Thursday, August 29, 2019

A LIBERAL THOUGHT FROM DARWIN


Not much to say for this month, but I did recently come across a liberal economic thought in one of Darwin’s letters from 1845 (he would have been 36). It is so unusual for him that I thought I would record it here.

Keep in mind that Darwin was socially conservative in almost every way and much of it seeped into his science. He preferred to view nature as a hierarchy of beings in competition rather than as a holistic collection in which every organism has an important part to play. He seemed to hate social and political expressions of equality. He did not like labor unions and cooperatives because he believed they hurt the competitive principle. In New Zealand, he did not like seeing slaves step out of line and greet someone before their owners did. Tribes that practiced equality were primitive and would not advance until they acquired strong chiefs, he thought.

So I was quite surprised to read these comments by Darwin in an 1845 letter, which concerns the taxes or duties that someone had to pay when purchasing land in England:

“I believe few things would do this Country more good in future ages than the destruction of primogeniture,—so as to lessen the difference in land wealth & make more small freeholders.—How atrociously unjust are the stamp laws which render it so expensive for the poor man to buy his ¼ of an acre, it makes one’s blood burn with indignation.”

I suppose it makes some sense for Darwin to have written this. It could be taken as consistent with his view that competition should always be encouraged, but it is still rare to see him invoke this principle in favor of the poor man. Justice in and of itself does not seem to have been a principle with him; he was after all blind, for example, to the justice that labor unions were seeking. He does not seem to have ever thought that competition might itself be unjust on occasion. He more likely believed that whenever the fittest survive (in accordance with what his conservative class considered fitness), justice simply does not enter into it.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Sunday, July 28, 2019

GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE


In a letter to his friend the botanist Joseph Hooker, Charles Darwin said he thought the theory of “the common descent of species” (i.e., the general theory of evolution) “is the more important point” as compared to his theory of natural selection. And the widespread belief in the theory of evolution “may be fairly attributed in large part to the ‘Origin.’”

Yes, Darwin’s book certainly deserves some of the credit, but not all the credit and I would not even give it the lion’s share of the credit. At the very least an equal share must go to Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). The book went through ten editions before Darwin’s Origin was published. (Though published anonymously, by 1847 most scientists were pretty sure Chambers was the author.) Not only was it enormously popular and turned on many people, including many budding scientists, to evolutionary theory (the development hypothesis, as it was then called), but we have suppressed its major accomplishment: It proved that the transmutation of species was the better explanation for the variety of life we see on this planet.

Before Darwin ever published a word on this, Chambers presented much of the same evidence that Darwin was already working on, but would not publish for another 15 years. Chambers saw that embryos, commonality of structures (such as the bones in a human hand and in a bat’s wing), artificial selection, and more made it more likely that species descended from other species than that each species was specially created. Evolution as an explanation of life had greater probability going for it.

Was Chambers as rigorous or methodical a thinker as Darwin? No. Could he have been clearer and more thorough? Yes. But these are not the issues. The questions are: Did Chambers do it, did he prove greater probability for the development hypothesis, and did he use the right evidence to make his proof compelling and correct? The answer is a resounding yes to all three of these questions. Yet he has never been given the credit he deserves.

Just to give one intriguing example of how unfair everyone has been to Chambers, in his follow-up book, Explanations (1846), Chambers spent some time explaining why John Stuart Mill’s ideas on logic were so important to development theory. It was correct procedure to formulate a hypothesis based on a little bit of data and then scan nature for more evidence that could be explained by the hypothesis. When Darwin’s book came out, Mill praised it as logically sound and friends of Darwin reported this to him. He was thrilled. He took it as another sign that he was on the right path. Everyone simply forgot that Chambers had been there a dozen years earlier.

Why this unjust shunning of Chambers? Part of it is undoubtedly that Darwin became an icon within his own lifetime and no one wanted to detract from that saintly status by dragging Chambers into it. But I think that there is a more profound reason. Chambers had something in common with other exponents of evolution, such as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), Constantine Rafinesque, Georg Gerland, and others. They were all more interested in the moral and spiritual consequences of the theory than in the cause. They understood evolutionary theory as giving an important boost to humanitarianism. It should teach us tolerance and love. It should teach us that all life is one and interconnected.

