When Should Intellectuals be held Accountable for Popular Misrepresentations of their Theories?

Often an academic will articulate some very nuanced theory or ideological belief which arises out of a specialized discourse, and specialized background knowledge, of their discipline. It is not too surprising that when her theory gets reprinted in a newspaper by a non-specialist journalist, taken up by a politican to support a political agenda, or talked about on the street by the layman who doesn’t possess specialized knowledge, the intellectual’s theory will be poorly understood, misrepresented, and possibly used for purposes that are not only not justified but the exact opposite of her intentions.

This happens all the time in any discipline. Any physicist who reads a You Tube thread about the theory of relativity, an economist who opens a newspaper, biologist who reads the comments section of a Facebook post on GMOs, psychologist who hears jokes about Freud, or philosopher who sees almost any Twitter post about any complex world-historical thinker knows what I’m talking about. Typically, it is assumed that a popularizer or layperson who misunderstands such complex nuanced academic theories always must be answerable to their most intellectually responsible, academic articulation. It is usually assumed that an intellectual theorist should never be concerned with the fact that her theories are being misunderstood by popular culture, and certainly, she shouldn’t change a theory just because it is being misunderstood.

For many disciplines in many contexts, this seems to be true. The theory of relativity shouldn’t be changed just because most people do not possess the technical knowledge to understand it and popularizers often oversimplify it. Just because people do not understand that climate change means more than rising temperatures doesn’t mean it is not true. The fact that some young earth creationist thinks that the existence of monkeys disproves revolution doesn’t mean an evolutionary biologist should care.

Further, it’s not just natural sciences to which these apply. Just because methodological individualism is often misunderstood as atomistic, reductive ethical individualism doesn’t mean economists should abandon it any more than people’s various misunderstandings of statistical methods mean scientists should abandon those methods. Likewise, the fact that rational choice theory is misunderstood as meaning people only care about money, or that Hayek’s business cycle theory is misunderstood as meaning only central banks can cause recessions, or that a Keynesian multiplier is misunderstood as meaning that all destructive stimulus is desirable because it equally increases GDP does not mean that economists who use them should abandon those theories based on non-substantive criticisms based on straw-manned versions of their theories.

On the other hand, there are other times where it seems that popular misunderstandings of some academic writings do matter. Not just in the sense that a layperson not understanding science leads them to do unhealthy things, and therefore the layperson should be educated on what scientific theories actually say, but in the sense that popular misunderstandings point out some deficiencies in the theory itself that the theorist should correct.

To take an example (which I’m admittedly somewhat simplifying) from intellectual history, early in his career John Dewey advocated quasi-Hegelian comparisons of society to a “social organism.” For example, in an 1888 essay he defended democracy because it “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” Though Dewey never meant such metaphors to undermine individuality and imply some form of authoritarian collectivism, he did want to emphasize the extent to which individuality was constituted by collective identifications and social conditions and use that as a normative ideological justification for democratic forms of government.

By 1939, after the rise of Bolshevism, fascism, and various other forms of Hegelian-influenced illiberal, collectivist, authoritarian governments, he walked back such metaphors saying this:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

[…] The fundamental challenge compels all who believe in liberty and democracy to rethink the whole question of the relation of individual choice, belief, and action to institutions, and to reflect on the kind of social changes that will make individuals actually the centers and the possessors of worthwhile experience. In rethinking this issue in light of the rise of totalitarian states, I am led to emphasize the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.

In other words, Dewey recognized that such a political theory could be easily misunderstood and misapplied for bad uses. His response was to change his emphasis, and his use of social metaphors, to be more individualistic since he realized that his previous thoughts could be so easily misused.

To put a term to it, there are certain philosophical beliefs and social theories which are popularly maladaptive, that is regardless of how nuanced and justifiable it is in the specialized discourse of some intellectual theorist they will very often be manipulated and misused in popular discourse for other nefarious purposes.

To take another example, some “white nationalist” and “race realist” quasi-intellectuals make huge efforts to disassociate themselves with explicitly, violently racist white supremacists. They claim that they don’t really hate non-whites and want to hurt them or deprive them of rights, just that they take pride in their “white” culture and believe in (pseudo-)scientific theories which purport to show that non-whites are intellectually inferior. It is not very surprising, to most people, that in practice the distinction between a “peaceful” race realist and a violently racist white supremacist is extremely thin, and most would rightly conclude that means there is something wrong with race realism and race-based nationalist ideologies no matter how much superficially respectable academic spin is put on them because they are so easily popularly maladaptive.

