The Ivory Tower and Main Street

imagesby Massimo Pigliucci

Here comes another in our occasional series of videos featuring myself in conversation with Missouri State University philosopher Daniel Kaufman. In this episode Dan and I take up the very mission of Scientia Salon and discuss its implications. We talk about the love/hate relationship that the public seems to have with the Academy, and ask whether the public is skeptical because academics are ideologically biased.

Dan and I get into the differences in higher education between the United States and Europe and Dan makes the point that education is (or should be) about a lot more than economic growth. We also tackle the move toward a digital classroom, and end by asking (rhetorically) whether expertise, especially in education, is really needed.


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).

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.

60 thoughts on “The Ivory Tower and Main Street

  1. Enjoyable conversation, I liked it! 🙂

    I have a couple of questions. When comparing US with European higher education systems, I got the impression that the US system is at a disadvantage, because it emphasizes only the economic aspect of education, while European system is somehow more balanced and nuanced in this respect. My question is this: how and why did this difference between the two systems come into being?

    In other words, I’d like to understand the historical and sociological context and circumstances that have led to this sort of “divide” between the US and the European educational systems. As someone who was denying the fundamental nature of causality in several previous threads 🙂 , I am now asking what was the intrinsic *cause* of the observable differences between US and European education that was discussed in the video? And does it make sense to ask for a cause at all, or was it just random historical accident?

    Also, I’d like to hear more on why is the US system considered to be at a disadvantage (compared to the European), and how severe this situation is.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One substantial reason for the difference is that in Europe there is a signifcant and viable vocational educational track that a person can follow, while in the US that is no longer the case. In some countries, this is tracked from high school.

    Europe does not use its universities as a system of mass education, to the extent that the US does.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Aravis,

    Yes, that’s what you and Massimo said in the video. My question was if you could expand on why did this happen? How come in the US there is no more vocational education? Is it because of too much industrialization that suppressed various trades? Or does it somehow have to do with more liberal capitalism in US than in Europe? Or is it because Europe was devastated by two world wars while there was no war on the US soil for a longer time? Or is it because the US government made some incompetent decisions at some point? Or maybe because the job market in US induced an inflation in required academic degrees (and then why didn’t this happen in Europe)? Or something else?

    I am guessing here what might be the crucial relevant difference between US and Europe that has led to the absence of vocational education in the US but not in Europe.

    To me this seems to be an important question, for if there is anything that can be done to remedy the current situation, people should focus on treating the cause, not the symptom, so to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Re: “the love/hate relationship that the public seems to have with the Academy”

    In the US, conservative media channels (like FOX News Channel) have a significant input to what Americans think, and these channels are anti-Academy — the Academy is seen as ideologically opposite — so Americans have a “hate” relationship with the Academy. I don’t think the Academy in Europe is ideologically that different from the Academy in the US, but Europeans seem to be more in a “love” relationship with the Academy.


  5. Marko:

    Ah, I see what you’re asking. This is really something that social scientists specializing in educational policy will have to answer, but I have a few hunches. The biggest reason, I would say, is because Europe has protected its trades and industry, to a great degree, where the US has not. We are happy to outsource and to automate and to mass produce cheaply, with planned obsolescence being the norm. So there just aren’t many jobs in these areas. Furthermore, the US has become incredibly hostile to unionization, so even where there are jobs, wages have not kept up, so the vocational track is increasingly less economically viable.

    At the same time, we have allowed the administrative and managerial sectors to metastasize and this is where most of these college educated people go. One almost wonders, sometime, whether the cause/effect is the other way around. We started sending everyone to college, so we had to invent jobs for them to do.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Interesting discussion. As college professors what you teach students does have an influence on how they think later in life about social and political issues. But consider the fact that due to plasticity of the brain, what children learn earlier in life from their pre-school and elementary school teachers contributes more to their formation of how they socially interact. Perhaps the college students who become elementary ed teachers are your most important students and the ‘education of our elementary educators’ is the most important aspect of university level education. In terms of social influence.

    As an attack on your own hubris (which we all have) the majority of undergrads are learning the transition from teenagers to young adults coming from the structured high school environment to college where they get to make their own career decisions, select courses, be held responsible for their own time management etc. The time they spend in your courses is important but only a fraction of what thy learn socially.


  7. Plutocratic Universities Are Not Universal.
    Nietzsche viewed human society motivated mostly by the Will to Power. Ethological studies on various advanced animals, including primates, confirm this.

    How does one exert power? One can use whips and chains, but that is a lot of work, and, ultimately, it makes the society underperforming. A slave society, too preoccupied by brawn, thus does not become very smart… And thus gets walloped as more brainy societies get more advanced technologically.

    The best way to exert power is not through whips, chains, and the police, but by controlling minds.
    Thus the educational system.

    The more democratic the society, the more spread-out quality education. The more oligarchic, the less it is.

    As a US academic, I was asked to please be lenient with student athletes (they were failing scientific classes).

    Student athletics brings up to 80 million dollars a year to some US colleges (through TV contracts; it’s highly profitable, as the athletes are not paid commensurately).

    University tuition is now so high in the USA, even at (top) public universities, that the middle class cannot afford it (except by taking un-extinguishable loans). This is true even at institution such as the University of California which were founded with the explicit aim to provide free education to the most intellectually qualified students, independently of their wealth.

    Even those who have taken loans have to be nice with the powers that be, if they want to earn enough to reimburse their loans. The chains they wear afterwards are not made of iron, but of debt.

    We are in situation where financial class, and the positive attitude towards the wealthiest, rather than intellectual class, is becoming the selection criterion.

    Too much control of the educational system by the powers that be brings the smarts down.

    But the powers that be may require a more advanced educational system: this was the case during the Cold War. Or when the Frankish empire required all religious institutions to teach everybody secularly.

    Money is a way to communicating power. Although it is not the only way: the law is the basic way to transmit power, and mandatory education is an obvious example.

    Massimo said that “the whole system is corrupt”. A leading article in The Economist recently condemned the American university system, saying it was not worth it. It pointed out that employers care not so much about what students learn there, but about the fact they have been selected (to attend select college).

    “American graduates score poorly in international numeracy and literacy rankings, and are slipping. In a recent study of academic achievement, 45% of American students made no gains in their first two years of university. Meanwhile, tuition fees have nearly doubled, in real terms, in 20 years. Student debt, at nearly $1.2 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt and car loans.”

    The tremendous propaganda in the USA about issues which profit plutocracy has been made effective by the lack of education of the population.


  8. I think people have respect for scientific process. But question how the data might be manipulated.

    Moreover, some ideas are somewhat vague – like “evolution.” Some scientists claim that to believe in evolution means you must reject religions like Christianity. Others don’t agree. Now of course it may depend on what the religion is, but it also has to do with a lack of clarity of what one must accept to accept evolution.

    For example, I believe that certain laws of physics govern how far and where a rock will go when it flies off a sling. But I also think if God wanted to help David’s rock hit Goliath he may have altered the flight in that case. I don’t think I have to reject all of natural laws to allow that to happen. But it seems the way some people put belief in “evolution” any belief that God interacted at all means you must reject evolution.

    And the fact that such denialists are not in academia is not necessarily helpful. It might suggest that they are shut out and only the same opinion will be allowed.