Most of Darwin’s supporters and Darwin himself were more interested in how evolution could be used to support Britain’s imperialism. One dominant species over all was a lesson Darwin was quick to draw. Chambers and others would stress that all God’s creatures, even the smallest and weakest, have a place in the sun—a deserved place in the scheme of things. Darwin did not see it that way. He was more into ranking organisms (“groups subordinate to groups” as he frequently says in Origin) and he had no problem with the extermination of groups, even Europeans exterminating native peoples.

So let’s remember why we erase people from history. It is not always because their accomplishments were somehow less. It is often because we are afraid of their greater insights into morality and the spirit of mankind. And maybe too their science was better than it was made out to be.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Friday, June 28, 2019

APPLYING LEGAL REASONING TO HISTORY


[My recent book on Darwin's racism, A Short But Full Book on Darwin's Racism, can be found here on Amazon.]

There is no such thing as a type of reasoning that is unique to a particular field. Good reasoning is the same wherever you go. The goal is always to think so clearly that all deception becomes impossible. That’s the essence of scientific thinking. The lessons learned in one field about how not to deceive yourself or anyone else are easily transferred to other fields. Courts of law provide some of the best examples of how to reason well. Historians could learn a lot from them.

I can give two examples from TV small claims shows. On an episode of Judge Judy, a litigant was relating an incident when he and his friends were attacked by some rowdy drunks. He began by saying that this group approached him and his friends in a hostile manner. Judge Judy said this was a conclusion. She wanted evidence. He tried again and said something like, “Well, they were very aggressive.” No, she said, you’re offering a conclusion again. Tell me what you saw and what you heard.

He was frustrated and could only say they were threatening him and his friends. Judge Judy would not accept that either. Finally, she helped him out by asking him, “Were they saying anything, were they making any gestures?” Now his expression lit up and he was able to offer more proper testimony. “Yes,” he said, “they were cursing at us and saying we’re going to get you, and they were waving their fists and empty liquor bottles at us.” Now you’re telling me something, Judge Judy said.

The second example is a little more subtle and comes from The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian. The plaintiff, a doctor, had not been paid by a lawyer, the defendant, for his expert testimony in another court case. The lawyer’s secretary testified that at one point, the doctor had called their office to complain about not getting paid. She said the doctor was not happy about not getting his money. Judge Milian pointed out that this was a conclusion, not a fact, a hard piece of evidence. Like the litigant in the Judge Judy case, the secretary was frustrated and did not know how to explain it. Judge Milian made it simple for her. “Tell me exactly what the doctor said to you on the phone.” The secretary answered, “He said, ‘I’m unhappy that I did not get paid yet for my testimony.’” Now that was a fact that Judge Milian could evaluate.

To many people, the difference between the two portions of the secretary’s testimony is so slight and so subtle that it is hardly worth dwelling on. But from the point of view of logic, the difference is huge. Consider these two propositions. #1: “The doctor was unhappy that he had not been paid.” #2: “The doctor said to me, ‘I am unhappy that I have not been paid.’” To a careless thinker, they are basically the same, but #1 and #2 are not at all the same thing. The first is a conclusion. We have no idea how the secretary arrived at this conclusion. It is inadmissible in a court of law because it does not give us any concrete facts to go on. The second is a fact that we can then investigate by cross-examining the doctor, the secretary, and possibly others.

Examples like these from TV court shows should encourage historians to be more precise thinkers. We have many examples in history of conclusions, or people leaving us their conclusions about what they thought of persons and events in their time, but we don’t always have the facts their conclusions were based on. And by a fact, I do not mean something that is necessarily true, but merely a piece of evidence, something potentially observable, something that could have been seen or heard, if it actually happened, and then we can think about whether it is a true fact or a false fact.

