Tag Archives: Politics

Why don’t more academics engage in public debate?

Last week, Matthew Sears, a professor of classic at the University of New Brunswick, wrote a great article in MacLean’s about how academics should participate more often in public scholarship and debate.  For example, if you’re a historian and you think Steven Pinker gets the Enlightenment wrong, speak up and challenge. If you’re a developmental psychologist and you think Jean Twenge gets things wrong about kids and digital devices, speak up. And if you’re a humanities scholar or biological psychologist and you think Jordan Peterson gets archetypes, myth, or lobsters wrong, speak up and challenge! In particular, if some public scholar is writing “out of their lane” and is getting things wrong in your lane, you owe it to your field to set the record straight. (Sears didn’t say it that way, that’s my interpretation).

Sears’s article was a hit. I agreed with his thesis. And there was some great, lively discussion on Twitter, of course. Some academics pointed out that the we do engage in public debate and discourse….on Twitter. But the question remains, why don’t more academics seek out opportunities to engage in public debate? In my opinion, we do, up to a point. And there are a few reasons why we don’t. Many of these were mentioned in response to Sears’s article.

Personal Risks

One clear hurdle is that scholars who speak out, especially against very popular public figures with large online followers, may risk on-line harassment. This could be time consuming at best and life threatening at worst.

In some cases, it may be worth the risk, but in many other cases, it may not be worth risking on-line harassment to challenge a public figure. In order for the risk to be worthwhile, the public figure would need to be making very dangerous or damaging claims, and thankfully that rarely happens among public intellectuals.

Lack of Professional Support

Another hurdle that many scholars face when seeking out public debate and outreach is a lack of professional support. For example, some commenters on Sears’s article pointed out that junior scholars and people from racial minority groups, indigenous groups, and LGBTQ communities face greater public outcry than people in safer circumstances.

Another academic pointed out that universities do encourage some public engagement but there is little institutional incentive and our job performance is usually tied to teaching and research, not public debate. Unlike public speakers and public figures, whose primary job is to be public speakers, academics are teaching and doing research.

These are important challenges, but clearly these don’t apply to everyone. Tenured professors can (and should) speak out and participating in public debate when appropriate. So why don’t more academics look to be publicly engaged?

A Tradeoff

I mentioned that it’s not easy, even if we wanted to. It has to do with the tradeoff between public work and university responsibility. A full time academic might not have much time left for public debate (and vice versa, a public scholar does not have as much time left for academic work).

Some of the most outspoken public intellectuals are not or are no longer traditional “40/40/20” academics. This formula refers to the nominal workload for professors at many large research universities. We’re expected to devote 40% of our job to teaching, another 40% to our research and scholarship, and 20% to service like committee work and editorial duties. If I were to jump into a public debate with a well-known public intellectual, it might take time away from my regular work. Now maybe that’s worth it from time to time but for many of us, this is extra time or a personal project.

The decision to become (or debate with) a well-known public intellectual means a tradeoff with one’s academic work. For that reason, most of us engage with the public in ways that hew closely to our own discipline.

Steven Pinker as an Example

Steven Pinker is a full professor at Harvard, with an incredibly long bibliography of books, chapters, articles, and journal papers. He has a full CV posted so you can see what he’s up to. Mostly, he writes books. Many of them have been best sellers. I thought his “How the Mind Works” was a fantastic book, an inspirational account of the importance of cognitive science. He appears at lectures and on talk shows.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology

Steven Pinker,  Rose Lincoln / Harvard University

 

But he does not seem to teach very much and it’s impossible to know if he does any departmental service work. It’s Harvard. I imagine that there’s less tedious admin work for full professors at Harvard than full professors at Western (my institution). And Pinker occupies an endowed, named position (the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology) He would not be expected to teach or do administrative work. It would not be a rational use of his time. My point is that he’s not rank and file. Pinker, agree or disagree with his work, is an elite, public intellectual by any definition. And he’s been great in this role as a public academic cognitive scientist.

