Sunday, October 19, 2014

Massimo Pigliucci: Scientia Salon - A Manifesto for 21st Century Intellectualism

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Scientia Salon is a webzine about science and philosophy. There is a very active conversation occurring there around these two BIG topics. Back in March, Massimo Pigliucci (founder and editor of the site) posted a "manifesto for 21st Century intellectualism.

Here is a little taste . . .
That problem, to put it plainly, is that many of our fellow citizens have not taken any intellectual course in self-defense (literally or more broadly speaking), and that they are bombarded by the best political and — let’s not forget it — corporate propaganda money (a lot of money) can buy.

This has a cascade of effects, from the very personal to the societal. At the personal level, many go about their lives with hardly a clue about why they are doing what they are doing. Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living was surely an exaggeration, but it definitely pays from time to time to pause and reflect on what we want from our existence on this planet and why. The ancient called it the pursuit of eudaimonia, the good and moral life. But in order to reflect and make informed decisions we need thinking tools, and there is a dearth of them both inside and outside of our educational system.

At the societal level, this means that we elect politicians because they look like the sort of fellows one would want to have a beer with, rather than because they are honest and brimming with good ideas about how to navigate the perils of the modern world in ways that maximize fairness and well being.
Yep.

The whole manifesto is posted below - be sure to check out some of the other writing at their site - some interesting topics and authors.

Massimo Pigliucci is, most recently, co-editor (with Maarten Boudry) of Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (2013).

Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism

by Massimo Pigliucci
Arcimboldo's Librarian

During the Enlightenment, the Marquis de Condorcet defined a public intellectual as someone devoted to “the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them.” A number of years later, on 13 January 1898 to be precise, the writer Emile Zola showed the world — and in particular the French government — what public intellectualism could do. He penned his famous “J’accuse” letter to the President of France, concerning the abysmal behavior of the French authorities in the infamous Dreyfus affair.

Intellectualism, of course, has its detractors, particularly in the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” [1] traces several strands of the phenomenon all throughout American history, and we can very much see it today in the form of religious-based opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools, or in the open disdain for politicians who dare name a favorite philosopher that is not Jesus.

At the City University of New York, where I work, I often teach a basic course in Critical Reasoning that uses a handy little booklet entitled, A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by University of Québec-Montreal professor of Education Fundamentals Normand Baillargeon [2]. I highly recommend it, just as I wholeheartedly agree that teaching critical thinking really ought to be part of our concept of “educational fundamentals” — despite the fact that it is seen as optional even at the college level, let alone earlier.

The title of Baillargeon’s book is a play on a quote by the most famous (and controversial) public intellectual of the late 20th and early 21st century: Noam Chomsky. In his essay on Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [3], Chomsky wrote that “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.” No kidding. Just turn on Fox News, MSNBC, or even CNN and you will see just how intense and damaging the political propaganda is in the US (I know it is no less so in the other country I am directly familiar with, Italy — and I doubt the situation is much different elsewhere, give or take).

People concerned with developing a thriving society have always been worried about the specter of totalitarianism, let’s call it the “1984” scenario. And to be sure, there is much of that still going on in the world, with billions of people living under non democratic (or democratic only in name) regimes, from China to Russia to much of the Middle East.

But a more subtle, arguably more effective, way of controlling people is rather akin to the scenario presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In that particular dystopia it is psychological (and biological) manipulation that plays the crucial role — and it is much more powerful than overt coercion. Or, if you prefer, arch back to the Roman empire, where its military might abroad was coupled with the famous panem et circenses approach to handling the civilian population at home: give them enough food and entertainment and they won’t have the stomach for a revolution. If that sounds as an even rough approximation of many modern societies, then we agree that we have a serious problem.

That problem, to put it plainly, is that many of our fellow citizens have not taken any intellectual course in self-defense (literally or more broadly speaking), and that they are bombarded by the best political and — let’s not forget it — corporate propaganda money (a lot of money) can buy.

This has a cascade of effects, from the very personal to the societal. At the personal level, many go about their lives with hardly a clue about why they are doing what they are doing. Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living was surely an exaggeration, but it definitely pays from time to time to pause and reflect on what we want from our existence on this planet and why. The ancient called it the pursuit of eudaimonia, the good and moral life. But in order to reflect and make informed decisions we need thinking tools, and there is a dearth of them both inside and outside of our educational system.