Suppose we had the diary of a colonist from America or Australia or anywhere else. In the diary, we find this statement: “The other day, a group of natives approached us in a hostile manner.” (There may also be follow-up statements like “So we engaged them in battle and slaughtered them all,” but I am only concerned with the initial statement.) Too many scholars would assume the statement in the diary must be true and proceed from there—as if only one hypothesis could explain that statement.

In fact, there are three hypotheses that could explain the diarist’s statement. But the first thing to pay attention to is that “hostile manner” is not a fact. It is a conclusion. Or we could say that it is a fact that the diarist drew this conclusion, but the conclusion is not a fact in itself. The three hypotheses to explain the appearance of this conclusion in the diary are as follows: Number one is that it is true, the natives really were hostile (making certain gestures and shouting specific words in one language or another, which would be the facts we really need). Number 2 is that “hostile” resulted from a misperception of the colonist as to the meaning of the natives’ gestures, etc. And number 3 is that the colonist outright lied in his diary in order to cover up a wanton massacre.

All three of these hypotheses have to be considered. Assuming only the first is possible is simply bad reasoning and it would be bad in any field of study. What we have in historical studies is a situation where 1) scholars often confuse conclusions and facts, and 2) they fail to see that different hypotheses could explain what are really conclusions. Both conditions are common to so many fields of historical study. Tell this to scholars and they get as frustrated as the people testifying in those small claim cases. They don’t want to hear that they have been presenting conclusions, not hard evidence.

The story of Judas in the Gospels is a good example. When you examine the verses very closely, we can see that there are a lot of conclusions being offered and precious little in the way of facts. Traitor (which accusation appears only once and it’s in the Gospel of Luke) is a conclusion or accusation, not a fact. The facts, if any, would be the details that support the accusation. Those details are absent in Judas’s case.

Once upon a time, somebody wanted to stick the conclusion of traitor on Judas and there it has remained. But when you sort out the few facts we do have (e.g., Judas leaves the table and returns with soldiers, no one at the time levels the accusation of traitor at him, and a few more), it is surprising to see that they are consistent with the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor; even the conclusions we have in the Gospels are consistent with that hypothesis. My books on the historical Jesus go into more detail.

Historical Jesus scholars do not examine the Gospel verses concerning Judas with any great degree of care. They simply take the conclusion of traitor that was presented once upon a time and refuse to look at other hypotheses, especially any that point towards Judas’s innocence. An innocent man falsely accused of betrayal is a legitimate hypothesis that has been erased from consideration.

Scholars of Charles Darwin are another good example of indulging in bad reasoning. It may be a little more subtle here, but in essence, we get a lot of conclusions and little in the way of facts. The facts here are primarily what did Darwin actually say in his published works. We are given the impression that his work is a great example of objective science, but this results from a careless reading of what he created.

Is On the Origin of Species an objective work of science? Did Charles Darwin inject racism into his study of evolution? Are there notions of superior and inferior in his writings? Most scholars present Darwin as a great humanitarian, a conclusion that they will not permit any challenge to. They slant the facts of what Darwin’s work is like so that it appears he was a calm, reasonable scientist who had no ax to grind. That he spoke often of the extermination of lower races is something they would rather not pay attention to.

In their view, Darwin was a modest man who proceeded very slowly. One of the myths about Darwin’s Origin is that he does not address the matter of human evolution in it. They say he spoke of human beings only once in a cryptic remark in the last chapter—in some future time, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” In fact, Darwin addresses the human condition many times throughout Origin, including an earlier statement that light will be thrown on the racial differences among humans (though he does not explore this any further here). While Origin is in part a work of science, it is equally a work to advance the cause of European imperialism and to put each organic group, including human beings, in their place, “groups subordinate to groups,” as he frequently says. My books on Darwin clearly demonstrate the truth of that.

When you collect the facts of what he actually wrote—how often he spoke of superior and inferior, higher and lower, groups subordinate to groups, domination of the weak, let the dominant become ever more dominant, and more—his work certainly seems to have a lot of racism and genocide in it, and much of it appears to be composed to justify European imperialism. Those are conclusions I am offering, or you could also call them alternative hypotheses, but there is a plethora of facts to support them. Learn to think like Judge Judy or Judge Marilyn Milian and you can make great discoveries.