    Also do you think academia and everything else is becoming more ideological? When I was in school I don’t remember having a clue about what political affiliation most of my teachers were or what religion they were (except when I was in a Catholic School). Now is it much more common for teachers to push their ideologies? I really wouldn’t know.

    Journalism should be neutral I would think. However if a journalism department is very political to the left, then people with right leanings will be somewhat put off from a journalism major. It will be relatively more difficult for them than it will for left leaning students who like to sing the same songs the teacher wants to hear. Of course, it should then be unsurprising that we have fewer conservative journalists. How much of an effect can this have? That will depend on how heavy handed the political views of the teachers are. And so if you look at a department or a field and you find that 80% are one political party then you may have some pretty heavy handed ideology.

    Also people do want to be around like-minded people. So yes people in politically relevant departments likely will hire people with similar views. Sure people might just think those who disagree with them are just dumb – and too dumb to teach. But then again perhaps we can allow that there is also some bias.

    Your view of service to the community is very commendable. Every profession – as opposed to a business – should have some view of benefiting the community.


  9. Marko, good questions, and as Aravis said, likely requiring the involvement of social and political scientists. My guess is that American culture has always been oriented toward the pragmatic, so that the flourishing of the liberal arts immediately before and shortly after WWII was more of a fluke than anything else.

    This is not to say, by the way, that the European system is without flows: the Brits and French, for instance, allow very little rethinking of one’s track from early on in life, too early, arguably. In Italy the system is changing from when I was growing up, and I understand it is, unfortunately, becoming more “American.”


  10. Massimo,

    It would be interesting to have you elaborate on your disagreement with Jonathan Haidt over the political diversity, or lack of it, at the universities. You mentioned that it is an acknowledged factor in anthropology and Haidt claims that in his entire field, social psychology, he only knows two academics that are conservative and he will only name one because the other is afraid to be shunned!

    Daniel Kaufman seemed a little bit timid about stating his reservations about climate change. Reading between the sound waves he appeared to be saying: climate science is a relatively young, undeveloped science and my meta-critique is that given the austerity being proposed by politicians to try and reverse the greenhouse gases, we need to maintain a skeptical attitude.

    In the last 6 minutes of the podcast, I don’t think I have ever seen Dan hit such high notes or display so much emotion about any other subject. You would think that Massimo had insulted him. He seems to be on the opposite side of the issue from Massimo, but the Academy apparently creates an environment (so to speak) that results in an incredible reluctance to openly question the orthodoxy. Body language can be very revealing!


  11. Marko

    I think that is a good question but there are probably several factors. I think it is partly because America underwent a sort of “college education” mania. Movies and culture seemed to suggest there was no way to the good life unless you went to college. And I think that is still sort of the view. Vocational schools were seen as lesser than a college degree. Yet people do in fact want jobs out of college so colleges are trying to be both. I don’t get the sense the Europe had as much of this huge hype for a college degree. But on the whole I don’t think the American way is so bad.

    Massimo suggests that in Italy you are getting some of the education in high school that Americans don’t get until college. So that might be part of the reason Americans view a college degree as so important.

    What I find interesting is the extremely high cost of college. It is not just due to public funding either. Even private schools that never had public support have crazy increases. I think this is due to the demand. Everyone wants a college degree but there aren’t that many new colleges.

    That said right now we are apparently have a low number of college age kids due to the timing of the baby boom. So if my theory were right you would think either prices would go down.


  12. Occam:

    I don’t know if I was being timid. Since I myself have zero expertise in climate science, I am hesitant to make any judgments about it with any amount of certainty. My real interest here was in the question of whether consensus among experts is sufficient for people to justifiably have confidence in the relevant pronouncements or whether the relative state of the science also has to be taken into consideration. On this latter point, I am quite certain and not timid at all. What I don’t know, however, is whether climate science falls into this category or not, since, again, I know little to nothing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Marko, Massimo, Aravis:


    I can’t view the video until Sunday, so I can’t respond directly to it.

    However, the discussion concerning the university in America interested me, as I’ve done some looking into the matter. I haven’t the references, but here’ is the brief version of the story as I’ve picked it up:

    There are important historical moments in the history of American education. First, of course, the founding: America first brought forth colleges as, effectively, Protestant seminaries for future ministers. The gradual introduction of training in such obviously secular fields as law and medicine eroded this original mission, replacing it with a general training for integration with social needs.

    In 1862, the federal government established the land grant colleges in the states, originally intended for the development and dissemination of agricultural knowledge; but the federal grants explicitly denied that education needed to be restricted to such knowledge. These colleges became the foundation of the system of State universities, which by the end of the 19th century had begun to compete with the older private institutions.

    Around that time, under various pressures to reform public education at all levels, various educators having political and social influence, hammered out what would become the fundamental curriculum of what we know as a ‘liberal education,’ encompassing the humanities and the sciences. Their primary influence was the academic system established in Germany, grounded in theories developed in German Idealist philosophy.

    This model was primarily aimed at research, and included a subtle structuring of the educational system as a whole along class lines. However, it experienced a severe shock during the depression, when vocational training came to be seen as necessary, not only to train for a continually changing job market during the recovery, but also as means to delay the entry into that job-market by young adults.

    The next great change came after WWII. The war had seen the development of a wide range of new technologies. Some of these had been theorized or tested before the war, but the war required actual production and use. By war’s end, it was clear that whole new fields of industry were about to open up. However, the new technologies would need far more educated employees at various levels than were immediately available. This produced two results; immediately, the GI Bill, allowing men of middle and working class backgrounds the opportunity for a college education at little cost; there then followed an accelerating expansion in the establishment of colleges across the country. During the 60s, some 30 community colleges a year were built.

    During the Reagan years, however, it was quite clear that American conservatives had developed a grudge against the university system, not only because they suspected a left-wing bias among academicians, but also because they clearly regretted having allowed the expansion of ‘liberal education’ opportunities across classes. So the principle pressure the college system has worked with for 30 years, is toward restructuring the academy along strictly vocational and professional lines.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. 2/2

    The story so far: the American university begins in religious training; expands to include training in secular professions; opens up to include research and training in agriculture; expands to include state universities; gets restructured along German lines but to embrace the ideals of liberal education; competes with vocational training for warehoused young people during the depression; suddenly explodes with federal monies during the ’50s and ’60s; only to get turned into a business following the ‘Reagan revolution.’ What makes American educational systems so confusing, is that all of these influences are still represented and still have impact. (Harvard still supports a Divinity School .) To be truly representative of the American university, you need to be a religiously inclined lawyer with a farm next to the factory you own where you research how to paint masterpieces using quantum mechanics.

    Where we are now: The trends building pressure during the Reagan years have not proven the success that was hoped for them. These trends include: limiting of federal funds; privatization of state universities; reduction of community colleges to vocational institutes; integration of educational institutions with commercial interests; re-organization of departments along clearly professional lines (careers). It is not the case that the American education system is not vocationally oriented; on the contrary, many would say that it is too much so.

    But here’s the problem (which Aravis noted in passing in a previous comment): The American economy is not structured to ensure anybody of any jobs. On the contrary; the moves that American governments and businesses have made over the past three decades have been oriented towards maintaining a continuously changing market, and a continuously changing work-force. The whole purpose of these moves has been to rescind any expectation of job security; to dispel the hope that businesses will demonstrate any loyalty to their employees; to reduce the American worker to the level of ‘human resource’ – an additional (and unwanted) expense, indefinitely replaceable and always disposable.

