Monday, January 01, 2018

Scott Aaronson and Heterodox Academy

Heterodox Academy (HA) is an organization of scholars – led by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, psychologist of morality Jonathan Haidt, including string phenomenologist Joseph Conlon and 1,000 other members – attempting to increase the diversity of opinions and intellectual tolerance in the Western Academia. They realize that since the 1990s, the U.S. and U.K. Academia have brutally moved to the left, relatively to the whole society, as the Baby Boomers replaced the Greatest Generation.

HA acknowledges the problems that this increasing pressure for all scholars to conform causes to the basic purpose of the scholarly environment and the freedom of thought it depends upon. HA wants the people to talk to each other, listen to each other, and things will be fixed.

Note that I admire Steven Pinker – not only because of his work criticizing the tabula rasa paradigm (the naive claim that individual people don't have any special innate psychological characteristics; "blank slate" in Pinker's "plain English" synonym – almost everyone in Czechia speaks Latin so we generally prefer "tabula rasa", I think) and because he was on the right side during the Feminist Summers Wars and in similar situations.

Meanwhile, complexity computational theorist Scott Aaronson was urged by a reader to join HA. Aaronson has had some trouble with extremely illiberal extreme liberals. So shouldn't he join? Aaronson's readers are split on whether he should join HA – and Aaronson himself is equally split.

On one hand, Aaronson has written some things that are heterodox (which is just a word that HA chose for "not orthodox") or politically incorrect. I forgot what they were – this bright chap is surely able to think independently. On the other hand, Aaronson is a man who doesn't want to make any pledge and he loves to harass conservatives and libertarians and others as much as other illiberal liberals do.

For example, it's unsurprising that I am banned on his blog. After Trump won the U.S. presidential elections, my ban (which was supposed to end sometime in 2017) was extended up to the end of Trump's tenure – i.e. to the year 2024. ;-) Aaronson's explanation was basically "yes, we can". Yes, we can send kulaks to the Gulags, so why wouldn't we do so? He made it clear that I was chosen as a scapegoat to relieve his frustrations caused by the elections that their lousy candidate supported mainly by a pretty disgusting and dishonest pseudo-elite has unsurprisingly lost.

Fortunately, I don't care whether I may post comments on a computer science blog but the logic behind the ban is nevertheless one of the numerous reasons why I don't have any illusions about his respect towards freedom (of others) and academic diversity. I think that Aaronson doesn't have any of that. He's only independent and annoyed when other illiberal liberals are constraining himself but as far as I can say, he has always happily joined other illiberal liberals whenever the plan was to harass the believers in any "politically incorrect" social opinions. And if you were able to replace Joseph Stalin with Scott Aaronson, the results and casualties would have been basically identical, I think.

So this whole discussion is sort of silly. He doesn't want himself to be constrained by anything – not even by conditions invented by other extreme leftists – but that doesn't mean that he isn't an illiberal extreme leftist himself. He surely is one. He's just independent from the other extreme illiberal leftists. It seems very clear to me that when he is thinking about joining HA or not joining HA, his personal gain is the only thing he takes into account.

OK, but let me say a few words about the problems with the Academia as seen by HA and the proposed solutions. Well, what was the transformation that the scholarly environment has undergone since the 1990s or so, and why did it happen? Sometime in the 1960s, students at universities led by Berkeley went through a phase transition and became a rather extreme leftist herd. They decided to take over the world. By now, they have partially achieved that goal but they have achieved that goal almost entirely within the Academia. So an overwhelming majority of the professors, postdocs, and graduate students are leftists, usually extreme leftists. It has been true since the 1990s and this problem was getting even worse in recent years. The tolerated political opinions are increasingly narrow and everyone else is being harassed.

The narrow, ideological driven perspective is obviously wrong and its imposition makes people brain-dead. Such strict taboos and restrictions preventing people from "thought crimes" are surely totally incompatible with any rational thinking, let alone scholarly thinking.

What are the actual reasons that this deterioration has continued and what are the right fixes?

I think that these two questions are related. In some isolated cases, some "affirmative action for the Republicans" could be helpful but in the big picture, it's not a good idea and I think that most of the conservatives or libertarians don't even expect any such treatment. Most of them would really be ashamed of being treated as crybabies who have to be artificially helped – which is what is often happening to women, people of color, and other groups that are still ludicrously presented as being "discriminated against".

You know, I've been extremely familiar with the real meaning of graphs such as this one. In the recent decade, the percentage of right-wingers dropped closer to 10% than to 20% when it was previously. And you know what? I have really never had any problem with being a part of a 10% or 20% minority. In my whole life, I have been used to belonging to much more extreme minorities than that. And I have never really cared about "microaggresions" – I think that only cowards and pathetic people complain about "microaggressions". Death threats and other totally existential threats have been enough to keep my attention. ;-)

Is there something wrong with the fact that in 2017, theoretical physics is being done by people whose political beliefs are decidedly and usually extremely left-wing? I don't really think so. It wasn't always the case. During Heisenberg's times, conservatives of one way or another were much more powerful in physics. But when one focuses on the physics research, leftists can simply do things at least comparably well. Maybe I would be happier if I could see some role models who are both stellar physicists and whose political opinions look deep and admirable to me as well. But it's healthy to separate science from politics rather strictly and I have done this exercise diligently for many decades. Everyone can. So I don't see any problem.

