Thursday, September 21, 2017

More on the Fragile Generation

In my earlier post on the fragile generation the interview has this quote from Jonathan Haidt.

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.

I agree with Haidt about the first two ideas that the current generation seems to believe. To me the first idea, that feelings are always right, stems from the lack of teaching kids the ability to think critically. Way back in the mid 1980s a friend and I designed and taught an adult continuing education course on critical thinking. At that time we could see that our adult students had never been exposed to thinking in a methodical, logical way. It makes sense that if people don’t have even a rudimentary grasp of logic and arguments they are subject to subconscious biases and to the push of emotional reactions.

I’ve read a number of books over the last ten years that explore how we form opinions and how we are unconsciously influenced by many biases. I recall reading about one study in which some of the participants read a series of words related to being elderly. When they were later given a series of physical tasks to perform they completed them more slowly than the control group that had not been exposed to those words!

As I explain it to people we like to think we’re being detectives when we’re really lawyers. By that I mean a detective tries to find out who committed a crime by objectively collecting and piecing together the evidence. A lawyer, on the other hand, tries to build a case, either to defend their client or to prosecute the defendant. The studies I’ve read about show that we often come to a conclusion about an issue then go looking for confirming data. We tend to ignore or discount data that doesn’t fit our conclusion.

I agree with Haidt with his identifying the second prevalent idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. This idea seems to be rampant among what some call the derisively call the “snowflake” generation. I think this is tied to the first premise. That is, if you don’t have the tools to think critically then we’re threatened by ideas with which we disagree.

My main objective is to touch on his third point: that the world is divided into good people and bad people. I’m sure Haidt will explain this more in his upcoming book and that he isn’t saying there are no evil people. Being familiar with Haidt’s work, I believe he is saying that people are too quick to lump those who disagree with them into the evil camp. I’ve seen it happen many times where you’re demonized if you disagree with someone politically. Liberals think conservatives are evil and vice versa. I’m not saying everyone does this but a lot do. It has happened to me during the 2016 presidential election. A couple people have quit talking to my wife and me when we disagreed with them.

I’m assuming Haidt would agree that there are some evil people. The clearly obvious examples would be Hitler, Mao and Stalin or murderous sociopaths. But these are extreme examples. In our daily lives we rarely deal with people who are truly evil. They might buy into ideas or policies that we believe ultimately hurt people. For instance, conservatives and libertarians believe gun control disarms the poor who might live in high crime areas. Liberals believe gun control protects us from those who, in the liberal’s eyes, can too easily obtain guns. Conservatives and libertarians think welfare benefits eat away at the incentive for people to find work while liberals think welfare is needed to compensate for the victims of an economy rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Neither side in these debates are necessarily evil. But I’ve seen it happen too often where you get slapped with the evil label for disagreeing! I assume Haidt’s book will delve into this in much more detail.

Before closing I’d recommend using something called steel manning and taking the ideological Turing test. Steel manning is opposite of a straw man argument which involves distorting what an opponent is saying then refuting it while the original argument wasn’t really addressed. Steel manning means we take the opposite approach of the straw man argument: you try to strengthen the argument of the other side before trying to refute it. To do this means applying what has been called the Turing ideological test where you try to state the argument of the other side as fairly as possible, as if you actually are taking that stand, then addressing it. I think if more people tried to do this we would have more civil and productive disagreements.

Both steel manning and the ideological Turing test take a lot of work! It means trying to think like your opponent then coming up with your response. Unfortunately, we tend to take the easy way out. Haidt has said in his earlier work that humans are still fundamentally tribal in nature. Once we form an allegiance to a tribe we talk the language of our tribe (see Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics) and look at the other tribe as the “enemy.”

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The fragile generation - Jonathan Haidt Interview

The fragile generation | Books & Essays | spiked

This is an excellent interview of Jonathan Haidt on the idea recently floated that it's OK to prevent certain people from speaking in public because their ideas are considered offensive and a form of violence.

Here is a summary that appears at the end.

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.
So how can we resolve the problem of vulnerability among young Americans? Haidt says part of the solution must begin in childhood and will require parents to give their children daily periods of ‘unsupervised time’. ‘We have to accept the fact that in that unsupervised time there will be name-calling, conflict and exclusion. And while it’s painful for parents to accept this, in the long-run it will give them children that are not suffering from such high rates of anxiety and depression.’
As for university students, Haidt references a recent quote from CNN commentator Van Jones. Jones said: ‘I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically.’ Building on this, he says universities should help students develop their ‘anti-fragility’.
‘We need to focus on preparing students to encounter intellectual and ideological diversity. We need to prepare them for civil disagreements. We need to be very mindful of mental illness, but otherwise need to minimise the role of adult supervision in their lives. College is a major opportunity, once they have left home, for them to develop anti-fragility and we must not deprive them of that learning opportunity.’
Here is an article from The Atlantic as well.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What's Worse Than Thieves? Thieving Police - Bloomberg: Applying the Three Languages of Politics Model

What's Worse Than Thieves? Thieving Police - Bloomberg

This article by Megan McArdle looks at civil asset forfeiture through Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics model. (For an explanation of civil asset forfeiture, here is what Wikipedia has: "Civil forfeiture in the United States, also called civil asset forfeiture or civil judicial forfeiture or occasionally civil seizure, is a controversial legal process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.")