The question I want to ask is how can we more explicitly tell when theorists should be held accountable for their popularly maladaptive theories? When does it matter that public misinterpretation of a somewhat specialized theory points to something wrong with that theory? In other words, when is the likelihood of a belief’s popularly mal-adaptivity truth-relevant?  Here are a few examples where it’s a pretty gray area:

  1. It is commonly claimed by communitarian critics of liberalism that liberalism reduces to atomistic individualism that robs humanity of all its desire for community and family and reduces people to selfish market actors (one of the original uses of the term “neoliberal”). Liberals, such as Hayek and Judith Shklar, typically respond by saying that liberal individualism, properly understood, fully allows individuals to make choices relevant to such communal considerations. Communitarians sometimes respond by pointing out that liberalism is so often misunderstood publicly as such and say that this shows there is something wrong with liberal individualism.
  2. It is claimed by critics of postmodernism and forms of neo-pragmatism that they imply some problematic form of relativism which makes it impossible to rationally adjudicate knowledge-claims. Neo-pragmatists and postmodernists respond by pointing out this is misunderstanding their beliefs, the idea that our understanding of truth and knowledge isn’t algorithmically answerable to correspondence doesn’t mean it’s irrational, postmodernism is about skepticism towards meta-narratives not skepticism towards all rational knowledge itself, and (as Richard Bernstein argued) these perspectives often make hardcore relativism as incoherent as hardcore objectivism. The critic sometimes responds by citing examples of lay people and low-level academics using this to defend absurd scientific paradigms and relativistic-sounding theories and this should make us skeptical of postmodernism or neo-pragmatism.
  3. Critics of Marxism and socialism often point out that Marxism and socialism often transform into a form of authoritarianism, such as in the Soviet Union or North Korea. Marxist and socialists respond by saying that all these communist leaders misused Marxist doctrine, Marx doesn’t really imply anything that would lead of necessity to authoritarianism, and socialism can work in a democratic, more free context. The critic (such as Don Lavoie) will point out that the incentives of socialism lead of necessity to a sort of militarism due to the economic incentives faced by socialist governments regardless of the good intentions of the pure intentions of the socialist theorist, in other words they claim that socialism is inherently popularly maladaptive due to the incentives it creates. The socialist still thinks this isn’t the case and, regardless, the fact that socialism has turned authoritarian in the past was because it was in the hands of the wrong popularizers and that isn’t relevant to socialism’s truth.
  4. Defenders of traditional social teachings of Christianity with respect to homosexuality claim there is nothing inherently homophobic about the idea that homosexual acts are a sin. In the spirit of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” they claim that being gay isn’t a sin but homosexual acts are the sin, and Christians should show love and compassion for gay people while still condemning their sexual behavior. Secular and progressive Christian critics respond by pointing out how, in practice, Christians do often act very awfully towards gay people. They point out it is very difficult for most Christians who believe homosexual acts are sinful to separate the “sin” from the “sinner” in practice regardless of the intellectually pure intentions of their preacher, and that such a theological belief is often used to justify homophobic cruelty. Since you will judge a faith by its fruits (a pretty Christian way of saying that popular mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant), we should be skeptical of traditional teachings on homosexuality. The traditionalist remains unconvinced that it matters.

It is important to distinguish between two questions: whether these beliefs are popularly maladaptive empirically (or, perhaps, just very likely to be) and whether the possibility of them being popularly maladaptive is relevant to their truth. For example, a liberal could respond to her communitarian critic by pointing out empirical evidence that individuals engaging in market exchange in liberal societies aren’t selfish and uncaring about their communities to undermine the claim that their individualism is popularly maladaptive in the first place. But that response is different from a liberal saying that just because their individualism has been misunderstood means that they shouldn’t care about it.

We should also distinguish the question of whether beliefs are likely to be maladaptive from whether their mal-adaptivity is relevant. For example, it is conceivable that a popularized atheism would be extremely nihilistic even if careful atheists want to save us from nihilism. An atheist could say that appears unlikely since most non-intellectual atheists aren’t really nihilists (which would answer the former question), or by saying that people’s misunderstanding of the ethical implications of God’s non-existence is not relevant to the question of whether God exists (which would answer the latter question). For now, I am only concerned with when mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant.

There are a couple of responses which seem initially plausible but are unconvincing. One potential response is that positive scientific theories (such as evolution and monetary economics) do not need to worry about whether they are likely to be popularly maladaptive, but normative moral or philosophical theories (such as liberal individualism or theological moral teachings) do not.

However, this confuses the fact that scientists do often make normative claims based on their theories which seem irrelevant to their popular interpretation. For an instance, it’s not clear that a monetary economist, who makes normative policy conclusions based on their theories, should care if the layman does not understand how, for example, the Taylor Rule, Nominal Income Target, or Free Banking should work. Further, there are philosophical theories where popular maladaptively doesn’t seem to matter; for example, Kantians shouldn’t really fret if an introductory student doesn’t really grasp Kant’s argument for the synthetic a priori, and analytic philosophers shouldn’t care if most people don’t understand Quine’s objections to the analytic/synthetic distinction.

I’m unsure exactly how to answer this question, but it seems like answering it would clear up a lot of confusion in many disagreements.

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“Isolationism” Revisited

Socialist Zach Dorfman has a great review up over at Dissent on a recent book by a historian about American foreign policy from roughly 1890 to about 1940, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. I am really tempted to just copy and paste the whole review, but here are some juicy excerpts from Dorfman’s review (the book itself will have to wait until Christmas):

Today, isolationism is often portrayed as intellectually bankrupt, a redoubt for idealists, nationalists, xenophobes, and fools. Yet the term now used as a political epithet has deep roots in American political culture. Isolationist principles can be traced back to George Washington’s farewell address, during which he urged his countrymen to steer clear of “foreign entanglements” while actively seeking nonbinding commercial ties […] Continue reading