But as he strayed from cognitive science and linguistics, however, people in other fields began to complain about his work. He’s too optimistic in “Angels of our Better Nature”, some have said. He misunderstands the enlightenment in “Enlightenment Now”, others have complained. These are still important books, but they are outside his primary field. Scholars, even ones who stray into the public forum, like to stay in their lanes and don’t like it when scholars from another field encroach.

Jordan Peterson is a Special Case

Looming over this, of course, is Jordan Peterson. Peterson is not in my field, but we’re in similar cohorts: middle-aged white male, tenured, full professors of Psychology, at large, Canadian research universities (Peterson is at University of Toronto; I’m at the University of Western Ontario). Prior to becoming “The Jordan Peterson” his research impact at U of T was very good but not incredible.  (Note: you can save yourself the trouble of pointing out that my h-index is lower than Peterson’s. Like every academic, I know my score. It’s moderate. I’m cool with that).  He was known to be an excellent lecturer. By all accounts he’s always been hard working.

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Jordan Peterson sitting at the exact same angle as Steven Pinker (cred. G. Skidmore)

By that’s not why he’s famous.

He’s mostly famous now for being opposed to Canadian bill C-16, for his YouTube videos, for being on Joe Rogan, touring with Sam Harris, for his “12 rules” book, and for being the subject of hundreds of think pieces. While he may have been a good teacher, scholar, and departmental citizen at U of T, that’s just not what he does. Not any more. There’s been a tradeoff.  Unlike Pinker, whose fame is primarily within his field as a cognitive psychologist, much of Peterson’s fame is broader and touches on other disciplines. He’s really popular.

His work as a public intellectual is no longer closely connected to his work at U of T as a personality psychologist, or his work as a clinical psychologist, or his work as a teacher. He’s no longer a 40/40/20 academic. What’s more, although he’s still affiliated with the University of Toronto, he’s been on leave. He may not return. And really, why would he? Agree or disagree with his ideas and the cult of personality that has developed around him, he can reach more people as a public speaker than as a tenured professors. And that’s what many of us, as academics, desire: we want to reach people, to teach, to inspire. Far from being “de-platformed” he’s been re-platformed. He’s exchanged the lecture hall for the O2 Arena.

It would be difficult for most academics to compete with those resources and to challenge someone like Jordan Peterson. Some academics have done so in print, though the linked article was written by Ira Wells, who teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. The humanities and cultural criticism are his field.  But most of us don’t regard him as an academic or a researcher but someone in a different category all together. I offer this not as a criticism but as an observation.

I wouldn’t really care too much about Petersons’s work normally, because (unlike Pinker) it’s not in my field. I did not follow his work before he became famous. I do care that some of his videos and writings have been used (by others) to marginalize trans people, including people I know and respect. I can and will stand up for those people, but unless Peterson is going to mischaracterize prototype theory, any criticism by me would be personal and not scholarly. In which case, I’m not speaking as an expert. I might as well be criticizing Dr. Oz or Alan Alda. It’s possible, it’s my prerogative, but I’m not really doing it as an academic. I’m just doing it. And so I don’t.

I’d be out of my element and would end up costing me time. A protracted debate with a public intellectual who is a full time speaker and public figure would eventually affect my teaching, my scholarship, my research. Unless it’s in my own field, it’s difficult to justify.

Most of us do public work within our field

There are lots of successful public intellectuals who are working in their fields. Sara Goldrick-Rab for example is a world leader on the cost of education. Susan Dynarski is well known for her economics work and also for the use of laptops in the classroom. My colleague Adrian Owen was recently awarded the OBE for his work on consciousness and vegetative state has written a terrific popular book on the topic. Daniel Levitin writes on cognition and music. The list is long.

The criticism seems start when academics fail to “stay in their lane”. The public did not object to Jordan Peterson’s work on personality and creativity, or Noam Chomsky’s work on linguistics, or even Steven Hawking’s work on black holes. When these people wrote and worked on other topics, their limitations began to show.

In the end, I think most of us as academics are happy and enthusiastic to engage in public debate, we just tend to do it in our own fields. We tend to self-promote and educate and not debate on topics we’re not experts in. As for me? I think I do my best work in the classroom. I like the outreach I can do in the formal setting. I’m working on bringing that to my next book but don’t expect me to be to far outside my element.