    In an economy of this nature, education targeted at training toward any specific professional or career goal can never deliver any promised results. Education was intended by conservatives to become business; but really it’s just a gamble. (Of course, if you already have assured wealth, you can get into Harvard or Yale, and have your friends and family buy your way up, like George W. did.) Most ‘consumers’ (students) are basically throwing dice; come seven, you’re in a profession with promise (for a few years); snake eyes, and you’re working for McDonald’s.

    There’s always been an anti-intellectual bias among the American people; but not only have politicians taken advantage of this, but the academy itself has not been able to maintain a strong unified argument for integration of education, research – even knowledge itself – into the larger society as a whole. And in an economy essentially structured as a big casino, people will play the game they feel they are most likely to win.

    Unfortunately, the odds are always with the house.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. I, too, enjoyed the discussion, though perhaps it attempted to cover too much terrain and also to dwell too much on the possible roles of the humanities in higher education. Massimo made a valuable point when he touched upon how ill-prepared American students in general are upon entering college. He focused on their skills, or lack thereof, in critical thinking. Going back some forty years when I was a grad teaching assistant, I was dismayed when many of my students gave me a look of utter dismay as I tried to explain why a sentence fragment is not a complete thought. And back then there were courses in “remedial” math and English. I have no idea whether such courses currently exist.

    When I broached this subject (in the manner of a question, “What is it we are trying to help most of these students accomplish?” with tenured faculty, the response reduced to one of two: (1) In European countries it is much more difficult to enter what we call college (hence, vocational or trades education) or (2) We are a land of immigrants (at times, this sometimes led to sidebar discussions of native Americans), and these “kids” are simply playing out a drama of bragging rights. They have no idea why they are here except to earn a diploma that represents respectability and little more.

    So then, I would think to myself we are merely updated characters in a version of Henry James’s “The Europeans.” It makes me wish that some historian might weigh in here on the New World and the Last Frontier and individual opportunity as opposed myths of old world classism and tradition.

    I have many friends who are educators, and they frequently make good arguments about how difficult their “jobs” have become. I’m really as puzzled as anyone regarding the purpose of education and on how we can improve it. Massimo gave one of the better reasons when he touched on citizenry, on enhancing the skills of students so that they are encouraged to participate with confidence and without prejudice in making choices that affect them and their future. Too much time is spent on equating education with industry. To my mind, too little time is afforded educators to accomplish the real task of creating progenitors and independent thinkers. Many students haven’t a clue as to the positive results of learning. It’s time to speak with sincerity regarding our intent for those who must carry on in the world we toss their way, If it’s their shot, let’s refrain from hiding the basket.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This seems a somewhat parochial view of a broad range of issues, of which the point of intersection is the relationship between the schools and society, or, later in the conversation, between experts and the rest of us, with the seeming implication this tension is fundamental to the issues and not incidental to them.

    For instance, the example of climate denialism doesn’t seem to mention the extent to which the primary denialists are funded and promoted by the energy industry. Not to mention that a society built on a particular energy source is going to react negatively to any argument that its use is detrimental, which should open up a broad range of issues for other disciplines to explore, from sociology to philosophy.

    The fact is that any position one adopts, not matter how well thought out, is going to be in contrast to other’s positions and the broad range of factors involved have to be somewhat taken into account, in order to make progress on that issue.

    As for Marko’s question, one might better understand the hollowing out of the US industrial sector and the loss of all those moderately well paying jobs, resulting in the universities being turned into training centers for the remaining sectors, by considering that this served to distribute the US dollar around the world in sufficient quantities to make it a global currency. While this fact doesn’t get much attention outside of alternative economics sources, it is hard to think there wasn’t some intention involved, given the extent to which it pulled enormous amounts of wealth into the US banking system.

    We do live in a highly competitive, even predatory society and while the “American Dream” is held up as an ideal of this system, there are significant negative factors and tension between those at the top and the lower levels of society, even that defined by expertise. Witness the extent to which generic anti-intellectualism is a cultural phenomenon. So when experts encounter skepticism of their professional opinion, it should be taken into account the extent to which expertise tends to bend to the wishes of those controlling the purse strings, at the threat of being marginalized and there becomes widespread skepticism of people’s intentions.

    There is no objective perspective, no matter how hard we try and the forces driving society tend to affect the messages conveyed by it.

    As for climate change, the ice caps and glaciers do seem to be melting. It would be a hard data point to manufacture. We are free to do as we wish, but we are just not free of the consequences.

    Hopefully I haven’t strayed too far outside the subject matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. brodix:

    Again, my aim in raising the issue of climate science really wasn’t to talk about *it* in particular or the politics of it. I chose it in order to discuss the question of the status of expert consensus, at any given time.

    Re: the politics of the issue, you are, of course, right. Although I don’t believe Freeman Dyson is a shill for the energy industry. Don’t know about Bjorn Lomberg.


  18. Dan,
    I agree Freeman Dyson is probably the only main climate denier who isn’t a shill, but I think the issue of expertise isn’t quite as fixed and is more of a spectrum of opinion, as you go into with the question of dietary fads. Yet that would seem to be an entirely separate issue, such as the spectrum between reasonably settled science, to complete pseudo-science. Personally I’ve made it clear in prior discussions that I’m a proud member of the cranks questioning the current cosmological model, as well as some of its supporting assumptions, such that “spacetime” is anything more than a mathematical construct. Which given that it is completely accepted by the academic establishment, given physics gets a pass on many of its concepts, doesn’t equate to the issue of tension between school and main street.
    Also the question of liberal inclinations, versus conservative ones, plays out in academic circles, but much more as foundational to the larger society. Consider that missionaries tend to be cultural conservatives and social liberals, in spreading a particular religious or cultural model, for the presumed benefit of indigenous peoples. As an opposite side of the situation from the example of the wealthy using their fortunes to create public facilities and trusts. Which therefore might be an entirely separate topic for discussion as well.
    Not to critique the conversation, but from the main street view, I tend to see these issues as much more distinct than is likely from institutions much more in the middle of the society.


  19. Occam’s,

    “It would be interesting to have you elaborate on your disagreement with Jonathan Haidt over the political diversity, or lack of it, at the universities.”

    I wrote about it, for instance here: and here:


    “Don’t know about Bjorn Lomberg.”

    Lomborg is the author first of the The Skeptical Environmentalist, which is a climate denialist book; he got lots of criticism for it, including in my Nonsense on Stilts. He then significantly toned down his rhetoric, almost, but not quite, switching to the other side.


    concerning the general tendency of the academy to be “conservative” with respect to new ideas, yes, that’s definitely there. Naturally, since people working on whatever subject matter are usually world experts and have given a lot of thought to what they are doing. So it’s hard to take especially an outsider seriously if he just comes in and starts shouting that everyone else is wrong. That said, academics have and continue to produce revolutionary work in all areas of inquiry, and if they stand the test of time these works eventually do seem to me to change things within any given field. I quite like Helen Longino’s and Ronald Giere’s (different, complementary) takes on how science makes progress, for instance:


  20. I’m a fan of Ronald Giere, of course (no surprise there!). I’m not familiar with Helen Longino.

    “On a representational conception of models, language connects not directly with the world, but rather with a model, whose characteristics may be precisely defined. The connection with the world is then by way of similarity between a model and designated parts of the world … It is models almost all the way up and models almost all the way down.”


