness of what was involved.

re: "2. But a further point, in the case I discussed, is that I'm not talking about choosing not to hire someone who has obviously been "taken in by indefensible ideas," since I don't believe the person I was speaking with had an adequate basis to be confident the ideas were indefensible."

Well what holder of indefensible ideas is ever going to be convinced a critic has an adequate basis to be confident of this!! It seems like that sort of thing is going to be contested and people are going to be left frustrated simply as a result of how you've posed the question. Presumably if the members of a department are jointly convinced a person's position is indefensible they're also going to be jointly convinced that the holder of that position is wrong when he says they can't evaluate the question.

 
At 5:08 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Presumably if the members of a department are jointly convinced a person's position is indefensible they're also going to be jointly convinced that the holder of that position is wrong when he says they can't evaluate the question."

I'm not the holder of that position, I'm the person arguing that they don't know enough to be sure it is wrong. And the fact that someone starts out convinced that he knows a position is indefensible doesn't imply that he can't discover he is wrong, once he is presented with arguments for it that had not occurred to him.

There are a fair number of positions that I believe are indefensible, but don't think I know well enough to be sufficiently confident they are to be unwilling to listen to an intelligent defender. You have to remember that, in my hypothetical, the candidate has already been determined to be competent in his field, and is discovered to be not merely a defender but an articulate defender of apartheid.

 
At 5:12 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

To David Yosifon:

My hypothetical assumed both that the candidate was already known to be competent in his field and that his defense of apartheid was articulate. If someone who was clearly a competent legal scholar turned out to not merely believe in unicorns but have articulate arguments for his belief, that would be an argument for hiring him.

Just like articulate arguments for the claim that stakeholders, broadly defined, had essentially the same justification to claim control over a corporation as stockholders.

 
At 5:34 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:40 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David (Friedman):

Similarly, an economics department should think that a candidate being an articulate and intelligent creationist is an asset--a biology department perhaps not.

I am not sure I follow your arguments well. If the person we are talking about is somebody whose arguments are defensible (by the way, what does that really mean?), then (s)he is an asset even more for the department in which he helds controversial views (supported by those defensible arguments). If he just blindly follows something strange without backing it up with something sensible, it is of course not acceptable for the department that deals with the issue of controversy, but it is not an asset for any other department either...

So it seems to me that either his ideological differences are an asset for anyone (and especially for the department that deals with it directly) - in the case he can defend himself - or for nobody at all (if the opposite is true).

What also remains a question is what "defensible arguments" really mean. Quite often I consider something a very convincing argument while someone else might say it is just bogus (take for instance the prolonged discussion here some weeks ago with that one hard-core Rothbard supporter). Of course the people in the department of the issue are probably knowledgeable about it and should be able to recognize good arguments better...but then what about your current quote of the month on your website? I think that alone is a good testimony of the fact that it is at least possible that the current faculty simply might not want to listen to (even very good) opposing arguments at all.

By the way, one thing I like about mathematics is that it is probably the only area of human research/art where the truth is absolute and where arguments are either correct or false with certainty (even though sometimes it takes a few years to spot a mistake). I am happy I don't have to deal with these ideological issues at least in my line of study (and work now) :)

 
At 6:34 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

I don't understand why diversity of ideas in this context is an asset. If I'm hiring on behalf of a chemistry department, why should I care if the candidate believes in things like unicorns or mandatory 100% reserve banking?

 
At 8:16 PM, March 28, 2013, Blogger BG said...

Its the, not bothering to listen that matters. Give me something to intrigue me and I'll listen to you for hours. You never get there if you don't talk to people. You don't have to keep listening to people, that's what make blogs great.

 
At 6:02 AM, March 29, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

I think there is a problem when you exclude people with 'strange' or politically incorrect beliefs. The problem could be described as "the shrinking circle of respectability."

We categorize beliefs as 'respectable' or 'crazy' in part depending on the beliefs expressed by people we know. The beliefs of people we know well and respect are respectable beliefs. When we succeed in driving an 'extreme' belief (say anarchocapitalism) out of our field of vision, then a more moderate belief will be the new extreme. Then we will suppress that, too, again moving the boundary of respectability. This process can continue until the set of accepted beliefs has grown very small.