The lesson here is to remain humble. Lessons from a TV show can take you far. Never reject anything as a potential source of knowledge. Even TV shows may be a source of profound wisdom, if you’re paying close attention.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

CONQUERING THE WORLD—WITH BIAS TOWARDS ALL AND OBJECTIVITY FOR NONE


There is a myth which the western intellectual tradition perpetuates about itself: We love the search for objective truth. The practical reality is that westerners want to conquer (the world, nature, other cultures). You cannot have both. If you are interested in conquering, winning, dominating, then you are not really interested in objectivity. Western thinkers cherry pick the evidence that comprises the entire world and favor only that which will help them achieve victory over others. This is true even of the hard sciences. We have our biases and we use them to win at any cost.

I can put this another way. If there is one basic bias underlying western tradition, it is that we believe life is arranged in a hierarchy. There is higher and lower, superior and inferior (all four of these terms appear frequently throughout Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species), and we further believe that those at the upper end have a right, maybe even a duty, to conquer and dominate those at the lower end. We deem it the law of life. Live by it and you gain respect in the world. Defy or ignore it and you deserve disrespect. Darwin, most scientists, the Mafia, big religions, all sorts of politicians, and more subscribe to this vision.

It is not just other people and cultures we treat this way. It is all of nature. Do we study nature to achieve objective results? I don’t think so. We look for facts that will help us dominate and control nature. When we find them, we pay close attention. If we come across anything that does not help our quest for power, we blind ourselves to it. We simply do not see anything that does not serve the goal of complete domination.

If this approach to nature sounds like racism, that’s because it is. Westerners relate to nature in the same way we relate to human groups. Consider how Jews have traditionally been fit into the western, Christian world. They have always been regarded as wandering Aborigines, exiled from their aboriginal home. Like Aborigines everywhere, they are seen as an obstacle to the progress of empire. Jews are small, a nuisance, and will never truly assimilate.

Jews have never dreamed of conquering the world, neither its souls or its territories. The biblical dream of Jewish culture was to have a relatively small homeland with well-defined borders. No empire for Jews. In the Torah, God does not especially like the state, let alone an empire. Even the biggest Zionist dream (which most Jews are not in favor of) is ludicrously small, compared to the dream of many (not all) Christians and Moslems to conquer the world, or if not the entire world, at least a large portion of it.

It is because the Jewish dream is so small that Jews have been considered inferior. Smallness is a sin in western culture. All Aborigines are disrespected because their cultures stand, or are perceived to stand, in the way of greatness and progress. That bin Laden guy was fond of calling Israel “that puny little state.” For many Christians, it has always been “that puny little religion.”

What about the historical, Jewish Jesus? In his time, there was a Jewish tradition, which he too embraced, that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards fellow human beings was bad, but chutzpah towards God, especially a grandiose God, was a good thing. God encouraged Jews to challenge abuse of power by human beings (like western Europe’s empires) by respecting them when they challenged abuse of power by God. If you can say no to God, you can say no to human political leaders.

So Abraham will challenge God at Sodom and Gomorrah and request him to give these people due process before he judges them. Moses does the same when God inflicts Miriam with leprosy. Moses demands a reconsideration of her case because here too God failed to follow due process. This is what Jewish civilization was heading towards.

The idea of western civilization has been to flip this and teach instead a phony reverence for God while practicing chutzpah towards other human beings. And since Jewish culture has never joined or endorsed this western tradition, it is considered inferior and possibly worthy of extermination. That has been the logic of western civilization towards all cultures that do not bow down and obey the western imperative of total domination.

Aboriginal cultures have usually been content with the small. That has long been the key Jewish sin and failing in the eyes of the west. The U.S. Constitution at its best also embraces smallness—the humblest and the highest class in theory stand equal before the law. The rule of law means to defend the smallest. I would trace this idea at least as far back as John Locke who was a keen reader of Torah, the Jewish Constitution. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not understood the U.S. Constitution this way. It has followed western imperialism and has generally had more regard for the powerful than for the powerless. With only a few exceptions, the Court has never been that interested in defending the small.

