Hunter and Nedelsky’s Science and the Good (2018), asks a question important to humanity: Is there a scientific basis for morality? That question cannot just be summarily dismissed because: 1) The brightest humans to have ever lived have worked ardently in a quest for an answer for over 400 years and continue today; 2) According to many, we’re getting very close to an answer – thanks to new technology and knowledge (recall Charles Murray’s “tidal change in the scientific understanding of human behavior” forecast here on 2/12/19); and 3) If the answer is yes – we could fairly arbitrate or even resolve some of mankind’s most vehement moral differences.
Moral disagreement is the cause of deadly conflicts, violence and bitter intellectual disputes. While most engaged in the quest are motivated by the pure search for truth, moral discourse is always embedded within the contingencies of history and culture, subject to bias and manipulation. How the question is answered impacts the struggle to keep or acquire power and privilege. Co-existing cultures have conflicting value systems resulting in competing claims to wealth and power. This is not just some boring academic dispute. Can science rise above our petty differences to form a foundation of morality, which could then lead to greater human flourishing for all? It sounds too good to be true.
The authors write that at the core of the debate is a view of reality called Naturalism, which holds that everything that exists can be understood in scientific terms. It’s a fundamental claim of the superiority of science over other forms of knowledge. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, naturalism is not the settled basis for all truth. Other competing non-scientific foundations of truth include intuition, common sense, introspection, a variety of cultural traditions, religion, pure reason, and then there’s art/music/literature. [The science vs. art culture war will be a future War Chest topic]
Hunter and Nedelsky explore the science of morality debate carefully and comprehensively. Chapter 1 frames the issues. Chapters 2-6 walk us through the 400 year quest landing on where we have arrived today. I’ll skip a discussion of those middle chapters, stipulating to the accuracy of the presented history, and move right down to their climactic conclusions in Chapters 7-9. But note that this history sharpens their point. As a non-academic, I’m grateful to the authors for making such a complex, scientific and philosophical discourse accessible to those of us interested in deep moral thought.
James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelsky’s book, Science and the Good – The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018), invites us inside an ongoing moral discourse by a group of intellectual rock stars who have a growing fan base, including me. Like any rock concert, inside are thrilled, cheering fans; outside, there are plenty of disapproving, grumbling critics who don’t get it, or don’t want to get it – ill-tempered truth deniers. Ignore those sour-puss non-fans and come on in; enjoy the show.
The authors write about a “discourse” on morality among serious thinkers (not agenda driven horseshit shoveled by polemic trolls and poser pundits – we know who they are). End note 23 in Chapter 1 calls out important impresario (concert organizer) John Brockman and his cadre of geniuses at Edge.org. They’re the real deal. You cannot trust mainstream media, but believe these guys. I’ll never forget discovering them. I was visiting my son at his first year in college (he’s graduating in a few weeks!) and came across a book, while he was getting a hair-cut with mom, at the bookstore next door – This Will Make You Smarter (2012). I was intrigued by the title. Inside were over 100 essays by leading thinkers addressing Brockman’s question of the year: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” That particular collection of essays propelled me to study, seriously ponder and then pen hundreds of posts on a variety topics revolving around wealth morality. My blurbs on moral warfare, the Pareto Principle, risk literacy, etc., all stem mostly from authors associated with Brockman (living writers anyway – the most important thinkers are dead). Brockman is the literary agent for Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and many other contributors to this ongoing moral discourse.
Let the Science and the Good Estate Planning War Chest moral philosophy rock concert begin. It’s a good segue from our last book The Death of Expertise because Science and the Good begins with why experts from so many different academic disciplines and knowledge backgrounds are needed to effectively illuminate the true basis of morality. Expertise may be dead in the fake news mainstream, but it is alive and kicking inside this concert hall.
Before we move deeper into the philosophy of right and wrong, let’s see how Tom Nichols concludes his book, The Death of Expertise (2017). It ends on a moral note and his diagnosis for America is dismal:
And this, sadly is the state of modern America. Citizens no longer understand democracy to mean a condition of political equality, in which one person gets one vote, and every individual is no more and no less equal in the eyes of the law. Rather, Americans now think of democracy as a state of actual equality, in which every opinion is as good as any other on almost any subject under the sun….When resentful laypeople demand that all marks of achievement, including expertise, be leveled and equalized in the name of “democracy” and “fairness”, there is no hope for either…Everything becomes a matter of opinion, with all views dragged to the lowest common denominator in the name of equality.