The place and time where I grew up - Sweden in the seventies/eighties - was like that. Contemporary American academia seems to be another example.

 
At 6:12 AM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

Agree Simon. Certainly strange or politically incorrect or "extreme" or "not respectable" shouldn't be the standard.

That doesn't make them an asset either, of course. I don't think it's a problem to hire a creationist in a non-biology academic setting, but I'd hardly consider such a person an asset or that it would be good to hire them.

 
At 7:43 AM, March 29, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

A personal memory... When I came to the university, I hung out with 'strange' people, passionate believers in Stalinism, anarchism, syndicalism, Marxism, Islamism, royalism, libertarianism or some incongruous combination. Most of the notions I got exposed to this way were nonsensical, but it helped disinhibit me intellectually and take an interest also in the counterintuitive and unusual. I think this was a very salutary effect.

Not an argument for hiring creationist Stalinists, but perhaps for erring on the side of inclusiveness.

 
At 8:13 AM, March 29, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

To Daniel:

The creationist in a physics department is an asset because he gives his colleagues, and perhaps students he talks with, the opportunity to understand a set of ideas they otherwise might not understand.

And a policy of promoting rather than excluding such has the further advantage that some of the ideas that people are confident are correct are actually wrong, so exposing yourself to ideas you are confident are wrong may result in your learning that they are right.

 
At 8:27 AM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Josiah Neeley said...

David & Power Child,

To the extent that we are not sure about which position on an issue is correct, then having proponents of both positions around can be valuable, as people are generally better at articulating positions they personally believe in than those they disagree with.

On the other hand, where we are confident that a given view is incorrect, then there is less value in having proponents around to explain and defend it. No one thinks, for example, that it is important for history departments to have on staff someone who subscribes to the views of Immanuel Velikovsky.

I suspect this is the real difference of opinion between Prof. Friedman and the academic he mentions about a pro-appartheid candidate. The guy is confident (rightly or wrongly) that the pro-appartheid position is wrong, whereas Prof. Friedman is less confident this is so.

(Prof. Friedman also mentions the idea of having a candidate with heterodox views that don't directly relate to his academic field, e.g. a pro-apparheid physicist or a creationist economics professor. Here I think it matters whether the views in question are considered merely wrong or repugnant. If the views are considered merely wrong, then it probably doesn't matter much one way or the other; a biology professor might consult his creationist economics prof colleague to get a better sense of what creationists believe, but he probably won't. If the views in question are considered repugnant, however, then the fact that the candidate is known to hold them might distract from or interfere with his ability to do his job even if they don't directly relate to what he is teaching).

 
At 8:28 AM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

I understand the argument, David. I'm just saying you can't be so sure. You could also have someone who thinks something demonstrably wrong but who is better prepared to argue it than anyone is to refute it (because people had long since stopped paying attention to it) who successfully leads a lot of people down the rabbit hole. Certainly there is value simply in exposure. Certainly there is value in diversity regardless of how out-there the view is because it gets people to teach from different perspectives.

I understand all the arguments for the case that this affords a certain kind of gross benefit. What's not clear at all is that it's a net benefit.

 
At 8:32 AM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

Where would you draw the line after all?

Do we prefer a physics department full of qualified physicists with a fascist, a Stalinist, a young Earth creationist, a Heaven's Gate cult member, and a homophobe to a physics department with four liberals and a libertarian just because students get exposed to new views?

I feel like that could be a very problematic department

Surely at some point you're going to agree with me, right? Or no? If so, what point is that?

 
At 8:36 AM, March 29, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christopher Hitchens, 'Prepared for the Worst', chapter on Israel Shahak, anti-zionist Israeli, under pressure from pro-zionist Israel:

"His accession to full professorship in the chemistry department was held up three times by the university's nonacademic Board of Regents, until they were addressed by Ernst David Bergmann. Bergmann was a devoted government loyalist and had been the youngest professsor of organic chemistry in pre-1933 Germany. He bluntly reminded the board that Shahak was a first-rate chemist and that politics had no bearing on that consideration."

 
At 1:19 PM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Power Child said: "...diversity of ideas is almost never sought out anywhere, even in places with very little diversity of the "standard" variety.