  21. I wrote this essay sometime ago and thought it apprapo. I hope it fits into your guidelines Massimo. Thanks =


    Whilst searching for the truth of everything One day I found something rather interesting to share. I came across two references to Jonathan Swift’s story “Gulliver’s Travels” and like any good true searcher, I found, rented, and watched the movie. The story is a satire, meaning that it negatively abuses the fundamental institutions of humanity. The story is about a person named Gulliver who goes on a trip, finds unbelievable truth, and comes back to share his discovery. Unfortunately for him, he was measured to be crazy and locked up or put away. The history of other great discoverers have met with similar discomforts such as burning them on stakes, house arrest, and other unpleasantries that only humans could invent. Gulliver tells a story of the irony of man, the flaws of who we are, even though we think ourselves better. There is one place Gulliver stops on his journey that had particular interest to me, he becomes one with wild horses and sees freedom for the very first time. The horses have given humans the name “Yahoo” and see us as the savages that we truly are.

    At about the same time I thought it a good idea to check out a new middle school just to see modern education at work, it also being a part of my current study of everything. I was told due to security reasons, terrorism and such that I would not be allowed to look, so on my way out I did anyway. I looked into a classroom and saw young children standing neatly at attention next to computers with thin screen monitors and at the blackboard a teacher wrote “Y A H O O” in large letters for everyone to see. Our children are being taught yahoo? Mr. Swift and his mustangs saw us as savage ignorant yahoos over three hundred years ago, a powerful insight, wouldn’t you agree?

    Most certainly we are what we are taught and also most certainly the curriculum forms our future. In this light I would ask: what are we being taught? Perhaps geometry, algebra, calculus, computers, biology, science, astronanophysics, and yahoo have taken the valuable space of what really is important, what could be taught; what should be taught? What about lessons on the importance of life, helping others, Compassion 101? Can you imagine a school called the institute of how to live instead of technology? The school of law could be the school of morality. The department of physics, or in other words the department of measuring and dividing nature could be the department of Nature’s unity, Oneness or equality. Has anyone been taught Equality 101, any One? What about Truth 101, has it ever been taught?

    I think Mr. Swift knew the foundation of ignorance is education, what about you? The question has often been asked: “Why do we have to study something we will never use?” Would a class on the proper use of a public garbage can be more beneficial than Euclid’s geometry on a planet so polluted by ourselves? Many people over our human history have pointed us to where wisdom is to be found, the truth or light in front of us all. What should we teach our children, has education gone the wrong Way? If man is ignorant and cruel then perhaps a change in curriculum will lead us to where we are meant to be, like the mustangs use to be, just or truly free.



  22. Massimo,

    I have a great deal of respect for expertise, though possibly slightly less for authority.

    The topic of discussion here is education, not religion, so it is my presumption that if those wishing to learn ask basic questions of those willing to teach, the response will be a straight forward answer, not; “That’s not how it is!” Which is the usual response I seem to get to the questions I’ve been raising.

    Now humanity has been studying the cosmos for longer than recorded history, so I certainly didn’t study the topic with any intention of anything more than personal enlightenment, but in reading up on it, a number of questions have arisen, for which no one seems willing to provide that basic answer.

    You, for one, have taken my side in a conversation with Marko, as to whether causation precedes determination or vice versa. The implication of this goes to the heart of that mathematical universe hypothesis, otherwise known as the ‘fabric of spacetime,’ conceived out of the tautology that measures of both distance and duration shrink under acceleration.

    So I am perfectly willing to shut up, when someone will answer my questions. Usually they just cut me off and I go somewhere else, which is how I ended up here.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Massimo,

    Thanks for the link to your article on Haidt. Trying to determine whose authority I should defer to in the individual/group selection debate is hard for a Main Street person like me to even have a clue. Without a certain degree of expertise this puts the Ivory Tower (outside of ones’s field of expertise) and Main Street in a very similar boat. Kind of like Dan said he knows almost nothing about the science of climate change and so we almost have to revert to our pragmatic or political values to asses the consequences and that is surely a fraught methodology.

    It is interesting that you say conservatives self-select careers other than academia in the search for money and because of an aversion to critical thinking, but then go on to mention (jokingly) that you will be receiving hate mail from liberal ideological advocates because you disagree with their advocacy. Dan also mentions anecdotal accounts of some of his peers who openly advocate for social justice. I think this is contradictory. The atmosphere at many Ivory Towers is the very definition of intolerance of political diversity and if the same attitude was expressed with regard to “protected groups”, it wouldn’t be, um, tolerated. One of Haidt’s insights, I think, is that political diversity is essential especially in the social sciences where advocacy and science can easily be conflated.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Hi brodix,

    Now humanity has been studying the cosmos for longer than recorded history, … but in reading up on it, a number of questions have arisen, for which no one seems willing to provide that basic answer.

    Just to say that I’ve written replies to your questions about cosmology on a couple of occasions but Massimo filtered them (which is entirely up to him of course). The short answer is that I haven’t been able to work out what you’re saying on the subject, or why you think there is a contradiction, and if I can’t do that then it’s hard to make any reply or give any explanation of any misconceptions.

    Re: climate change,

    What counts as authority and how much to trust scientific consensus on climate change is tricky, since it is really a set of different but related questions:

    1) Is the climate changing?
    2) If so, what is/are the cause(s)?
    3) By how much will the climate change?
    4) How much difference will that make to agriculture and societies?
    5) What, in practical engineering terms, can be done about it?
    6) What, in terms of the economy and society, would it be best to do about it?
    7) What does one stand any chance of persuading people to do?

    While I’m on (and since the OP discussed authority in science, this might be just about on-topic):

    Hi Socratic,

    I don’t regard everyone who has a PhD in science as a “scientist”. At a minimum, they should have lead-authored primary-literature refereed papers not under the supervision of a PhD advisor (in the same way that someone who had never flown solo is not really a “pilot”). Sam Harris doesn’t qualify, but the other point about Harris is that he is not known for his science work, his prominence is as a writer and preceded his science. The other people you mentioned do qualify on both of these criteria. So, no, I am not making a no-true-scotsman argument. I’ve totally forgotten what the other matter you mentioned actually is, but given comment limits you should not read anything into a lack of reply.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Coel,

    I’ve been asked to drop the topic, but I would be interested to hear your position, so I sent a note to your website email.


  26. I won’t weigh in on the substantive issues here but will just say something about the site itself (which was discussed in the video), in particular about the ivory tower/main street dichotomy.

    I think the tag line (which gives prominence to this distinction) is flawed in a couple of ways: structurally, in terms of the basic syntax and semantics (it is not quite idiomatic to my ears); and in terms of the connotations of the terms. No academic I know wants to be identified with the ivory tower (which has a very negative connotation in Britain and Commonwealth countries at any rate). And ‘Main Street’ also, I think, has a slightly pejorative connotation. Doesn’t it sound just a bit patronizing or condescending?

