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Elites have lost faith in Enlightenment rationality

September 20, 2021 - 2:30pm

Astrology and postcolonial theory. Some things just go better together and always will. That, at least, is the view of ‘Alice Sparkly Kat’, a ‘queer Chinese Astrologer’ based (where else?) in Brooklyn.

Mx Sparkly has published a book applying post-colonial theory to astrology, a move that the cynic in me thinks makes at least as much sense as applying astrology to post-colonial theory.

But we should set aside the temptation to see this as two strands of confected nonsense fusing to create a new, hybrid strand of confected nonsense. Take it rather as another example of the death-rattle of Enlightenment rationalism as the dominant elite epistemology. This decline is evident in a paper published in January by MIT, which explored competing uses of the same datasets by official advocates of Covid restrictions and opposing, self-organising groups of Covid sceptics.

Covid sceptics are routinely painted as paranoid, credulous rejecters of reason and scientific consensus. But the paper’s authors show that the reverse is in fact true. Far from being a superstitious, science-denying bunch, Covid sceptics in fact place higher value on evidence-based decisions, replicable results and science as a process.

Members of this community are described, in fact, in terms that strongly resemble the classic picture of a scientist: they “value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand.” Nor are they naïve realists but rather “highly reflexive about the inherently biased nature of any analysis”, resenting “what they view as the arrogant self-righteousness of scientific elites”.

But the paper first details this scepticism and commitment to evidence and open debate — attitudes until recently strongly coded as elite — only to conclude that this stance is a clear and present political danger. The anti-authoritarian narrative of evidence and reason, it appears, just enables sinister manipulators such as Big Tech or Donald Trump to foment wickedness, ‘prompting people to simply “think for themselves” to horrifying ends’.

We should not be surprised by this conclusion. Just out in American Sociological Review, a new study used four waves of data from America’s National Study of Youth and Religion to show that higher education both inculcates a strong liberal moral framework, but also increases moral absolutism — especially in humanities, arts or social sciences. That is, universities both teach a specific moral worldview and also a heavily morally-coded reluctance to consider alternative perspectives.

To put it more plainly, universities are rapidly reverting to their pre-Enlightenment role as theological seminaries. In the Enlightenment model, these institutions were tasked with delivering something morally neutral called ‘knowledge’ and ‘critical thinking’. But in the new model they deliver a fundamentally moral worldview, where ‘knowledge’ comes second to the doctrinal framework, and even what’s knowable is ordered by that framework.

Nigh-on every elite young person undergoes a version of this religious orientation. No wonder individualist, evidence-oriented scepticism is increasingly coded as marginal and dangerous. And no wonder a publication as venerable as The Nation is gushing about ‘astrology as a political force’.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

It’s a strange phenomenon. As universities engage in academic capitalism externally, they become more collective internally. In effect they operate like cults – collecting money from the gullible and love-bombing them once they join. Rather than challenging and expanding young people’s world view, they now confirm their made-up identities and affirm (and worsen) any existing neuroses.
The reason young men are doing so badly at college is because the institutions are no longer fit for purpose. Instead they function as an extension of kindergarten (very expensive ones, I might add). In effect they are stifling original thought and preventing adult development in order to bring about a generation of people with very predictable thinking patterns. This makes it easier for big corporations to form a society much more to their liking: easily manipulated people controlled by social media impulses. We already see examples of this on Twitter and Reddit.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

Thank you, Mary Harrington, for posting the link to the MIT study Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use OrthodoxData Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online – https://arxiv.org/pdf/2101.07993.pdf
I found it a frightening read.
I have always had a hard time understanding why the NYT decided to do a hatchet job on Tegnell and Sweden. I mean — diversity great! — differing responses — fantastic! We can then see how they work and decide how to learn about what does and does not work. I understand it now.
From the paper:

Most fundamentally, the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution. As we have outlined in thecase study, these groups mistrust the scientific establishment (“Science”) because they believe that the institution has been corrupted by profit motives and politics.

….

