We failed in the direction of truth

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

Razib Khan is excited to read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, because he’s looking for a little hope:

At this point, I am very pessimistic as to the prospects for the Enlightenment project.

This is pretty obvious to anyone who reads me closely. I’ve been writing and discussing with people on the internet, and in private, for many years now, and have come to the conclusion most people are decent, but they’re also craven and intellectually unserious outside of their domain specificity when they are intellectual. Many of our institutions are quite corrupt, and those which are supposedly the torchbearers of the Enlightenment, such as science, are filled with people who are also blind to their own biases or dominated by those who will plainly lie to advance their professional prospects or retain esteem from colleagues.


n psychology, much of the replication crisis was simply due to personal self-interest (more publications). But some of it was obviously political (see stereotype threat). Similarly, look at the fiasco in nutrition science. Some of it was personal, but there were also political demands from on high that there be something done. So “scholars” set some guidelines that people followed for decades, even if later they were shown to be totally ineffective. I’m not even going to get into the travesty that is modern biomedical science, with professional advancement and institutional interests combined in a deadly cocktail.

Also, I enjoy science popularizing (or did, I don’t read science books much anymore) as much as the next person, but isn’t it interesting how much of modern science confirms the mainstream elite cultural norms of ~2020? Curiously, if you read science popularizations in newspapers in 1920 they would also confirm the elite cultural norms of 1920…. But this time we’re right!

Other institutions aren’t doing better. The media is going through economic collapse, and journalists and their paymasters are reacting by pandering to their audiences. Instead of illuminating, they’re confirming. That’s what the audience wants, and I’m sure it’s more satisfying to journalists anyway. But can you blame them with the economics that are before us?


People have always been biased and subject to motivated reasoning. We’ve had our disputes whatever our ideology, whether it be conservative, moderate, or liberal. But the Enlightenment perspective of critical rationalism, which took philosophical realism seriously, meant that ultimately people who disagreed often assumed that fundamentally they were trying to converge on the same facts, the same reality. Reality existed, and you couldn’t just wish it away. Discussion might forward two individuals to a convergence!

We’re not there anymore. Whether it be Bush-era contempt for “Reality-Based Community”, or the rising crest of “Critical Theory”, the acid of subjectivism is eroding the vast edifice of aspirational realism which grew organically in the wake of the Enlightenment. This isn’t a Left vs. Right phenomenon, it’s a human dynamic, because for most of human history what is true has been determined by what the tribe dictates to be true, and what the tribe dictates to be true has often not been based on a critical evaluation of facts and theories. What the tribe dictates to be true is computationally less intensive than thinking things through yourself, and, it’s often right-enough.

The reality is that this cultural cognition and conformity has always held. It’s just that it seems that for a few centuries substantial latitude was given in public to a relative amount of heterodoxy from broad tribal visions. And it was always a work in progress. But there was a goal, and an ideal, even if we habitually failed. We failed in the direction of truth.

We live in a post-modern age now. Feelings are paramount, facts must bow before them. But the curious fact is that the post-modern age is just the pre-modern age. When I first read the Christian author Alister McGrath I literally scoffed at his contention that atheism would fail before the ascendancy of post-modernism. Ten years on I will admit that I now believe he was right and I was wrong. Though I don’t think the New Atheism failed miserably, I do think that the problems it is encountering from the cultural Left are due to its cold modernist baggage.

No truth, no liberalism. No liberalism, and democracy become the mob. The passions of the mob do eventually fail, and its wake a more oligarchic and hierarchical system will emerge. We may simply be seeing the end of the liberal individualist interregnum, as history reverts to its despotic collectivist norm.


Finally, understanding that most people don’t need to be right or utter the truth, but simply need to win, has made me much more cheerful and less sour observing everyday stupidities. It is no great insight to observe that I’ve never been one who has had much esteem for the admiration of my peers. I like to do my own thing. But tribal acclamation must be the best of all things for most humans, and now I understand why they fight unfairly and stupidly with such ease and naturalness: their aim not to be right in the eyes of nature, but to rise in the esteem their fellow human. That is the summum bonum.


  1. Graham says:

    I often sympathize with Razib and always learn something from him, as I do with this passage.

    There is a degree to which I would want to congratulate him for realizing the obvious, but I get that is too harsh- how few of us do. Me as well. Razib is a serious man and dedicated to science through the lens of his own disciplines, reason I assume are associated with his ability to so easily discern the flight from science, fact, and objective reality across the usual political/ideological/philosophical lines. Rare to find someone who can spot the parallels between some of the more outre versions of rejecting climate change and the equivalent notion that “gender” is a real thing the way “sex” is. As opposed to, say, the modern equivalent of Freudian jargon, itself once consensus “science”.

    I could bang on at length, mostly in praise of Razib. Let that suffice.

    One tangent, though. I assume Razib alludes to the Bush-GOP neocon tendency to pooh-pooh opponents who called themselves the reality-based community. I don’t quite recall that as being the same kind of thing as this. It was certainly poor optics to pour slag on opponents for embracing “reality”, but it was equally bad substance [if excellent optics] for war opponents to adopt the moniker ‘reality-based’ community and start repeating it as though the dispute were about mathematical or physical laws.

    IIRC, somebody raised the spectre of reality ‘on the ground’ in the Middle East and somebody [I want to say Rummy but can't be bothered to look it up] retorted that the Bushies intended to reshape reality.

    Now, as far as all that goes, I sympathize with both sides. It was wise for critics to cite political etc conditions on the ground as limiting factors, and the neocons entertained foolish aspirations based on false assumptions about human nature [a universal failing of our civilization]. OTOH, the goal of policy, especially when that policy is something as enormous as war, is to reshape reality. If one does not have that goal, what is the point of the war? The question should rather be one of ends and means. Either way, the Bushies’ idea of reshaping reality in that context was neither ontologically nor epistemologically the same thing as the sort of reality management we are engaged in now.

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