The current ethos of America has an eroding moral dimension. Historically, democracy has always had an evil monster lurking within it. C. S. Lewis embodied this in his demon character Screwtape (that’s him staring at you in the image above). He teaches other demons in hell that humans can be fooled, not only into believing an obvious lie, but also led to nurture that lie into a cherished feeling. The lie prompts some humans to exclaim “I’m as good as you!” Lewis writes:
No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior.
It’s this gripping fear of inferiority and profound insecurity in America that is the origin of evil ideas and feelings – jealousy, resentment, envy and hatred all fanning the flames of a toxic power struggle raging in the war of ideas. The growing rancor originates in legions of lazy laypeople who think their opinions matter – they don’t. I’ll introduce you to those whose opinions really do matter next week, as The Estate Planning War Chest explores a tour de force of experts crossing over their lanes of expertise to address something so often misunderstood and misrepresented but vitally important to us all.…morality.
Chapter 6 of The Death of Expertise (2017) is When Experts Are Wrong. Tom Nichols gives many examples of just plain bad experts – dishonest cheaters, sloppy researchers, lazy work, staggering incompetence, etc., but the section I liked the most was about experts who do not stay in their lane – experts who opine or produce work on topics in which they are not experts. The point is humorously illustrated with the character Eric Stratton (“Otter”) from the movie Animal House (1978). As he rises to defend his unruly college fraternity, a friend asks him if he knows what he’s doing. “Take it easy, I’m pre-law”, Otter assures them. When another brother asks, “I thought you were pre-med?” He responds “What’s the Difference?”
Some experts assume that because they are smarter than most about certain things, then they are smarter than everyone about everything. Nichols highlights the folly of this and I agree that entertainers, for example, have no business wading into deep or important intellectual waters. But on some issues, I disagree and think it’s OK and even helpful for some experts to cross over their lane marker. Nichols criticizes Noam Chomsky, an M.I.T. linguist, for writing extensively about politics, economics and a wide variety of other issues. But Chomsky is fascinating to read – even if you disagree with him and even if it’s clear that he’s rendering opinions about subjects on which he is no expert. Nichols is an expert on foreign policy, which is probably why he doesn’t like a linguist (albeit brilliant autodidact) crossing over into his lane.
Morality is of importance to all of humanity. It’s a fair topic even for those of us who are not professional philosophers, economists, scholars, theologians or scientists. Wealth and power allocation in our society is a moral issue. ….And this leads to our next Estate Planning War Chest project: Science and the Good – The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018), a book from James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelsky. It’s a remarkable work. Anyone interested in the morality of wealth should at least understand some of the ideas in that book. Stay tuned, as I prepare to paint over my lane marker of expertise. Relax, I’m pre-law.
Tom Nichols admits his book The Death of Expertise (2017) is a bit of a churlish rant against: 1) A meaner misinformed general public; 2) universities; 3) the internet; 4) journalism; and 5) other so called “experts”. Chapter 5 goes off on the mainstream press, which he demonstrates has managed to kill whatever remained of old fashioned journalistic integrity. He writes: “I realize that criticizing journalism and the modern news media puts me at risk of violating the Prime Directive for experts: never tell other experts how to do their jobs….” But recent changes in journalism have had a corrosive effect on the relationship between laypeople and experts, making us all confused and ornery.
Anyone with a computer and internet connection is now a journalist and that’s not a good thing. Loosely quoting Nichols: “A profession that once had at least some barriers to entry is now wide open, with the same results we might expect if medicine, law enforcement, aviation, or archaeology were suddenly do-it-yourself projects.”
“The mindset, and the market that services it, creates in laypeople a combination of groundless confidence and deep cynicism, habits of thought that defeat even the best attempts of experts to educate their fellow citizens. The modern media is huge exercise in confirmation bias. Americans are not just poorly informed. They are misinformed.” The release of the Mueller report on Trump is the latest example of mainstream media bias. Conservatives point to the diminishing credibility of “news” sources and exposure of their true nature as “propaganda merchants, narrative crafters, agents of ideology and entertainers.” It’s becoming much easier for serious thinkers to ignore them.
