Irrationalism on Campus?

post by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T19:17:47.986Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 43 comments

Since many LRers are fairly recent college graduates, it seems worthwhile to ask to what extent would people here agree with reports of rampant irrationalism such as this one: http://www.city-journal.org/2014/24_4_racial-microaggression.html from a right-leaning journalist known for her book The Burden of Bad Ideas (which I'm certainly not promoting).

Some other sources like Massimo Pigliucci (see http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/) who seem more alarmed by creationism or the idea that all climatology is one big conspiracy, are also quite bothered by extreme relativism in some camps of epistemology, and sociologists of technology and science.

To what extent, if any, do you think PC suppresses free speech or thinking?  While sociology and epistemological branches of philosophy have partisans who to me seem to advocate various kinds of muddled thinking (while others are doing admirable work), in your experience, is that the trend that is "taking over"?

To what extent if any do you think any of that is leaking into more practical or scientific fields?  If you've taken economics courses, where do you think they rank on a left to right spectrum?

Also, have you observed much in the way of push-back from conservative and/or libertarian sources endowing chairs or building counter-establishments like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University?  And I wonder the same about any movement strictly concerned with rationality, empiricism, or just clear thinking.

My mind is open on this -- so open that it's painful to be around all the hot tempers that it can stir up.

 

Thanks,  Hal

43 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-11-20T19:32:41.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On a small set of issues related to race, gender, and sexual orientation it's extremely costly for a student or professor to state a non-PC position. These should be considered college mind-kill topics and you should have almost no trust in what you learn about them on most campuses.

Replies from: LawrenceC
comment by LawrenceC · 2014-12-01T14:55:39.008Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would add to this list heritability, eugenics, intelligence, and other issues related to the intersection of the nature/nurture debate - Here's a classic example. Here's another. Meta-mind-kill might also be a real thing: I've managed to turn a recitation into a riot by pointing out that certain topics, like eugenics, lead to mind-kill situations.

comment by Wesmaster160 · 2014-11-20T20:40:28.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a math major, and taking pretty much only math classes, which basically don't deal with any of these topics. I did take an online Intro to Macroeconomics course, and it did seem pretty pro-Capitalist, not overtly, but it in subtle ways made claims about socialism not being effective and such.

comment by falenas108 · 2014-11-20T20:19:28.954Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

TW rape threats, racism.

I have two responses, but I'm separating them because they are two entirely different issues. The first is that I think the article is misrepresenting the background of racism in UCLA in this article.

I'm a UChicago undergrad. In the past few years:

People put up a confederate flag in the window of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

People dressed up as a 'cholo' getting beaten up by a police officer for Halloween.

A group called the UChicago Electronic Army took over the website of an entirely unrelated group and threatened to rape an individual as well as telling people that they will "rape harder to show the class of 2016 who is boss."

The same group hacked into a person's facebook account who was speaking up against the Halloween costume, using slurs and threatening rape against another person. This was in response to a plan to show up to a study area and protest for 7 minutes. (http://assets.feministing.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Screen-Shot-2014-11-19-at-10.26.55-AM.png)

And these are just the ones that were big enough that I found out about it. Until the most recent incident happened, the University had not taken action or even said anything about any of these incidents. In the most recent one, people went to the media and 41 teachers sent a petition to the university to condemn these instances and make it clear that these issues would not be tolerated.

This article is construing actions taken to be issues SJ types are complaining about to be ones that are not serious or concerning, but it feels to me like they are cherry picking these examples while leaving out the more serious ones.

(It is possible that the ones outlined in the article are the only ones in the recent history of UCLA, and there is not a broader scope of racist actions that is being left out. But I place a pretty low prior on that being the case.)

Replies from: HalMorris, bogus
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T21:28:51.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, a very interesting response. But what do you mean by "SJ" types? Actually the whole sentence "This article is construing actions taken to be issues SJ types are complaining about to be ones that are not serious or concerning" is a bit hard to parse though I think I understand all but "SJ types".

Replies from: falenas108, Lumifer
comment by falenas108 · 2014-11-20T21:42:26.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I meant social justice types, as in those identifying with the social justice movement.

