Constructive Criticism of Heterodox Academy and Its Inaugural Open Mind Conference
Heterodox Academy (HxA) is my favorite of all the groups that are trying to bridge the ideological divide and bring some amount of civility back to our culture. I want desperately for it to succeed. If it fails there’s nothing else that I see that could take its place.
So it was especially disconcerting for me to come away from their recent Open Mind Conference feeling deeply disappointed. Having been a reader of HxA’s blog since it started — and through that, having been steeped since 2015 in messages about the tenets and practices of viewpoint diversity, I was excited to attend a day full of discussions at which I expected to see those tenets and practices put to use.
Alas, that was not what happened. As I see it, three tendencies undermined their inaugural symposium, and menace their project more broadly (click to expand):
#1: A Lack of Engagement with the Right
Haidt suggests that to understand other people we should follow the sacredness. We should learn and understand the essential, core, unassailable moral value(s) upon which they base their lives.
I have elsewhere argued that liberalism and conservatism turn on different core moral values – which provide the foundation through which we understand the world, as well as our place and purpose in it. In many respects, these fundamental ideologies frame our reality.
The core moral value on the left seems to be an intuitive sense — a strong subconscious feeling — of care, empathy, sympathy, and compassion, and a feeling of protectiveness toward those who have difficulty protecting themselves.
Central to conservativism is social capital (sometimes called moral capital. In this essay I use both terms interchangeably). In The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Haidt defines the term as “the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties” (pp. 338-9).
In the leadup to this definition (pp. 337-8), Haidt describes how he studied conservatism so that he might know “the other side” of social issues. He summarized what he learned from the book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present, by Jerry Z. Muller as follows:
Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11). Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital
Haidt describes social capital as “The Left’s Blind Spot :”
If your moral matrix rests entirely on the Care and Fairness foundations, then it’s hard to hear the sacred overtones in America’s unofficial motto: E pluribus unum (from many, one). By “sacred” I mean the concept I introduced with the Sanctity foundation in the last chapter. It’s the ability to endow ideas, objects, and events with infinite value, particularly those ideas, objects, and events that bind a group together into a single entity. The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth.20 Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle (p. 193).
If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently (p. 342).
In short: this insight about human nature, prevalent among conservatives, rare among liberals, is actually extremely important – especially for those who want to design or implement social policy. However, because liberals enjoy nearly-complete hegemony over academia, conservative reality seems foreign to them – and it is not merely neglected or treated with indifference, but is widely disdained as non-reality-based.
HxA was formed because academia has become a left-leaning tribal moral community that is a hostile environment for non-liberals, causing many of them to self-segregate out of it. This damages the reliability and credibility of social research, muddies the telos of the university, and undermines pedagogy — because there’s nobody present to challenge the entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies that tend to settle in.
HxA has taken upon itself the mission to “stand athwart” this deleterious trend. Their proposed solution has been to increase viewpoint diversity within institutions of higher learning. So it seemed self-evident to me that a predominant theme of HxA’s “Open Mind” conference would be to help left-leaning scholars gain a better understanding of the “other side.” I assumed there’d be a good amount of time and effort spent listening to conservatives explain their side of the story, or presentations of the results of such research.
I just noticed something near the end of the day, which was that I’d like to apologize to the audience for the lack of viewpoint diversity because I was looking at the schedule; as far as I can tell, there were three conservatives today, like almost everybody. There were 28 speakers and they were only three that I’m guessing were right of center. And so we’re, you know, we kind of failed to have a full range of views.
I won’t belabor this because it’s already been observed and described by others, notably HxA member and conference attendee John Paul Wright, who wrote in Quillette that “Heterodoxy is Hard, Even at Heterodox Academy.” Suffice to say it’s a problem, even within HxA, and particularly at the Open Mind Conference.
#2: WEIRD Rationalism
Not only do liberals and conservatives tend to rely on different core moral values, they also seem to subscribe to different core intellectual values.
Among liberals, there is a reverence for a style of thinking I’ll call WEIRD rationalism, where WEIRD is an acronym for the cultures in which it is typically found: Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. The core intellectual sacred value of conservatism, on the other hand, is holistic empiricism.
These quotes from The Righteous Mind (p. 113) help to describe WEIRD rationalism and how it differs from holistic empiricism:
Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. Related to this difference in perception is a difference in thinking style. Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object). But when holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule.
As good as this description is, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what I’m driving at when I say academia has a bias in favor of rationalism (i.e., liberalism) and against the holistic thought (i.e., conservatism).
The two cognitive styles of WEIRD rationalism and holistic empiricism, almost by their very nature, often make different types of claims, and therefore require different types of evidence.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, in “The Errors of the Militant Atheist” describes the different types of claims, and asserts that “Evidence for a type of claim must be of the same kind as that for the claim being made.”
