21 November, 2018

Khashoggi's Death is the Crisis We Have Been Waiting For

“Alas, I am a wretch! Because of the terrors I have suffered
I bring pleasure to my enemies and toil to my friends.”
The President's statement on U.S.-Saudi relations has caused understandable upset and predictable uproar. Most of these reactions are explicitly framed in terms of values. They need not be. The house of Saud does not strengthen America. To the contrary, Saudi demands sap American strength and cloud American focus. Our relationship with the Saudis is one of the greatest threats to the safety and power of this nation.

Strategy is about setting priorities. It demands focusing on some problems at the expense of others. For two decades we have put the problems of the Saudis and their region at the forefront of American policy. We have prioritized the needs and insecurities of the house of Saud over the needs of much more vital interests—our "pivot to Asia" led to a retrenchment in the Middle East, in response to growing Chinese power our arm shipments to the GCC increased faster than those to the democracies of the West Pacific, and our relationship with vital nations like the Philippines and Thailand faltered while voices in CENTCOM push for an elaborate new security regime to tie the house of Saud and its friends ever closer. 

We must be candid about the other side of this "important strategic relationship." It has been clear publicly since 2016 that the Saudi government is implicated in the 9/11 attacks, and this was known privately for 13 years before that. The toxic ideology that inspires Salafi-jihadist terrorists from France to Indonesia is primarily a Saudi export. As the destructive consequences of this ideology have become clear the Saudis have maneuvered to protect and empower, not destroy and prosecute, those who produce it. Let us have no illusions: Riyadh has more actual American blood on their hands than any other sitting regime in the world (with the exception perhaps of the military machine run out of Rawalpindi). This was all true before the Saudis more recent and more brazen attempts to break down the rules and norms of a civilized international order—kidnapping prime ministers, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in unnecessary wars, and so forth. 

If the Saudis are our ‘vital’ friends, we do not need even lukewarm enemies.

There will be arguments and attempts to keep this unholy alliance in the name of countering Iran. This is sacrificing a queen to capture a rook. Again, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves about the nature of the world and our own capacity to act within it. The ratio of the GDP of the United States to China in 2018 is dwarfed by the ratio of the American and Soviet economies at any point in the latter’s history. The gap is smaller than that between the GDP of the United States and the combined GDP of all the Axis Powers at the height of their empires. America's battles with those great tyrannies were won at times of fiscal integrity and national cohesion. Today's America is bitterly divided. The only thing that unites the American people is weariness with foreign wars. They put defense issues and foreign affairs at the rock bottom of their concerns. America’s government is deeply in debt. Sequestering defense budgets has become an acceptable political tactic. There is little desire to put America on a financially stable foundation.

Image Source:  Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017), 39.

 Which is all to say: The contest with China is going to be more difficult than any geopolitical challenge we have encountered in our nation’s history. It will require our complete attention. We do not have the military capacity, political capital, or financial wherewithal to be everything to everyone. We must choose. If we decide to confront China then we must give up international distractions—or perish.

The Middle East is a distraction.

America will soon be a net energy exporter. The region’s oil holds no power over us any longer. It is a region defined by its poverty and backwardness. One Middle Eastern population after another has shown that they are not prepared for, nor truly desire, democracy. The Arab street is, and shall for generations be, hostile to American power and culture. The only people in the region friendly to our people or our interests—the Kurds—lost their dream of independence and have been cast aside by all powers involved, including us. The power most hostile to us—the Iranians—is growing. This causes consternation among the Arab elites. But Arab interests are not our interests.  Iran’s ability to hurt American interests is directly proportional to America’s investment and presence in the region. If we were not there they could do very little to frustrate our aims. (Growing Iranian power comes with another side benefit: in the resurgent Shiite empire on their doorstep the pestilence of Salafi-jihadist terrorism will find a new and more important target than the West). Victory against the Iranians provides no meaningful gains; defeat leads to no meaningful loss. The likely outcome, however, is neither victory nor defeat, but another four decades of costly shadow war that keeps America sending soldiers to a region that does not matter to shore up despicable regimes who do not act in her interests.

The Khashoggi incident is a gift. By refusing to extricate ourselves from the region we have put optics over interests. But Khashoggi's death now makes the optics of withdrawal and alliance termination easy. It will still be a hard thing to do. The American defense community has strong psychological, emotional, and financial commitments to the Middle East, and to the Saudis in particular. But this is all the more reason for cutting these ties as fast as we can. The Saudi security relationship is a quicksand trap. We must be free of it. Every dollar, soldier, and diplomat that is sent to shore them up is a dollar, soldier, and diplomat who should be engaged in what will soon be be recognized as an existential conflict with the Chinese Communist Party.