    Liked by 2 people

  27. I have lots to say on comparing the Ivory Towers of Europe and the USA: I have studied and taught in both. So I regret that my last 5 comments were “filtered out” (to use Coel’s semantics). I find Coel’s comments always cogent.

    I am a physicist, and a teacher, I wish I could have read Coel’s comments answering Brodix on cosmology. Brodix does not know much physics, but he has some interesting things to say.

    Cosmology is a field where philosophy plays a crucial role (be it only philosophy of data analysis, see the Big Bang “proof” last year turning to dust). Some of the most fundamental arguments in the Ivory Tower about cosmology are understandable to Main Street (I have witnessed savory confrontations between world famous physicists which non-specialists could understand).

    Massimo, Marko and others have pondered the differences of the USA with Europe in education. I would have loved to partake in a debate on this subject. As a community service, some my “filtered out” comments are/will be appearing on my site. Interested people are welcome to comment there.

    Just two hints:
    1) The history of higher education in Europe is more than 15 centuries old, and very different from that of the USA.
    2) Graduating from the Franco-American High School in San Francisco (following the French curriculum) has allowed several students I personally know to jump ahead by a full year in some of the best American colleges.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I’m of multiple minds about “tracking.”

    On the positive side, it does have some students “focused” in a vocational direction and helps them get there. On the negative side, “slotting,” if done incorrectly, can quash a person’s educational future. Massimo does mention some of this about Britain and France.

    And, in the US, with its greater economic class stratification than Europe, plus large race-related issues, and K-12 educational funding differentials connected to both, I’m afraid that’s exactly what would happen here.

    Aravis is right about “education inflation” being a problem in the US, though. That is, the idea that “job X,” which might need nothing more than an associates’ degree, or a technical certification, is now being advertised as needing a bachelor’s degree. This, then, drives college costs, and between that and the administration of the modern university as a big business, US college costs have grown as fast, or faster, than medical care costs.

    Related? Can either of you tell us if Europe uses adjuncts for college instruction to the degree the US does?

    As for K-12 education in the US? I’ve said, in newspaper columns of mine, that the US should start by implementing a 200-day school year. That would, in part, address the gap between students in the US and most other developed nations that widens with each additional year of school. An additional 20 days a year, by the 10th grade, is one full school year.

    If Americans wonder why their high schoolers are behind Germany, Japan, Finland, S. Korea, etc., that’s part of it right there.

    Brodix rightfully notes the denialist industry, about which Massimo wrote a piece here about nine months ago.

    Occam: As for Massimo and Haidt? I myself hold, and I think with Massimo, that the left-right “imbalance” in the academy is not due to any structural bias, it’s rather than the critical thinking nature of most academic positions is something that most conservative intellectuals don’t want to do. Political science, legal theory and economics, with their relatively unsettled natures, are places where conservative intellectuals can and do fit more readily, and I think we see that. And, Massimo has links up to his past thought.


  29. Socratic:

    I don’t know that either Massimo or I meant our comparison with the European system as any sort of *suggestion*.

    First, tracking-regardless, there simply is no viable vocational track, for any large number of American citizens, as the education is simply not available. Even our local community college, which is where you’d expect to find such programs, is turning itself, increasingly, into a kind of university-lite — offering cheap A.A. degrees, the completion of which allows students to transfer to the 4 year, B.A. granting university with all of their general education fulfilled.

    Second, the industrial/manufacturing sector of the US economy has largely collapsed and that which exists is overwhelmingly automated. So, even if we were to revamp our vocational educational system, there wouldn’t be enough jobs to employ their graduates.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. I’ve read some related comments, and apologies if i’ve missed others:

    Massimo, hi again. While watching the video a couple of things occurred to me early on. One is from a podcast interview with Neil Gross, who describes his research as supporting the liberal “bias” (using your qualified definition) in academe—including in economics departments, though to a lesser degree than in the humanities and hard sciences. (My own experience suggests that mathematics may also harbor more conservatives than the sciences, but i have not read Gross’s research or book.)

    I also wanted to comment on and ask about an outstanding issue with respect to Jonathan Haidt’s ongoing campaign. In the first instance, he has explicitly rejected (search for “Gross”) the notion that hiring discrimination is a principal cause, which you seem from the video to not be aware of. Personally, i think calling for affirmative action as a remedy is misguided (besides being tone-deaf to the way, as i understand it, such action has been claimed by so many groups other than those for whom it was originally intended, and from whom it has been withheld or denied, i.e. former slaves and their descendants). However, i might support some sort of counterbalance (i hesitate to say “remedy”), for instance a social science and/or humanities outreach program targeted to young conservatives or kids in conservative areas—for similar reasons that i’d support analogous programs for engineering, computer science, and math targeted at women, namely that strong evidence for personal choices playing a significant and perhaps dominant role in a group characteristically avoiding certain career paths, should not be taken (lightly, anyway) as a sufficient reason to accept the imbalance. What do you (or other commenters) think?

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Cornelioid, the more I read Haidt the more I think he’s unbelievable. He now claims that I’ve accused him of academic misconduct. No, I simply pointed out that his data collection is shoddy and not worthy of much consideration, in that specific case.

    Glad to hear he now doesn’t think that the “bias” is due to preferential hiring. He certainly hinted at that early on. And he did support the ludicrous notion of affirmative action for conservatives in the academy.

    Look, I know that a variety of viewpoints is the best way to proceed in any field. But I simply don’t think of conservatives as a minority under threat. Would anyone suggest consciously hiring more liberals on Wall St., for instance, so that our financial system might work better?

    Also, as you say, the bias (which I still think is most likely the result of self selection) goes liberal in certain academic fields (literature, “studies”), probably doesn’t exist or is irrelevant (natural science), and is likely on the conservative side in others (economics?).

    Haidt is simply going for outrageous claims on the basis of scant data, and I’m puzzled by the fact that his stuff is taken that seriously in some quarters.


  32. Hi Massimo, thanks for your feedback. While i haven’t read as much as i’d like into Haidt’s claims, i share your basic view of his campaign. I should also note that i’m very glad that you lodge the criticisms you do; they have helped me come to a much more nuanced opinion.

    I would grant that self-selection is the principal factor; the argument i haven’t seen satisfactorily made is that this self-selection is “intrinsic” to conservatives, rather than a byproduct of the kinds of things that conservatism is associated with in our culture—like, unfortunately, science denial. Dan Kahan incessantly makes the point that conservatives are no less science literate or capable of technical reasoning; and that, if anything, these qualities worsen the denial. Other factors are instead to blame. So i wonder whether their disinclination to pursue social sciences or humanities should similarly be viewed as a symptom of other factors.

    I like your comparison to Wall Street! In the podcast episode i linked to, Chris Mooney makes a similar comparison to military service, which disproportionately attracts conservatives. I currently don’t know wether comparisons like these are more or less appropriate than comparisons like the one i gave to gender disparities. Deciding that would be enough for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. I bet I could guess my humanities teachers political affiliation with 80% accuracy. Sometimes the politics is extremely ham-handed. The other teachers don’t really do anything to prevent it. I’m not sure they should. It’s a difficult question.

    People know academia is generally liberal. If you are conservative/religious you have a disincentive to go into it especially if it’s a public school. But since so many schools are public you are limiting yourself if you try to rule them out.