And sorry about the general lack of clarity, my mind's been feeling weird today. Basically, that the author is making it seem like people are making a big deal of out little issues, and I was trying to say that regardless of how severe you think these incidents are, there are probably worse ones that the author is ignoring.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-20T21:39:09.038Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

SJ = Social Justice, a framework of looking at the world as a fight against omnipresent oppression, mostly by white men of everyone else.

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2014-11-21T16:03:59.563Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It isn't rationalism to to give the most uncharitable definition of a movement or group possible.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-21T16:31:54.926Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, that's not the "most uncharitable" definition by far. I can easily come up with much worse.

I happen to think my definition is correct and I don't see any particular reason to be extra-charitable about it.

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2014-11-21T17:35:39.630Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's no need to be "extra-charitable" but it is helpful to give unbiased definitions of a group. If you want to then say "and I think that what they really act like is X" that's a distinct step, but actively defining a political movement to be something that they would not self-identify as is heavily in the mind-killing territory.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-21T17:53:09.283Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

actively defining a political movement to be something that they would not self-identify as is heavily in the mind-killing territory.

I disagree. I don't see why a useful definition of a political movement has to match their self-identification.

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2014-11-21T18:08:47.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Becuause that's not a definition, that's a description, and it builds into the situation a No-True-Scotsman situation into any dispute. It is therefore far more useful to keep distinct the self-identity of a movement and then state descriptively what the people who self-identify as such in practice act like.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-22T02:05:09.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is therefore far more useful to keep distinct the self-identity of a movement and then state descriptively what the people who self-identify as such in practice act like.

Oookay then. Let's look at my post. Here it is in its entirety:

SJ = Social Justice, a framework of looking at the world as a fight against omnipresent oppression, mostly by white men of everyone else.

Oh! You said "it is therefore far more useful to keep distinct the self-identity of a movement" and here it is:

SJ = Social Justice

and then you said "and then state descriptively what the people who self-identify as such in practice act like" and here it is:

a framework of looking at the world as a fight against omnipresent oppression, mostly by white men of everyone else.

So, remind me again what are you complaining about?

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2014-11-22T02:11:41.102Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The objection is the phrasing of social justice as a " framework of looking at the world as a fight against omnipresent oppression, mostly by white men of everyone else." I'm in agreement that to a large extent that isn't an inaccurate descriptor for much of passes for SJ. The mind-killing problem is to use that as the definition.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-22T02:47:03.251Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The mind-killing problem is to use that as the definition.

It's not a definition, it's an explanation in the context of someone asking "What does SJ mean?"

comment by bogus · 2014-11-20T20:52:49.592Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the past few years:

The fact that you even refer to things that occurred "in the past few years" is enough to conclude that what follows is seriously cherry-picked evidence. Any incident may obviously be concerning as far as it goes, but is there any real evidence that racial prejudice and animus are getting out of control? The point is, any situation where multiple cultures and social groups interact (and yes, races in the U.S. are social groups too, as we all know) is going to involve some amount of friction and conflict - particularly in a youthful environment, such as college. It's not something unrealistic or out of the ordinary. One can hope that such things will improve over time, but I'm not going to hold my breath for that.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T21:53:06.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm 62 and have seen a lot, but what falenas108 describes sounds kind of horrific to me. Also I don't see "cherry picking" in part because he/she's just giving a couple of points of data, not using a couple of points of data to draw broad conclusions. If you haven't looked at the link http://assets.feministing.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Screen-Shot-2014-11-19-at-10.26.55-AM.png I suggest you do. It seems to me many people's fears and rages are being played on, and many people find themselves agreeable "echo chambers" where they goad each other into ever more extreme views. I remember in the 1970s working (as a nurses aid in a state mental hospital) with a guy who was as sure as he was of anything that the Moon Landing was a hoax (note - a fellow employee, not a patient) and that seemed pretty remarkable back then, but it seems pretty ordinary now.