This post is not the place to outline the threat the CPC poses to American institutions, the liberty of billions of free men and women across Asia, and America’s position on the global stage. For now a I will say only this: Saudi and the Iranian machinations are a minor side show to this drama—but a side show that has stopped us from acting with the focus that victory in the main show requires. The hour is late. We cannot afford another round of retrenchment in the Middle East. We should take advantage of this now, while the chance to cut ties so easily is still before us.

Our President has a reputation for mercurial policy-making. This holds out the potential for a policy walk-back. On this point I am pessimistic: I believe the President's reputation is largely undeserved. For our sake, I hope I am wrong.

Image Source: Wikimedia.

17 November, 2018

Teaching the Humanities as Terribly as Possible

Vasily Perov, Portrait of Dostoevsky, 1872.

The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and co-operation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men.
—W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk (1903)

The learning of the gentleman enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. His smallest movement can serve as a model.

The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out his mouth.
Xunzi (c. 250 BC)

Not long ago I began to read Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment for the first time. As I often do when reading something interesting or unfamiliar, I decided to Google the topic in question along with the word "syllabus" to see how folks more experienced and intelligent than myself go about studying it. In this fashion I have littered my computer with PDFs of old university syllabi. I have profited a greatly from this practice and recommend it to all readers.

One syllabus that I found today caught my attention for an unenviable reason. The syllabus was for a course titled "The Theology of Dostoevsky." The course is offered at Trinity College in Toronto. The course readings were the standard Dostoevsky catalogue:  Notes From the Underground, The Idiot, The Brothers Karazamov, and so forth. With these readings I have no argument. More dispiriting was the rationale given for reading them. Here is the full list of  'course outcomes' that the syllabus hopes reading and discussing Dostoevsky will bring about:

Identify key literary, historical and political influences on Dostoevsky. (Lectures; assigned secondary readings).

Contextualize Dostoevsky's literature within his theological and anthropological milieu. (Lectures; assigned secondary readings).

Analyze philosophical, theological and anthropological discourse as presented through fiction, with attention to the unique interpretive problems inherent in studying creative genres. (Class discussion; primary source readings; written assignments).

Construct coherent descriptions of philosophical, theological and anthropological assumptions and arguments as presented through fiction and creative writing. (Class discussion; primary course readings; written assignments; presentation).

Communicate more effectively, verbally and in writing, about theological literature by making effective arguments about primary materials, engaging relevant secondary sources, and meeting academic standards for writing and annotation. (Class discussion; written assignments; presentation).[1]
It is unclear whether this list of course aims was an independent invention of the professor teaching the class, or was merely his attempt to line the course up with pre-determined learning outcomes forced upon him by university administrators. In either case my feelings are the same: this syllabus is a perfect distillation with everything wrong and broken in the humanities.

When writers get loud about crises in the humanities, they are usually referring to some trouble inside ivory towers. Folks of this sort often measure the health of the humanities through course enrollments and declared majors. This has always struck me as a bit silly: the humanities existed long before the American university system was invented, and they shall persist long after its destruction. The crisis lies not in the colleges but within the greater culture. It is not the slump in university freshmen enrolling in English poetry seminars grieves, but plummeting popular interest in poetry at all. It is not the flagging interest in literature seminars that disturbs, but utter lack of interest in literary critique in the first place. Psychologists, philosophers, linguists, biologists, businessmen, politicians, journalists, and pundits all have their place on the public stage, but as the second decade of the 21st century comes to its close it is hard to find any living poet, playwright, artist, or critic with similar standing. American culture has turned against the humanists.

It is mostly their own fault.

This is not a screed against the political agenda of the humanist set (though their tendency to strip down the beautiful and profound to garish "archaeologies of power" is part of the problem). Nor is it an attack on the sort of literary theories that deaden love for literature, leaving poor graduate students "hardly [able to] locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel... as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance" (though this is also a part of the problem). [2] My critique is broader: those who teach the humanities—and those who create its more 'literary' forms—do not know what their profession is for.

 I sympathize with the humanist who feels besieged. It seems like the poet (and her expounders) are always on the defensive: no one asks a biologist to justify the existence of her field, but the same is constantly demanded of those who study comparative literature or the classics. This is not a new problem. Humanists have always needed to justify their existence. It interesting to see how the terms of their justifications have shifted over time.