Not yet…we’ll see.

 

Cognitive Bias and the Gun Debate

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image from GETTY

I teach a course at my Canadian university on the Psychology of Thinking and in this course, we discuss topics like concept formation, decision making, and reasoning. Many of these topics lend themselves naturally to the discussion of current topics and in one class last year, after a recent mass shooting in the US, I posed the following question:

“How many of you think that the US is a dangerous place to visit?”

About 80% of the students raised their hands. This is surprising to me because although I live and work in Canada and I’m a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the US; my family still lives there and I still think it’s a reasonably safe place to visit. Most students justified their answer by referring to school shootings, gun violence, and problems with American police. Importantly, none of these students had ever actually encountered violence in the US. They were thinking about it because it has been in the news. That were making a judgment on the basis of the available evidence about the likelihood of violence.

Cognitive Bias

The example above is an example of a cognitive bias known as the Availability Heuristic. The idea, originally proposed in the early 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) is that people generally make judgments and decisions on the basis of the most relevant memories that they retrieve and that are available at the time that the assessment or judgement is made. In other words, when you make a judgment about a likelihood of occurrence, you search your memory and make your decision on the basis of what you remember. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the available evidence may not correspond exactly to evidence in the world. For example, we typically overestimate the likelihood of shark attacks, airline accident, lottery winning, and gun violence.

Another cognitive bias (also from Kahneman and Tversky) is known as the Representativeness Heuristic. This is the general tendency to treat individuals as representative of their entire category. For example, suppose I formed concept of American gun owners as being violent (based on what I’ve read or seen in the news), I might infer that each individual American is a violent gun owner. I’d be making a generalization or a stereotype and this can lead to bias in how a treat people. As with availability, the representativeness heuristic arrises out of the natural tendency of humans to generalize information. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the representative evidence may not correspond exactly to individual evidences in the world.

The Gun Debate in the US

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as the US engages in their ongoing debate about gun violence and gun control. It’s been reported widely that the US has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world, and also has an extraordinary rate of gun violence relative to other counties. These are facts. Of course, we all know that “correlation does not equal causation” but many strong correlations often do derive from a causal link. The most reasonable thing to do would be to begin to implement legislation that restricts access to firearms but this never happens and people are very passionate about the need to restrict guns.

So why to do we continue to argue about this? One problem that I rarely see being discussed is that many of us have limited experience with guns and/or violence and have to rely on what we know from memory and from external source and we’re susceptible to cognitive biases.

Let’s look at things from the perspective of an average American gun owner. This might be you, people you know, family, etc. Most of these gun owners are very responsible, knowledgeable, and careful. They own firearms for sport and also for personal protection and in some cases, even run successful training courses for people to learn about gun safety. From the perspective of a responsible and passionate gun owner, it seems to be quite true that the problem is not guns per se but the bad people who use them to kill others. After all, if you are safe with your guns and all your friends and family are safe, law abiding gun owners too, then those examples will be the most available evidence for you to use in a decision. And so you base your judgements about gun violence on the this available evidence and decide that gun owners are safe. As a consequence, gun violence is not a problem of guns and their owners, but must be a problem of criminals with bad intentions. Forming this generalization is an example of the availability heuristic. It my not be entirely wrong,  but it is a result of a cognitive bias.

But many people (and me also) are not gun owners. I do not own a gun but I feel safe at home. As violent crime rates decrease, the likelihood being a victim of a personal crime that a gun could prohibit is very small, Most people will never find themselves in this situation. In addition, my personal freedoms are not infringed by gun regulation and I too recognize that illegal guns are a problem. If I generalize from my experience, I may have difficulty understanding why people would need a gun in the first place whether for personal protection or for a vaguely defined “protection from tyranny”. From my perspective it’s far more sensible to focus on reducing the number of guns. After all, I don’t have one, I don’t believe I need one, so I generalize to assume that anyone who owns firearms might be suspect or irrationally fearful. Forming this generalization is also an example of the availability heuristic. It my not be entirely wrong,  but it is a result of a cognitive bias.

In each case, we are relying on cognitive biases to infer things about others and about guns. These things and inferences may be stifling the debate

How do we overcome this?

