“Fake News” and the Responsibility of Philosophers

”Fake news” is not actually a new phenomenon. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber document in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that it is an invention of the public relations industry that is as old as the industry itself. The First Amendment makes it pretty hard to prevent such efforts to manipulate public opinion. That’s the price it appears we have to pay to live in a free society. It wouldn’t be so serious a problem as it is if people in the field of higher education didn’t fall down on their responsibility to alert alert the public to it.

A recent case in point is an article entitled Study: For-Profits Match Similar Nonprofits in Learning Results,” that ran in the January 11th issue of Inside Higher Education. The third paragraph cites the study as claiming that “[i]n all six comparisons, students at proprietary institutions actually outperformed the students at the nonproprietary comparison institutions.”

Who would have thought that? I mean, really, aren’t the for-profits infamous for having poor learning outcomes? One doesn’t actually even have to look at the original study, however, to realize that something is fishy with it. The first red flag is the fact that the study uses the euphemism “proprietary” institutions rather than the straightforwardly descriptive “for-profits.”

The study is described as measuring “learning outcomes in six areas for 624 students from four for-profit higher education systems, which the study does not name, and then compar[ing] the scores with those of a matched group of students from 20 unnamed public and private institutions that were selected because they were similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance” (emphasis added).

The second red flag is the “matched group of students.” Matched in what sense? That isn’t explained.

The third red flag is that neither the traditional nonprofit institutions nor the for-profit ones are named.

The fourth red flag is that the nonprofit institutions were selected because they were “similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance.” Really? Since for-profits are reputed to have abysmal results in terms of academic performance, they must have searched long and hard to find nonprofits that had similarly abysmal results, if indeed they really did find such institutions, which cannot be verified since they are “unnamed.”

The whole thing reminds me of an old television commercial for Rolaids. Someone dumps a white powder into a beaker of what appears to be water with red food coloring in it, then stirs the powder, which gradually becomes clear again, while a voiceover announces “In this test with Rolaids’ active ingredient, laboratory acid changes color to PROVE Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”

There was no way, however, to prove that the beaker had actually contained acid, or that what had been dumped into it was really Rolaids’ “active ingredient,” or indeed even that the change in color represented Rolaids’ “absorbing” anything let alone acid, not to mention how much acid. I credit that commercial with starting me on the road to becoming a philosophy professor because even as a child I found it outrageous that someone should expect I would take it as proving anything.

One of the chief duties of philosophers, I believe, is to expose errors in reasoning and man were there errors of reasoning in that commercial. I learned very early that commercials were not to be trusted. Most people know that, I think. Most people know to be skeptical when, for example, a commercial claims that some detergent removes stains better than any other detergent ever invented and presents what it purports is proof.

Most people know to be skeptical about claims made in commercials. Unfortunately, most people do not know to be skeptical about claims made in what is presented to them as “news.” That’s why I use Rampton and Stauber’s book when I teach critical reasoning. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a philosopher to alert my students to the pervasiveness of the practice of dressing up propaganda as news.

Back to the education “study.” Even if the study were genuine, the results are pretty much useless because the whole study is circular. That is, the study admittedly sought out “matched” students at “similar” institutions. It thus isn’t surprising that the for-profits come out looking better than one would expect if the selection of students and institutions had been random.

The study was conducted by a group called the Council for Aid to Education, or CAE. The “Executive Summary” (p. 2) of the study makes it very clear where the CAE stand on the for-profits. “The proprietary education sector stands at a crossroads,” it begins.

Proprietary colleges and universities are key providers of postsecondary education in the United States, enrolling over 1.7 million students. However, the sector has seen its enrollment decline since its peak in 2010 due to the growing employment opportunities following the Great Recession, the heavy regulatory burdens imposed during the last six years, and the perception that education at proprietary institutions is not on par with that offered by their non-proprietary peers.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) believes this junction presents a critical time to explore the efficacy of proprietary institutions and to document the student learning they support.

If there were doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the study’s objectivity, the opening of the “Executive Summary” should remove it. The CAE set out to show that the for-profits were doing as good a job of educating students as are traditional nonprofit institutions of higher education.

Of course the CAE is within its rights to do this. The problem is not so much the the CAE’s clear bias in favor of the “proprietary education sector,” but Inside Higher Education’s failure to expose that bias. Inside Higher Education purports to be “an independent journalism organization.” This “journalistic independence is critical,” IHE asserts in its “Ownership Statement,” “in ensuring fairness and thoroughness” of its “higher education coverage.”