Here is a how one famous 17th century poet described the purpose of a literary education:
"But here the main skill and groundwork will be, to temper them such Lectures and Explanations upon every opportunity, as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, enflam'd with the study of Learning, and the admiration of Vertue; stirr'd up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy Patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages. That they may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberall Exercises: which he who hath the Art, and proper Eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual perswasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young brests such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men." [3]
In this passage Milton gives equal weight to teacher and subject taught. Daniel Webster offered similar sentiments two centuries later. This particular excerpt dwells solely on the 'subject taught' side of things:
The question, after all, if it be a question, is, whether literature, ancient as well as modern, does not assist a good understanding, improve natural good taste, add polished armor to native strength, and render its possessor, not only more capable of deriving private happiness from contemplation and reflection, but more accomplished also for action in the affairs of life, and especially for public action.[4]
Add these two quotations to the two in the epitaph of this post: do you see the connecting thread? It is a thread that twines thousands of years of history into one web, linking teachers and thinkers across civilizations and continents. Dive into the past and you will see this theme will emerge time and again: the purpose of studying history, philosophy, and poetry is to help us lead better lives and be better people. The humanities are an education for the soul.

Placed next to these paeans to education, the aims of the "Theology of Dostoevsky" course are crippling. Reading Dostoevsky will help students will learn how to "contextualize literature within its anthropological milieu." Dostoevsky will teach them to see "the unique interpretive problems inherent in studying creative genres" and discussing his works will help them "communicate more effectively, verbally and in writing, about theological literature." That is the purpose of reading a man regularly called the best novelist in human history! We read him to "meet academics standards for writing and notation!"

How painfully limited.

There is nothing baneful in learning the historical context of a great book. There is nothing shameful about learning how to write a proper term paper. But notice what is really being taught: a suite of technical skills whose utility does not extend far past the classroom. The likelihood students will ever have need to recall the social history of mid-19th century St. Petersburg is small. The odds they will ever be asked to write anything resembling a term paper after graduation is even smaller. Graduate students may gain something from this exercise; the blessed few who pass on to tenure will be charged with teaching the incantations of their trade on to the next generation. That is what the modern humanities are for. Small wonder the poets and professors are accused of ruling a perpetual pyramid scheme! Small wonder those outside the academy care so little about the ideas of the humanists who have sought refuge inside it!

It does not have to be this way. I was delighted to find that the most popular course at Harvard is a primer in Chinese philosophy. Its tagline?

“This course will change your life.”[5]

Every course in the humanities should be able to make something of this claim. If studying history, reading literature, and memorizing poetry does not provide strength for the day of trial, solace for the day sorrow, wisdom for those who know little, humility for those who know much, and a new perspective from which to understand and endure the challenges of our mortal lives, then the humanities have no purpose. Reclaiming a role for humanities in public life means reclaiming the idea that the things humanists study should change one's life. Until then, we must expect the study of literature, history, and art to dwindle in desuetude.


[1] Daniel Operwall, "The Theology of Dostoevsky," course syllabus (Winter/Spring 2018).

[2] Lisa Rudick, "When Nothing is Cool," The Point (December 2015).

[3] John Milton, "Of Education," Milton Reading Room (accessed 18 November 2018).

[4] Daniel Webster, "Eulogy for Adams and Jefferson," in The Great Orations and Senatorial Speeches of Daniel Webster (Rochester, NY: Wilbur Hayward and co., 1853), 17.

[5] Christine Gross-Loh, "Why are Hundreds of Students Studying Chinese Philosophy?," The Atlantic (8 October 2013).

10 November, 2018

Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings

Norman Rockwell, 
draft version of Freedom of Speech (1943).

"In the United States... there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined power of individuals."  

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol I (1835)

American democracy and the civic life that supports it is in decline. This is a theme that I used to devote a lot of time to. Several of my most popular posts from 2013 to 2015 are on the topic (see especially "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," "Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: Three Decades of American Political Culture," and a few other posts like them), but I have not written much about it since then. Some of these earlier posts are less sophisticated or less empirically grounded than they would be if I wrote them today. However, my take on the topic today is consistent with what I wrote a few years ago: over the last six decades the scaffolding of American democracy has collapsed. Democracy as a way of life is dead.

I should distinguish this position from the current wave of hand-wringing occasioned by President Trump. Trump's quarrels are with liberalism, not self-government. The two are not the same. It is quite possible to have a political regime that is both illiberal and democratic. But even that observation is not quite sufficient—this word "democratic" has many meanings, and not all are germane to this post. Most who worry about "the integrity of our democratic institutions" are concerned about the mechanics of the federal government. Are elections for federal office fair, regular, and not tampered with? Is the gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote too wide? Does the Supreme Court or the Presidency have too much power? Are executive officers still bound by the rule of law? Has the system been gamed to favor one side or the other? Questions like these are the festering sores behind American democratic discontent.