It’s not easy to overcome a bias, because these cognitive heuristics are deeply engrained and indeed arise as a necessary function of how the mind operates. They are adaptive and useful. But occasionally we need to override a bias.

Here are some proposals, but each involves taking the perspective of someone on the other side of this debate.

  1. Those of us on the left of the debate (liberals, proponents of gun regulations) should try to recognize that nearly all gun enthusiasts are safe, law abiding people who are responsible with their guns. Seen through their eyes, the problem lies with irresponsible gun owners. What’s more, the desire to place restrictions on their legally owned guns activates another cognitive bias known as the endowment effect in which people place high value on something that they already possess, the prospect of losing this is seen as aversive because it increases the feeling of uncertainty for the future.
  2. Those on the right (gun owners and enthusiasts) should consider the debate from the perspective of non gun owners and consider that proposals to regulate firearms are not attempts to seize or ban guns but rather attempts to address one aspect of the problem: the sheer number of guns in the US, any of which could potentially be used for illegal purposes. We’re not trying to ban guns, but rather to regulate them and encourage greater responsibility in their use.

I think these things are important to deal with. The US really does have a problem with gun violence. It’s disproportionally high. Solutions to this problem must recognize the reality of the large number of guns, the perspectives of non gun owners, and the perspectives of gun owners. We’re only going to do this by first recognizing these cognitive biases and them attempting to overcome them in ways that search for common ground. By recognizing this, and maybe stepping back just a bit, we can begin to have a more productive conversation.

As always: comments are welcome.

The Unintended Cruelty of America’s Immigration Policies

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Image from https://goo.gl/HtfqLa

It is well documented that the Trump administration is pursing a senselessly cruel policy of prosecuting migrants at the border, detaining families, and incarcerating them in large, improvised detention centres. This includes taking children away from their parents and siblings and housing them separately for an extended period.

Pointlessly Cruel

Jeff Sessions has pointed out that this policy is “simply enforcing the law” and that it’s a deterrent. He lays any negative conseqences on the migrant families themselves, asking why they would risk bringing their children on this long and dangerous trek. Other members of the administration have pointed out that families who claim asylum at ports of entry are not being detained or split apart. This too is disingenuous, as the Trump administration has narrowed the reasons for asylum, and as the border has become increasingly militarized, migrants and asylum-seekers are being forced away from busy ports of entry and often into dangerous crossings.

 How did we get to this point? How did a nation which once prided itself on welcoming immigrants become a nation increasingly looking to punish individuals even as they seek asylum? Although some aspects of this cruel policy have long been present in America’s history, I think that particular fixation on migration from Mexico stems from an unintended starting point.

Unintended Consequences

A recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell explored the causes and effects of the militarized US-Mexico border. I found this podcast fascinating and I recommend listening to it. To summarize, for most of the 20th century, into the 1960s and 1970s, migration between the United States and Mexico was primarily cyclical. Migrants from rural areas near the border in Mexico would move to the United States for work, stay for a few months, and move back to Mexico with their families. This was an economic relationship and it worked because the cost of crossing the border was essentially zero. If you are apprehended, you’d be returned but otherwise it allowed for the flow of migrants into the United States and out of the United States.

In the early 1970s, however, the US-Mexico border began to be militarized. It happened almost by accident. An extremely skilled and dedicated retired Marine General took over immigration and naturalization services and began to tighten up the way in which border patrols operated. There was never any intent to cause suffering.  On the contrary, the original intent seem to be to harmonize border enforcement with existing law  in a way that benefited everyone. But what happened was that as the borders became less porous, migrants began seeking out for dangerous border crossings. Often these were in the high desert where risk of injury and death was higher, as the cost of crossing the border back and forth increased due to this danger, migrants were less likely to engage in cyclical migration but rather stayed in the United States and either send money home to Mexico or brought their families here.

This has profound implications for the current state of affairs. As each successive administration cracks down on illegal immigration, tightens the border, and militarizes the border patrol, it increases the risks and costs associated with crossing back and forth. Migrants still want to come to America, people are still claiming asylum, but illegal immigrants in the United States are persecuted and stay in hiding. Every indication is that the worst possible thing that could be done would be the actual construction of a wall.  In some ways, an analogy can be drawn to desire paths in public spaces. There is a natural flow to collective human behaviour. Civic planning and architecture does not always match, but human behaviour will always win out. People will continue to migrate and this will continue to be a problem.

