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.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Could Kurds hold independence referendum this year?
  2. Meet Germany’s Alt-Right
  3. Tolerated theft, suggestions about the ecology and evolution of sharing, hoarding and scrounging [pdf]
  4. It’s time for some game theory, United Airlines edition
  5. Mormon Transhumanists

The Two Ultimate Religions

Religions provide ultimate visions of reality and values. They have different views about the reality of the divine, and about what is sacred, but for life on earth, what counts most is religious ideas about the reality of human beings and the value of human life.

The two basic concepts about human life are equality and supremacy. Either one believes that all human life is equally worthy, sacred, and important, or else one believes that the members and followers of one’s religion have supremacy over other human beings. Either one values all human beings as equally human, with equal rights to life and property, or else one values the members of one’s religion as superior, with superior rights to life and property.

Almost everyone believes that one’s own religion is the correct one. Some people may have doubts, but few believe that other religions are more true, otherwise they would convert, unless forbidden to do so. Religious egalitarians believe that even though their faith is the true one and the best of all religions, nevertheless the people of other faiths have an equal moral worth, and so their lives, property, and freedom are to be respected.

Religious supremacists believe that not only are their beliefs true, and their values correct, but also that holding their beliefs, or being descended from believers, entitles them to superiority in human worth, so that they are authorized, and even required, to forcibly convert others and, at the most extreme, take their property and lives.

The divide between egalitarians and supremacists cuts across all the major religions. People of all faiths have attacked, enslaved, killed, looted, and conquered those of other religions. Even when supremacy is not an explicit religious belief, when one group conquers and enslaves another, their members at least implicitly believe that they are superior, even if only because of their power.

There are also members of all faiths who believe that, however superior, true, and sacred are their own beliefs and values, those of other faiths are equally entitled to live according to their creeds. Whatever else their religion may say about others, they believe that all people are equally human and of equal human value.

This, then, is the great religious divide, which affects every person. Atheists too are part of this divide. The atheists chiefs of Communist parties believed in the superiority of their creed, and they conquered lands, killed opponents, and imposed their control over others. Extreme nationalists have had a supremacist nationalist belief in addition to other ideas, which formed their overall religion. Supremacism may be personal, ideological, and otherwise not associated with a theistic belief, but as a view of ultimate reality and values, it is a religion that is mixed in  with other ideas.

Human beings live in a mental as well as physical universe. In our mental universe, either we believe in human equality, or not. Egalitarianism and supremacism are, however, matters of degree. Some may be more mildly supremacist, letting those of other beliefs live, but subjecting them to higher taxes, tighter restrictions, and lacking the privileges of those of superior beliefs. In the relatively tolerant societies, people are allowed to practice their religions to some extent, but there are beliefs and values, even if not in a theistic creed, that are imposed on everyone. This is why throughout the world, governments have victimless crimes. They prohibit activities such as drug use and gambling, and they censor some words, ideas, and depictions.

One supremacist idea shared by most people is the moral worth of majorities relative to minorities. Most people in today’s world believe in the superiority of majorities. If a majority of voters believe that everyone should be taxed, restricted, and forced, this is, in their view, proper, because the majority has moral supremacy. Majoritarianism is a religion, as a belief and value.

Another supremacist view is that persons who have conquered land, and their heirs, when there are no other documented claimants or survivors, have a superior status. The egalitarian position is that all human beings have an equal right to the benefits of the land that nature provided. Equality does not require equality in possession, which is not possible, but an equal share of the economic benefit, as measured by what people are willing to pay to use land.

If we take human equality to its ultimate logical conclusion, each person has an equal natural right to live, work, own property, and completely direct his life, with no restriction or imposed cost on his peaceful and honest actions. Liberty and equality are complementary.

Very few people believe in complete human equality. But we should at least strive to achieve  equal rights for life and equal rules for property. Whatever else our creeds may say, we should have a minimal egalitarianism in law and policy, so that innocent people may live, own property, and be able to live, to a great extent, in accordance to their beliefs and values. If we can achieve minimal global egalitarianism, that would be a great achievement.

Note: this article also appears in http://www.progress.org

Just to say hello

Приветствую Вас, мои друзья! Это мой первый пост в блоге Notes On Liberty, и я хочу поблагодарить Brandon Christensen за любезно предоставленное право делиться с Вами собственными размышлениями над мировыми проблемами и событиями. Я живу в России и буду писать на русском языке (и иногда на английском тоже), поэтому настройте ваши переводчики. Надеюсь у нас не возникнет языкового барьера и мы будем понимать друг друга. Во всяком случае, мне гораздо проще писать по-русски, чем пытаться выжать из себя необходимый словарный запас английского языка, чтобы казаться грамотным собеседником. В общем, приступим к обсуждению!

На первый раз поговорим о религии в России, и о пресловутом “русском духе”. Народ у нас делится на два типа: тех, кто верит в бога, и тех, кто в него верит периодически, от случая к случаю. У нас даже есть поговорка: “нет атеистов в окопе под огнем”, что буквально можно перевести так: человек начинает обращаться к религии в России только в том случае, когда остальные методы решения проблемы уже не помогают, или когда надеяться больше не на что. Разумеется, есть и глубоко религиозные люди, которые ставят религию на один уровень с остальными проявлениями своего существования: походы в церковь, молитвы, мессы и прочее подобное… В России церковь очень сильно связана с государственным аппаратом. Многие законы издаются для поощрения действий церкви, и наоборот, многие церковные “недовольства” определенными вещами в конечном итоге могут послужить катализатором для официального принятия соответствующего закона.