However important they may be, these concerns are not the subject of this post. Quadrennial contests over the imperial crown have very little to do with day-to-day democracy. Do not misunderstand: those contests are important, praiseworthy, and worth preserving. The reason why they are worth preserving, however, is little understood. The genius of representative elections is not that they encourage leaders to enact the popular will (the people's representatives rarely enact such things), but because they are the centerpiece of a system that keeps political competition between the elites from escalating into terrible violence. Popular elections, national political parties, checks, balances, and liberal political norms are what keep the American elites from killing each other over their political differences. Coups, rebellions, civil wars, and violent purges are the norm in authoritarian systems. That American history records so few of these things is a great credit to her representative institutions.

But the democracy I am talking about happens several levels below the machinations of senators and presidents. To keep things conceptually clear, let's call this sort of democracy self government. Self-government is communal. It comes with the confidence that you and the citizens around you are capable of crafting solutions to your shared problems. Self-government is less a particular set of institutions than a particular set of attitudes. If the institutions needed to solve a problem locally do not exist, the citizens of a self-governing community will create them. These institutions may be formal government bodies, like the meetings of New England selectmen or Midwestern school-boards,  or they may be associations of a more civic or religious nature. From the perspective of the average American throughout most of American history this was distinction without a difference: whether the school board was a private or public organ mattered far less than the amount of control ordinary people had over it. For people living in such a community, democracy was more than  showing up at the polls every two years. It was a constant preoccupation, the center of their social strivings, and the fruit of their hardest labors. For these men and women, self-government was a way of life.  

Self-government has its terrors. The mobs that drove my ancestors out of their homes at gun-point were animated by a spirit of self-government. So were the klansmen who terrorized black families. But if minorities like Mormons and blacks suffered at the hands of uncouth men eager to leverage self-government for violent ends, it was the skill these minorities had at self-governing that allowed them to overcome their woeful circumstance. It was day-to-day democracy that built Zion in the wilderness and led marches through the camps of Babylon.

My position is that self government is a good in and of itself. In this I am quite old fashioned. I actually believe, like generations of Americans before me, and generations of English commonwealth men before them, that self-government is a forge of character. It creates a better sort of man and woman than would otherwise be. Humans ought to be embedded in communities of purpose. They ought to be anxiously engaged in the affairs of their locale. They ought to not only feel but be responsible for the world in which they live. They ought, in short, to live as citizens, not as subjects.

There was once a country where ought was are. That country is no more.

That is a long introduction to what is essentially a reading list. Via e-mail, a reader who trudged through those old posts asked if I could recommend what books he should read to understand this topic. My hope is that the books I recommend below will satisfy him and other readers as curious as he. The declaration that the democratic way of life is a superior one does not occur in any of themthat is my own subjective judgement. Those who do not share my values will not sympathize with my laments. They still will find value in the books I recommend below, however, They are focused on empirical questions: what was social life like in America's past? How did it change in our more recent past? Why did this change occur?

The first group of books I recommend all deal with how democratic institutions actually work. These include Matt Grossman's Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change since 1945, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartel's, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, and Frank Bryan's Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works. All three of these books are written by political scientists and all three are data heavy. The first two, Artists of the Possible and Democracy for Realists focus on national political institutions and federal policy making. If you believe that representative democracy is a matter of popular mandates, the people's will, and other fairy tale creations, these two books will be hard medicine. Taken together they paint a very different picture of American institutions from the democratic myths most of us were raised on: at the federal level actual change in policy almost never has any relationship to popular opinion while voting has almost nothing to do with policy preferences.

This contrasts sharply with the sort of democracy featured in Frank Bryan's profile of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine town meetings. These meetings are direct deliberative democracies: all business is raised, debated, and implemented by normal citizens of the township. The careful attention average citizens in these assemblies give to questions of policy is astounding. So is the amount of time they devote to convincing other citizens of their proposals. Bryan pairs his datataken from thousands of town meetings held over a decadewith excellent prose descriptions of what these meetings are like. Revealed is a portrait of self government in action from one of the few places that still has them.

The next set of books includes Theda Skopcal's Diminished Democracy, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, and Charles Murray's Coming Apart. These books describe the slow death of self-government in American civic life. Like the last set, all three of these are data heavy. Skopcal's book is the most important in the set and probably the most important of the entire list. A precis of her argument was published by Prospect Magazine two decades ago, and I encourage those who have never heard of her work to read it. In Diminished Democracy she traces the history of America's largest civic organizations from their origin in the Gilded Age to their demise in the late 20th century. One of the themes she pursues is the changing nature of activism, which has transitioned from a model built around locally organized chapters of volunteers who sacrificed their time for the cause to a model of professional fund-raising that asks only for money. Putnam and Murray finish this story. It is not just civic institutions that are hollowing out: churches, gaming clubs, unions, and even friendships have shriveled over the last few decades. Both books describe what is happening with extreme detail. (To these books I would add one article: Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning's "Micro-Aggression and Moral Cultures." Though they do not frame it this way, their research sketches how American moral culture has shifted in response to the societal changes Skopcal, Putnam, and Murray discuss. See my post on the topic for that framing).