Gladwell doesn’t say this, but it seems to me that the most rational and humane solution is a porous border. In a porous border, illegal immigrants are turned back when apprehended, but in a straightforward way. People are not apprehended and put into detention centers. Families are not charged with committing a misdemeanour offence and jailed prior to their hearings necessitating the removal of the children. In a porous border, there is still border security but the overall level of enforcement is lower.  In addition, a policy like this could benefit from increased access to green cards,  recognizing that many migrants wish to work in the United States for a few months. Unfortunately, no one in the Southwest (or anywhere else in America) is going to win an election with the promise of “Let’s make our border more porous and engage in lax border security.” That will not sell. But the evidence presented by the Mexican migration project and reviewed by Gladwell in his podcast suggests this would still be the most rational solution.

More Objective Research

This is one of those cases where we need more objective policy research, less political rhetoric. Has anyone asked an algorithm or computer model to determine the ideal level of border security? How much flow is tolerable? How does one balance economic detriment to having a relatively free flow of migrants with the costs associated with apprehension detention and deportation, and any associated criminal proceedings. The latter are expensive and human-resource intensive. Do to the risks of a porous border justify these expenses?

The thing is, these are computational problems. These are problems that demand rigorous computational analysis and not moralistic grandstanding about breaking the law for fears of drugs and criminals poring over the border.

The evidence seems to suggest that for decades, the relatively porous border had no ill effects on American society and was mutually beneficial to the US and to Mexican border regions. Though unintended, the slow militarization of the US-Mexico border restricted migration, made it more dangerous, which led to real costs illegal immigration thus necessitating a stronger more militaristic response, which creates a feedback loop. The harsher the enforcement the worse the problem gets.

The current administration has adopted the harshest enforcement yet, one that in my view is intentionally cruel, is a clear moral failing, and one that may be destined to fail anyway.

Presidential Power Pose

The president at work

As much as I don’t want to write about US presidential politics, I was struck by a photograph that was released officially by the Office of the White House of the president hard at work during the government shutdown. As you can see, it is a staged photograph of the president sitting in the oval office at his desk on the phone. The photo has been mocked on line, but I’m not really interested in mocking any more.

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The president seem small and ill-at-ease in this official photo.

The first thing that struck me, was how small he looked. I am not a fan of the current US president, but he never struck me as a small person. In fact, many people commented during the 2016 election on his body language.

During the campaign

In the following picture, one that has also been seen by millions of people, candidate Trump is seen glowering and looming over candidate Hillary Clinton.  He appears aggressive, ready to attack (not in a good way).

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Candidate Trump looms and glowers over Hillary Clinton.

In other debates in appearances, he commanded attention. During the Republican convention, I even commented to friends that I thought he was going to win the election. He stood up there, absorbing the crowd energy, and fully in control of the vibe (so much so that I felt uneasy for days afterward). In other campaign rallies, for better or worse, he commanded attention. An attribute no doubt honed and developed in the aggressive world of NY/international real estate development, casinos, pageants promotion, and reality TV. You don’t have to be a fan is his to notice this.

But in the “at work at the desk” photo, he seem so very small. Much smaller than his actual size (6’2” or 6’3” depending on who you believe). The desk is too big for him, too consequential. Even the hat seems too large. He appears to be diminished. I don’t think you need to oppose the president to notice this. He really does seem to be making himself smaller, or is unable to make himself appear big enough.

Body language never lies

Body language is a fascinating subject, it’s the domain of ethnologists , comparative psychologists, and social psychologists. Our body language often conveys things that may be at odds with spoken language. It often gives away something that we may wish to conceal. Our body language is the link to the more primitive self. The inner ape that often is concealed and covered over by culture, language, and society. In the president’s photograph, the body language reveals a man who does not belong, who is out of place, and possible knows he is too small for the role.

Unlike the president’s spoken language, body language doesn’t lie.