    As far as people in “wall street” being liberal or conservative that is likely economic incentives to drive those views. They don’t want to pay more to the government. It’s unclear what benefit they would get from bigger government. And they think their money is better spent to charities than to the government. After all who pays more in taxes than they have to?

    Academics who work for public schools have a different outlook of how the elections might affect their bottom dollar. I don’t mean to overstate this, and it is difficult to quantify. But I have seen a very staunch conservative (as in a picture of Ronald Reagan in his family room in 2005) take a government job and all of a sudden he is not so hard-line. There are huge number of benefits that government offers that directly and indirectly benefits the education industry.

    In Illinois we were flirting bankruptcy to pay pensions. We just had a governor’s race. I wonder, what percent of the people who currently have a government pension as part of their employment voted for the democrat versus the republican. I also have had personal economic reasons to vote for one candidate or another. Believe it or not I started to rationalize views that conflicted with my long held views.
    Once you have a bloc of people who have this very real reason to support democrats or republicans then you have in-group bias snowballing this effect. As you get to know and like people you tend to treat their views more charitably. Likewise as you limit who you associate with to only one side, the outsiders become more and more evil.

    I’m really not a fan of the hard-line liberals or conservatives. I tend to think if someone self identifies as one they are probably not very reasonable. After all what are the realistic chances that truly rational unbiased person will agree with the conservative or liberal line on every issue?

    Here is another potential bias:
    I wonder, who would want to be a climate change specialist when the conclusion is that there is really nothing really significant happening in climate change? “My life is all about studying a tempest in a teapot.” Will such people decide to dedicate their life to that study? Will they decide to avoid it if on investigation they decide there is not much there? How many people who spend their life studying alleged paranormal activity believe it exists?

    As I get older, and take more testimony of “experts”, I tend to see more and more ways people are biased.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Massimo and Aravis,

    Finally got to the video. Most enjoyable discussion covering a range of interesting topics. I like that there’s no conclusion reached, since the situations discussed are ongoing.

    I’m a strong critic of climate change denialism; but I also now bear in mind a book I read, “When Oil Peaked,” by Kenneth Deffeyes. Deffeyes is a research engineer who spent most of his career working for oil companies, finding new oil sources. He’s definitely conservative (in the more traditional, non-Tea-Party sense), but he is not a climate change denialist. But his conclusions are rather gloomy. First, there’s still enough oil so that a crisis in the fossil fuels will not happen any time soon; second, no change in usage will be in the offing until such crisis occurs; third, without such change a continually expanding population globally will be unsupportable. Finally, being a conservative, he offers an odd solution: using stock market strategies to leverage a stable economy (rather than one based on continual growth).

    Deffeyes argument is impressive, but rather pessimistic; one might almost say ‘jaundiced,’ although not quite cynical. I feel that he is the best conservatives have to offer on this topic; and that, sans rhetoric, what they ought to admit is, ‘we’re not going to change any time soon, but perhaps market choices can make things a little better.’ Unfortunately, that may not be soon enough, as Deffeyes admits. (And frankly, from a different perspective, I fear this is right.)

    This is what is wanted from conservative academicians: The honesty to admit that they don’t have all the answers, that reasonable approaches to their favored issues may reveal weaknesses in their presumptions, that they feel they can offer alternatives to liberal narratives that are realistic and that offer solutions to problems we can all agree on. But frequently, they don’t. Instead we often find ideological promises about the invisible hand of the market place, exhortations to re-invest in the values of the 19th century, and simple denial of problems, without accompanying answers to questions of concern.

    Is it not evident that conservative faculty have essentially isolated themselves?

    The far-left in the academy has been distancing themselves from the American experience with a rhetoric of severe epistemic criticism of that experience painted in ideological colors – I gave up on it when I attended a protest against the First Gulf War, only to hear a speech by an academic describing the war as a symbolic phallic attack on women of color (?!). Conservatives offer palliatives at best. Only liberal thinkers are positioned to reason out a pragmatic middle ground, that is in keeping with the legacy of the best Western culture has to offer.

    As custodians of the Western tradition, American academics tend to be slow to accept major changes. But that tradition has largely handed down a legacy of change, contingency, a hope for progress in human affairs. I have no problems with the fact that most academicians tend to be liberal.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. The ivory Tower should be a Tower of Babel — a multiplicity of (perhaps conflicting) languages and schools. Witness the latest squabble in mathematics between Doron Zeilberger and editors of the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics. If the Ivory Tower is (or should be) about rule questioning, Main Street is about rule following — one has to follow rules to manage their businesses and their financial positions. Sometimes these two modes seem to get switched between them, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Aravis, Massimo

    The key question underpinning any hope of understanding/reforming higher education is to decide what it is for. Back in the good ole days when men were men and sheep were worried, we knew what schooling was for, and according to its purposes it was successful. A small elite was trained to lead. The rest of us were trained to follow. Recalling my own primary schooling, the emphasis, no matter what the ostensible curriculum was, was on punctuality, obedience and deference to authority (I’m still trying to shake off the conditioning). Women were provided with secretarial or nursing skills to tide them over until Mr. Right came along. A smallish number of males were given sufficient literacy and numeracy to fulfil some clerical needs and the rest were conditioned to accept their role as fodder for factories or cannons. The rejection of those, possibly divinely appointed, roles is at the root of the present lack of cohesion in education. We are in transition. To what we do not know. But education is not alone in this upheaval. All the great institutions of society (Government, judiciary, the press, the church, the academy) are taking a well deserved pummelling at the moment. All of these institutions, including the Ivory Tower, are having to learn to listen as well as speak. Trust me, I’m a doctor/priest/banker/lawyer/academic simply doesn’t cut the mustard any more.

    Liked by 2 people

  37. I changed my status from reader to commentator on this magazine when Massimo made his slight course correction some time ago. I failed to articulate my concerns adequately and despite agreeing with the purpose of the change, I’ve continued to have a niggling doubt about the move which the latest change (to filtering criteria) has clarified.
    It is obviously right that experts in a particular subject – usually in the academy – should provide the answers to questions in their field. What is not so obviously right is that the academy should also decide what questions “Main Street” should be interested in. It seemed to me that what was lost (with the initial course correction) was the ability of the non-specialists to initiate discussions. One result of this is that commenters with one or more bees in our bonnets take every opportunity to air those bees, no matter how tenuous the connection with the OP, in the hope of getting answers to the questions that bug us. (Mixed metaphors a gogo)
    My heart goes out to Brodix and others who haven’t been able to get answers to their questions in terms that satisfy them.
    Just for the record (and this is not a request for answers), the bees in my own capacious bonnet include these: I have no idea how magnetism works. Even less do I know how I “move” through time or how time “flows” over me. And most niggling of all, I cannot imagine, even without invoking Zeno, how things “move” through space, despite all evidence to the contrary. And I take no comfort at all in the fact that mathematicians seem to be happy with their models of these things. I know that these are mere first-world problems and I am aware of how fortunate I am that I have the luxury of being bothered by them at all.
    So here’s a suggestion. A special area of the magazine could be set aside for “sidebar” issues (and there’s your name). A non-academic commenter gets one chance to articulate his/her question. Only qualified academics (subject specific along with related philosophical expertise) may answer, without a guarantee that anyone will answer, and only the originator may respond. Thread will remain open until either originator or responder announces termination. Commenter’s hobby horse is ruthlessly expunged from comments in main threads.
    With the sidebar issues being managed by the initiator and responder, this suggestion might be implemented without a significant increase in the workload of the editors.