The thing is, Quad Partners, “a private equity firm that invests in the education space,” purchased a controlling share of IHE in 2014. That is, Inside Higher Education is now an arm of the “proprietary education sector.” So the purported “independence,” “fairness,” and “thoroughness” of its reporting on issues in higher education appears now to be only so much more propaganda in the service of the for-profits.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Education protested to me in an email, after he saw an earlier version of this article that appeared in Counterpunch, that he and the people over at IHE had had their own suspicions about that piece and that that was why they had given is only a “barebones Quick Take.”

“What confuses me,” he said,

is why you viewed our minimalist and questioning treatment of the CAE research as evidence that we are in the tank for the for-profits because our lead investor has also invested in for-profit higher education––rather than as proof that our ownership situation has changed us not at all.

I fear Lederman may be right in protesting that IHE had not been willingly shilling for the for-profits. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that the suspicions he and others had had about the study should have led them to do a full-scale investigation of it (an investigation that would have involved actually reading at least the “Executive Summary” of the study to which they included a link in their article) and to publish an exposé on the study as a piece of propaganda for the for-profits rather than a “barebones” article that presented it as “news.”

What concerns me is not so much that the for-profits are trying to manipulate public opinion to make it more favorable toward them. What concerns me is that the editors of a leading publication that reports on issues in higher education don’t have the critical acumen to identify what ought to have been readily identifiable as a piece of “fake news,” or the journalistic experience and expertise to know what to do with it once they have identified it as such.

That’s disturbing.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

 

The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015), Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation, is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or (1843) as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) (1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “believing” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

Rees fails to comment on the quality of the new translation of Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That departure was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If that’s true, it’s an odd fact to omit in a review of a translation by him. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of my blog on Kierkegaard are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the surrender of his ethics.

As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure in his translation of a Danish biography of Kierkegaard, that the author of that controversial biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to Piety on Kierkegaard:Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

On Wasting Your Vote

Portrait caricatureA disturbing number of Americans are going to end up wasting their votes in this next election. They’re unhappy with the status quo, but instead of changing it, they’re only going to reinforce it. I’m not talking about democrats who are planning to vote third-party. I’m talking about democrats who don’t really like Clinton’s pseudo-progressive platform, but who are so afraid Sanders can’t win that they’re going to vote for Clinton anyway and justify that vote by invoking “the lesser of the two evils” argument. That is, they’re going to defend their support of Clinton on the grounds that even though there’s a lot they don’t like about her, she’d be better than a Republican president.

It is not at all clear, however, that Sanders couldn’t win. A recent article in Counterpunch makes a devastatingly good argument that, in fact, Sanders is our only chance of getting a democrat in the White House this time around. But even if that weren’t true, it’s time someone pointed out that the invocation of the “lesser of two evils argument” to defend otherwise indefensible political choices is profoundly misguided. It is precisely such reasoning that has driven us relentlessly into our current position between a rock and a hard place.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that the greatest invention in human history was compound interest. I beg to differ. I think it’s the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s brilliant. Give people two options, neither of which they find appealing, convince them that a third option, a genuinely attractive one, is just not practicable and that they must thus choose between the bad and the worse, and you’ll be able to get them to choose something they would never otherwise choose.

You can get people to do anything that way. You start by offering them a choice between something that is just marginally unpleasant and something that is really repellent. Once you’ve gotten them to choose the marginally unpleasant, you raise the bar (just a little mind you, you don’t want them to catch on to what you’re doing). Now you offer them a choice between something to which they have really strong objections and something that is deeply offensive. Most people, of course, will choose the former, if they think it’s either that or the latter. Now you offer people who’ve become inured to living under objectionable conditions a choice between even worse conditions and something that is truly unthinkable. It’s not mystery what they will choose.

There’s been a lot of angry posturing from Americans who think of themselves as progressive about how the purported political center in this country has been moving inexorably to the right, yet it’s these very people who are directly responsible for the shift. If you vote for a candidate who’s farther right than you would prefer, well, then you’re shifting the political “center” to the right. Republicans aren’t responsible for the increasingly conservative face of the democratic party. Democrats are responsible for it. Democrats keep racing to the polls like lemmings being chased by the boogeyman.