Replies from: Lumifer, bogus
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-20T21:58:32.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

what falenas108 describes sounds kind of horrific to me

This is entirely bog-standard garden-variety plain-vanilla 4chan fare.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T22:30:57.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No contradiction there, in my opinion.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-21T01:13:34.215Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No contradiction, but some implications. Implications mostly having to do with meaning behind the words and word inflation.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T01:19:44.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was impressively opaque.

By the way, is it really "bog-standard"? I thought it was "hog-standard".

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-21T02:13:18.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was impressively opaque

I'll unroll. "Word inflation" means that with time the intensity signaled by words decreases. Used to be you felt good on occasion, you felt excellent rarely, and you felt awesome maybe a few times in your life. Nowadays if you say "good" it means "pretty much sucks", if you say "excellent" it means "OK", and if you say "awesome" it means "I"m fine".

4chan has pretty extreme word inflation. "I'm gonna rape you bitches" generally means "I will attempt to do something unpleasant to you" and the actual intent behind it might be something like kicking someone out of an IRC channel.

So all that vocabulary in the quote upthread doesn't actually mean what it literally means. In reality it means "I want to make some status noises and that's the only way I know how".

By the way, is it really "bog-standard"? I thought it was "hog-standard".

Evidently in your area the hogs are standard, and in my -- bogs :-/

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T04:11:40.251Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for a good humored response.

Yeah, awesome is one that gets me.

comment by bogus · 2014-11-20T22:17:33.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't get me wrong, I also think the incidents are horrific, and I'm far from condoning those responsible. I'm just saying that expecting an environment that's completely pristine and free of any kind of tension is entirely unrealistic, and we should not be assuming that as a sensible short-term goal. If there's anything that can be done to help this situation, it's expanding our notion of "cross-cultural competency and communication" to include personal strategies for being more resilient and assertive in the face of perceived slights to one's status (what "microaggressions" seems to unpack to, AIUI). Because I don't think you can have one without the other.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T22:30:17.458Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

personal strategies for being more resilient and assertive in the face of perceived slights

I totally agree that we need that.

comment by maxikov · 2014-11-20T20:09:28.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I study at a small campus, that only has grad students of technical majors, more than of whom are international students. There's basically no political or societal discourse on campus. Feels good. I actually get much more exposure to politics via LW meet-ups, and most of the political discourse I interact with comes from local EGL community and their facebook feeds. And reddit, of course. But back on topic, our campus seems to operate on implicit politeness and tolerance principles, which aren't really voiced by anyone.

comment by Steven_Bukal · 2014-11-23T13:26:20.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where we've seen that talks on campus that are viewed as opposing or questioning feminism will have their advertisements torn down and mobs organized by the student union will show up to harass and physically block attendees and take other disruptive actions like pulling fire alarms. I expect this would generalize to suppression of other forms of un-PC speech and thinking.

That said, the administration at UofT seems to respond to these incidents more reasonably than the UCLA administration in the article (i.e. they didn't thoughtlessly capitulate), and my experience from taking courses across science, social science, and humanities faculties is that the atmosphere in general is definitely not extreme to the level of fire alarm pulling. I would guess that the extreme elements are mostly local to a small number of particular academic subject areas like women's studies, but that this minority has significant power to influence what is acceptable speech and thought.

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-11-21T00:18:28.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't seen anything quite as drastic as the events in the article, but as a current college student, it definitely feels familiar. To me it feels like there is a very strict divide between people who have "bought into" the social justice / PC memeplex and people who have not. I don't necessarily mean that these groups don't intermingle. I mean simply that I could pretty much label my friends' alignments on these issues on a binary scale. Non-PC people will usually be okay with e.g. someone using the word "gay" as a general term of dislike. It also seems like there is very little meaningful dialogue between these groups. When a PC person talks about these issues, they will typically use words like "privilege" and "oppression" which will make it clear what side they are on. A non-PC person will usually not use these terms or verbally surround them with scare quotes. Once people see that a person is on the opposite side as them, they will see them as the enemy and not really make an effort to find common ground, writing them off as "just another one of those PC people" or "just an ignorant privileged person". Of course, within the classroom, PC rules.