Next up is Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought, and Henry Watson's Liberty and Power. My perspective on this question is strongly shaped by books like these, which paint a vivid picture of what it felt like to live the democratic way of life. This way of life had precedents in England and America's revolutionary period, but it did not take its full cast in the American context until the 1820s. Howe's book is both a social and political history. He mixes these two genres with incredible skill (I can only think of one other historian who has ever done it better). The only problem is that Howe's book is very large. For those who struggle with thousand page tomes, Watson's Liberty and Power might be a better bet. It covers many of the same themes as Howe, and though not quite as magical, it manages to do so in one fifth of the pages.

The first challenge to self-government came in the late 1800s. Changes in the economic structure of the global economy stripped many Americans of their economic independence and fatally undermined the sense of social equality that blossomed in the antebellum era. It is difficult to find one book that depicts these changes to my satisfaction. The closest I have read is Nell Irvin Painter's Standing at Armageddon: a Grass-roots History of the Progressive Movement Michael Lotus and James Bennett's take on this era in America 3.0 also accords quite closely with my view on the social changes that flowed from the era's economic realities. Pair them with the historical chapters on 19th century and early 20th century civic movements in Diminished Democracy and Bowling Alone (which describe how enterprising Americans met this challenge) and you will have a good understanding of the issues involved.

Finally, I think it is worth reading a few books on the old style of self-government in its final moments of glory. The Civil Rights movement is a defining case study of the principles of day-to-day democracy. The most engaging overview of the period is Juan William's Eyes on the Prize. Once you have a sense of the period's chronology and main actors, move to Payne's, I've Got the Light of Freedom or Aldon Morriss' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Both present the Civil Rights movement from the ground up, as the product of active self-government. The Civil Rights organizations came at the tail end of the democratic way of lifethe final victory before the trends Skopcal, et. al. record overwhelmed American society. Because of its social justice orientation the Civil Rights movement also serves as useful comparative study when placed next to the diminished protest movements of our own day.

 There are other books I could addLasch's Revolt of the Elites, Udall's Forgotten Founders: History of the Old West, Wood's Creation of the American Republicbut this is supposed to be an introductory list. For that purpose the fourteen books listed here is already too many.

Here is an abbreviated list for those who don't have the time to plow through fourteen titles:

1. Skopcal's, Diminished Democracy.
2. Tocqueville's, Democracy in America.
3. Payne's I've Got the Light or Morriss' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.
4. Howe's What God Hath Wrought or Watson's Liberty and Power. 
5. Bryan's Real Democracy.

Other readers should feel free to post their own recommendations in the comments below!

05 November, 2018

Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists?

Image Source
DR. STOCKMANN: It's my own fault. I should have faced them down long agoshown my teethand bite back! Call me an enemy of society! So help me God, I'm not going to swallow that!

MRS. STOCKMANN: But Thomas dear, your brother does have the power

DR. STOCKMANN: Yes, but I'm in the right!

MRS. STOCKMANN: The right? Ah... what does it help to be in the right if you don't have any power?
Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People (1882)
 On twitter, Jeffrey Sachs presents a puzzle:

Here’s a puzzle I think about a lot. If any academic field is associated with the contemporary debate surrounding free speech, it’s psychology. Haidt, Pinker, Peterson, Saad, Jussim, even Lehmann. All specialize or have backgrounds in academic psych. So what’s the puzzle?

If psychology has any core premise, it is that we do not observe or make sense of the world unmediated. Our brains “get in the way”, both for good and for ill. Our biases, habits, and biologies shape what we’re willing to do, say, or believe.