At the societal level, this means that we elect politicians because they look like the sort of fellows one would want to have a beer with, rather than because they are honest and brimming with good ideas about how to navigate the perils of the modern world in ways that maximize fairness and well being.

For all of this, I am not so naive as to propose that more education — or even more courses in critical thinking — is the panacea needed to cure the ills of humanity. After all, David Hume famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” [4], by which he meant that human beings aren’t just the rational animal (as Aristotle suggested), but also the passionate one. It follows that one needs to take care of emotions just as much, if not more, as one addresses reason.

Indeed, modern research in cognitive science has borne out Hume’s warning. Antonio Damasio [5] has argued in his Descartes’ Error that a functional human being cannot be modeled on the emotionless Spock, unless we wish for a polity of sociopaths. And of course more recent writings by the likes of Daniel Kahneman [6] and Jonathan Haidt [7] have clinched the case that we are so fraught with cognitive biases and so prone to rationalization that it is a miracle anything gets done around the world.

And yet, stuff does get done. Humanity has invented philosophy, and then science, and both have thrived precisely because we can and do use reason to understand the world and improve our lot. I find it somewhat amusing (well, frustrating, really) that every new paper coming out of the social or cognitive sciences showing just how limited and biased the human mind is becomes an argument for the irrelevance of rational thinking. As if those discoveries were made in any other way but by deploying the best reasoning abilities we have in order to overcome whatever biases even the researchers involved in those very studies surely suffer from.

To draw on a pertinent analogy: we have incontrovertible evidence that people in general tend to be bad at estimating probabilities, a phenomenon on which the multi-billion dollar casino industry is built. But very few people (other than casino owners, perhaps) would argue that therefore it is useless to teach about the gambler’s fallacy and other pertinent concepts. On the contrary: teaching the rudiments of probability theory is the best way we know of at least partially immunizing fellow human beings from wasting their fortunes at gambling establishments.

The same goes with critical reasoning and open intellectual discourse. They are not a silver bullet, but I guarantee you that once my students are made aware of the standard logical fallacies [8] they see them everywhere (because they are everywhere!), and they are better off for it.

Which brings me to the current project, of which this essay is the beginning and informal “manifesto.” Scientia is a Latin word that means knowledge (and understanding) in the broadest possible terms. It has wider implications than the English term “science,” as it includes natural and social sciences, philosophy, logic, and mathematics, to say the least. It reflects the idea that knowledge draws from multiple sources, some empirical (science), some conceptual (philosophy, math and logic), and it cannot be reduced to or constrained by just one of these sources. Salons, of course, were the social engines of the Age of Reason, and a suitable metaphor for public intellectualism in the 21st century, where the gathering places are more likely to be digital but where discussions can be just as vigorous as those that took place in the rooms made available by Madeleine de Scudéry or the marquise de Rambouillet in 17th century salons.

While I have been thinking for years about a venture like Scientia Salon, and have indeed slowly ratcheted up my involvement in public discourse, first as a scientist and more recently as a philosopher, the final kick in the butt was given to me by my City University of New York (Brooklyn College) colleague Corey Robin. I have never (yet) met Corey, but not long ago I happened across his book, The Reactionary Mind [9], which I found immensely more insightful than much of what has been written of late about why conservatives think the way they do.

More recently, though, I read his short essay in Al Jazeera America, entitled “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals” [10] and it neatly crystallized a lot of my own unease. Corey points out that academics have always loved to write for other academics using impenetrable jargon (his example of choice is Immanuel Kant), while other thinkers have forever complained about it. He quotes Thomas Hobbes, for instance, as saying that the academic writing of his time was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.”

And yet, observes Robin, we live in an unprecedented era where more and more academics engage openly and vigorously with the public. This, of course, has been made possible by the technologies of the information age, and especially by social networking platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like. While the average academic article is read by tens or hundreds of people, and it is the rare academic book that reaches 2000 copies, blogs such as my Rationally Speaking (the predecessor to Scientia Salon) is hit by tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of readers per week, connecting to it from the world over.

