There is an Echo Chamber, but It is Neither Liberal Nor Conservative

The talk of alleged “liberal” echo chamber that stifles speech on campuses has been going for some time, with New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof recently joining the fray.  Aaron Hanlon, an English professor at Colby has just chimed in on The New Republic in attempt to counter these accusations, but I think he just wound up sounding whiney and petulant rather than successfully counter the accusations.

I think the problem is twofold.  First, I think there has to be an honest recognition that there IS an echo chamber in academia, or indeed, any semi-insulated group of people.  BUT, equally, it needs to be noted that this echo chamber effect is not necessarily “political” in the usual sense.

While we use the term derogatively and flippantly, echo chambers are hardly abnormal or unusual.  We try to understand the universe by processing the information we get in terms that (we think) make sense to us.  As George Lakoff might say, we understand things by drawing metaphors, or even similes.  Thus, if we understand what a wall is, then an elephant is like a wall.

This, of course, is not exactly wrong, from a certain perspective, at least, but hardly “right,” or, at least, complete, either.  An elephant IS, in some context, like a wall indeed, but there’s so much information lost through this analogy. The problem is how to explain what an elephant is to a group of people whose understanding is limited to that of the wall.  (Note the wording:. “exolaining” is harder than merely “describing,” although simply describing would be hard enough.)

If trying to explain an elephant with just one set of audience with a certain perspective is difficult, try doing it simultaneously with two different audiences:. one who understand only the wall and the other who understand only the fan.  In a limited sense, an elephant IS simultaneously like a wall and a fan, although the neither analogy would make sense to both audiences at the same time–and saying that an elephant is like both wall and fan is still woefully and nonsensically incomplete.  If, moreover, there are bad feelings between the wall people and the fan people, things can get ugly, without having enlightened anyone.

The problem is not that academics are necessarily trapped in a bubble–although many are, no doubt.  It is far more that the audiences, especially the students are trapped in their own bubbles and feel that it is their right to keep them–and are offended when their bubbles are attacked, or so they think.

From personal experiences, I know well the whiny procluvities of politically active college students, who believe that the elephant should be like the wall, or the fan, or whatever.   They are not so much wrong, as much as lacking in perspective.  BUT faculty challenging their worldviews is strictly discouraged, especially if you are low on the totem pole–the admins have had their share of issues with unhappy “customers.” So an elephant is like a wall, and that’s that, if there are enough students who want to hear that version of the story.

This is a far more serious problem in social sciences, because, here, facts are squishy.  In physics, if Newton’s physics implies light bends so much and it does not, then Newton is wrong, at least as far as how gravity affects light is concerned. Most social science questions don’t have such obvious factual answers.  Indeed, way too many questions are normative ones that have NO factual answers.  In case of Newton and gravity, there is no disagreeing with the experiment.  If you say people should vote and I say they shouldn’t, then there is no reason for an agreement:. all that we do by disagreeing is indicating that we hold different values, and if the values we hold are sufficiently impirtant, disagreements are grounds for distrust: after all, how can you take seriously someone who thinks people should not vote?

It is easy for the normative mindset to slip into even the questions of facts. Whether one thinks people should or should not vote, it is a point of fact that mant people do not, for all sorts of reasons.  It is all too common, once this point is made, that students react by saying that is terrible and that they should be made to vote somehow.  When the point of the lesson is how turnout fluctuates from election to election, for different demographics, with political consequences, students’ reaction is completely missing the point, but attempting to explain why the nonvoters are justified in their abstentions requires defending the morality of their action, thereby offending students’ moral sense of how the world should be.

This is where we come up hard against that bubble again: I don’t disagree with how you think the world SHOULD be, but the world does not work that way because many people don’t share that view for reasons that are important to them.  This is a matter of fact that should not cause problems, but this invariably does.

An excellent example of this is creationism.  Creationism as “science,” may be wrong, but belief in it is not–belief is an opinion, and as such, it is neither right nor wrong.  The existence of many people who believe in some form of creationism is a matter of indisputable fact, on the other hand.  Yet, there are many perfectly reasonable people who insistently deny this fact because it offends their bubbly morality, and they pride themselves on how grounded they are on “reality”–apparently the reality they believe in, not the one they got.

It is not just one bubble that ails academia, or indeed, society at large.  Too many people are not only trapped in their bubbles, but are actively using the power and influence they have to actively maintain them, and that you have “facts” on your side does not mean you are not trapped in an echo chamber–see the creationism example above.  In the academic universe, as well as in journalism, policymaking, and any number of other fields, not only are we trapped in our own bubbles, we must take care not to pop the bubbles that people who are more influential than we want to see preserved.  What is more, unlike Einstein and Newton, we will not be vindicated by a single experiment, for social facts are noisy and often inconclusive (to be fair, when Harold Urey suggested in 1970s a comet might have done in dinosaurs, he was met by a deafening silence, except perhaps some snickers about a chemist not knowing about paleontology (bubble).  If he weren’t a famous Nobel prize winner, his career could have been ruined for such “nonsense.”. Of the Alvareses a decade later, it was Luis, the Nobel-physicist, not his paleontologist son Walter, who thought up comet first, or so I heard.  But facts in paleontology are also murky.)

All the sacred cows that cannot be touched create profit centers for those who peddle comfortable myths that cannot be easily challenged, and we wind up with a cult, of a particularly cargoish variety.  Sometimes, the elephant just isn’t all that much like a wall, and all the nonsense we concocted on the premise that the elephant is “just like” the wall need to be chucked aside if the “facts” don’t seem right–even if the “facts” come in form of creationists.

PS.  The point I am raising is that the bubble is mutual–all sides are wrapped in their own bubbles, and they do not want their bubbles shattered.  Sometimes, worse still, those in a bubble do not realize that they are–even as they are quick to realize the bubble the others are in.  Thus my point about the evolutionists vs. creationists:  the former cannot conceive reasonable reasons to believe in creationism, rational reasons to vote for Trump, or any other seemingly “unreasonable” things.  All analogies that they can conceive of suggest that it is they who are the reasonable ones while the rest of the universe is not.  Thus, those who do not act and think as they do cannot be rational–a variation of the “true Scotsman fallacy” if you will:  no reasonable person cannot possibly disagree with them, so those who disagree must be unreasonable people.  Of course, the alternative is to reckon that your notion of what is reasonable might be too limited, that others may have different sense of what is “reasonable” and are acting accordingly that you need to understand.  If you will, you need to learn other analogies, except, unlike the usual analogies, you need to learn what the others know in their usual life so that you can understand how they use their analogies.  To return to the elephant example, you do not know what a fan is.  The other guy insists that an elephant is like a fan, even though you “know” that an elephant is like a wall.  Therefore, you need to understand first what a fan is and then why the other guy thinks an elephant is like a fan.  Only at that point can you start wondering how that analogy fits with the analogy that you were familiar with to begin with:  that elephant is like a wall.  This is not an easy step, especially since, to the wall people, the analogy between the elephant and the wall is both natural and obvious, while that between the elephant and the fan, whatever this fan is, is not.  But that is exactly the point:  you do not “learn” what is obvious and natural.  If you think creationism, Bernie Bros, or Trump voters are strange, but they actually exist in spite of your believe that they shouldn’t, that’s all the more reason that you should look at them closely and seek to learn.






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