The other day I witnessed a big fight within my friend-group on social media because someone referred to a gay friend of ours (not privy to the conversation) as having a "gay voice". Someone said this was offensive, someone told that person to stop being so politically correct, and a vocal argument ensued.

Replies from: Azathoth123
comment by Azathoth123 · 2014-11-21T02:50:17.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience is similar to yours except that the non-PC people are generally more reserved about what their willing to say then you made it sound like. Also, PC rules not just within the classroom but on all the billboards pictures hanging outside offices, etc.

comment by falenas108 · 2014-11-20T21:38:22.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My other response is that it's not that this type of thing is suppressing free speech, it's trading off between two groups feeling comfortable participating in a particular environment. Let's look at the incidents in this article where there was a censorship of free speech:

The professor refused to allow a student to capitalize words in their dissertation paper, citing the Chicago Manual of Style. The students preferred APA, but the professor would not let them use the style they prefer.

Similarly, a TA says they aren't allowed to comment on correcting grammar.

The author of the article commenting over and over on "poor" writing style.

Protesting a t-shirt that pictured a professor who created a theory that states that students who get in on affirmative action are not as good of a match for the college, because they wouldn't have been admitted otherwise.

In many of thees situations, there are two groups where free speech is a concern: Academic groups trying to enforce a certain style of writing, and students trying to write in the way they feel expresses themselves the best.

At best, this is a conflict of different group's ability to speak freely. At worst, it's a continuation of the idea that writing in a style of a non-white cultures is somehow worse or less professional.

The only other thing was the T-shirt. To students who are affected by AA, that teacher was basically saying "you don't belong here." Obviously, that was not the intent of people who were wearing the t-shirts. And I am not sure how I feel on the overall reaction to this, but it is definitely understandable that affected students would feel uncomfortable by seeing a t-shirt with this guy's face on it.

Replies from: Lumifer, ThisSpaceAvailable, bogus, HalMorris
comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-20T22:07:25.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At worst, it's a continuation of the idea that writing in a style of a non-white cultures is somehow worse or less professional.

So, send out a resume written in ebonics, see how successful will it be.

it is definitely understandable that affected students would feel uncomfortable by seeing a t-shirt

Feel uncomfortable! Oh, the horror!

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-11-28T01:38:36.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

College courses do not exist to provide an opportunity for student to "speak freely". They are not open forums for students to express themselves. Self-expression may be a part of a college course, but the school has absolute discretion to decide how much latitude is allowed. Treating the professor and the students as having comparable interests fundamentally misrepresents the basic nature of a college court.

"Protesting a t-shirt that pictured a professor who created a theory that states that students who get in on affirmative action are not as good of a match for the college, because they wouldn't have been admitted otherwise."

The professor says that the colleges are not good match for the students. You are subtly changing the focus of his theory to make it seem more offensive.

"At worst, it's a continuation of the idea that writing in a style of a non-white cultures is somehow worse or less professional."

That doesn't make sense. Writing styles don't have ethnicities, and pretending otherwise is leftist mind-killing. Different styles are more predominant among different ethnicities, but there is no such thing as a "white" writing style.

"To students who are affected by AA, that teacher was basically saying "you don't belong here." "

You are simply flaunting your ignorance. This took place at UCLA, which is part of the UC system, which does not have AA. Even if there were, the professor's writings was not directed towards UCLA students. The idea that no professor should express any thoughts as to who should be admitted, because those that the views do not benefit will take offense, is absurd. And again, you are phrasing it in the most offensive way possible. He isn't saying "You don't belong here". he's saying "You would have better expected outcomes if you went elsewhere".

I also wonder at your choice of the word "affected". Why such a obfuscatory term?

Replies from: Salemicus
comment by Salemicus · 2014-11-28T10:15:40.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with the bulk of your post, but one part is false.

Self-expression may be a part of a college course, but the school has absolute discretion to decide how much latitude is allowed.

This is not true in a public university (such as UCLA) in the United States, which is bound by the First Amendment. I won't get into the details, but UCLA can restrict self-expression in some ways, but not others - it definitely does not have absolute discretion. Similar rules apply in many other jurisdictions.

comment by bogus · 2014-11-20T22:30:37.287Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At worst, it's a continuation of the idea that writing in a style of a non-white cultures is somehow worse or less professional.