Sounds like good news for public intellectualism, no? Well, not exactly, for the simple reason that the tenured academic (such as myself, and Robin) is in decline. While extinction is not an immediate threat, the trend has been as obvious as ominous: in 1971, American universities featured slightly less than 80% full time faculty, complemented by slightly more than 20% adjuncts. In 2009 the two percentages essentially coincided, around 50% per part [11]. It’s not good. Not for adjuncts, not for universities, and not for society at large.

This is not the place to enter into a defense of the tenure system (which, like any social institution, has its pros and cons). But an essential idea behind its inception — which dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century, and was not widely in place until after World War II — is to safeguard faculty from undue administrative and political pressures, giving them relatively free rein as scholars and, you guessed it, public intellectuals. By shifting the balance increasingly toward precariously employed (exploited, really) adjuncts, especially public universities and the States that fund them are effectively undercutting the potential for a new generation of academics interested in engaging in public discourse.

I am not suggesting that the rise of the adjuncts was a premeditated plot by Big Brother to curb the vibrancy of intellectual life — it’s pretty clear that the situation is simply the result of economic decisions coupled with an exceedingly myopic concept of what universities are for. Nor am I claiming that tenured professors are necessarily particularly interested in (or good at) talking to non-peers about what they do. But the fact remains, as Robin so aptly puts it, that “the vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic one percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.”

And this is why I decided to start Scientia Salon and to ask a few colleagues and other interested people to join me. I’m not grading that much compared to the adjuncts working in my Department, and I decided that my time is much better spent working on that “snappy op-ed” (or on essays like this one), which is likely to reach tens of thousands and contribute to the wider debates in our society, rather than on yet another “arcane article” for which I will be lauded by the four or five hyper-specialized colleagues who bothered to read it.

Francis Bacon, arguably the first philosopher of science, famously wrote Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (which, you may have noticed, is the tag line of Scientia Salon): knowledge is power. While he meant it especially in the sense of harvesting the power of understanding how nature works in order to manipulate her and make human life better, I intend it even more broadly: knowledge and understanding — scientia — of what goes on in the world gives everyone more power over their lives, more ability to influence events, and ultimately more meaning to their existence. This publication aims at making a small contribution in that direction.

Which finally brings me to our manifesto, such as it is:
1) Scientia Salon is a forum for academic and non-academic thinkers who do not shy from the label “public intellectual.”

2) We think intellectualism — in the broader sense of a publicly shared life of the mind — is crucial to the well-being of our society.

3) We acknowledge — as is clear from research in the cognitive sciences — that human beings navigate the world by deploying a complex mixture of reason and emotion, and that they often engage in rationalization more than rationality.

4) Indeed, we think with David Hume that this is a crucial part of human nature, since emotions are necessary in order to actually care about anything in the first place.

5) But we also think that open and reasoned discourse is fundamental for the pursuit of a eudaimonic life on the part of the individual, as well as for the development of a just and democratic society.

6) Scientia, understood as the broadest range of scientific and humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding, is an essential tool for pursuing that eudaimonic life and achieving that just society.

7) In order to make an impact, we think that writers concerned with these matters ought to aim at a wide audience, avoid unnecessary jargon, and write clearly and engagingly, even humorously when appropriate.

8) We therefore welcome authors and readers who are willing to contribute honestly and substantively to an open dialogue on all matters of the intellect, especially those of general interest to fellow human beings.
Happy writing, reading and commenting, everyone.
_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

NOTES:
[1] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, 1966.
[2] A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by Normand Baillargeon, 2011.
[3] Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, by Noam Chomsky, 1999.
[4] For a good introduction to the context of that quote, and Hume’s moral philosophy in general, see this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[5] Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio, 1994.
[6] Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kanheman, 2001.
[7] The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, 2012.
[8] See the exceedingly well done and fun “Thou Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies” site, and while you are at it, download their handy poster.
[9] The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin, 2011.
[10] The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals, by Corey Robin, Al Jazeera America.
[11] For an in-depth analysis of the “adjuncts phenomenon,” with handy data provided, see “The work of the university” by Stephen Perez and Andrew Litt.
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