Similarly, these groups’ impulse to mitigate bias and increase transparency (often by dropping the use of data they see as “biased”) echoes the organizing ethos of computer science research that seeks to develop “technological solutions regarding potential bias” or “ground research on fairness, accountability, and transparency” [7].In other words, these groups see themselves as engaging deeply within multiple aspects of the scientific process—interrogating the datasets, analysis, and conclusions—and still university researchers might dismiss them in leading journals as “scientifically illiterate” [74]. In an interview with the Department of Health and Human Services podcast, even Anthony Fauci (Chief Medical Advisorto the US President) noted: “one of the problems we face in the UnitedStates is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias […] people are, for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable, they just don’t believe science”[41]

foot notes in the original paper.
The paper goes on and on, comparing what the anti-maskers did to what feminists did, in ‘speaking truth to power’ and their own projects to interpret existing data and come up with different conclusions than those generally believed.
So you read along, and expect to get to the point where the paper advocates that those who are promoting mask-wearing need to a) humbly consider that they might be wrong and b) learn _these techniques_ so they can demonstrate to the anti-maskers that they have made a mistake in their interpretation of the data.
But that isn’t what happens. In the conclusion:

While academic science is traditionally a system for producing knowledge within a laboratory, validating it through peer review,and sharing results within subsidiary communities, anti-maskers reject this hierarchical social model. They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist. This study forces us to see that corona virus skeptics champion science as a personal practice that prizes rationality and autonomy; for them, it is not a body of knowledge certified by an institution of experts.

This makes you want to cheer, right?
<I wish I could stick a footnote here and insert this aside:> (aside from the possible ‘validating through peer review’ misstep — you validate an experiment by independently running it and getting the same result. If that is what is meant by ‘peer review’ all well and good. But if what was meant was merely ‘passed the peer review to get the study published’ then peer review is not how you validate science, but rather something you do to select for studies that are worth validating. or refuting. Interesting and sane enough to get published and read, and that is about all.) <end aside/footnote>
Guess again. The conclusion is all around how can we make sure that science is again a ‘body of knowledge certified by an institution of experts’. So what if it is not true? We have a consensus.
So now I understand why Sweden is to be pilloried in the press for ‘not going with the consensus’, as opposed to being watched, to see if we can learn something from the Swedish experience. Modern science is ‘the consensus’ — and whether it is true or not doesn’t seem to matter any more.
And this is coming out of MIT? Not so-and-so-liberal-arts-college that perhaps never understood science in the first place? But MIT?
I’m frightened.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Quite so. The prizing of authoritarian “consensus” – meaning a bundle of beliefs cynically imposed by a deceitful elite upon a cowed or credulous public – is the essence of what is meant by “Orwellian”; it is also the black heart of socialism, as Orwell came to realise; and that is why, clearly and finally defeated in the realms of reason and experience, the left has lapsed from all its pretensions to enlightenment into the sheer mystical and cultic bigotry we see today. This would be a small matter, were it not in such unassailable power.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

A good article but you rather reduce it to a ‘goodies and baddies’ conflict. You define the Left so broadly that the term ceases to have much meaning. Many of the governments imposing severe social restrictions have not been of the Left, including obviously the UK.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago

That paper is astoundingly weird. It almost reads like the conclusion was written by totally different people to the rest of it. After spending a large paper being really quite flattering to “anti-maskers” as they put it, it goes totally off the rails and starts talking about “insurrectionists” and stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere in a scientific paper. But, this is the state of academia today. All you have to do to spot the rot is download and read their output.

Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I’ve read quite a few academic papers recently in which the first 90% is thorough and analytical and the conclusion is unhinged- in the sense of not rationally connected to what has gone before, doctrinal, ideological and unevidenced. It’s rather as though they realise that in order to get the paper through peer review they need to demonstrate that they are ideologically sound and leaving the reviewer with the feeling that the analysis justifies their opinions they are less likely to get pushed back.

Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
2 years ago

It is not so much that they have lost faith in the Enlightenment as that they have gained a spurious kind of trust in left revivalism. Entrenched in this affectation, they actively resent the power of argument and recourse to the chanting of mantras and the assassination of character when confronted with it. There is no “epistemology” worth the name in such behaviours; they are designed to exclude knowledge, not gain it. Once, the left valued fact and argument, but because it has been roundly defeated on such grounds it can only survive as a new religion – hence the term “revivalism”. If western society has any residual strength, the left’s regression to unreason should mark the beginning of its end; but if such a consciously irrational and puerile left should survive for any length of time, that in itself is a sign that we are finished.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

They believe in consensus. It is why they don’t worry about vaccine side effects. Even if it clearly kills children more than it helps them. They died for the “greater good” you see.

John Montague
John Montague
2 years ago

https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/alice-sparkly-kat-interview/ Is this for real….. I mean really for real, it’s not a hoax….” I particularly liked how you used the chapters about Venus and Mars to look at gendered power dynamics. How do you believe we can use astrology to complicate Western ideas of gender? ” Could Peter Boghossian please stand up and take bow? it must be a deep fake… I can’t believe we’ve sunk this low.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  John Montague

to be fair to the author in that interview they also say at one point, they don’t actually believe in astrology. Charitably they don’t seem to be a stupid person themselves, like any good capitalist they spotted a gap in the market where the venn diagram of Marxist, CRT and Astrology overlap. i hope they make a fortune fleecing the rubes who would buy that, and if they are buying it I’ve got bridges i want to sell them too, fully diverse bridges made with see thru paint, and vegan friendly materials like tofu and none of those colonial metals that White Western bridges are made from.

Andrea X
AA
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Can’t help noticing the extensive use of the pronouns “them/they” in your comment.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
2 years ago
Reply to  John Montague

You made my day. This interview and this post colonialist’s website reads like a brilliant spoof.

Matt Hindman
MH
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

For me it is simple. Enlightenment reasoning was based on working within human nature including its flaws, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of systems, expanding individual liberty, and believing in traditional Western moral values. Postmodernist elites believe they can change human nature, weaknesses can be eliminated from systems, individual liberty is optional at best, and reject traditional Western moral values. They despise it because it is philosophically opposed to them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
M. Gatt
M. Gatt
2 years ago

University should be a place that teaches you how to think. Not teach you what to think.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Gatt

…… they also need to ‘talk the talk’ to benefit from industry investment…..

Michael James
MJ
Michael James
2 years ago

The number of people who can bear the uncertainty and anxiety of scepticism is very small, much smaller than the numbers who attend university these days. Why not use your learning to produce bogus rationalisations of what you want to be true? After all, college costs a lot of money these days; you deserve some return in having your prejudices confirmed.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

I like Marxism and I like Astrology but which has more make believe in it? Theres only one way to find out……FIGHT.
credit Harry Hill

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

In some ways the disconnect between what universities were and what they are now is what is what caused me to waste 3 years on a history degree. My parents and teachers had been in the late 70s/early 80s, and whilst in reterospect someone like me would have been better served being pushed a bit more in the more mathematical side of things, nonetheless they thought it was an environment I would enjoy as someone deeply intellectually committed to history. Which it probably would have been before.
There was the occasional maverick who gave interesting courses… Anglo-Saxon archaelogy and literature will stay with me. And the lecturer who said 9/11 meant ‘Fukuyama was ****ed’ called Hobsbawn an ‘unreformed Stalinist apparatchik’. But in general it was all deeply unsatisfying and I drifted into studying more interesting things alone, doing the bare minimum needed to pass. A big part of this was the hyperspecialised industries of theories and interpretations instead of good old honest Rankean historical method.
Eventually I redirected my life and job to something useful, but I wish I’d not wasted the time and just studied something useful at university in the first place. It is a great tragedy that the old academic ethos has been swamped by this nonsense.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

The study from American Sociological Review and the conclusion Ms Harrington makes here is, in my view, rather important. It’s the first time I’ve seen this argument (that universities are becoming theological seminaries) made with such clarity.

Dennis Boylon
DB
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

Good article. Thanks. Yes the commies are coming for us.

Erlend Kvitrud
Erlend Kvitrud
2 years ago

I think your framing of the MIT paper is a bit deceptive. Their concern was about the manufacture of doubt by vested and ideological interests. In full, the last sentence you quote reads “Powerful research and media organizations paid for by the tobacco or fossil fuel industries have historically capitalized on the skeptical impulse that the “science simply isn’t settled,” prompting people to simply “think for themselves” to horrifying ends”, which doesn’t sound like an anti-enlightenment attitude.

