Friday, May 7, 2021

Secession: Why it Might Happen, Why it Might Succeed

Why it might happen: the new orthodoxy that reigns in academia, media, entertainment, and now corporations, is fundamentally hostile to the old orthodoxy (Judeo-Christianity) it has replaced. Furthermore, this orthodoxy is assertive (foreground, rather than background) and will enforce acceptance through compulsion (unlike the old orthodoxy which believed in separating church and state). As the new orthodoxy becomes ever more compulsory through state power, those adhering to the old orthodoxy will resist and, at some point, feel that the government compulsion has become intolerable. They will want out of the compulsory/tyrannical political order altogether.

Why it might succeed: the new orthodoxy is fundamentally self-contradictory. It is at once radically in favor of expanding state power (to achieve “social justice,” to “end racism,” to “enforce gender equality,” to “achieve socialism”), but at the same time radically opposed to the violent means by which state power is enforced (police and military), and radically opposed to the forces of unification that hold a nation together (e.g., patriotism, national symbols, common education). This means that they will expand state power to enforce their orthodoxy, even as they weaken the power of enforcement and the desire of the public to comply.

This is the first time that I am aware of in human history where this paradox has existed. Nationalism, Socialism, and militarism generally go together (as with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao), but they are fundamentally at odds in the new orthodoxy. Tribe-left is hostile to nationalism and militarism, but supportive of socialism.

The first attempt at secession (1861) didn’t succeed because Lincoln was at once wanting to expand state power to end slavery (a correct use of expanded state power to achieve social justice), but also willing to use the ultimate means of enforcement of state power (the military) and the symbols of nationalism (as in the Gettysburg Address) to achieve his goals. Our current tribe-left has no such consistency meaning they could fail where Lincoln succeeded.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Low vs. High Decouplers

I just came across a study showing that people in the hard sciences are "high decouplers"--meaning able to separate unrelated issues from each other--while artistic types and those in the humanities are low decouplers. This could explain why humanists are far more ideological and dogmatic in their ideology than are hard scientists. An ideology is a collection of unrelated positions (e.g., high taxes, abortion rights, pacifism). High decouplers will be able to see the unrelated nature of these issues and approach them one by one. Low decouplers will lack that ability and adopt them as a package.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Applying Conspiracy vs narrative to the climate change debate

It’s generally a bad idea to reject established wisdom on the grounds of conspiracy theory, but it is a good idea to evaluate conventional wisdom by challenging narratives. So, for instance, there are “climate deniers” who claim that climate change is a hoax—a pretext to grab control by a conspiracy of scientists and public officials. I consider this position illegitimate on the grounds that it would require an impossible combination of secrecy among thousands of people. But it is legitimate to challenge the narrative of climate alarmism since it requires no conspiracy, just groupthink (an extremely common psychological tendency). It’s reasonable to read the evidence (as Obama’s energy Czar, Steven Koonin does), to come to the conclusion that although climate change is real, it doesn’t appear to be a threat on the level that many in positions of power would have it be. We shouldn’t dismiss facts (by invoking “conspiracy”) to dismiss climate alarmism, but we should challenge dominant, elite narratives in light of the facts. As far as I can tell, rejecting consensus can be done using conspiracy theory or narrative theory, but the former is generally misguided while the latter is important and necessary since bad narratives that distort or deny facts can take hold for social reasons.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Collectivism vs. Individualism

As usual, the question of "individualism vs. collectivism" presents a false binary. These are terms not used much anymore, but in the early 20th century, it was a common framing (and often used to compare “free but selfish” capitalist countries to “controlled by unselfish” socialist countries). The assumption was we could have individual freedom or a commitment to communal welfare (sacrifice and find meaning in a collective cause “greater than oneself”). This appears to have been a false framing. We can have a political system committed to protecting individual freedom and then, with that freedom, have individuals choose participation in micro communities, such as family, church, and mediating institutions. A great error was assuming that freedom and collectivism were on a scale, rather than complementary, and that a political unit, such as nationalism, would be the “community” in which individuals would sacrifice and find meaning (through coercion). Ultimately, I think we should remain individually free so we can choose community good. Public individualism for private collectivism. A recent study referenced by Brad Wilcox gave support to this view, showing there was a correlation in well-being between individualism on the national level, but collectivism on the personal level. That sounds right.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The problems with conspiracy theories