    Liked by 3 people

  38. dadooq wrote:

    “The key question underpinning any hope of understanding/reforming higher education is to decide what it is for.”


    I agree with this entirely. In fact, I agree so much that I’m jumping up and down.

    Now, we *have*, at least tentatively, decided what it is for, and I said it in the dialogue: to train people for white collar jobs. The problem is, this is not a credible mission for the university, as it exists. One doesn’t need R1 institutions, with all their uber-costly infrastructure and personnel to do this. One also doesn’t need a full-blown liberal arts general education curriculum to do this. And it’s because of this lack of fit between the university we have and the new “mission” we’ve concoted for it that the whole country is in extremis on the issue of higher education.

    The problem is that none of the other suggestions I’ve heard are plausible either. With regard to the liberal arts portion of the university, you hear more and more about this “education for citizenship” role. The trouble is, I don’t find it credible, and I don’t think it is selling well to the public, either. As I said to Massimo, we live in a democracy, with a near universal franchise. It’s hard to see how one could suggest that higher education, which today, about 65% of high school graduates receive, is designed to provide the necessary education for citizenship, given that the other 35% are allowed to vote and participate to whatever degree the 65% are. The perception, then, is likely that we don’t really mean it, when we say things like this. If we did, we’d either be providing the necessary education in high school or we would insure that everyone went to college and would adjust the voting age accordingly.

    I’ll tell you my own view, but you may not like it. I don’t think there *is* any necessary function for the university, as it is currently designed. Even less so for the small, elite, liberal arts college. We are running millions of people through a system that they really don’t need to be run through, in order to perform well at the jobs they are likely to get, and which they also really don’t need to particpate in the society, in which they live, to the extent that they are likely to participate. What we *do* need are trade schools, professional schools, and science and math teaching schools. The rest — what falls under liberal arts and humanities — to the extent that they *are* necessary for citizenship, really need to be taught at a younger age. Or perhaps, even more radically, what we call primary and secondary education needs to be longer and more comprehensive, and professional education needs to start a bit later. With increasing life spans and decreasing maturity, maybe this is called for anyway.

    I don’t know…what I do know, however, is that the current tinkering we’re doing with the university isn’t going to be enough to make it *really* relevant or efficient for the new, mass-education uses to which we are putting it.

    Liked by 3 people

  39. Massimo suspects that “expert” denialists don’t significantly increase the total problem. Prhaps that shows his Humean sympathies, in seeing the emotional factor as at least as important as the rational, in moral judgement or beliefs about free will. He’s probably right, in any case

    Should the well-informed and the experts, collectively or individually, engage more in polemical and campaigning, preaching even? There is a recent article in the Guardian proposing just that in the case of climate change; pointing at an evangelist preacher who’s advocating action against climate change, and suggesting that he is far more effective than most advocates. How far should we go in using the political/demagogic mode of discourse rather than the scientific/philosophical mode, in pursuit of “good causes”?

    I can’t speak for the US educational scene. In the UK, I fear that the many of the same factors apply, at least to some extent; less so in continental Europe perhaps, where they talk about the Anglo-Saxon axis”? As the saying goes, when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold. And of course Margaret Thatcher and her successors were a major vector of infection (despite Thatcher’s unusual soundness on climate change, presumably due to her science background.)

    I suspect that there is a bias to the left in US humanities/arts faculties, relative to American society as a whole. I think Massimo’s explanation through self-selection is pretty credible. But then, it seems that many moderate and cautious conservatives in Britain would be thought raving lefties by many Americans, while the term ‘liberal’ is often taken to mean “middle-of-the-road”. In the USA, apparently, a significant number of people even take Ayn Rand seriously, while in Europe the tiny proportion who have ever heard of her think she’s a bad joke (and as Mark Twain said, the trouble with political jokes is they usually get elected). Why the USA has the left half of the political spectrum amputated been a source of historical speculation.

    You make an excellent point in discussing how the non-expert should view apparent disputes, real or manufactured, within fields of expertise. Personally, for many years I held back from taking a strong position on climate change, precisely because I was aware that some of the conclusions played into my own ideological biases, and I wanted to be a true sceptic. Even now, I have some anxiety about accepting the consensus argument as a principle, at least in any simple way. As Massimo discussed in his Rationally Speaking podcasts and his philosophy of science writing, the history of science hasn’t been immune to cultural and political bias anywhere. In the case of climate change or evolution, the evidence is so clear that any profound doubt about the broad picture has to be evidence of motivated reasoning. But in some cases, for instance GM technology or nuclear energy, the interwoven complex of scientific, technological, social, political arguments are less clearcut, and judging the state or status of expert testimony is more difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Dan, interesting idea about the “sidebar.” We can talk about it some more, but my immediate concern is that it would add significantly to the burden of the editors/moderators, which is already pretty high. Also for it to really work we would have to convince a good number of academics from different fields to participate regularly. It’s already difficult enough to get people to write an occasional essay… (Then there is the technical issue that the WP platform is designed to have just one dynamic page, I think, but that’s secondary with respect to the other problems.)


  41. Aravis, interesting comment on the purpose of education, but I stand by my conviction that public education ought to serve two purposes: i) to prepare kids to become fully aware, critical thinking (i.e., “educated”) citizens of their polis; ii) to give them the skills necessary to find decent jobs.

    That said, I may agree that college isn’t for everyone, or even for the majority, and certainly that the US system is entirely (morally) bankrupt. In Italy and other European countries one gets a much better high school education – with both of the above mentioned purposes in mind; then college admission is open, with low costs. But courses and exams are rigorous, most people fail, and eventually drop off. This insures an actual near equality of opportunity (which is definitely not the case in the US), and an actual merit-based asymmetry of outcomes (which is grossly not the case in the US).

    Liked by 3 people

  42. Massimo,
    “Also, as you say, the bias (which I still think is most likely the result of self selection) goes liberal in certain academic fields (literature, “studies”), probably doesn’t exist or is irrelevant (natural science), and is likely on the conservative side in others (economics?).”

    The link provided by Cornelioid is to a pod cast where Gross does seem to claim to have analyzed the data and he does say that even Economics has a liberal leaning. It’s just not as liberal as the other fields.

    I don’t doubt self selection is part of it. Like I said a young conservative might want to be a journalist but will quickly learn that life as a journalist major will be tough if he does not sing the right songs. So she will “self select” out of journalism. Or political science, or many other fields. But that alone does not make it ok. The studies in politics will continue to have a bent toward liberalism and the Ivory tower will continue to receive eye-rolls from main street.

    The scientific studies performed by liberals which unsurprisingly support liberal ideas will continue to be viewed with skepticism. Which questions are asked will determine the results of the study just as much as the opinions elicited.

    Gross talks about concerns for government funding for education but, at least in this interview, doesn’t see the possible connection between money and bias. People who directly benefit from such funding will vote for people who want to increase it.