This idea is important to the point I’m trying to make, so I quote Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at length. I added the bold font for emphasis:
Science, at least in the sense defined by the scientific revolution, is a process for formulating non-obvious, reliable predictive rules through controlled experiment. This means that not all claims are scientific claims and only a specific type of claim is scientific. Scientific claims are claims that can be validated or falsified through a scientific process — namely, controlled experiment. When the physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously dismissed a paper as “not even wrong,” that was what he meant: Because the claim made could not be adjudicated by scientific means, it did not even qualify as a scientific claim, and therefore could not even be proven wrong. Some people claim that only scientific claims are meaningful, but this is clearly nonsense. Scientific claims are one specific type of empirical claim, but, for starters, there are plenty of other meaningful empirical claims one can make. The claim “I had John over for dinner at my house last night” is clearly an empirical claim, clearly meaningful, and yet clearly not scientific. One cannot design a scientific experiment to prove the claim, but one can still produce evidence for (“Here’s a selfie we took over dessert”) or against (“But Sally said she saw you down at the pub last night”). But for the evidence to be meaningful, it has to be of the same kind as the claim being made. Another type of empirical claim is “Julius Caesar invaded Gaul.” What type of empirical claim is this? It’s an historical claim. It’s not a scientific claim — even if you could reproduce the invasion of Gaul in a lab, it wouldn’t tell you anything about what actually went on over 2,000 years ago. But it’s clearly a meaningful claim, and one that can be empirically investigated — using evidence of the same kind as the claim itself, that is to say, historical evidence. Similarly, then, of the claim “Jesus of Nazareth was publicly executed, and found three days later alive, possessed of a body, with open wounds and yet uninconvenienced by them.” Christians do, in fact, provide voluminous evidence to support the claim. Maybe the evidence is not enough to prove the claim, but it is clearly admissible evidence — historical evidence.
In his essay “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” Haidt points out how New Atheists rig the debate in favor of themselves before it even begins:
In “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Sam Harris gives us a standard liberal definition of morality: “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering… To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.” He then goes on to show that the Bible and the Koran, taken literally, are immoral books because they’re not primarily about happiness and suffering, and in many places they advocate harming people. Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins.
I suggest that by virtue of its dominance in academia liberal WEIRD rationalism does the same thing to conservative holistic empiricism. Per Haidt:
“My field is not very scholarly. We are focused on experiments and methods. We are not even scholarly about the experiments and methods used 30 years ago; we are too caught up in the present. This was what I came to see when I did a post doc at Chicago, in cultural psych: the anthropologists lived in a world of books and ideas. The psychologists lived in relatively recent journal articles.”
Liberals and conservatives, by nature of their different sacred moral values tend to make different types of claims, and because of their different sacred intellectual values tend to offer different types of evidence. But because the left dominates in academia, conservative claims and evidence are often ruled out by definition before a study even begins.
University of Chicago anthropologist Richard Shweder, and Brookings Institute scholar Shadi Hamid, were both panelists at the event and, like Haidt, seem well-attuned to this problem. However, neither of these three raised the issue of WEIRD rationality and its limits – and this did not even seem to be on the radar of most of the other panelists and speakers at the conference.
#3: Parochialism Towards Non-Academics
Conclusion and Recommendations
Effective solutions to wicked problems require accurate diagnoses of their root causes. So far what I’ve seen from Heterodox Academy is lots of attempts at solving, but perhaps inadequate diagnosing. Viewpoint diversity, by itself, is insufficient to solve the multi-dimensional problem faced by academia. The problem is much more pervasive and far more insidious than HxA seems to realize.
As I argued in my Quillette essay “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics,” I believe it’s not WHAT people think – their viewpoints – that defines the ideological divide, it’s HOW they think; the psychological profiles from which viewpoints follow.
The good news is that Heterodox Academy seems to be coming around to the idea that viewpoint diversity alone might be insufficient to solve academia’s problems. It recently asked, in a Perspectives Needed column, “What Are the Limits of Viewpoint Diversity?” – and it recently expanded the definition of its mission to include promoting not just viewpoint diversity, but also “mutual understanding” and “constructive disagreement.”
These are encouraging signs. However, I would like to offer four additional recommendations that may help HxA advance its goals:
First, the theme of the next Open Mind Conference should be “A Day Of Listening.” Its mission should be to help university stakeholders gain a deeper understanding of the people whose viewpoints are missing from academia, and how and why academia alienates those people and drives them away.
Second, the ratio of non-conservative to conservative panelists, which was perhaps as high as 25 to 3 at this conference, could be reversed. As HxA likes to say, quoting John Stuart Mill, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Future Open Mind conferences should help academics on the left get to know the “other side.”
Third, following from the first two suggestions, a significant proportion of the panelists should be from outside academia. It seems counterintuitive to believe, as HxA apparently does, that most within the academy tend to think the same way – yet these same professors and administrators who helped create and perpetuate the problem can solve it on their own.
Fourth, the process for achieving the mission of the day should be for HxA members to let go of a for-and-against mindset, and commit to actively listening to the panelists for the purpose of gaining an intuitive grasp of where they’re coming from.
This type of approach could help make future Open Mind conferences, and HxA as an organization, more productive and impactful – both within the academy and beyond.
Editor’s note: Stephen was invited to submit this entry following a great interview with Benjamin Boyce on the topic of Heterodox Academy and our recent Open Mind Conference. Although not himself an “academic,” one of Stephan’s key arguments is that HxA, and the academy more broadly, fails to sufficiently engage with non-academics, or to value non-academic knowledge and perspectives. This, and the other points raised here, seemed important to present to our academic members and readership.
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