Nichols concludes the chapter with some recommendations and hope but it’s hard not to remain stoic and cynical amidst all the nonsense. Experts of all kinds along with our War Chest weekly weapons have an uphill battle to not just inform, but more importantly to unmask and expose the misinformation that is being forcibly instilled into everyone by the 5 targets of Prof. Nichols’ fist shaking. Next week, we get to how experts themselves go wrong.
Chapter 4 of Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise (2017) reminds us of Sturgeon’s Law, named after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985). He responded to literary critics in the 1950s that disrespected science fiction by famously decrying that ninety percent of everything is crap. That adage is powerfully accurate and perhaps a bit generous regarding information on the internet – more than 90% of the World Wide Web is crap, and this is undermining expertise and established knowledge (the small fraction that is not crap).
The internet is a vast parking lot for countless dumpsters of nonsense; torrents of misinformation and bad thinking, which weakens everyone’s ability to find and gain actual knowledge. Nichols explains how the internet is making people both meaner and dumber. Access to so much instantaneous information gives people a wrong and inflated sense of being knowledgeable, thereby creating a digital Dunning-Kruger Effect driven world. He writes – “What’s Fake on the Internet: Everything.” Ignorance is not as much of a concern as the growing hostility. The internet has made people confrontational, clustering in echo chambers among only those with whom they agree.
The source of all this ill temper is a “false sense of equality and the illusion of egalitarianism.” I’m online and so are scientists, professional scholars and Aunt Rose from Reno – everyone’s opinion counts the same, right? Wrong! – Especially when it comes to complex public policy, law, economics or the dreadful culture wars. Online communication enables anyone to express a view, which means almost everyone will express a view, no matter how uninformed, mean spirited or wrongheaded they may be. This is why most major news sources have closed their online comments. Scot Alexander explained the phenomenon on his 2/22/19 Slate Star Codex Blog post “R.I.P. Culture War Thread”. He tried to host a national conversation about controversial issues and was berated, harassed and threatened so badly that he had to abruptly shut it down.
The moral of that story is DO NOT engage the public directly online! [this Blog is a one way street] Why? For the reasons set forth in books blogger Mark Manson deemed “5 Books That Explain Why It Seems The World Is So Fucked:” 1) The Death of Expertise (2017), the one we’re exploring right now; 2) The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), which we analyzed last year; 3) Democracy for Realists (2017), people are stupid, just deal with it; 4) Who Owns the Future (2014), I thought George Gilder’s Life After Google (2018), which we delved into here from 9/4/18 to 11/6/18, makes similar points; and Bowling Alone (2000), an eye-opening social science classic.
Next week, we move on to one of my favorite targets of loathing – the irredeemably biased, reckless, misguided mainstream media.
Higher education is in big trouble. Everyone knows it and no one seems to know what to do about it. I’ve written about it here before; most recently from 11/27/18 to 12/31/18, as we worked through The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) [anyone involved in education should read that book!]. Chapter 3 of Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise (2017) probes into why higher education is not only an ineffective solution to the death of expertise, it is a big part of the problem itself.
College education is now a customer service industry. Students are not being trained in intellectual discipline and virtue, they are merely coddled clients. The cost of our university system’s academic malpractice is not only a failure to give students knowledge that forms expertise, but also the bigger problem of its failure to provide them with the ability to even recognize expertise.
Nichols traces the many sources of higher education’s failure stemming from a commodification of education resulting in:
- intense competition for students’ tuition dollars
- too many kids attending college, who shouldn’t be going
- inferior, third rate educational institutions cranking out worthless degrees
- grade inflation
- student’s rating learned college professors like restaurants and a decline in respect for their superior knowledge (teachers and students are more like peers now)
- helicopter parenting (and other coddling of our kids, which is making them weak)
We now have millions of arrogant, know-it-all students and graduates who have zero respect for intellectual authority and expertise. There’s no solution to the problem on the horizon, which is why I send my kids to college, notwithstanding all of this. Like grade inflation, if one institution takes a stand and deflates its grading system, then it’s their students who suffer. No college is going to be the first, and I’m not going to be the first to make radical decisions about my kids’ education that could disadvantage them. Pg. 158 of the book Chasing the American Dream (2014) illustrates the risk of trying to opt out of the unfair, narrowing, porous funnel that all of our kids are dropped through:
Next week, we move on to the internet information explosion. You could just Google that, but let’s let Professor Nichols edify us on the matter instead.