“Everyone has a right to their own opinion.” Sure, but do we all have a right to expect others to take it seriously? Tom Nichols takes the current culture of relativism to task in this combative but entertaining article in the Federalist.
The Death of Expertise
by Tom Nichols
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.
I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.
But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense. Read more…
The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias, or mental shortcut, which underlies our tendency to overestimate the significance of information that comes easily to hand. Such information may be something we heard recently or often, or it may be something that we remember simply because it is emotionally charged. The following (recent, of course) article in The Economist is an example of this tendency in action, and may have something to say about the frequency and nature of media reporting about Islam in Europe.
THE brutal murder of 12 people at the offices of a satirical magazine in Paris today appears to have been carried out by militant Islamists. If so, many will again question the compatability of Islam with secular-minded, liberal European values. Mistrust of religion is not confined to Islam, but Europeans regard it as more threatening to their national cultures than other faiths (or indeed atheism), according to a 2013 poll by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Germany…. read more
There seem to be certain ideas that most polite intellectuals are quick to shy away from. Fundamentalist religion is one – many believe in God among their college-educated peers they are often quick to point out that they don’t believe it THAT God, the one with beard who does all the smiting. Likewise, atheism is out of the question. Sure, some might say, God is unlikely, but we can’t know, can we? They will call themselves something else – agnostics or skeptics perhaps, but certainly not the Christopher Hitchens sort of raving atheist.
Scientism seems to rank among this catalog of extremes which most thoughtful people hope to avoid. Scientism can broadly be characterized as the belief that science can explain everything, that faith, love and beauty are explainable scientific phenomena and, perhaps more importantly, that anything that cannot in principle be explained by science does not exist.If it is beyond the bounds of examination, it is beyond the bounds of reality. Such a stance, it may not be surprising to hear, is extremely unpopular with those involved particularly in the humanities. Science is well and good, but it’s not likely to tell me why Jane Austen is a brilliant writer, or how I can become the next Picasso.
In a recent article in the New Republic, Stephen Pinker attempts to reclaim scientism as a stance worth holding. Science can and should shed light on everything, Pinker argues, and even the poets and painters of the world should embrace it.
Shelley famously complained that science was trying to “unweave the rainbow” and destroy man’s sense of beauty and wonder. Can science and art be reconciled. Can we look to science for answers about love and beauty without abandoning our romantic conceptions of those vital aspects of human experience?
I know what you’re thinking – the last thing the world needs is yet another self-help book telling you to be nice to people, love yourself and ask the universe for stuff. And generally, I’d agree.
But The Happiness Hypothesis is different. Haidt is a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Virginia, and his book his a well-written, fairly dense synthesis of the latest research on happiness expressed in laymen’s terms. Haidt organizes his discussion around ten pieces of “ancient wisdom” – one might be forgiven for suspecting that his publisher forced him to put it this way – but the result is a broad exploration of things that studies have consistently shown contribute to human happiness, along with a certain amount of speculation on the evolutionary advantages of certain behaviors and inbuilt reactions.
Some of the results seem fairly obvious: happy people are nicer than unhappy ones, helping others brings lasting satifaction, solid relationships matter. Others, however, are surprising and not always pleasant. Gossip and revenge aren’t all bad. Neither is Prozac. Freedom of choice is not necessarily a good thing. Spiritual elevation and feelings of universal love do not lead to altruism. We are, in short, a conflicted but often predictable bundle of hard-wiring and social training, and if we truly want to be happy, good people we need to take our natural limitation and virtues into account.
If you are prepared for an intellectually and emotionally challenging read, are interested in the psychology of emotion, reason and faith, and are open to exploring the ground-breaking work of the positive psychology movement, then this book is a very worthwhile read.
In this recent interview with Nigel Warburton, pioneering psychology researcher Daniel Kahneman discusses how we think vs. how we think we think. We like to believe that we come to conclusions – about politics, for example – by applying our capacity for conscious reasoning. After all, we’re reasonable people, aren’t we? Kahneman explains the more common process of coming to conclusions subconsciously, largely emotionally, and then applying reason to ratify our decisions.
Reason has long been considered one of the hallmarks of being human. It’s a tool we have developed – or so the story goes – to help us on our path towards truth, an evolutionary adaptation that allows us the better to evaluate situations and come to correct decisions. Maybe. Hugo Mercer and Dan Sperber, cognitive social scientists advocating what is being called the argumentative theory of reasoning, think otherwise. They have argued that reason developed not as a truth-finding tool, but as a social tool to help us to win arguments. For a concise account of their groundbreaking work, see this NY Times article.
Ever since Socrates heaped scorn on the Sophists, reason and rhetoric have been seen by many as being in perpetual opposition. Rhetoric, it has long been argued, is an obstacle in the way of truth, a means of undermining of reason in the service of short term political ambition. Does the possibility that reason evolved as a mere adjunct to rhetoric change the nature of this long-standing debate? Does this in some way force us to reevaluate the nature and value of truth?
Beliefs are the birthplace of actions. We have a duty to believe carefully for, as Voltaire observed, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." To think well, we need to cultivate a sense of epistemic humility, to engage with our own ideas and those of others with skepticism, respect and honesty. In short, to think well is to think both deeply and broadly. This site is a collection of resources for doing just that.