That's an interesting idea, actually. Is there any evidence that the peculiar writing featured in the article is actually a distinctive style as opposed to, for lack of a better term, "bad English"?

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T22:47:21.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a bit snarky, but yes, "correct style" may be arbitrary, but without it, we'd drift towards not being able to understand each other. All told, I think a professor (esp. in a thesis writing prep class) is expected to correct students' grammar, and this one was treated shabbily.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T22:24:49.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're right that a lot of par for the course friction between groups is being cherry-picked and made to look like a broad trend, when it isn't nearly so broad if it is anything.

There's a lot of cherry picking, and a lot of making up out of whole cloth.

An example of the latter: http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/2014/07/myths-about-saul-alinsky-and-obama.html with an addendum: http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/2014/08/what-did-saul-alinsky-really-say.html

Note that the mythical "8 levels" were so well established, in a way, that Yahoo is even now, spitting it out matter of factly, 3 months after I wrote my piece. I just tried it (entering: What are the 8 levels of control as outlined by Saul Alinsky?) to answers.yahoo.com

And yet, I warrant very few people have any idea that it's going around, unless they spend quite a bit of time on right wing web sites -- and read the comments, because the site's main author(s) -- at least on the more important blogs, won't be caught telling such flat-out lies.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T22:54:32.407Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, I hope someone else will respond to the original question of 'what's been your recent experience', and we don't get totally bogged down in "micro-debates"

comment by Sophronius · 2014-11-26T15:06:31.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My own personal experience in the Netherlands did not show one specific bias, but rather multiple groups within the same university with different convictions. There was a group of people/professors who insisted that people were rational and markets efficient, and then there was the 'people are crazy and the world is mad' crowd. I actually really liked that people held these discussions, made it much more interesting and reduced bias overall I think.

In terms of social issues, I never noticed much discussion about this. People were usually pretty open and tolerant to any ideas, if it wasn't too extreme. The exception was during the debating club where any and all rhetorical tricks were considered okay.

I do remember some instances where professors were fired/persecuted for professing the "wrong" beliefs, but that was a while ago now. For example, my uncle was not allowed to say that Jewish people were more likely to have diabetes and that medical students should take this into account. Also, there was a scientist who was hounded in the media for 40 years because he said that crime had a large genetic component, until recently when people suddenly went "oops looks like he was right after all, how about that".

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-12-02T02:25:43.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. I appreciate the additional point of view and observations.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-11-20T23:13:10.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't rate too highly the opinion of a woman who lives and works in Manhattan of a campus in Los Angeles.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-20T23:41:07.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't rate it highly; it's just that it's typical of what I notice a concerted chorus of people saying insistently, and I can see that it has an effect on public opinion - mostly it reinforces general distrust of "intellectual elites"). Maybe I shouldn't have used that link at all -- anyway, it seems to be detracting some attention from the questions I was asking.

Replies from: bogus
comment by bogus · 2014-11-20T23:52:21.695Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

mostly it reinforces general distrust of "intellectual elites"

Meh. You don't have to be a NRx to acknowledge that distrust of intellectuals can be reasonable. Arguably, identifying with the Brahmin class is a political trap LW should stay clear of.

Replies from: HalMorris
comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T00:41:07.205Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you call it the "Brahmin class" dismissing it becomes redundant.

I think we need institutions though, in which the "marketplace of ideas" isn't just the marketplace. Lesswrong is one of them, as are universities.

I believe that the rules of the game in academic research can be very productive as long as there is a there there. I tried to model this as "discovering natural machines", which is what I think Newton did, or "Finding your Invisible Elephant" -- if the blind men actually have an elephant then they may be able to map it if they go about it the right way. But if they have no elephant - one is hugging a tree trunk, another has hold of a snake and another is pushing on a wall - no amount of "scientific method" will help them find the nonexistent elephant. This is why I think some disciplines, like literary criticism and some branches of sociology, despite having peer-reviewed journals and all that, simply go round in circles, and lead to distrust of others, which have something to offer.