Of course, just like numerous people who were my approximate ideological soulmates, I have had problems when I had to repeatedly deal with complications and scandals that staggeringly immoral left-wing aßholes such as Lee Smolin, Lorand Matory, Naomi Oreskes, and similar scum were preparing for me because of a combination of their personal interests and the dominance of the extreme left-wing ideology in the Academia that they were always ready to abuse for their own benefits. These campaigns – and their evolution that was almost unavoidable because of the existing political balance of power – seemed to evolve along similar lines as events in the totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and Stalinism. In some cases, Nazism and Stalinism were worse, in other cases, it was the other way around.

Again, should the number of conservative physicists or scholars in other disciplines be artificially inflated? I don't think so. There exist some totally understandable reasons why in the contemporary world, the percentage of conservatives in the Academia should be expected to be lower than the percentage of the leftists. Conservatives and pro-market folks etc. naturally prefer the commercial sector which doesn't depend on the government, redistribution, that is being rewarded by voluntary payment by consumers and clients etc. So I think it's normal for the number of leftists in the Academia to trump the number of the right-wingers.

However, there isn't any good reason why the number of right-wingers should be zero or tiny. It may be lower but it's obvious that right-wingers want to do and can do such things as well. They shouldn't be prevented from joining the environment if they have the scientific credentials, abilities, and achievements. And they – like other scholars – should be allowed (and able, not only in theory but also in practice) to express their opinions about many issues, including the politically sensitive social issues. The politically and socially flavored disciplines depend on this freedom of expression. So the academic freedoms aren't just about the question whether someone can get a degree or another, or get and maintain a job or another. It's also about the question whether the members of the Academia do their scientific and similar work well at all – whether the jobs are useful.

Why it's not the case? It's not purely because of the elevated percentage of the leftists. For many years, I have worked in overwhelmingly left-wing environments, folks knew about my beliefs and values, and things worked fine. I could praise lots of (and almost all) physicists in my environment for their tolerance and for their meritocracy. The problem is that some people in the Academia don't behave like that. Why? And who are these people? Also, how did they get there?

It's obvious that these extremely illiberal liberals who work hard to make the life harder for everyone whom they consider "politically incorrect" are much more widespread in social sciences than in natural sciences. And they're almost 100% of the folks in the humanities departments. Again, there could exist legitimate reasons why the percentage of leftists is even higher in some social scientific disciplines than in the natural sciences. But what's important is that there also exist lots of illegitimate reasons why it's so.

If I simplify the discussion, my localization of the problem is that there are lots of people – and sometimes whole departments – that have been incorporated to the Academia (primarily) for political, not scholarly, reasons. Those are really the folks that are intolerant and that have turned numerous universities into Gulags or concentration camps. And because the problem could have been described so easily, it's also rather straightforward to outline the right solution of the problem. Just fire the damn people who shouldn't be in the Academia.

Find and fire those who have been hired or accepted because they are leftists or members of politically preferred groups. In many cases, you will have to fire whole departments. So just abolish all these departments that were created in recent decades and that shouldn't exist in a decent world at all. All these shockingly despicable and unbelievably low-brow gender and African Studies departments (and there actually exist some more postmodern departments whose names are even crazier) where people get PhD for praising rappers or whining aggressive feminist bitches. They're doing politics, not science, and the reasons why they got their degrees or jobs were almost entirely political, not meritocratic.

It may sound nice and idealistic when Steven Pinker and friends urge everyone to be nice to each other but none of these proposed fixes can ever work. The atmosphere in the environment is ultimately dictated by the proportions of beliefs of the members of the community. And if a huge percentage or a majority of the members of the community think it's OK to place left-wing politics above the truth or science, left-wing politics will simply be placed above the truth or science whether you like it or not. It's that simple. If the academic environment ever works well again, most of the people may be leftists but they can't be leftists who decide according to politics rather than the academic criteria.

So again, fire all the professional feminists and professional blacks and everyone who is there mainly for political reasons. Get rid of all the dishonest ideologues and demagogues, of all the nasty partisan bullies, everyone who has abused the power of some politically influential allies in recent years. There can't be any real progress without this basic fix. Any kind of a nice discussion between the true scholars on one side and the political hacks on the other side is guaranteed to remain a cacophony and a frustrating waste of time.

And that's the memo.

P.S.: I can give you a list of hundreds of names who should be immediately fired if you want at least to start preparations for a fix.

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