Diversity of ideas is a genuinely hard thing for people to swallow, or even pretend to swallow."

I agree with that.

Assuming that one *does* value diversity of ideas, diversity of backgrounds is actually a pretty good proxy for that. People who are from different backgrounds from you often turn out to have surprisingly different ideas than you. And by "surprisingly", I mean ideas that are different in ways you weren't even aware were possible. Not being aware of them, you would not have been exposed to them if you were using a selection method that sought out people with specifically controversial or minority views.

 
At 2:55 PM, March 29, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Unknown:

Your point about using diverse backgrounds as a proxy for diverse ideas is spot on, but as you said it presumes that diverse ideas are valued. Diverse ideas are occasionally stated to be valued, but how often are they genuinely valued? And when they are, how does this happen in the first place?

Also, there's a downside to using diverse backgrounds as a proxy for diverse ideas: diverse backgrounds also can also be used as a proxy for "standard" diversity. So, the latter can be swapped out for the former if (more like when) the former is found to be upsetting or repulsive.

 
At 7:13 PM, March 29, 2013, Blogger William Newman said...

Orthodox academic thinking about diversity can be hard to follow. Sometimes it makes me wonder how often modern academics blow gaskets the way that Hume did. Thus similarly afflicted, they might naturally write something similar to _Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion_ but starring diversity instead of the argument from design. Of course, today's academic arguments about diversity are not motivated reasoning applied selectively and inconsistently as a tonguebath for crude ethnic and sex-related patronage in support of the Progressive coalition. But then, of course, in Hume's time neither was the theological application of the argument from design constrained by any felt need to draw only those conclusions which would please the powerful by implying the existence of an entity closely resembling the God of the Bible. It's just that then as now, intellectuals suffer an occupational risk of occasionally jumping to unorthodox conclusions from a mere pattern of empirical evidence. And then and perhaps now, there was evidently a nonzero further risk of writing down a bunch of obvious underexplored questions and arranging for posthumous publication. So it seems natural to wonder what unsound but superficially clever and entertaining confection of commentary might be revealed when some academic of today moves safely beyond ripe old age.

 
At 10:05 PM, March 29, 2013, Anonymous Jim Rose said...

If a righteous majority silences or ignores its opponents, it will never have to defend its beliefs and over time will forget the arguments for it.

As well as losing its grasp of the arguments for its belief, JS Mill adds that the majority will in due course even lose a sense of the real meaning and substance of its belief.

What earlier may have been a vital belief will be reduced in time to a series of phrases retained by rote. The belief will be held as a dogma rather than a living truth.

Beliefs held like this are extremely vulnerable to serious opposition when it is eventually encountered.

Beliefs are more likely to collapse because their supporters do not know how to defend them or even what they really mean.

Mill’s has scenario involves both the majority and minority having a portion of the truth but not the whole of it. He regards this as the most common of the three scenarios, and his argument here is simple.

To enlarge its grasp of the truth the majority must allow the minority to express its partially truthful view.

Three scenarios – the majority is wrong, partly wrong, or totally right - exhaust for Mill the possible permutations on the distribution of truth. Mill holds that in each case the search for truth is best served by allowing free discussion.

Mill thinks history repeatedly demonstrates this process at work and he offered Christianity as an illustrative example.

By suppressing opposition to it over the centuries, Christians have weakened rather than strengthened Christian belief. Mill thinks this lack of an ability to debate explains the decline of Christianity in the modern world.

But does all this justify hiring a dissident professor and exposing students to them because the other professors do not read as widely as they should?

 
At 11:15 AM, March 30, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...

I don't think it's a problem to hire a creationist in a non-biology academic setting, but I'd hardly consider such a person an asset or that it would be good to hire them.

A bit tangential to David's hypothetical perhaps, but a professor could be a creationist, in the sense she privately believes a supernatural God was the first cause of life (think abiogenesis), and simultaneously be an outstanding teacher of any number of modern biology courses. My point being there is evidently a range of beliefs regarding how creation occurred among people who identify as creationists, some of which are not incompatible with competency in teaching science.