Objectively speaking, the small have played as great a role in evolution as the powerful and dominant. Nature produced both and without favoritism. The small and weak are not one of nature’s mistakes. Like the U.S. Constitution, again at its best, nature has regard for all. Everything that comes into existence is, in a sense, loved by nature. There are no defects. The judgment that some forms of life are defective is exactly that. It is a subjective judgment. Success, failure, superior, inferior—these are all subjective ideas which serve western empires but little else.

If we want to reach objectivity in our knowledge of the world, we might have to knock down our pretentious systems of knowledge and start all over again, Go back to the beginning and discover our true human origins.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

NOBODY SHOULD GET AWAY WITH BAD IDEAS

[My most recent book A Short but Full Book on Darwin's Racism is available here at Amazon; also at other online vendors.]


I understand why many people regard Darwin as a hero. I understand why people like having heroes. I have some myself, but I hope I will always keep it to admiring certain things they did and avoid worshiping them in the abstract. Worship leads to blindness towards uncomfortable facts, if any should appear.

What is peculiar about hero worship of Darwin, at least by the general public, is that he is not admired for some of the best things about him and is rather adored for things that are not true. Darwin was a great naturalist, a great observer of flora and fauna, but very few people pay attention to that part of him. He may have made fascinating observations about earth worms and orchids and more, but that is not what holds most people’s interest.

Instead, people have thrust on Darwin a greatness as an anthropologist and observer of the human condition. That is far-fetched. Some evolutionists did give us that, but Darwin was not one of them. It was not Darwin who taught that all life is one, that humans are part of a beautiful whole, and that we should all be kind to one another. You could call that holistic evolution and it came from people like Robert Chambers who published his book on evolution 15 years before Darwin’s. Chambers taught that evolution means we are connected to the entire world of nature and we must learn to respect the rights and feelings of animals (yes, he actually said rights and feelings). Darwin never said anything remotely like that. But many people falsely assume he did.

So what kind of human science did Darwin give us? He divided the world into higher and lower races and promoted the idea that the higher races would naturally and inevitably wipe out the lower ones, at which point humanity would rise to a higher level, as he said in one letter. The common origin of all life had no moral or spiritual implications for Darwin as it did for Chambers. What interested Darwin more was the fact (for him) that the single origin had diverse descendants who could be ranked on a scale from lowest to highest.

In theory, Darwin believed that all life is one, since we are all descended from a common progenitor, but in practice, it meant little to him. His grandfather Josiah Wedgwood coined a medallion that pleaded the cause of slaves, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, but in his Notebooks, Darwin expressed doubts about this. Civilized men and Christians may believe this, he said, but he found it more striking that, “yet differences carried a long way.”

That was Darwin’s lesson. Human groups are different and can be legitimately destroyed by their betters. While he did not believe any humans should be enslaved, he was shockingly indifferent to their extermination, even teaching that genocide was natural and not a moral dilemma. That may make many people very uncomfortable and it should. He was not the only one who contributed to Europe’s genocidal attitude towards others, but he was definitely one of the contributors and he did it with all the authority of science. In making him a great scientist, we are endorsing scientific racism.

In the end, that is what really bothers me about the adoration of Darwin. If we let Darwin off too easy and fail to appreciate how racist he was in his work, not in his personal life, we are teaching a very bad lesson. We are saying that if someone becomes a big enough icon, then we can overlook some very foul ideas he stood for. We are saying racism and genocide are excusable if the source is a worshiped hero.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

BELIEVING IN SMALLNESS


It is a relief to study the facts, in any field, whatever the facts are. In a world with so much injustice in it, so much fear and hatred, it is a huge relief to be able to say: This is what I know. Doing more, like trying to figure out what the facts mean, could be an added bonus, but only as long as we stay close to the facts and do not leap to big conclusions. A good rule to follow in all investigations is to keep it small. I don’t mean that the big issues are out of the question. I just mean we should stay focused on telling the details of the truth and not to be swayed by ideology. Don’t force meaning on the evidence. Let it come naturally.