Так, например, у нас есть закон об оскорблении чувств верующих. Если сказать религиозному человеку “бога нет” – он может обидеться и подать на тебя в суд, за оскорбление чувств. При этом противоположного закона у нас нет. Любой верующий может назвать меня “атеистом-идиотом” – и ему за это ничего не будет. Так что, получается, религиозностью в России очень удобно маскировать хамство, черствость сознания, серость и безвкусие. Я не верю в бога. Я никогда не верю в него. Если в моей жизни что-то плохо – в этом виноват, скорее всего, я. И я никогда не пойду в церковь чтобы попросить облегчения участи. Мне проще взять все в свои руки и исправить ситуацию.

Religion and Liberty

I’m not a religious person. I have an unconventional Mormon background but rejected the faith of my parents for a large number of reasons. I’m not hostile to religion, either. At least, I try not to be (it’s hard sometimes!). I’ve seen first-hand what religious organizations can do for humanity. When I was living in a Ghanaian village of no more than 300 people, I had access to no more than two hospitals in the village. One was run by the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the other I cannot remember (the SDA hospital was closer). It was most likely a Catholic one. Religious organizations representing Islam, Judaism, Christianity and even Buddhism were ever-present in Ghana, and they all provided much-needed skills and supplies to that magnificently socialist state.

I attribute my atheism and my libertarianism to my skeptical nature. If you can prove to me that God does indeed exist, or that paternalism is good for me and my fellow man, then I will turn on a dime. I don’t know very much about anything, after all.

Anyway, religion has been under attack in the West since the Enlightenment. There are both good and bad reasons for this. One of the best reasons is that religious authorities often burned dissidents at the stake for opposing their claims to authority. In much of the world today, especially in some Muslim regions, non-believers are subjected to stonings, beheadings, and torture when the authority of the ecclesiastical class is challenged. However, in today’s Western world, the war on religion is a rather petty affair. Most skeptics don’t want to argue about the existence of God, they simply want to denigrate believers at best, and persecute them at worst. Continue reading

From the Comments: Islamism versus Islam

I am continuing a post I wrote earlier in the day on the difference between Islam and Islamism that was spurred by this thoughtful post from a blogger in India by the name of Geekay. You can find his awesome blog here.

Very often these dissident clergymen in the Muslim world have a good point. States in the Muslim world are notoriously brutal (and they get lots of funding from Washington to be so), which is at odds with the general interpretation by Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace and generosity.

I do not think it is pertinent or even useful to get into a debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace and generosity or not, largely because I believe it is and because of the ambiguity I wrote about in Part 1 that is associated with religion in general.

Today’s religious dissenters in the Muslim world, as well as today’s elite in the Muslim world, all wield the religion of Islam to further their agendas. Again, the Jesuits were some of the worst perpetrators of religion-inspired murders in Europe at about the same time that they were responsible for fighting for the rights of Native Americans to live and practice what they wanted freely in the Americas. This is just how religion works. Pretty cool, huh?

The reason why Islam is often blamed for murderous acts is because the murderers often use Islam’s name to justify their actions. Thus in Saudi Arabia the monarchy executes women publicly in the name of Islam to placate their enemies at home. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden, a rival of the Saudis, used Islam to argue that the Saudi monarchy was insufficiently Islamic. Continue reading

From the Comments: Islam versus Islamism

I thought I’d pull out the following comment from Geekay, an affable blogger in India, because it gives a good representation of the world’s ignorance about Islam. I use the term ‘ignorance’ in its literal sense, as in not much is known about the subject, rather than as a pejorative jab (I usually save those for the ‘comments’ section!). Geekay’s comment is reproduced unedited and unabridged below:

Should west remain liberal towards Muslims . I think west should use this liberty and equality toward them to seek the same for all in the land controlled by them. After all the minorities whether Islamic or non-islamic are suffering in the land controlled by them. Islam needs reforms like Christianity and it does not seem on the horizon with the kind of violence and intolerance exhibited by the clergy. While most of the Christian world is growing less religious, Muslims are becoming more religious which only means they are falling under the uneducated, non-liberal Ulemas and Maulvis. Can the west induce the Muslim clergy towards education and reform. After all, there has to be a set of human values approved even by Muslim world. The ‘Organization of the Islamic Conference’ (OIC) should be made to declare those values. If the membership of this club does not come directly to US then proxy like Bahrain, Saudi etc could be used. The US has been slippery with condoning the Saudi actions. How long should this behaviour continue from west because Muslims are not forcing their values on them yet.

The first thing that needs to be done when thinking clearly about the Muslim world is to immediately separate religion from state. I know this move seems counter-intuitive because most states in the Muslim world have declared Islam to be the official religion, but stay with me here.

Islam as a religion has nothing to do with today’s violence and upheavals in the Middle East. Continue reading