Anyway, this is a nice application of Kling's model (which Kling apparently supports because he posted a link to McArdle's article on his blog).

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” | the fifth wave

The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” | the fifth wave

I found this essay to be rich and highly thought-provoking. It talks about the nature of narratives, the relationship between the elite and the public and the political battles over what constitutes the truth.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ways to Burst Your Filter Bubble - Bloomberg View

Tyler Cowen offers some ideas for how we can overcome 
confirmation bias, "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses" per Wikipedia.

Cowen introduces the subject as follows:

Often readers send requests, and last week I was asked for “Good Rules to Avoid the Filter Bubble.” My correspondent meant, how to avoid reading too many of the people he agreed with, maintaining a balanced perspective in a time of increasing polarization. Of course, a “balanced” perspective isn’t always a more correct one (sometimes one side really does have more truth on its side). But still it seems valuable to understand the views of others, and to keep in mind the limitations of one’s own.
The sad thing is, this isn’t as easy as it might sound.

He offers several suggestions. My personal favorite is the ideological Turing test in which "you could write out the views of a Trump or Clinton supporter, or of some other point of view contrary to your own, in a way that would be indistinguishable from the writings of supporters." I also rely on Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics because I think his model helps identify the main focus liberals, conservatives and libertarians use when expressing and defending their positions. (Quick summary. Liberals talk about the oppressed/oppressors. Conservatives refer to civilization vs. barbarism while libertarians see things in terms of rights versus coercion.)

For a more detailed analysis of confirmation bias and other factors that affect our ability to be objective check out 
Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting Oscars Comment: Related to Kling’s Three Languages of Politics

I’ve written a number of times about Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. Basically he says that each of the three main political groups in the U.S. prefer to use a language that centers on an axis. Liberals talk about the oppressors vs. the oppressed. Conservatives worry about the effects of barbarism on civilization. Libertarians coach their positions in terms of freedom versus coercion.

With this as background a comment was made during the acceptance speech for best movie at the Oscars by Marc Platt, a “La La Land” producer. His comment was lost in the drama that unfolded shortly after he made this comment due to the award being given to the wrong film. I don’t know if Platt is familiar with Kling’s book. (Probably not.) Or if he was trying to appeal to conservative in his phrasing. (Also probably not.) But I found his statement a potential use of Kling’s ideas to express an idea that could span the two groups, liberal and conservatives.

Here is what he said with the key text highlighted: “Here’s to the fools who made me dream: my uncle Gary Platt; my mentor, Sam Cohn; my parents; my children; my wife Julie, on whose shoulders I’ve stood for 40 years because she insisted I reach for the stars. And to the Hollywood community that I’m so proud to be a part of. And to the Hollywood and the hearts and minds of people everywhere, repression is the enemy of civilization. So keep dreaming, because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.”

I know he uses repression rather than oppression but I think the terms are close enough. Oppression involves keeping a person or a group of persons down while repression deals with the ability to express oneself. In any case, I find it interesting how Platt starts off with the liberal’s preferred term of repression to tie it to a conservative’s preference for civilization. I’m sure Platt would argue that a “civilized” world needs to allow freedom of expression, not the traditions conservatives want to protect such as religion.

What about the libertarians? They probably would say that the best way to prevent repression and protect civilization is by protecting individual rights.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Maverick Philosopher: A Note on Ayn Rand's Misunderstanding of Kant

This post by Bill Vallicella ("Maverick Philosopher") sheds some light on why Rand hasn't been taken seriously by professional philosophers.

First a personal admission. Years ago I tried to read Kant to see if I agreed with Rand's conclusion that he was "the most evil man in mankind's history." I didn't get very far! I found his language too obtuse (and my patience way too thin) to get more than a few pages into his Critique of Pure Reason. So I can't attest to the accuracy of Vallicella's interpretation of Kant. Per his profile, Vallicella "taught philosophy at various universities in the USA and abroad before abandoning a tenured position to live the eremitic life of the independent philosopher in the Sonoran desert."  

I won't try to summarize Vallicella's analysis here; I recommend reading his post.  

His conclusion:
the question is not whether Kant's ethical doctrine is true or reasonably maintained; the question is simply whether Rand has fairly presented it. The answer to that is in the negative.
So I persist in my view that Rand is a hack, and that this is part of the explanation of why many professional philosophers accord her little respect.
That being said, I'll take Rand over a leftist any day.
While I disagree with Vallicella's harsh labeling Rand as a "hack" I believe he makes some key points about Rand's approach to Kant. My impression is that Rand didn't have the patience (or interest) to digest Kant (and other thinkers). She read enough to get a sense of the thinker's direction. She thought in broad strokes, identifying key principles, but perhaps did not have the temperament to dig into the details of how these principles played out when applied to tough test cases. (I recall an interview with John Hospers in which he pointed out an issue with applying one of her ideas to a real world case that he felt wasn't so clear cut. [I don't remember the issue he brought up.] If my memory is correct, I recall that Rand's response to the point Hospers made was, "You bastard.")

Rand laid the broad groundwork for her philosophy but didn't write a definitive treatise to define and defend her philosophy in the kind of patient detail that is expected among philosophers.