Last edited 2 years ago by Erlend Kvitrud
aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago
Reply to  Erlend Kvitrud

It simply flips who is in the circle, vs. who is outside the circle. And by that I mean if you are one of the “enlightened” by the standards of academia, then it is totally OK to fudge and nudge the facts in your favor. But if you are not a part of academia, then they will exclude any and all facts that go against the “consensus” no matter how good the data is.
The problem with consensus is that scientific truth does not care if all the people agree, if they are wrong they are wrong. If you remember, a consensus of German scientists all stated that Einstien was wrong and relativity was a false line of thinking.

Erlend Kvitrud
EK
Erlend Kvitrud
2 years ago
Reply to  aaron david

The heuristic “assume that the scientific concensus is the most propabable answer” is obviously far from perfect. Yet for every theory of relativety, there are probably dozenens of dumb hypotheses that the scientific consensus rightly rejected. For non-physisists, it would be extremly hard to pick the one winner from the set of mostly dumb non-concensus hypothesis. Again, what the authors are agruing is not that the concensus is allways right, but that a growing willingness of non-experts to challenge scientific consensus (althought the challengers will occationally get it right) plays into the hands of powerful interests (think of the millions of dollars the tobacco industry spent, encouraging customers to doubt the scientific consensus about the link between tobacco and cancer).

Last edited 2 years ago by Erlend Kvitrud
Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
2 years ago

“Members of this community are described, in fact, in terms that strongly resemble the classic picture of a scientist: they “value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand.”

This is not what scientists do. They trust scientific analysis only insofar as it can be replicated. They would be nuts to assume that unless they personally, with their own limited expertise and capacity, could actually do the replication, it should not be trusted.

Last edited 2 years ago by Robert Kaye
Lloyd Byler
Lloyd Byler
2 years ago

Ms. Harrington, I love how you snuck the most relevant unscientific madness of common sniffles gone mad among hypochondriacs in all of human history, under the title of maddening enlightenment.

But then again, slight of hand tactics may be a sign of the times.

I am glad I had a sneaky feeling about this article…(even though the coffee pot was empty when I got to it, my sharpness has not suffered).

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

In the marriage of Astrology and postcolonial theory I believe it is the prescribed thinking of the postcolonial theory which is the substantial aspect and aspects like Astrology just cynically used by the powers that be to provide colour or dressing to otherwise stark authoritarianism.  Really I would not refer to medieval mentality (because I do not believe the clock can be turned back) but rather talk about the nature of the mentality itself in the current context (which indeed is scary).

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

I have yet to understand what Mary Harrington is actually expressing or actually believes in her articles, however, it is a journey and I think that in my previous comment about not referring to medieval mentality I believe that I may have been onto something. In an interview which Harrington gave on Triggernometry which I have just listened to, Mary states that she does not believe in progress but she did let drop that she believes in evolution. Basically, as I understand it, all she is saying is that we should not put value judgements on things and I totally agree with this. As I understand it, all she is saying is that the state of the world today is not “intrinsically better” than the state of the world in medieval times, or than renaissance times, or Roman times or the times of primitive man. It is like saying that an oak tree is not intrinsically better than an acorn (there has been no progress) or indeed better than a rock or that a teenager is not intrinsically better than a baby. It is effectively a statement of the obvious but seems like a radical view until explained.  I think that you cannot turn the clock back to medieval times because humanity has evolved, life is faster and you would be bored. It is a different context. So, particularly given Harrington’s obvious and true view that “progress” as expressed does not exist (evolution does), it does seem unhelpful or unrealistic for her to be mentioning a return to “medieval mentality”. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
It may come back to the idea of “binding” only that which needs to be bound. At different states of our evolution it becomes appropriate to bind or unbind. However, I believe that the evolution is a spiritual one of redemption from matter towards knowing our true nature and it is a learning or developmental process.

Last edited 2 years ago by robert stowells
robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

Good article

Last edited 2 years ago by robert stowells