    I agree with just about everything you said except I don’t think the sidebar is really a good idea. Main street will have to elaborate what they want to understand in the comments. One article will likely not address sufficiently the questions we have.

    But I do agree that often the academy is not addressing the issues that main street is interested in. However I find the questions you have are likely not representative of main street. I think main street is much more interested in how we should live rather than the scientific descriptions of how movement or magnetism can occur.
    Compare the interest of main street in politics and religion compared to actually learning science. I wonder how many great courses are sold by people like Bart Ehrman versus science professors. To the extent main street has any academic interests it seems to be more on religion and politics than science. Science makes it to main street by trying to deal with these issues.

    At the end of my undergrad I realized I could spend my life learning all sorts of things and never learn it all. I decided to focus on getting an understanding on “what I should do” rather than just answer questions like is there a smallest quantum of space and how exactly does magnetism work. These questions would seem to have very little bearing on what I should do with my life so I consciously decided I would not spend my limited time focused on them.


  43. Is there still a substantial vocational track in Europe? Certainly I’d say that the UK has become more like the US here, too. (BTW, could a flight attendant support a family for decades here. I doubt it. Check out the house prices).

    Is there a contradiction between liberal education for all and more vocational education? At one time I worked as part of a national project to promote technical and vocational education for 14-19 year olds. We certainly didn’t make that distinction. Personally, I tried to remember that people aren’t divided into the chunks that such categories suggest. A word for that is alienation, being confronted by aspects of ourselves in society as if they were alien and even hostile forces.

    We were working mainly at the high school equivalent level, but also seeking links with both university and post school vocational routes. Those things should certainly be nurtured during the whole of schooling, but one big loss in the UK has been the narrowing of lifelong learning more economically “productive” and less accessible channels.

    Disguised advocacy programs? Yes, true in some cases, and certainly a perception. Perhaps the proper response is to promote diverse views – how, I’m unsure. Advocacy in classroom is wrong when it means silencing perspectives, evidence, not giving a broad view. Not only wrong in principle, but self-defeating in the long run. If you want your views to be taken seriously, you need to show that they are well founded and shaped by ethically and intellectually sound and honest practice.

    I agree about the growth of economic instrumentalist views for the purposes of education. There’s a fundamental distinction between preparing people to be economic units of production and to be citizens of a liberal democracy. And that includes being prepared to be critical of practices and beliefs of liberal democracy too; though it’s debatable where the line between acceptable and unacceptable challenge should be drawn.

    The autonomous human being, capable of think for her/his self? Yes; a fine aim in many ways. Yet this seems to be a major fault line in sceptical circles, especially in USA, between the somewhat leftish liberal view that will entertain the idea that individualism isn’t an unmitigated benefit and the libertarian right. Sometimes it seems that at least some sceptics follow the image of the single lone western hero, striding down the main street alone to confront the villains of irrationality. In preparing individuals to live whole lives, we also need to recognise that nobody is wholly autonomous; we all depend on a broad intellectual, emotional, cultural and economic commonality in order to be individual. In my most optimistic moments I feel that finding a way past the sharp individual/social dichotomy is one of the most important challenges we face.

    By the way, recently I mentioned to a incredulous younger person that, in the 1970s political world I knew the term “libertarianism” was most often seen as a left-wing positions, often as in “libertarian socialist”. How times have changed!


  44. Massimo:

    I certainly think you have been vindicated by the quality of the submissions since the change of direction. I’m someone who was potentially excluded; not currently an academic, or at present a blogger myself, and I’d considered submitting some essays before. However, your “turn” makes sense to me.

    I’m glad that you are actively seeking submissions; that also makes sense, given your overall aim. But what about the other side of the equation, those who may read and participate in the future? What is the strategy for making SS better known and more widely read? And who exactly is its target audience? How widely or narrowly defined? Through academic and student networks? Beyond? Maybe these are some issues worth a little discussion.

    Personally I’ve been involved with some pub philosophy, Café Scientifique and skeptic meetings where the topics discussed in SS are exactly to the point, and I’m promoting it. I hope you’ll continue to be aware of this wider audience. In many ways I think this ties into your concerns that education should not be narrowed either in its aims or in how it is conducted.


  45. Massimo

    When I commented before on expertise, I hadn’t yet seen the last section of the video, where Daniel Kaufman poses that excellent question; what is the epistemic standing of experts. If I had, I might not have bothered to repeat some of what you’d already said – sorry about that!

    I’m interested by what you said about philosophy and sociology of expertise; it’s something I’d been thinking about looking at in more detail and perhaps presenting something for a future session at a group I belong to. I found what you said pretty convincing, and I’d be interested to hear what you think is the best way into the work that you mentioned on the topic? Possibly a subject for a future SS essay? In any case, personally I’d be grateful for some pointers, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.


  46. gwarner99,

    “What is the strategy for making SS better known and more widely read?”

    I’ve been gathering donations to do Facebook and Twitter ads both about the site in general and for specific essays. It seems to be working. And of course word of mouth… I welcome additional suggestions?

    “who exactly is its target audience?”

    Any thinking, somewhat educated, person interested in science and philosophy and willing to put some effort in our longreads.


  47. Massimo agreed on the educational quality. I don’t think that extending the American K-12 school year to European length would solve all problems, but it would certainly be a start.

    Addressing funding inequalities would also help. (This being the US, I don’t expect that to actually happen, but it would help.)
    For everyone in conservative circles who talks about how America spends more per capita on education than any other country, yes, it’s true! But, that’s because we still spend FAR more per capita on collegiate education, and FAR, FAR more on graduate education. And it shows; that’s why, especially at the graduate level, students still come to the US from all over the world.

    But, on K-12 education, we’re nowhere near No. 1. And that shows, too. (And, if we note total education-related costs, that includes higher transportation costs in a US more rural, still, than many developed nations, and other factors. And, race and socioeconomic disparities also surely add to the cost burden here.)

    I keep going back to K-12 education first because you really can’t do a thorough refurm of US higher education without starting at the K-12 level.

    On the higher education side, I think the largest problem (it’s enough of a problem at K-12 education here), is the ongoing explosion in staff, vs. an almost static number of actual teachers. Along with that is, well, let’s call it the neoliberalization of the US university, which is being treated more and more as a business first by those administrators.

    Beyond that, the love-hate relationship with “the academy” is, in large part, a hate-indifference relation of large swaths of America with “the intelligentsia.” And, as the likes of Richard Hofstadter showed 50 years ago, this is nothing new.

    If “critical thinking,” to get back to my take on Haidt in my first comment, is an ideological bias, then yes, the intelligentsia is biased and hear, hear!

    Joe Actually, the “bias” is going to be even huger in one natural science for sure: biology. Since even more Americans don’t except evolution than do support Xn fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, this one is highly ingrained in the American populace.

    As for the idea of the framing of questions, etc. … that cuts both ways, like Exxon talking about carbon dioxide being part of life. This, in turn, goes back to Massimo’s piece on denialists.

    Beyond that, scientific research isn’t a democracy. It may be a fault of science communication if it can’t tell “main street” that these are the measures that SHOULD concern them. Or, it may be a fault of denialists and their funders.

    And, a lot of things can’t be separated out. NASA recently launched new Earth climate satellites that are built on previous advances in planetary satellites.

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