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Left Behind

Political Bias in the Academy
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In the past couple of years imbroglios erupted on college campuses across the U.S. over trigger warnings (for example, alerting students to scenes of abuse and violence in The Great Gatsby before assigning it), microaggressions (saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”), cultural appropriation (a white woman wearing her hair in cornrows), speaker disinvitations (Brandeis University canceling plans to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree because of her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women), safe spaces (such as rooms where students can go after a talk that upset them), and social justice advocates competing to signal their moral outrage over such issues as Halloween costumes (for example, at Yale University). Why such unrest in the most liberal institutions in the country?

Although there are many proximate causes, there is but one ultimate cause—lack of political diversity to provide checks on protests going too far. A 2014 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute found that 59.8 percent of all undergraduate faculty nationwide identify as far left or liberal, compared with only 12.8 percent as far right or conservative. The asymmetry is much worse in the social sciences. A 2015 study by psychologist José Duarte, then at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, entitled “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science,” found that 58 to 66 percent of social scientists are liberal and only 5 to 8 percent conservative and that there are eight Democrats for every Republican. And the problem is most relavent to the study of areas “related to the political concerns of the Left— areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality.” The very things these students are protesting. (continue reading…)

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The Enchanted Glass

Francis Bacon and experimental psychologists show why the facts in science never just speak for themselves
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In the first trimester of the gestation of science, one of science’s midwives, Francis Bacon, penned an immodest work entitled Novum Organum (“new tool,” after Aristotle’s Organon) that would open the gates to the “Great Instauration” he hoped to inaugurate through the scientific method. Rejecting both the unempirical tradition of scholasticism and the Renaissance quest to recover and preserve ancient wisdom, Bacon sought a blend of sensory data and reasoned theory.

Cognitive barriers that color clear judgment presented a major impediment to Bacon’s goal. He identified four: idols of the cave (individual peculiarities), idols of the marketplace (limits of language), idols of the theater (preexisting beliefs) and idols of the tribe (inherited foibles of human thought). (continue reading…)

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Smart People Believe Weird Things

Rarely does anyone weigh facts
before deciding what to believe
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In April 1999, when I was on a lecture tour for my book Why People Believe Weird Things, the psychologist Robert Sternberg attended my presentation at Yale University. His response to the lecture was both enlightening and troubling. It is certainly entertaining to hear about other people’s weird beliefs, Sternberg reflected, because we are confident that we would never be so foolish. But why do smart people fall for such things? Sternberg’s challenge led to a second edition of my book, with a new chapter expounding on my answer to his question: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. (continue reading…)

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