“This is not the election to vote for real change” runs the Democratic refrain. We’re in a crisis! We must do whatever it takes to ensure that the republicans don’t get in office even if that means voting for a democrat whose policies we don’t really like and which are only marginally distinguishable from those of the Republican candidate. That “margin” is important, we’re reminded again and again. That little difference is going to make all the difference.

Even if that were true, which it ought to be clear by now it is not (see Bart Gruzalski’s “Jill Stein and the 99 Percent”), it would still offer a very poor justification for voting for a candidate one doesn’t really like. Why? Because it is an expression of short-term thinking. Thomas Hobbes argued that privileging short-term over long-term goals was irrational, and yet that’s what we’ve been doing in this country for as long as I can remember. Americans are notoriously short-term oriented. As Luc Sante noted in a piece in the New York Review of Books, America is “the country of the perpetual present tense.” Perhaps that’s part of the anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter wrote about. “Just keep the republicans out of office for this election!” we’re always commanded. “We can worry about real change later!”

Of course anyone who stopped to think about it ought to realize that that mythical “later” is never going to come. With the notable exception of Sanders, our choices have been getting worse not better, and if we keep invoking the “lesser of the two evils” to justify them, we are in effect, digging our own graves.

God is not going to deliver to us from the clouds the candidate of our dreams, the candidate who despite his or her wildly populist views somehow manages to win over the corporate powers we have allowed, through our own incorrigible stupidity, to control the political process in this country. If we are ever going to see real political change of the sort progressives purport to want, then we are going to have to be brave enough to risk losing an election. Which shouldn’t require all that much bravery when one thinks about it, because real progressives have been losing elections for as long as anyone can remember in that the democrats haven’t been genuinely progressive for as long as anyone can remember.

If you vote for Clinton in the primary because you think of yourself as progressive and you fear Sanders is un-electable, think again. You are wasting your vote because what you are actually saying is that you are willing to support a candidate who is not really progressive, that the Democrats can continue their relentless march to the right and that you will back them all the way. That is, if you vote for Clinton because you say you are progressive, you are saying one thing and doing another. But actions, as everyone knows, speak louder than words. You can go on posturing about how progressive you are, but if you vote for Clinton that posturing is empty.

If we are ever going to see real progressive political change in this country we have to brave enough to openly risk defeat, and we have to have faith that our fellow progressives will be similarly brave. William James makes this point very eloquently in his essay “The Will to Believe.” “A social organism,” he wrote,

of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.

Progressive political change will never be a fact unless we have faith in its coming, unless we have faith that others will back us up when we refuse to be forced to vote yet again for a candidate we do not like.

I, for one, abhor cowardice. I’m not going to be intimidated into voting for a candidate I don’t like by threats of the “greater evil.” I am going to vote for the candidate whose platform I actually endorse. Even if my candidate doesn’t win the election, my vote will count for something and not merely in the sense that it will allow me to preserve my self respect. I’m not afraid of being condemned as naively optimistic. Without such optimism we’d never have had democracy in the first place. Democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human history, is precisely the product of the courage to act on one’s conscience and that faith that others will do so as well. If we’ve lost those things, then we will get the president we deserve.

(An earlier version of this piece appear in the October 12, 2012 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

The Rhetoric of Entitlement

Portrait caricatureThis piece was originally published in CounterPunch on March 27, 2013. Given the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, however, I thought it was appropriate to post the piece to this blog.

There’s been a lot about affirmative action in the media recently because the Supreme Court is considering a case that challenges the constitutionality of any consideration of race in university admissions decisions. The poster girl for the case is 23-year old Abigail Noel Fisher who charges that she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because she was white. No matter that her GPA (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were not particularly distinguished and that there were black and Latino applicants with even better SATs and GPAs who were also denied admission. Ms. Fisher and the conservative nonprofit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the lawsuit, believe she was effectively punished by the admissions committee for being white.

Well that is just it! I cannot take any more whiney white people arguing that they are “victims” of reverse discrimination. Aren’t the conservatives behind the Project on Fair Representation the same ideological group as contemporary social Darwinists? Don’t they think we’re all just supposed to be duking it out without any protections whatever in order to ensure that the fittest of us survive? So what if life is sometimes unfair? That’s just part of the old Hobbesian state of nature, the situation into which we’ve all been thrust. Aren’t we just supposed to learn how to deal with it?

Babies can’t help being born to poor parents, but conservatives have no problem condemning these “innocent lives” to overcrowded and underfunded schools. Poor kids are supposed to find some way out of that situation without any help from the government.