    1. Vanity: They operate on the false assumption that a cabal of wicked people are oppressing the rest of us, and only the “heroic” conspiracy theorists can see through the illusion. It is self-congratulatory and makes the conspiracy theorist the hero in his own narrative. Although there is absolute good and absolute evil, people are rarely absolutely good or evil. It’s generally not helpful to think in terms of the completely good guys (us) vs. the completely bad guys (them, e.g., the conspirators).

    2. Collusion: they require thousands (perhaps millions) of people to cooperate in a lie, without any of them ever leaking their participation in this lie. Real conspiracies unravel quickly as people come clean (e.g., John Dean in Watergate).

    3. Facts: Senator Moynihan once pointed out that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. The biggest problem of conspiracy theories is that they deny facts. While it is common for millions of people to come up with a mistaken narrative that ignores or misinterprets facts (e.g., that the New Deal ended the Great Depression), it is extremely unlikely that millions of people would cooperate to lie about facts. Every conspiracy theorist must also rely on “new facts” to debunk the “old facts,” but wouldn’t the new (marginal) facts be at least as problematic as the old (mainstream) facts they are trying to debunk? It’s self-defeating (like trying to put out fire with a flamethrower). So we can disagree about how we interpret the rise and fall of GDP (Tax cuts? Public investment? Charismatic leadership? Expanded trade?), but it’s unwise to disagree with the GDP numbers themselves. Once we do that, we have jumped from the realm of legitimate debate (disagreement of interpretation/narrative) and into the realm of illegitimate conspiracy theorizing.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Humility and Science

I just read this quote from M. Scott peck, which echoes what Karl Popper emphasized a century ago: "Humility is the very basis of the scientific method." Indeed and since humility has, by just about any measure, plummeted in public life, our political discourse has gotten unquestionably less scientific. Sacrificing the education and well-being of millions of students by clinging to a discredited "Close schools to prevent spread of COVID" notion is a case in point. I’m one of those who wrote an angry letter to my local school administrators last March demanding they close our schools, but I've since apologized and admitted my error. Both political tribes fire the charge "anti-science" at each other, but inasmuch as society as a whole and, in particular, ideologues of both tribes, are more given to doubling down than admitting error, then our society has become--at the public level at least--extremely "anti-science."

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Three Keys to Civil, Productive Debate

Below are three rules that seem to help discussions of controversial topics remain civil and productive: commonality, charity, and humility.

  • 1. Commonality: Identify, emphasize, and leverage whatever it is you agree on. Even if people disagree about means (on how to help the poor or get to heaven), they generally agree about ends. Focus on that agreement.
  • 2. Charity: Don’t work to “destroy” or “own” the person you are talking to. Reframe it in terms of a partnership: you are both working together to get at the truth. Give your discussant the benefit of the doubt and assume they are operating in good faith.
  • 3. Humility: Be willing to learn and even change your mind. Hopefully, your discussant can learn something from you, but be willing to learn something from them. So important is this third one that it has some sub-steps:
  • a. Separate what’s certain from what’s not. There are a few things that we are certain about, but almost everything else is, in the words of Thomas More, “capable of question.”
  • b. Only debate what’s uncertain (empirically open). It’s OK to be closed-minded about something we are certain about (e.g., that it’s wrong to torture innocent children), but “fixed, final” truths are few and unempirical. Everything else is open to debate and able to be altered as we become aware of more empirical evidence.
  • c. On those uncertain points, make sure to put truth (what’s right) ahead of victory (who’s right)