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Jon Haidt Defends Amy Wax

Leading social scientist attacks Penn Law profs' shameful denunciation of conservative scholar

In an extraordinary show of the collapse of standards at an Ivy League law school, almost half the faculty at Penn Law signed a letter denouncing their colleague Amy Wax for her recent op-ed column decrying the loss of bourgeois values like self-discipline and commitment to marriage. Wax (and her co-author Larry Alexander) wrote, in part:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

To which 33 of Wax’s Penn Law colleagues replied, in part:

We categorically reject Wax’s claims.

We believe the ideal of equal opportunity to succeed in education is best achieved by a combination of academic freedom, open debate and a commitment by all participants to respect one another without bias or stereotype. To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.

Do they even attempt an argument to show why and where Wax went wrong? Of course not. Shrill denunciation is considered to be refutation enough. I’m shocked, though I know I shouldn’t be. Keep in mind that this is almost half the faculty at one of the nation’s most elite law schools. These are the professors who are forming the next generation of legal elites in the US. They don’t even think Wax’s ideas are worth discussing. The only thing they want to do is denounce her publicly.

What disreputable, disgusting, unprofessional behavior. And to think these are Ivy League professors. But then again, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by the depths to which Ivy League professors will sink these days in denouncing anyone to the right of Village Voice copy editors.

Jonathan Haidt, a founder of Heterodox Academy, has written an important statement in defense of Amy Wax, and of what she represents. For one, says Haidt, she is probably right about culture and its effects. He says that in 2015, he moderated a bipartisan working group of the 15 top experts on poverty. Haidt:

In poverty debates, scholars on the left generally emphasize economic and structural causes, including systemic or structural racism, and there is a lot of evidence that these causes matter. Scholars on the right, in contrast, generally emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, the cultivation of virtues and skills, and the benefits of marriage, and there is a lot of evidence that these factors matter a great deal too. In fact, research by one of our members (Richard Reeves) shows that for children born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution, if their parents are married, they are just about as likely to end up in the top quintile as to remain in the bottom. It’s not quite that simple; marriage doesn’t create perfect mobility by itself, but its antipoverty effects are very large.

It was thrilling to moderate the group because after some tensions in the early meetings, the group settled into an extremely productive relationship that allowed the insights of each side to emerge, get refined by challenge, and then contribute to an emerging and novel approach. Viewpoint diversity allowed us to see the full problem of American poverty and then offer a far more comprehensive set of remedies than if we had all been on the same political side.

From the statement that the bipartisan social scientist group released (Haidt highlights the cultural parts for emphasis):

So what can be done? We’ve said that marriage matters. But past government efforts to encourage unmarried parents to marry have not proven very effective. Promoting marriage to strengthen American families isn’t primarily an issue of specific policies or programs in any case: it’s in large part a question of culture. Political leaders, educators, and civic leaders—from both the political left and right—need to be clear and direct about how hard it is to raise children without a committed co-parent. We’ve effectively reduced major public health problems, such as smoking and teen pregnancy, through changes in cultural attitudes facilitated by public information campaigns. According to a review of the research by contraception expert Adam Thomas, mass media campaigns about the consequences of unprotected sex have reduced unplanned pregnancies. We propose a campaign of similar scope to emphasize the value of committed coparenting and marriage. It’s not a small thing for leaders to be clear in this way—cultural norms are influenced by the messages leaders send. Major cultural norms have been changed many times before when leaders expressed firm and unequivocal views about even entrenched cultural attitudes, including norms surrounding civil rights and gay rights. Presidents, politicians, church leaders, newspaper columnists, business leaders, educators, and friends should all join in telling young people that raising kids jointly with the children’s other parent is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than raising a child alone.