Maybe this is a selfish way of thinking. When lies have become the standard way of studying history, it is almost a joy to be able to say, Here’s what’s wrong with that. The facts may or may not solve or rectify any injustices. But they can be an escape from the turmoil of the day and that, I admit, is selfish. It’s not all selfishness. The facts also offer some assurance that truth matters. And if you believe that truth leads to justice, then some good has been accomplished by just getting something right.

When I see politicians spewing their hatred, I feel reassured when I surround myself with solid facts. I feel even more reassurance when I see that many others also relish the truth. “We are a nation of immigrants” I hear over and over. And that is true. The fact is that this country was built on immigration. In an early pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson said that the colonies were not created by charters from the king of England, but by the universal right that people have to leave the place where they were born and seek new habitations. Travel and movement were considered basic rights. The great European experts on international law said so. Emigration was seen as natural. That is a historical fact.

That does not mean we are bound by such facts. Societies can change. We can say that what was once accepted policy is no longer what we want to do. The past cannot handcuff  us. But if we are going to change, we should be clear about it and why we want to change.

It was a sound principle in Jefferson’s time that no generation had the right to make laws which are eternally binding and a handicap to future generations. The current generation may decide that it wants to put an end to immigration. It has that right. But we should know that if we do this, we are bucking a longstanding historical trend. Why was this trend in place for such a long time? Why was emigration considered to be a God-given right of all human beings? What were the benefits? What other rights was it connected to? We should think about it before we willy-nilly change it. Or we can change it blindly and react to the fear of the moment. When we do things out of fear, does that generally lead to good results?

I like saying simple facts. I like saying: I know this, that, and the other. Who doesn’t like saying what they know? I know I like this pizza, this is good, this flavor ice cream is great, this TV show is worth watching. Some of the things I like are relatively simple, like pizza. Liking a TV show is a bit more complicated. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it reveals something about life. Some of those revelations may not be so simple. Still, it did a good job. I felt something, it moved me. That’s all I have to know. It moved me. Explaining why may get very messy, but the fact of being moved is simple, maybe too simple. So much evil in the world comes from being moved by inane slogans. Being moved is no guarantee you’re moving in the right direction.

I recently saw an episode of a German TV show called “Crime Scene Cleaner”, which is as self-explanatory a title as you can get. It is a half-hour comedy series in each episode of which our hero shows up at an apartment or house, after someone has died, to clean up the blood, and after the police have finished collecting the evidence. He always works alone, but he also always encounters someone (a relative, a neighbor, etc.) with whom he gets caught up in the most hilarious conversations, often bordering on the philosophical. In this episode, it is a neo-Nazi he meets. The room he has to clean up is filled with Nazi memorabilia. He is astounded that anybody could still believe this crap.

At one point, our hero asks the other man, “Don’t you think it was insane to kill six million Jews?” The man answers that maybe they went a little overboard there, but so what? The French Revolution also went crazy with excessive violence, but we still can discuss the ideas of the French Revolution and take them seriously. Why can’t we do the same with Nazi ideas? Maybe we need a new modern Nazism. Our hero fantasizes punching him in the face, but does not do it. I won’t tell you the end, but he gets a small taste of justice; painting the walls pink is part of it.

My feelings about this show are very complicated. In a way, it is the opposite of what I usually spend my time doing which is digging up the plain facts. For example, I like reporting that at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, James Wilson of Pennsylvania defended the illogical nature of the three-fifths compromise (southern states would be able to count three-fifths of their slave population towards how much representation they would get in Congress)—illogical because each slave was considered as something between a person and a piece of property, and arbitrarily given the status of three-fifths of a person—illogical but necessary, Wilson argued, for reaching a compromise with the southern slave states. But at his state’s ratification debates over whether to approve the new Constitution, Wilson was convinced that the new Congress would have the power to emancipate all the slaves throughout the country. He called this a “delightful prospect” and the power to tax the import of slaves he called a “lovely feature in the Constitution.”

