Reading Haidt, arcs of history, false balance, how liberal views are closer to the truth, and science fiction

Beginning to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion today, an eloquent, insightful exploration into how the parameters of human psychology explain the range of political and religious differences. I wrote a blog post just a few days ago in which I tried to summarize my tentative take on these issues, before I read this book, and Chris Mooney’s, and others by Greene and Shermer and Kahneman. Haidt is echoing some of what I already understand, but he’s also providing some new perspective: in particular, how my ‘social arc of history’ (here) applies primarily to what he calls ‘individualistic’ societies, characteristic of post-Enlightenment societies in Europe and the US, as opposed to ‘sociocentric’ societies, such as those that dominated the ancient world (as well as some modern societies like China, it seems to me). Does the arc of history bend sociocentric societies toward the individualist? Not sure. I do note, for now, that ‘sociocentric’ tendencies seem to align with conservative politics.

But this book does not seem to be about whether any one tendency of human psychology is ‘correct’ in the sense of aligning with empirical reality (as I discussed in that earlier post). That’s another issue, but it’s a real one. (And if anything Haidt’s psychology suggests that this range of human psychology exists because it’s advantageous for survival, whether or not it’s ‘correct’ about reality; again, as I speculated about in that post.)

This recalls an issue raised in the New York Times a week or two ago. First, an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the [right-wing] American Enterprise Institute, about how universities are dominated by liberals/progressives and why, in the name of diversity, they should strive to include more conservatives.

(This strikes me as a similar problem to that of false balance, in which the media feels obliged to present both sides of issues even where one side has obviously less credibility, e.g. is the Earth round or flat?.)

Thus, this letter responding to the Brooks op-ed captures my reaction. My bold.

Arthur C. Brooks is asking the wrong question. The question is not whether we need more conservative viewpoints in academia but why there are so few conservatives in academia. Not all ideas are of equal validity and thus deserving of equal time in college classrooms. Some ideas are empirically better than others.

The liberal version of reality predominates in academia because, quite simply, it is closer to the truth.

For example, the conservative view of biology and geology (that humans are a product of divine creation and the world is 6,000 years old) is just flat-out wrong.

And the conservative view of economics (that cutting taxes and expenditures during a recession results in greater prosperity) has been proven time and again to be false.

Another reason for the prevalence of liberal thought on college campuses was given long ago by a social scientist: It is just more humane. Liberals seek to treat all races, religions, classes, genders and so on equally compared with conservatives, who want a pre-1960 America.

And whereas all humans are created equal, the same cannot be said for all ideas.

While I’m fascinated by exploring the patterns of the human mind, how its biases and intuitions exist for evolutionary reasons, I’m actually more interested in what is real, and how we can step around those biases, through reason and science, and perceive what lies beyond common human perception. And this is where science fiction is a useful heuristic.

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