 
At 2:18 PM, March 30, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blackadder writes: "On the other hand, where we are confident that a given view is incorrect, then there is less value in having proponents around to explain and defend it."

I am surprised that comments like this go unchallenged. Academics in general (and in the humanities in particular) believe all sorts of things that strike me as utter nonsense. The point of the blogpost is important largely because so many academics judge things by ideology rather than evidence. In the 1990s my department discussed whether political correctness inhibited free speech around the university. Everyone sneered at the idea. I then said that they felt no fear because they believed in the reigning orthodoxy but that I held certain views on things like affirmative action that I do not express around the university because I feared the consequences. The chair of my department then responded, "Perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to express such views." Everyone else in the room knew that my views were simply "incorrect," so why should I be allowed to express them? Luckily I already had tenure.

 
At 3:06 PM, March 30, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

"they felt no fear because they believed in the reigning orthodoxy"

That is the problem, isn't it! Conformism is invisible to the conformist.

 
At 4:43 AM, March 31, 2013, Anonymous CC said...

Anonymous wrote: Academics in general (and in the humanities in particular) believe all sorts of things that strike me as utter nonsense.

Care to give some examples, both from humanities and from the sciences? I'm not challenging you; I'm just interested to hear some particulars.

Good anecdote about your department, btw.

 
At 8:25 AM, March 31, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

One inaccurate belief that seems extremely widespread among American academics is that Sweden is a spotless utopia, extremely wealthy and entirely without social problems, all thanks to socialism.

 
At 5:51 AM, April 01, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

Actually I think Anonymous provided an example: the belief that political correctness doesn't inhibit speech at aaaaall.

 
At 11:05 AM, April 01, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CC asked for examples of the reigning orthodoxy among academics. Here's a short list:

--There is no such thing as "race." It is not a scientific concept.

--Affirmative action is necessary because racism continues to be the primary cause of the poor performance of blacks in school.

--IQ tests do not measure anything real about human intelligence.

--IQ is not heritable.

--If government programs for the elimination of poverty have failed, it is for one of two reasons: 1) they have not been sufficiently funded; or 2) those implementing the programs have not been sincere.

--All differences between men and women are culturally determined.

If anyone doubts the extent to which these ideas dominate public discourse on college campuses, I invite that person to assert publicly a contrary view and see what happens. I say "publicly" because many people will tolerate such notions in private, but they will feel compelled to silence them if they are offered as part of the public discourse of the campus.

 
At 2:57 PM, April 02, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My parents were Holocaust survivors. I'm in mathematics, and I imagine that if the best candidate for a math job was also a Holocaust denier, I would oppose hiring them. Perhaps it goes beyond thinking that someone who denies the historicity of the Holocaust is merely wrong, but it entails that they're immoral. Perhaps I think that because if one denies the Holocaust, one is implicitly saying that the Jews (and their allies) have engaged in a giant conspiracy to hoodwink everyone else. David Friedman, if you're reading this, would you have qualms about hiring the "best" candidate for a job who's a Holocaust denier, if it weren't for a job related to teaching history?

 
At 12:56 AM, April 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous offers an interesting hypothetical about hiring a holocaust denier. I think it raises two different issues.

So far as the intellectual issue, if we assume that the candidate is obviously intellectually competent and can do an intelligent job of defending his position, then his odd view is an asset, not a liability.

But there is also a social issue here, as there might be in some other situations one can imagine. That particular position might, for the sort of reason you suggest, lead to friction with other faculty members, which would be a problem.

An even clearer example would be a potential hire who not only disapproved of gay marriage but morally disapproved, strongly, of gay sex. That would be a problem if members of the faculty and/or student body were gay.

In both cases, I think it would depend on further details of his views. Someone might deny the holocaust without arguing for a world Jewish conspiracy, presumably including Jewish members of the faculty. And someone might oppose gay marriage without claiming that gays were horrible people.

 
At 1:50 PM, April 03, 2013, Anonymous Moshe Syrquin said...