When you go carefully through the evidence of the Constitutional Convention, a clear pattern emerges with respect to slavery. Varieties of James Wilson’s sentiments were expressed. Another delegate believed, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country.” So they were in no rush to push the issue now. The people that opposed slavery turned out to be mildly antislavery. These antislavery advocates put off their hopes for an end to slavery to an indefinite future. In the meantime, they conceded the strength of slave owners and gained few concessions from them. It was like a game of poker in which one side held all the good cards. The slaveholding states got much of what they wanted. There is a satisfaction in understanding what happened in history. So this is how we got to where we are today and this is why racism is so strong today.

There is a very different satisfaction in watching something like “Crime Scene Cleaner”—or maybe not very different at all, it just feels different. We can feel poetic justice at work in the episode I saw. Given the crimes of the Nazis, that is trivial, very trivial in fact. It is almost nothing. But we, or at least I, need the trivial to go on living. Sometimes just the smallest thing is enough to give us reason to go on. A flower, a fact, a punch in the nose against the right person at the right time, even if only in our dreams or on a TV show. The smallness of gathering facts is like that. It is such a little thing to do, but it is a relief against the assault of lies and hatred.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

THE DANGERS OF BIAS


More and more, I am coming to think that bias in academic scholarship is exactly like what happens in prosecutorial misconduct in criminal law. One element of that misconduct is confirmation bias. Not only is confirmation bias a problem in most academic fields, but scholarly reactions, when you point out the bias, are just like those of prosecutors who have been told that they have wrongly tried and convicted a defendant. Just mention the possibility of bias, and prosecutors and academics alike become defensive and hostile. Even when a court orders a wrongly convicted person to be released, many prosecutors will not apologize or support compensation for someone who has spent years on death row.

Things are changing in criminal law. There are many books and articles on confirmation bias and other problems that lead to the convictions of innocent people. It is at this point a well recognized phenomenon. That is partly because of the serious consequences of prosecutorial misconduct. Innocent people are in danger of being executed or living the rest of their lives in prison. So people are willing to pay attention.

In general, in most areas of academia, the consequences of bad scholarship are not as dire. Even if there is some connection between lies told about history, for example, and lethal results for certain people, the connection is way down the road. It is hard to prove a direct connection. That is probably the main reason it is so hard to make corrections in many areas of scholarship. The failure to do anything and to admit any wrongdoing does not seem so terrible.

There does not seem to be any great problem, like potential loss of life, that would motivate academics to take a closer look at themselves. In fact, it appears to me that most scholars think there is no harm in a little lying about the evidence, especially if it’s in a good cause. So what if we say Darwin was a great humanitarian and we hide the fact that there is so much racism in his work, as in his dividing the human family into a hierarchy of races? Where’s the harm? We are promoting good antiracist ideas and we’re telling some white lies about Darwin’s participation in this cause. We are not hurting anyone.

But lies about history always have bad ramifications. They teach us to adopt fraudulent methods of research and logic to support the lies. The lies hide how easy it is to let racism slip into a system and distort the evidence. There may be no immediate bad effects, but the long-range consequences can be devastating. Just think of how Darwin naturalized and normalized genocide, and tell me no harm was intended or resulted. The harm of proclaiming that the extermination of lower races is inevitable and natural—nothing immoral about it—has been tremendous. Too many scientists still think of western civilization as the winning civilization and attribute its success to evolution; they think the west is the endpoint of human evolution.

Just try raising any of this with scholars. Like criminal prosecutors who are convinced they can do no wrong, they will get angry, defensive, hostile. It is impossible to have a rational conversation about any of this. Scholars, especially of history and especially of the history of science, will not readily admit that they suffer from confirmation bias or any other kind. Once, it was that way in criminal law too. Neither the public nor prosecutors were open to considering how bias leads to wrongful convictions. That has been changing for a while now. Whatever it is that led to improvements in criminal law, concerning the study of bias in investigations, we could use a strong dose of that in the rest of academia.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer