12/1/2016 0 Comments
I had the unexpected privilege of meeting the new president of Stanford last week. Over the course of our conversation, I asked him two very important questions:
1. Why are so many colleges to accommodating to victimhood culture -- why don't more universities take a stance like the University of Chicago?
And, more importantly:
2. What are you doing to make sure that trigger warnings, safe spaces, disinvitations and other forms of coddling/censorship aren't harmful?
This is a huge question. In all psychology research and interventions, it is imperative that you prove, at the get-go and ongoingly throughout the study, that you are not causing harm. And self-report is not sufficient -- the Cambridge Sommerville Youth Study demonstrated that although people may say something helped them, objective measures demonstrate that the study actually caused harm.
Again, this is a serious issue.There is literally zero evidence that "coddling" American college students isn't harmful -- although there is plenty of evidence that it is.
I'm going to ignore the potential mental health and psychological consequences for now and focus on the very mission of academia:
To teach students how to think. To force students to be skeptical, critical, and analytical. To teach tomorrow's leaders how to back up their claims with evidence, and refute others by making their own strong argument.
And, of course, since so many universities are research universities now:
To find truth. To produce evidence to support claims, and proof that refutes them. To produce high-quality, accurate research.
When universities indoctrinate students with far left social justice dogma, they harm students' learning, resilience... and even their own research findings. Let's elaborate on each of these:
1. Harming students' learning.
The last few years have brought a rapid and dramatic shift in political diversity among university professors. Of course, academia has always been more liberal than conservative -- but as recently as 1996, the ratio of conservative to liberal professors was 1:2. Check out this graph from the Higher Education Research Institute:
This data is all college professors -- from dental schools to engineering schools to the humanities. If you look at just the humanities, the estimate gets even more skewed. New estimates range from 17:1 to 60:1.
This change isn't something that's gradually happened over time, either. Look at the shape of those lines. And check out this graph from Political diversity will improve social psychology science (Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim & Tetlock, 2015):
So what? Why does this matter for students?
Because with less diversity of professors comes less diversity of classes and learning opportunities. More professors are teaching trendy, non-controversial topics. Right now, you can learn anything you want about social justice (assuming it conforms to liberal viewpoints). You can spend an entire semester just studying Black Lives Matter, Trans History, or Why Israel Should be Wiped Off the Face of the Planet.
Meanwhile, fewer professors are teaching political and military history. But, like, those are important, too, right?
I guess today's students will never know.
2. Harming Students' Resilience.
I already discussed how, in psychology, it is critically important that treatments and interventions do not cause harm. As schools roll out increasing numbers of trigger warnings, safe spaces, "campus speech codes," and liberal professors... are they doing anything to make sure they're not harming students?
To my knowledge, no. (Luckily, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is doing some cool projects to investigate this. Assuming they come up with great studies and a solid methodology, I will definitely reevaluate my opinions based on new knowledge.)
But. There is evidence to support that:
a) Our emotional responses to stressful events and conversations are at least somewhat learned.
There's a reason people don't put on sackcloth and sit in ashes anymore. We learn "how" to grieve by watching the emotional reactions of those around us. Cultural differences in how people feel they should respond to traumatic (and "traumatic") events can explain why many Americans receive a PTSD diagnosis after a fender bender, while genocide survivors in Rwanda are able to manage their trauma and recovery without psychological assistance. (Instead, they prefer practical asistance -- help finding jobs, assistance with the visa application process, etc.)
(Learn more in One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance, by Sally Satel and Christina Hoff Sommers.)
When schools are filled with liberal professors who eagerly indoctrinate students with conspiracy theories about the patriarchy and white oppression, you teach students that they should feel like outsiders; they should feel like victims; and they should feel oppressed. You teach students to relinquish themselves of accountability, instead blaming their problems and shortcomings on colonialism, slavery, institutionalized racism, and other elements that are out of their control.
The healthiest thing you can feel is autonomy. One of the most unhealthy things you can feel is helplessness.
b) We rise (and fall) to meet the expectations our teachers and peers set for us (i.e., the Rosenthal effect).
It's well-demonstrated that students and adults alike are heavily influenced by our expecations for them. When professors profess that half of their students are victims of some kind or another, you remove responsibility from them. When you set up safe spaces and trigger warnings, you tell students that you don't think they can handle content without assistance from a higher authority. You don't think they are able to manage their own emotions. You don't think they can or should be exposed to certain viewpoints.
And then conversations like the one Trevor Noah just had with Tomi Lahren -- which, admittedly, was pretty intense -- stop happening.
Instead, if anecdotal evidence and news stories are to believed, we have students running out of class sobbing. We have class discussions that sound a lot more like group therapy than intellectual discourse. We have students who challenge the syllabus because it makes them feel uncomfortable. You have students who have been made to believe that their opinion doesn't "count" because of their whiteness, maleness, or other forms of "privilege," and you have students who openly hate men and white people. You have students who are afraid to express their opinions, knowledge or identity, because they fear social or institutional punishment.
And you have professors who are afraid of losing their job, reputation, or tenure track because of viral social media posts accusing them of cultural insensitivity and bigotry.
c) Many college students now consider objectivity to be "oppressive." (Seriously.)
The university if a place for facts, research, and discovering truth. I remember feeling seriously annoyed when I felt professors pushing their agenda on me. But more and more, it's become accepted that professors have a political agenda -- and apparently students are okay with that.
The Happy Talent blog recently posed a very sincere, serious question: What rigors, methodologies and scholarly qualities characterize "feminist studies"? Because an analysis of the discipline's textbooks revealed a series of mutually-reinforcing arguments paired with conspiracy theories... and the assertion that anyone who disagrees with the textbooks and lectures is only doing so because they've been brainwashed by white privilege and/or the patriarchy.
Need more proof that objectivity in academia is in danger? Consider the "emerging field" of autoethnography. It's basicaly like a blog where you write about yourself... except it's published in a scholarly journal. And! These "scholars" claim that, because their work is so personal, it should only be subject to certain kinds of criticism.
Objectivity is the cornerstone of both personal and intellectual growth, and this should horrify educators everywhere.
3. Harming Research Findings... And Even Truth, Itself.
This is a blog about objectivity, facts, and reason. But here's the cold, hard truth:
No matter how smart you are. No matter how great and critical of a thinker you are. No matter how objective you think you are...
You are prone to motivated reasoning. Even if you don't think you're biased, you are.
It's extremely difficult to set aside your own expectations, biases, and beliefs -- even if you're one of the world's top scholars. As Dr. Jon Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics:
"When you want to believe something, you ask yourself, Can I believe it? When you don't want to believe something, you ask yourself, Must I believe it?"
Scholarship that is undertaken to support an agenda will almost always support said agenda, even if the researchers didn't believe their work was biased.
Moreover, we are all prone to the confirmation bias -- the tendency to unconsciously pay attention to evidence that supports our hypotheses while neglecting evidence that refutes us. This is the reason racist and sexist stereotypes exist. We basically only have to see one Asian playing the piano to believe that, yes, all Asians play the piano.
But it's also true in an academic setting. One lab experiment on the confirmation bias presented participants (Ps) with a list of numbers -- say, 2, 4, 6. Ps are informed that the numbers follow a rule. Their goal is to develop a hypothesis for what that rule is, and then test it by proposing another series of numbers.
Here's how that typically plays out.
Experimenter: 2, 4, 6.
Participant: Okay, I think the rule is even numbers that rise by two. So, 4, 6, 8?
Participant: 100, 102, 104?
Participant: So the rule is even numbers that rise by two?
Participant: Hm. So maybe it's... any series of numbers that rises by two. So... 3, 5, 7.
Participant: So any series that rises by two?
The answer here was any series of numbers that goes in ascending order. Odds and evens don't matter. Increments don't matter.
The fastest way to test your hypothesis is typically to look for evidence that disproves, rather than confirms, it. For example:
P: Okay, I think the rule is even numbers that rise by two. So, 3, 5, 7?
P: Hm, so I guess it doesn't have to be even numbers. Maybe it's series that rise by two. So, 3, 4, 5?
P: That means it doesn't have to rise by two.
See how much faster participants could have solved the problem if they weren't so prone to the confirmation bias?
Because they're so prevalent and unconscious, it's hard to overcome the confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. There are basically two ways to do it:
a) Ask Ps to examine information and prepare a speech about it -- to be delivered to an audience whose opinion is unknown.
People tend to be more objective and less biased when they're uncertain of the viewpoint of their audience. When your audience is 98% liberal, it's pretty easy to surmise what their viewpoint might be.
b) Institutionalized disconfirmation.
When you're working with a diverse group of colleagues and competitors, you have a built-in system of checks and balances. You always have someone asking tough questions at lab meeting or looking over your shoulder to make sure you're doing solid work, with a solid methodology.
With an increasingly liberal body of professors, institutionalized disconfirmation breaks down. (Not because conservatives are better researchers than liberals, but because of the whole 70:1 ratio thing.) Bad research gets funded. Bad ideas get published -- and this is devastating.
Why? Because a single bad paper -- even after multiple retractions, and hundreds of studies disproving the bad study's findings -- can influence public's beliefs for decades. Consider the whole anti-vaxxer movement. People wrongfully believe that vaccines cause autism, because a single fraudelent paper written by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Wakefield had several undeclared conflicts of interested, manipulated his data, and broke several other ethical codes.
Yet here we are in 2016. Within the scientific comunity, the paper has been thoroughly debunked... yet people are still citing Wakefield as a reason to put their children at risk for disfiguring, crippling, fatal, and completely preventable childhood diseases.
The evidence is compelling that the social justice agenda isn't just harmful to students -- it's harmful to truth, itself. And that is terrifying.
So please: share this post. Share it with the public. Share it with teachers, professors, and policy makers you know. Share it with researchers, scientists, and administrators. Share it with anyone who has never asked him- or herself, "Do trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the liberal agenda in universities cause harm?"