Conservatives have never cared economic unfairness, so why this sudden concern about racial “unfairness”? Are legions of exceptionally well qualified white people being denied entrance to the university of their choice by crazed liberals who are giving unjustified preference to less qualified minorities? Now that would be a frightening thought, wouldn’t it! Fortunately, it’s a myth. How do I know this? Because Abigail Noel Fisher is the best example of purported reverse discrimination conservatives have produced.

A 3.59 GPA-are you kidding me? I know a kid with a 4.9 GPA who’s hired a college admissions consultant to help improve his chances of getting into the institution of his choice. I’ll bet you didn’t know there was such a thing as a 4.9 GPA (apparently made possible by advanced placement and/or honors courses). Obviously neither did Ms. Fisher, or she might have thought twice about parading herself before the public as a victim because her 3.59 GPA failed to get her into one of the top universities in the country.

Since the Project of Fair Representation is interested in issues of fairness that relate to race, how come they’re not concerned about the over-representation of blacks in U.S. prisons? There’s a much higher proportion of blacks in prison than in the general population. There’s actual documentation that shows that when juries are white, blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted of a crime even when the evidence that points to their respective “guilt” is effectively the same, and that when convicted, blacks receive harsher sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes. That doesn’t seem very “fair.” How come the folks over at the PFR aren’t fuming about that?

Oh yeah, conservatives aren’t really concerned about racial unfairness in general. They’re concerned that WHITE people might be being treated unfairly. They don’t care if other races are being treated unfairly, but WHITE people should never have to suffer “unfair” treatment!

As a white person, I have to say that I find this pathetic display of white entitlement disgusting. I hope that I speak on behalf of decent reasonable white people everywhere when I say that white people do not necessarily expect that life will always be fair. Government should address gross injustices–I think most of us agree on that–but it is ludicrous to suggest that the government step in to correct the situation every time life is less than ideally “fair.”

I think it is unfair that I don’t look like Demi Moore, that I don’t have long legs, and that I was not raised in a bilingual household. I think it is unfair that my husband and I are forced to live in different cities if we wish to practice our chosen professions. It is unfair that I do not make enough money to be able to pursue all my interests, and indeed that I don’t have enough time to pursue them all.

There are things the government could do to redress at least some of these “injustices.” Obamacare could cover plastic surgery. The government could mandate higher salaries and lighter work loads. There could be all kinds of federal incentives for employers to hire spouses, etc., etc. I’m not holding my breath, though. Those things simply aren’t important enough to warrant government action, and neither, I submit, is failing to get into the college of your choice when you are only a moderately qualified applicant.

Show me the bona fide genius who can’t get into Harvard because her spot was taken by some academically unqualified minority and I’ll start to become concerned. I haven’t seen that yet, and I’m not going to see it, because it doesn’t happen. White people who are deluding themselves that it does are simply looking around for someone else to blame for their own mediocrity.

When did white people become so pathetic? Black people have had to live for generations under a system that is demonstrably unfair to them. There’s plenty of documentation for that. Where do white people get off thinking that they are entitled to ask the government to redress a “wrong” done to them that would appear to be no more than a figment of their fevered imaginations?

Where has this sense of white entitlement come from? When Jeil 2 Savings Bank of South Korea came under investigation for alleged irregularities by its executives and major shareholders, its president, Jeong Gu-Haeng, committed suicide. When white guys in the U.S. run their banks into the ground, not only do they take no responsibility, they expect the government bail them out. That is no more, nor less than they feel they are entitled to. White people can’t handle having to deal with the consequences of our own actions. We can’t handle anything that is really difficult. Difficulties are “unfair”!

This sense of white entitlement is increasing. Even as our achievements are diminishing, our sense of entitlement is growing. It’s not just an unattractive character trait (nobody, after all, likes a whiner); it’s morally offensive. It’s also dangerous. It’s making us stupid. It’s making us lazy–dare I say shiftless? It’s part of the reason, I would argue, for the precipitous descent of the U.S. from its former position of world economic dominance.

White people have benefitted from the handicaps placed–both intentionally and unintentionally–on minorities for as long as the country has existed. Unfortunately, this is now coming back to bite us, and by that I’m not referring to reverse discrimination. You know how you make somebody strong, how you make them smart? You handicap them, put a lot of obstacles in their path. Many minorities have had so many obstacles in their paths for so long that they’ve become smarter and stronger than we are.

This situation puts me in mind of a remark by Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong when he learned about child labor practices in the U.S. while studying for his citizenship test:

“Hang on–those kids got PAID?”

That’s the kind of mettle we wimpy white people are up against in this cold new world. We’re on our way to becoming a minority in all but the least skilled and least demanding of occupations and institutions of higher learning, and not because of the phantom menace of reverse discrimination, but because we’ve made ourselves too damn stupid and lazy for anything else.

White people better hope the Supreme Court doesn’t decide in favor of a “colorblind” constitution–we’re going to need affirmative action!

On Race and Intelligence

My fifth grade class photo.

My fifth grade class photo.

One of the readers of this blog, who came to it after having read a piece in the online political magazine CounterPunch, suggested that I should post, after a suitable interval, all my articles from CounterPunch to this blog. I published a piece recently in CounterPunch on racism, so I thought perhaps I should post an earlier piece I did on racism here. I think it is a good piece to follow the post “On Teaching” because it relates to that topic as well. This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.

Race is in the news again. First it was the Jena Six, then Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s assertion, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, and finally, a series of articles two weeks ago in Slate arguing that there was scientific evidence to back Watson’s claim.

The reaction to these recent developments was predictable. There have been a number of heated debates on the internet concerning not only race and intelligence, but also the appropriateness of studying race and intelligence. Two crucial points have yet to be made, however. The first concerns the contentious association of intelligence with  IQ score and the second is the equally contentious assumption that we have anything like a clear scientific conception or race.

Let’s take the first one first. What is intelligence anyway? We have no better grasp of this than we have of the relation of the mind to the brain. Sure, some people can solve certain sorts of puzzles faster than other people, but everyone knows people who are great at Scrabble, or crosswords, or chess, or who can fix almost any mechanical or electrical gadget, but who seem unable to wrap their minds around even the most rudimentary of social or political theories. Then there are the people with great memories who are able to retain all the elements of even the most arcane theories and who can undertake an explanation of them if pressed, but whose inability to express them in novel terms betrays that they have not really grasped them after all. Other people–I’ve known quite a few of this type–have keenly analytical minds. They can break individual claims, or even entire theories, down into their conceptual components, yet they appear to lack any sort of synthetic intelligence in that they are unable to see the myriad implications of these analyses. Still other people are great at grasping the big picture, so to speak, but have difficulty hanging onto the details.

Some people plod slowly and methodically toward whatever insights they achieve and others receive them almost effortlessly, through flashes of inspiration. But the insights of the former group are sometimes more profound than those of the latter group. Then there are people who are mostly mistaken in their beliefs, sometimes quite obviously so, but correct in some one belief the implications of which are so staggering that we tend to forget they are otherwise unreliable.

I’m inclined to put Watson in this last group. Perhaps that’s not fair. After all, I know of only one point on which he is obviously mistaken. That mistake is so glaring, however, that it leads me to think he is probably more like an idiot savant than a genuinely intelligent human being. I.Q. scores represent something. It just isn’t all that clear what. To suggest that they represent intelligence in any significant sense is thus to betray that one has less than the ideally desirable quantity of this quality himself.

Sure the mind, and therefore intelligence, is intimately connected with the brain. Read Oliver Sacks if you want to see just how intimate that connection is. Sacks is one of my favorite authors not simply because the substance of his writings is so fascinating, but also because he is himself so clearly intelligent. Not only does he not go leaping to conclusions on issues that lie outside his area of professional expertise (though I have to say I’d be more interested to hear Sacks’ social and political views than Watson’s), he doesn’t go leaping to conclusions about the implications of what he has observed in his own work in neurology. He’d be one of the first people, I think, to defend the claim that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what intelligence is to be reliably able to quantify it. We don’t even understand it well enough yet to be able to say confidently that it is quantifiable. At this point, all we can say is that it appears so intimately connected with the brain that it can, in some sense, be associated with, or represented by, we-know-not-yet-what neurological activities or tendencies.