I don’t have an answer, just some very uncharitable guesses about psychologists as historically ignorant cognitive elitists who would blanche if forced to grapple with the actual existing nature of American political discourse. Like I said, uncharitable.[1]
For a fuller introduction to the folks mentioned in the post: Jonathan Haidt is on the short-list for "world's most renowned social psychologist." His research has focused on the psychology of happiness and the psychology of different moral systems. Steven Pinker's research originally focused on psycholinguistics, but he first became famous for several well written works of popular science that present the principle findings of cognitive and evolutionary psychology to a lay audience. Jordan Peterson is a personality psychologist whose academic articles typically explored  applications of the "Big-5" personality metric or investigated the physiological foundations of alcoholism. His favorite intellectual project (the subject of both his first book and a series of YouTube lectures) is leveraging advances in affective neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to rehabilitate Jungian theories of the mind. Gad Saad made his name investigating the evolutionary origins of and cognitive processes behind consumer behavior. His work marries marketing with evolutionary psychology. Lee Jusim is a social psychologist who specializes in the psychology of stereotypes. He was a pioneer in effectively incorporating field research into a laboratory-driven discipline. Finally, Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, a web magazine that regularly highlights the work of (and has been endorsed by more than a few of) all the other folks on this list. Before founding Quillette, Lehmann was studying psychology as a grad student, a pursuit she ended upon giving birth to her first child.

That is the academic background of the people on Sach's list. What earns them a spot on that list, however, is the other side of their biographies. Each of these individuals has moved from academic research to political advocacy. Though their arguments differ in style and intensity, these men and women have thrust themselves into the public eye in defense of academic freedom, ideological diversity, free speech, and political moderation, while attacking critical theory, post-modernism, and the excesses of the social justice left. They are not the only people to do this. But Sack is correct: the ranks of the culture warriors are filled with an unusual number of behavioral scientists.


I attribute this all to three things.

1. The conclusions academics reach tend to rankle the right. There are exceptions. If your research draws on evolutionary psychology, focuses on innate behavioral differences, or touches any sort of psychometrics (e.g., IQ), the angry tide does not sweep in from the right. The wave these men and women fear crashes in from leftward side. Moreover, the sort of leftist opposition that the academic consensus on these topics face leaves little room for rational debate or compromise: controversies over psychometrics or evolutionary psychology are usually framed in terms of good and evil, not right and wrong. The scientists involved are to be conquered, not reasoned with.

So that is point one: the people who want to shut controversial psychologists up are overwhelmingly creatures of the left.

2. Psychology, especially social psychology, is itself an overwhelmingly leftist discipline. We actually have data on this, and it is pretty grim: a recent survey of American tenure-track professors reveals that there 17.4 registered Democrat psychologists for every single registered Republican.[2] If there is a field of people who ought to be sympathetic to social justice railroading, these people are it.

3. Despite this, behavioral scientists have not yet adopted the rhetorical techniques or method of inquiry of "critical theory."  In contrast, see how these modes of inquiry have swallowed up the fields of anthropology and communications, and established creeping colonies in history, sociology, and area studies.  Given the left-leaning sympathies of almost all in the profession, the threat that the same might happen to the study of human behavior is real.

I use the word 'threat' consciously. That is how the people on this list perceive critical theory and the popular culture it supports. For men like Peterson or Haidt these ideas actually damage the psychological health of those 'indoctrinated' into them. Pinker and his type are less dramatic: they see critical theory and its attachments mostly as cruddy methodology. The threat it poses is to the scientific endeavor itself. Implicit in their view are two beliefs: first, that there is real 'truth' out there to be discovered; second, that if scientists are allowed to proceed in their debates without outside interference, they will eventually discover it.

This is key. Haidt et. al. do not just believe that critical theorists are wrongthey believe that the critical theorists can be proven wrong. If science does its thing, the bad theories and methods cannot last. That is the lesson they have taken from the replication crisis: behavioral science self corrects.   Uncomfortable data and uncomfortable arguments have the power to force change. Given enough time researchers will converge upon the truth. (Side note: social psychology's largely successful attempt to improve itself over the last decade and fix the gross methodological problems it used to be saddled with is, IMHO, an important counter-point to Sach's pessimism, and a big part of this story).

But all of this is true if and only if scientists are allowed to debate and investigate freely.

Haidt et. al. are confident they can win the debate if they are allowed to debate. For the heterodox anthropologist or sociologist the game is already over: their discipline has already been conquered. For the economist, the threat is too remote to take seriously. Behavioral science exists in that rare in-between: methodologically, it has the tools to fight back against the excesses of the activist. Socially, it provides a compelling reason for its practitioners to use them.


[1] Jeffrey Sachs, twitter comments (12:35 PM, 2 Nov 2018)

[2] That number is taken from Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein, "Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology," Econ Journal Watch, vol 13, iss 3, 422-451. See also Duarte et. al, "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2014), 1–54; Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, "Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 7, 496-503.

03 November, 2018

The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Reader

Vizzinni: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I'm not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!