I think that your discussion of the holocaust denier and other with 'diverse' views is insufficiently nuanced. A creationist could believe in the biblical account without rejecting Darwin and evolution, and may attempt to reconcile (to himself) the conflict by, for example, appealing to Psalms (90): 'A thousand years are like one heavenly day' or to the Midrash on Genesis 'other worlds were created and destroyed'). There are sharp and clearly understood epistemological difference between faith and science recognized by serious scientists including many religious ones.
Someone may disapprove of gay sex on the basis of a literal reading and belief in scripture. But this personal faith-based conviction need no interfere with behavior towards others as you recognize towards the end of your post.
However the case of holocaust deniers, or believers in 9/11 conspiracies (the Jews or the CIA), or believers that the moon-landing was a hoax – belong in a different category, one that is harder to square with a beneficial, or neutral, diversity. [Even here there is variety with the last one being less noxious than the former two].
Unlike the faith/religion beliefs the last three claims are potentially falsifiable but no amount of evidence would be accepted as proof by holders of those beliefs. In this they differ from other extreme views such as Obama being born outside the US which is easily falsifiable by a birth certificate.

But even if we set aside the case of the holocaust denier there is still the problem that many departments in humanities and some in social sciences do not believe in the marketplace for ideas. Rather they see the point of academic studies "not merely to understand the world, but to change it".

 
At 7:44 PM, April 03, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7:46 PM, April 03, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Unlike the faith/religion beliefs the last three claims are potentially falsifiable but no amount of evidence would be accepted as proof by holders of those beliefs.

I can imagine these conspiracy theorists saying the same about us and our 'denialism'.

On those issues, you are on the conventional side (as am I), but you probably have some other unconventional beliefs that sound as crazy to outsiders as the 9/11 truth movement does to you.

On a side note, even if every single conspiracy theorist turns out to be wrong, what's the harm in interacting with them?

 
At 9:37 PM, April 03, 2013, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

Related to the problem of political correctness is the disapproval of eccentrics in general. I think this is related to American democracy and probably goes back to 1800 at least. England, at least, seems different. Americans expect everyone to agree and see it as anti-social to disagree. We don't want people to be interesting--- we want to avoid conflict.
Possibly math is different. I have heard that the math department at my university has both an outspoken creationist and a pagan who gave his children the names of strange gods, and that both are valued members of the department. I think my own department wouldn't hold those beliefs against someone either, and would be willing to hire someone we thought was loony if we also thought he was a good economist and wouldn't upset the students too much--- but then, I'm in a business school.

 
At 6:50 PM, April 04, 2013, Anonymous Moshe Syrquin said...

Joseph Miller wrote:
... you probably have some ... unconventional beliefs that sound as crazy to outsiders as the 9/11 truth movement does to you. ... On a side note, even if every single conspiracy theorist turns out to be wrong, what's the harm in interacting with them?

Point taken. I should have been more nuanced myself and not link conspiracy theories with holocaust denials. Ceteris paribus (almost synonymous with an empty set but assuming that anyway) there would be no obvious harm from interacting with someone that thinks the moon landing was a hoax. However, discussing with a holocaust denier whether the complete family of my mother was murdered at Treblinka or not I find repugnant and intolerable. Would a libertarian still think that this (holocaust denier) is an irrelevant feature? Can you separate those views from the proficiency of a candidate and ignore the former when evaluating the candidate for an academic position?

 
At 11:30 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

My European ancestors came to America in the 19th century. But some of their family and in-laws died in the holocaust too. If it were up to me, I certainly wouldn't hire a holocaust denier. But I don't pretend to be completely tolerant. There are many more tolerable ways to achieve a faculty that has a diversity of opinion, and there are obviously more worthy opinions.

But I agree with the blog post. The left claims to value diversity, but what they actually value is a superficial type of diversity that doesn't correlate with diversity of thought. It's a cop-out.

The point of my previous comment was that there should be no objection whatsoever to hiring a 9/11 truther, bigfoot enthusiast, or someone in the political minority.

 
At 11:47 AM, April 05, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

To clarify, I do think that having a competent physicist and holocaust denier would be an asset in a physics department, because he will force people to keep their guard up and practice defending their beliefs. Also, I would prefer not to set a precedent that certain arguments are not worth entertaining. After all, should we block access to holocaust-denying websites at university libraries?

If it were up to me, I would just hire a harmless 9/11 truther because a holocaust denier would get my school a lot of negative press.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home