Okay, so far, so little. But what is a black brain and what is a white brain? Most blacks in the U.S., as opposed to blacks in Africa, have a great deal of white blood, or whatever you want to call it. If whites really were more intelligent than blacks, that would mean African-Americans would be that much more intelligent than Africans. (I’m sure my friend, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would be interested to hear that one.) There may well be people who believe this. I am not aware of any empirical evidence, however, that supports such a conclusion. My own experience does not support it. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended predominantly black schools from fourth grade to college. Since that time I have also met more than a few Africans. I couldn’t detect any difference in intelligence. I’m unaware of even anecdotal evidence that would support the conclusion that there was such a difference. Do you see what I’m saying? We’re not looking at a slippery slope here, but at a meteoric descent down into a pile of deep doo-doo.

From what I’ve read, there is no clear scientific definition of race. “Race” is just a name we give to a collection of physical characteristics such as eye and hair color and degree of pigmentation of the skin. There is no race gene. There are just genes that encode for these individual characteristics. So how many, and what sort, of  characteristics does one have to have to be either black or white. It is some kind of ineffable sum isn’t it? Blacks sometimes have very pale skin, some whites actually have darker skin than some blacks. Blacks even occasionally have blue eyes, or straight hair, just as whites often have brown eyes or tightly curled hair.

In the past, we just arbitrarily determined what made a person black, and, by implication, white. Since, presumably, we have gotten beyond the point where we would say that even one drop of black blood makes a person black, the only reasonable definition of race (even given its circularity) would, therefore, appear to be one based on the statistical representation of the various races in one’s family tree. That would mean people with predominantly white, or perhaps I should say “white-ish” ancestry would be considered white. Have you ever seen a photo of Charles Chestnut or Anatole Broyard?  Not only are these guys clearly white, according to this definition, there are a whole lot of other people walking around this country who call themselves “black” because of the social environment into which they were born, but who ought properly to consider themselves white.

Since when have scientific studies been undertaken on ineffable, or arbitrarily determined, classes of thing? It’s like trying to determine whether people with purportedly good taste are more intelligent than people with purportedly bad taste, or whether people who live in Chicago are more intelligent than people who live in L.A. You might undertake such a thing as a sociological study with some arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what would constitute good and bad taste, or for how far out into the suburbs you want to go before you decide you have left Chicago, as well with some equally arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what constitutes intelligence.

You cannot undertake such a thing though as a scientific study (no matter how convinced you may be in the genetic superiority of people who live in Chicago), and to think that you could betrays that you have a very weak grasp of what constitutes natural science. Given that race, at least from the standpoint of natural science, is nothing more than a collection of certain physical characteristics, the view that white people are more intelligent than black people is not uncomfortably close to view of the Nazis that blue-eyed blonds were inherently superior to everyone else–it is essentially the same thing.

As I said earlier, I spent a huge portion of my life in the almost exclusive company of black people. I’ve been around black people and I’ve been around white people and I haven’t found any general differences in terms of intelligence. My experience has led me to believe that most of what often passes for intelligence is actually intellectual self confidence, confidence in one’s own reasoning powers, confidence in the value of one’s insights. Teachers, of which I am one, will tell you that you can just see some people’s brains seize up when they are confronted with tasks they fear may be beyond them but which sometimes later prove not to have been beyond them. This fear, however, that certain tasks are beyond one, is a substantial obstacle to completing them. One stumbles again and again, fearing his “guess” is just that, a guess, rather than understanding. One fails to pursue an insight for fear that it is not genuine, or from fear that it is so obvious that others have come to it long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are not innate differences in intelligence among human beings. I’m sure there are, but I agree with what I believe Noam Chomsky said somewhere about how these differences, measured relative to the difference in intelligence between human beings and their closes relatives the apes, are simply vanishingly small.

I construe my job as an educator not to impart knowledge, but to nurture intellectual confidence. (Of course this could be partly a defensive mechanism because I am a philosopher, which means I don’t have any knowledge to impart.) I try to teach critical thinking skills, of course, but even more important to me is somehow to get my students to believe in their own intellectual potential because even these skills, I believe, can, at least to a certain extent, be acquired naturally by people who are confident in their ability to acquire them.

I say, teach people to believe in themselves and then see what they are able to do with that faith. But be very careful when you start judging the results because if anything of value has emerged from the recent debates on race and intelligence, it is that many of us in the U.S. are much closer to the edge of idiocy than we would like to admit. Noted intellectuals have failed to grasp even the most basic facts about what constitutes natural scientific research and failed to understand that to parade this ignorance in the way they have before a public still marked by social and economic inequities that cut along racial lines is offensive in the extreme. The whole thing has been very humbling. It has shown, I believe, that racism is still very firmly entrenched in the American psyche.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.)