Man in Black:
You've made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely!
The Princess Bride

Several of the books I have read over the last few months offer different perspectives on a fascinating study. The study, conducted by a joint team from Kyoto University and Caltech, pitted chimpanzees and humans against each other in a game of strategy that game theorists have dubbed 'Matching Pennies.' In his book The Secret of Our Success (which I sorta reviewed here), anthropologist Joseph Henrich explains both how the game works and how the chimps did:
Matching Pennies is a classic game of strategic conflict that has been played with both chimpanzees and humans. In the game, individuals are paired with another of their species for several rounds of interaction. Each player is placed into the role of either the Matcher or the Mismatcher. In each round, participants must select either Left or Right. The Matcher gets a reward only when his choice (Left or Right) matches the choice of his opponent. By contrast, the Mismatcher gets a reward only when his choice mismatches his opponent. The rewards, however, need not be symmetric, as illustrated in figure 2.4. In this asymmetric version, the Matcher gets 4 apple cubes (or cash for humans) when she successfully matches on Left, but only gets 1 cube when she matches on Right. Meanwhile, the Mismatcher gets only two cubes for any successful mismatches, no matter how they arise.

This kind of interaction can be analyzed using game theory. To win, the first thing to realize is that both players should be as unpredictable as possible. Nothing about your prior choices should allow your opponent to anticipate your next play—you have to randomize. To see this, put yourself into the shoes of the Matcher. Your opponent gets two cubes whether he plays Left (L) or Right (R), so you should essentially flip a coin with heads for R and tails for L. This means you’ll play R and L each 50% of the time, and your opponent won’t be able to predict your choices. If you deviate from 50%, your opponent will be able to exploit you more frequently. Now consider matters from the position of the Mismatcher: if you now similarly flip a coin, the Matcher will shift to play mostly L, since that gives him four instead of one. To compensate, as a Mismatcher you need to play R 80% of the time. Thus, the predicted winning strategy in a contest of intelligent rational actors is that Matchers should randomize their responses, playing L 50% of the time, while Mismatchers should randomize by playing L only 20% of the time. This outcome is called the Nash equilibrium. The fraction of the time that one should play L can be moved around by simply changing the payoffs for matching or mismatching on L or R.

 A research team from Caltech and Kyoto University tested six chimpanzees and two groups of human adults: Japanese undergraduates and Africans from Bossou, in the Republic of Guinea. When chimpanzees played this asymmetric variant of Matching Pennies (figure 2.4), they zoomed right in on the predicted result, the Nash equilibrium. Humans, however, systematically and consistently missed the rational predictions, with Mismatchers performing particularly poorly. This deviation from “rationality,” though it was in line with many prior tests of human rationality, was nearly seven times greater than the chimpanzees’ deviation. Moreover, detailed analyses of the patterns of responses over many rounds of play show that the chimps responded more quickly to both their opponents’ recent moves and to changes in their payoffs (i.e., when they switched from playing the Matcher to the Mismatcher). Chimpanzees seem to be better at individual learning and strategic anticipation, at least in this game.

 The performance of the apes in this setup was no fluke. The Caltech-Kyoto team also ran two other versions of the game, each with different payoffs. In both versions, the chimps zeroed in on the Nash equilibrium as it moved around from game to game. This means that chimps can develop what game theorists call a mixed strategy, which requires them to randomize their behavior around a certain probability. Humans, however, often struggle with this. A final insight into the humans’ poor performance comes from an analysis of participants’ response times, which measures the time from the start of a round until the player selects his move. For both species, Mismatchers took longer than Matchers. However, the humans took much longer than the chimps. It’s as if the humans were struggling to inhibit or suppress an automatic reaction.[1]
The chimpanzees are better strategists than the humans are. But why? The authors of the study suggest that development of language skills and stronger executive function in human brains has forced a trade off:
Matsuzawa hypothesizes that chimpanzees are better than humans at the masking memory task because human evolution degraded certain memory skills to make room in the brain for development of human language-related skills. The notion that chimpanzees may display some superior cognitive abilities due to a suggested lack of interference from language-related processes is further supported by evidence from comparative eye-tracking studies. These studies have shown that chimpanzees foveate on the same pictorial elements as humans, but do so in less time by making quicker eye movements. Authors suggest that longer fixation patterns displayed by humans are caused by high-level semantic processing on objects as they are viewed, and that the relative lack of such kinds of language processing in chimpanzees gives them an advantage for making rapid perceptual assessments of visual scenery.

