Attention Must Be Paid

Persuasion publishes a Steven Pinker essay on irrationality and how to fight it: Reason To Believe. It's long, but worth your while.

Pinker is (I think) on the moderate political left, and many of his "irrational" examples draw from the looney-tunes right: QAnon, Covid truthers, etc. He's much kinder to Wikipedia than it deserves.

But he's got some ammo to expend against his "side" too:

Here's another candidate for a mythology zone: the sacred creeds of academic and intellectual elites. These include the belief that we are born blank slates, that sex is a social construction, that every difference in the social statistics of ethnic groups is caused by racism, that the source of all problems in the developing world is European and American imperialism, and that repressed abuse and trauma are ubiquitous.

Many observers have been taken aback by the repression of dissent from these beliefs in contemporary universities—the deplatformings, the cancelings, the heckler’s vetoes, the defenestrations, the multi-signatory denunciations, the memory-holing of journal articles. Universities, after all, are supposed to be the place in which propositions are interrogated and challenged and complexified and deconstructed, not criminalized. Yet these beliefs are treated not as empirical hypotheses but as axioms that decent members of the community may not challenge.

Academic cancel culture may be a regression to the default human intuition that distal beliefs are no more than moral expressions—in this case, opposition to bigotry and oppression. But the default intuition has also been intellectualized and fortified by the doctrines of relativism, postmodernism, critical theory, and social constructionism, according to which claims to objectivity and truth are mere pretexts to power. This marriage of intuition and theory may help us make sense of the mutual unintelligibility between Enlightenment liberal science, according to which beliefs are things about which decent people may be mistaken, and critical postmodern wokeism, according to which certain beliefs are self-incriminating.

Gentle, yet powerful criticism. Can institutions that squander their credibility on ideological shenanigans ever get it back? Or do they simply need to be put out of their misery and be replaced by systems more devoted to rationality?

Briefly noted:

  • Michael Graham looks at some local numbers: NH Public School Enrollment Plunge Worst in Nation, Even as Taxpayer Funding Soars.

    Public schools across the U.S. are losing students and New Hampshire is leading the way.

    Axios reported Sunday that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Granite State public school enrollment fell by 14 percent between Fall 2009 and Fall 2020, more than any other state.

    And that 14 percent rate is projected to continue until 2030, emptying even more classrooms.

    The Axios report comes just 48 hours after the New Hampshire Department of Education (DOE) released the latest data on taxpayer spending on K-12 education. Because cities and towns continue to increase their demands for taxpayer funding for schools, average per-pupil spending in New Hampshire has hit a record $19,400.

    Yikes. And there's the throwaway bottom line: "New Hampshire’s National Education Assessment Progress (NEAP) tests scores have been flat or falling for nearly a decade."

    But the cars in the teachers' parking lots have gotten nicer looking over that time.

  • A PG-13 article from Jeff Mauer on the House Speaker imbroglio: Watching Our Constipated Legislature Struggle to Crap Out a Government Made Me Glad We're Not a Parliamentary System.

    It gave me no joy to watch Kevin McCarthy struggle like a dwarf at a glory hole in his effort to win over the GOP’s Escaped Mental Patient Caucus. Ten years ago, I would have enjoyed that show. I would have popped popcorn and settled in for Schadenfreudefest 2013. I would have delighted in watching Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert torture poor John Boehner, who — as far as I’m concerned — will always be Dick York to McCarthy’s Dick Sargent. I would have counted down the minutes until 11:00 so I could watch a Daily Show segment called House of the Rising DUMB. Back then, the whole “the GOP can’t control the monster they created!” scenario felt wacky and fun.

    I don’t like this narrative anymore. The dynamic just sucks now. We all know that the far right can’t be reasoned with; trying to reason with Matt Gaetz is like trying to Lindy Hop with a dead whale. Negotiations with the Freedom Caucus aren’t negotiations; the Caucus just forces people to be unwilling participants in their stupid performative bullshit — it’s like getting dragged on stage at an improv show. Charades like these epitomize dysfunctional governance. Personally, I want my government to be effective, efficient, and so boring that cable news shows have to run segments like “Olives: How Come Sometimes They Come in a Can But Other Times They’re in a Jar?”

    I'm slightly less critical of the Freedom Caucus than Mauer is. I could be wrong about that; we'll see what happens.

  • Andrew G. Biggs notes that we should have deployed that parachute much earlier in our free-fall: We Will Regret Our Missed Opportunities to Reform Social Security.

    Senator John Thune (South Dakota), the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, has suggested that Congress take up Social Security reform as part of its legislation to increase the federal debt limit. With Social Security’s long-term funding gap now topping $20 trillion, there is no time like the present — no time, that is, except for the past. New data from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that, had Congress acted on Social Security reform two decades ago, the federal government’s largest spending program could have been made solvent with only a modest impact on the incomes of average retirees.

    Back in 2001, I served on the staff of President George W. Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security. While the commission did not agree on a single reform plan, two members — economists John Cogan of Stanford University and Olivia S. Mitchell of the Wharton School — argued for freezing the value of Social Security benefits in inflation-adjusted terms. Benefits wouldn’t be cut, but Americans retiring in the future wouldn’t receive higher benefits than today’s retirees, as the current benefit formula requires. That single change would have restored Social Security to long-term solvency.

    Biggs notes that the GOP's failure to enact reform twenty years ago has made them shy about proposing fixes now. And unfortunately for the country, that "leaves congressional Democrats as the only team on the field."

    I note that didn't stop the AARP from sending us scary mail about Mitt Romney's efforts at entitlement reform.

  • J.D. Tuccille notes a Canadian totalitarian tactic that may be coming to a country near you: With Jordan Peterson, Occupational Licensing Becomes a Way To Censor.

    Occupational licensing is a phony guardian of public safety that hikes prices, protects existing practitioners from competition, and raises barriers to work and mobility.

    As if that wasn't bad enough, licensing is now used as a weapon to enforce conformity, with permission to make a living dependent on adherence to the party line. Developments in California and Canada demonstrate that occupational licensing isn't just an economic mistake, but also a danger to free speech.

    "Jordan Peterson is no stranger to controversy," the National Post's Tyler Dawson reported last week. "The Canadian psychologist and cultural commentator has waded into any number of battles since he first rose to fame several years ago. But now, his incendiary remarks about climate change, whether or not overweight people are attractive, and gender dysphoria, have landed him in trouble with the Ontario College of Psychologists—the professional body that regulates the behaviour of clinical psychologists."

    Just some local data from the Institute for Justice: New Hampshire comes out pretty well in its measure of burdensome licensing. And since 2017, we got rid of licensing requirements for shampooers!

    I can report no obvious increase in the amount of filthy hair I observe.