Here’s where Haidt’s point becomes even more interesting and important:

I have gone to great lengths to show that Wax’s central claim about culture is probably correct. But the choice to denounce or not denounce should not really hinge on whether Wax was correct; it should hinge on whether she was making an argument in good faith using methods of argumentation that fall within the normal range of her part of the academy. There are no footnotes in a Philly.com opinion essay, but in Wax’s other writings on family law it is clear that she knows and is informed by the relevant social science research. Do Wax’s colleagues believe that her essay in Philly.com constituted a profound violation of professional ethics, akin to data fabrication or taking a bribe? Or do they just believe that she was wrong?

The only reason any group of professors should be publicly denouncing others is for flagrant professional misconduct. That’s his point in the final two lines. Note well: it’s one thing to argue against Wax’s conclusions; that’s normal. It’s quite another to publicly denounce her as a thought criminal for simply going against the party line.

Please read the whole thing and share it. If you are an academic who has not yet joined Heterodox Academy, what are you waiting for? It’s composed of both liberals and conservatives who defend old-fashioned liberal values of reasoned debate and inquiry now under sustained assault in the academy.

Those Penn professors ought to be ashamed of themselves. I can’t imagine what it must be like for Amy Wax (and her supporters) to have to teach alongside such cowardly people, who are a disgrace to their institution.  Those are my views, not Jon Haidt’s. He’s a much nicer guy than I am.

By the way, political scientist Bruce Gilley writes about why he has decided to leave the American Political Science Association, the major professional organization in his field. The reason? Left-wing intolerance for conservative thought and scholarship. In the run-up to the recent APSA annual convention, Gilley proposed a panel on the importance of “viewpoint diversity” in political science. He was denied, even though he had some of the most important political scientists in the country lined up for it. Excerpts:

So why the lack of balance? Despite the lip-service to the importance of viewpoint diversity, asking an APSA organizer committed to the advance of left-wing viewpoints to take one for the right is like asking a glutton to forego ice cream. There are no practical means to translate theory into practice. The eyes roll tiredly over proposals concerning viewpoint diversity but perk up excitedly at the sight of one, to cite another of the offerings at this year’s conference, “Disavowing Violence: Imperial Entitlements, From Burke to Trump (F*ck That Guy).”

Indeed, for the looniest end of the left-wing academy, even the theory is hostile to viewpoint diversity. They view the academy as a special zone of (left-wing) Truth that must be protected against (right-wing) Falsehoods of the real world. Genuine pluralism, from this vantage, is a cover for privilege and oppression. Why import such falsehoods into the charmed realm of truth they have carved out with taxpayer’s money? Or more to the point, why go through the pain, inconvenience, and potential disapprobation of importing falsehoods?  I do not think the teaching and education section leaders of this year APSA were of that sort. But the system is heavily stacked against even a brief effort in the direction of idea pluralism. Why stick your neck out to accept a panel on political diversity at a political science conference when, to cite another of this year’s offerings, one can win kudos for accepting a panel entitled: “Pussies Grab Back: Feminism in the Wake of Trump”?

Much has been written about the general problem of a lack of political diversity in political science and its drift to the far left. The ratio of Democratic/left-of-center to Republican/right-of-center professors in political science is variously estimated at around 15 to 1 nationwide, not counting moderates and centrist independents. In my home state of Oregon, I believe the ratio is infinitely large because I do not know of a single Republican or conservative in our profession here (I am a swing voter and independent). APSA is not only indicative of this worsening problem but, and here is the issue, a key cause of it and thus, potentially, a fulcrum point for change.

Read the whole thing. Something’s got to give. Social scientists, law professors, and humanities scholars who behave this way are not simply being unjust. They are being professionally derelict, and imperiling their disciplines. If Gilley is correct about APSA, it’s simply bonkers that in a polity that produced one of the most astonishing presidential election results in American history, the same political-science scholars who did not see it coming would rather devote their time to studying the pierced navels of transgendered lesbian Yakuts. And when hard-pressed college administrators cut the budgets for non-STEM faculties because nobody can see the use of paying for the study of navel-piercing among transgendered lesbian Yakuts, these same dreary ideologues who are now making their professions utterly irrelevant to the real world will be shocked and appalled.





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