The relatively poor performance of humans, together with the conjectured importance of language for humans, raise issues about the relevance of those game theory experiments in which humans have traditionally been unable to talk to each other. If verbal communication is indeed key to human strategic interaction, it seems that external validity would be enhanced if one lets humans talk.[2]
Henrich has an alternate explanation, arguing that human strategy-crafting can be distorted by an inborn drive to imitate:
This pattern may reflect a broader bug in human cognition: our automatic and unconscious tendency to imitate (to match). In Matching Pennies and other games like Rock-Paper-Scissors, one player sometimes accidentally reveals his or her choice a split-second before the other player. This flash look at an opponents’ move could result in more victories for those who delay. And in Matching Pennies, experiments show that it does for Matchers, for whom copying leads to victories. For Mismatchers, however, it leads to more losses, because they sometimes fail to inhibit imitation. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, it results in more ties (e.g., rock-rock), because the slower player sometimes unconsciously imitates the choice of his or her opponent. The reason is that we humans are rather inclined to copy—spontaneously, automatically, and often unconsciously. Chimpanzees don’t appear to suffer from this cognitive “bug,” at least not nearly to the same degree. [3]
I do not find Henrich's hypothesis convincing. His main point in this chapter is that human rationality is not nearly as neat as we think it is: after all, the Chimpanzees out perform us in many cognitive tasks, including this one. The "secret of our [read: humanity's] success" is not our biologically inherited capacity for reason, but the blindly evolved set of practices and beliefs that we have culturally inherited. Key to this argument is the notion that humans are especially prone to imitation. Compulsive and accurate imitation is what makes cultural evolution and inheritance possible.

The trouble with this view is that there is very little evidence that humans are actually compulsive imitators. Olivier Morin devotes several chapters to this topic in his book How Traditions Live or Die. Morin argues that cultural evolutionists like Henrich are wrong. The evidence on imitation, Morin points out, all goes in the opposite direction: humans are finicky imitators. We imitate very little of what we encounter, almost always do so as the result of careful calculation (not blind instinct), and are not skillful in our imitations. Morin maintains that the chapters of evidence he has mustered for this assault on cultural evolution is enough to debunk most of the theory altogether. I disagree (at some point I will have to review his book), but I do think the evidence he has collected debunks this particular explanation for the Machiavellian chimp.

What then explains the chimpanzee's strategic acumen? My favored explanation was proposed by Kenneth Payne in his book Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI (which I reviewed here). He suggests that humans have trouble locating the Nash Equilibrium in competitive contests like these because they have been beguiled by intentionality (also known as "theory of mind"):
Why did the humans fare worse? The study’s authors speculated that human capacity for language and categorization had been earned at the expense of pattern recognition and perception, at which the chimpanzees remained adept. This is possible, though it does take a rather zero-sum view of cognitive abilities. I would highlight instead another uniquely human capability-intentionality-as the likely culprit. The human players were trying to put themselves inside the mind of their adversaries. That is, humans were strategizing on the basis of mind reading and not on the basis of probabilities and payoffs. Language and categorization are certainly important features of human cognition in which they surpass other primates (especially when it comes to the categorization of abstract meanings). but they are also manifestations of our intense sociability-the bedrock of which is our sense of others as autonomous agents with their own perceptions and beliefs. So strong is this sense of the inner lives of others that we cannot switch it off and engage in an alternative, more mathematically rational approach to strategy.

What might humans gain from being worse than chimps at finding an optimum strategy in adversarial games like this? The answer lies in the intense sociability of humans, even compared to the obviously social world of their fellow primates. Our theory of mind is the basis of rich cooperative relationships within human society. Being good at cooperating-understanding intentionality and communicating through language-has allowed our group sizes to expand and to forge mutually advantageous relationships on the basis of trust and comparative advantage. As individuals we may not outperform chimpanzees in the narrow ordered universe of two-person strategy games, but then those games differ from many of the real challenges in the social world of humans, where cooperation for mutual gain rather than zero-sum antagonistic relationships are typical. [5]
For millennia humans have celebrated what we now call 'theory of mind' as keystone of strategic brilliance. The master politician outmaneuvers his opponents by anticipating what they will think before they think it. Like Zhuge Liang, the master strategist wins his victories on the mental plane:

 Payne's view of strategic decision is less romantic. Our theory of mind makes us more empathetic and cooperative, not more Machiavellian. Each attempt to peer into an opponent's brain is an exercise in self-deception. Like Vizzinni in the Princess Bride, humans are ever beguiled into believing they have won the battle of wits. Too late do they discover that the best Machiavellians are not mind-readers.

[1] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 80-81.

[2] Christopher Flynn Martin, Rahul Bhui, Peter Bossaerts, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, and Colin Camerer, "Chimpanzee choice rates in competitive games match equilibrium game theory predictions,"
Nature: Scientific Reports, vol 4, #5182 (2014).

[3] Henrich, Secret of Our Success, 81.

[4] Olivier Morin, How Traditions Live and Die (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 53-120. 

[5] Kenneth Payne, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2018), 51.