Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Renegade Thinkers of The Intellectual Dark Web

Bari Weiss of the New York Times tells us that there are renegade thinkers hiding in the intellectual dark web (or perhaps just in the intellectual darkness).  That's because the mainstream media will not allow them to be heard.  Hence you have never heard of Camilla Paglia or Jordan Peterson or Steven Pinker or Sam Harris!*

I am not certain why Weiss wants to paint those pretty well-known public individuals as needing to hide in some secret location on the web.  You can watch many of them speak on YouTube and you can read the writings of many of them in all sorts of mainstream publications.

Perhaps it is because Weiss views those thinkers as the truth-tellers, hounded and suppressed by the regressive left?

Let's take one quote out of her opinion piece:

Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

Let's look at those fundamental biological sex differences:

Some of you may have read this blog long enough to know that I frequently discuss biological differences between men and women as well as the fields of gender differences but also gender similarity.  But I also discuss the impact of culture and the environment on cognitive and behavioral sex differences, and note that most measured differences between men and women are fairly minor in effect size, much smaller than the average sex difference in height, for example.

I am not sure which mainstream outlet would argue that there are no fundamental biological sex differences, including, of course the most fundamental of all differences which is about the division of labor in reproduction.

But Kevin Drum notes that Weiss probably doesn't mean those differences:  She means biological differences in intelligence and personality, though for some reason she doesn't state that.

So I decided to visit this hidden corner of the intellectual mavericks.  I watched two interviews which looked like they might be about gendered differences, one where Dave Rubin asked Steven Pinker about his older book The Blank Slate, and a recent long Ben Shapiro interview with the current guru of young conservative men, Jordan Peterson.

I will never get that hour I spent listening to Peterson's convoluted and weird theories back.  He didn't offer much evidence. but speculated at length about how our distant past might have looked, sigh.  The interview with Pinker was shorter, which was preferable, and he is more diplomatic in his answers.

But both gentlemen (and their interviewers) shared something odd:

They assumed that the scientific evidence they quoted was the objective truth, even though both Pinker's 2002 book and Peterson's recent book are guilty of selectively quoting only those sources the writers approved of.  Thus, what we are fed as "the objective scientific truth" is, in fact, a carefully picked assortment of only those studies which support an essentialist view of gender.

That treatment has two serious problems.  The first one is to omit any mention of studies which contradict the conclusions these gentlemen wished to draw.  The second one is to implicitly assume that all the relevant science has already been done and that it results in only one firm conclusion which therefore should be viewed as truth.

Anyone studying the history of how researchers have analyzed the differences between men and women will soon learn two things:  First, each and every generation always declares that the final word is in and that final word was pronounced by Mother Nature.  That it made women inferior is lamentable, but we must face facts.  Second, the vast, vast majority of those earlier studies have since been refuted.

That history might make today's research popularizers a little bit more humble and nuanced, right?  But not these four gentlemen I watched.  Rather, they clearly believe that their side has the power of all objective science behind them and that anyone who disagrees is just doing politics.

Hearing Peterson create his imaginary prehistoric world for sexual selection purposes was hilarious!  He argued that men got together in hierarchies led by the most competent men, perhaps voted in to be the leaders.  Women then chose to mate with the men highest up in the hierarchies.  Therefore, women caused evolution to happen through sexual selection and are, in fact, part-builders of patriarchies.  And the male hierarchies are based on mostly competence.**

I love the idea of female choice in that context, because it's about the only context in which the regressive right (to match the frequent use of regressive left in those interviews) allows women to have some choice.  But I am also sad, because the historical evidence is pretty strong in showing that those few famous men who left a lot of offspring managed to do that not because women chose men, but because the women probably had very little choice when captured by a warlord, say***.

The New York Times bends over backwards to give space to conservative ideas, and that is one main reason why we never stopped hearing about Hillary Clinton's email scandals.  Ironically, a very different piece was published on the same day as Weiss's piece.  That one is all about the absence of any real lefties from the mainstream media.

One final comment:  I am always struck by how easily all sorts of perfectly ordinary people express firm opinions about which cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women must be biological, given that very few of them have read in the field.  This is weird, because most ordinary people don't give firm opinions about the stock market or what the proper monetary policy should be, unless that happens to be their field, even though they handle money daily.

But in the field of sex differences you and I and our great-uncle Alf already know the score.


*  Not all the thinkers on that site are conservatives, though most topics seem to attack the cultural left.  

**  It's worth remembering that we don't have a time machine that could take us back to the prehistory to see how sexual selection actually might have happened.  It's also worth remembering that if the era of so-called evolutionary adaptations was when the early humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers, hierarchies are unlikely to have been terribly important.

I was struck by the patchwork aspect of Peterson's arguments.  He borrowed a spoonful from one epistemology, a pinch from another, skipped from Christianity to evolution and back again, apparently taking the "women are to be subjugated to men" command from the Old Testament as (on some thought level) part of a well-functioning hierarchy, and finally argued that the left's focus on identity politics means tribalism which is bad, because it will end in warfare.

I would have thought that tribalism is shared by all political schools of thought and probably existed before human hierarchies did.  Peterson himself is very tribal, though his tribe consists of young conservative men, most white,  whom he wants to raise up in the hierarchies.

*** They may have been captured in warfare, they may have been slaves with no right to choose anything, and if they were not prisoners or slaves saying no to a violent warlord does not bode well to the woman or her family.  In short, the evidence does not let us conclude that women chose those men voluntarily.