Monday, November 18, 2002

Nichols Report and modern thought:

I have a good friend, a philosophy professor, who is normally a pretty bright guy, but he still believes humans base most of our thinking on logic and reason. He's naive in this, something strange in one so otherwise intelligent. The truth is we may use reason and logic in places like mathematics or symbolic logic and careful thinkers may use it in other thought, but for many other things, especially in politics, we don't use much genuine reason at all.
What we almost always do is rationalize: we use the appearance of reason to bring us to goals we have previously determined emotionally-that is, we decide where we want to get with our thinking and then kid ourselves that we are reasonable in getting there.
Also, Michael Shermer has a good book on "Why People Believe Weird Things." Shermer says that especially in the postmodernist world, the world that dominates modern universities, where we have pretty much givenup on finding any objective knowledge, professors are still trained in intellectual conflict--we learn to fight with our brains and succeed depending on our abilities--and so we can become used to defending bad ideas with what sometimes appears to some people to be genuine thought.
Put there two thoughts together, and we have a way to make sense out of the Nichols survey, which otherwise makes no sense at all. Everybody-everybody-sees how bad this report is. The only exceptions are the most diligent advocates, those who have the most to gain. The report uses questions of the have-you-quit-beating-your-wife genre that no undergraduate course in survey methods would ever accept, it has an obviously skewed sample of respondents that would also fail a student in an undergrad course in sampling, it uses logic that would fail a student in a philosophy course, and the rhetoric would maybe make it through freshman composition but not a junior/senior expository writing course. Simply put, it's painfully poor work. I hate like crazy to think that our poor campus that can't afford enough paper for photocopying paid over $80,000 for it.
The only way we can explain this painful and expensive exercise is pure rationalization that serves private interests. There are quite a few people on campus who pretend to hate racism, but actually they live off of it. They have to have a racism so they can make their lives fighting it; if it were clear that there was flat out no significant racism around, they would have to go somewhere else and get an honest job. There are other people who are pretty much failures, but can still get by blaming their failures on others: "I'm not foolish or superficial or incompetent or a poor teacher or a crumby researcher or any of the rest�people just hate me because they are racist/sexist/homophobes. They cause my failure, not me.
Or there's another impulse that Thomas Sowell describes nicely in his Vision of the Anointed. The subtitle pretty much sums up the text: "Social Action as Self-Congratulation." Sowell says modern social activism allows people to divide humans up into three overly-simplified groups: the Visionaries who see the truth and agree with each other about everything, the Poor People who need the Visionaries' help, and the Bad People who oppress the Poor People and must be overcome by the Visionaries.
It's pretty neat, really. The Visionaries get to subtly think of themselves as clearly superior to the Bad People, and even implicitly superior to the Poor People who live off their help. And it cost the Visionaries nothing - they get to spend our money, and in fact many of them make out pretty well-this kind of helping comes at a price, like $80,000 for a survey like this one. People who have no genuine morality or ethics, no self-sacrifice, no courage still make out like bandits and still feel profoundly
moral and insightful, and of course vastly superior to the rest of us. It's no wonder nobody, but nobody, among the cultural leaders on contemporary campuses, or at least our campus, reads Sowell.
So, what Nichols did was go on a hunt for a conclusion they -- and the powers that be at SCSU -- had determined before they started. They rationalized, not to see if there was racism but to show how much they could make racism apparent, and they rationalized the appearance of a survey to doit. It's the same kind of logic as the EEOC report that found all kinds of racism, even though there was zero evidence, because some who had the most to win "perceived" it. Both are based on the principle of �assumption of guilt,� another popular mode of thought here lately. The folks who live off racism on campus smile, the fellow-Visionaries in the press respond with their usual level of journalistic excellent, and poor SCSU takes another shot to the body. Cripes, what a way to run a university.
At least this report will make it that much harder for my philosopher friend to defend any naive beliefs about reason and logic in modern university political discourse.