Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Upsetting the academic apple cart

An interesting juxtaposition of articles this morning shedding light on epistemology (the stubborn unwillingness to incorporate evidence into conclusions or to accommodate new information into old beliefs), on family as a crucible to learning, and on the democratization of systemic learning.

The respective articles are an obituary for the historian Robert Conquest, expert in the history of the Soviet Union and The Teen Who Exposed a Professor’s Myth by Ben Collins, an article about a young girl's successful refutation of received academic wisdom.

The New York Times obituary is ironically even-handed given that Conquest was the singular historian who put the lie to the reporting of the NYT fabulist Walter Duranty. Duranty embodied the intelligentsia of the period, the Webbs, Shaw, Sartre, Dreiser, Brecht. Utopians all who could not reconcile the nice words about the pure goals of communism with the actual evil perpetrated and instead turned a blind eye. Duranty is now routinely condemned for his naivete and it is true that he had to work hard to see only the good things he wanted to report about the Soviet Union. In addition, though, he was an early practitioner of press release journalism, a practice which still dominates the mainstream media today. In those days, the Soviets would issue a press release heralding some accomplishment and Duranty would take it as gospel even though it often was little more than fiction. Today, much of our press does the same with press releases from advocacy groups, NGOs, academic researchers, etc. They take the press release, add some connecting sentences, fluff it up a little, and voila - filler for the paper with no regard as to whether the original press release was true, much less balanced.

Conquest's bombshell breakthrough book was in 1968 with The Great Terror, exposing the calculated evil of Stalin covering the purges of the 1930s. By the time I was in high school in Europe in the late 1970s, Conquest's exposure was beginning to be acknowledged but it was still often presented as a two sided debate as to whether or not Communism under Stalin had exacted such a terrible toll in human lives with a tilted acknowledgement that Conquest probably had the better of the argument. I suspect that it wasn't till the late 1980s or early 1990s that Conquests argument prevailed in academia.

Now we know though. Communism in its multiple forms always leads to economic privation, human exploitation and industrial-scale murder. Conquest was one of the early pioneers who revealed that truth against a nearly united intelligentsia who argued that Conquest and his ilk were simply anti-communist propagandists, who were ill-informed, had twisted their research, had misunderstood their source documents, etc. Duranty, the Webbs, Shaw, Sartre, Dreiser, Brecht, these were smart and accomplished people who allowed what they desired to be true to supercede their willingness to see what was true. When historians such as Conquest brought evidence to the academic table, Duranty et al were only able to see ideologues arguing a political case, not academics arguing a factual case. Duranty et al were ideologists so bound to their ideology that they could only see things in ideological terms.

But this sort of leaves a residual question. What were the circumstances that could permit a dramatically factually wrong interpretation of evidence to remain the dominant interpretation for several decades? Forty or fifty years is a long time to miss something so dramatically consequential as multiple mass murders in the tens of millions. Eric Hoffer offered one explanation in The True Believer, but as convincing as it sounds, it doesn't seem a complete explanation.

Moving on to The Teen Who Exposed a Professor’s Myth by Ben Collins we have the case of a professor having written the definitive account refuting a common belief that Irish immigrants were extensively discriminated against when they first arrived in the US. Richard Jensen published a paper No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization in 2002, the abstract of which reads:
Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming ‘Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply!’ No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or nonexistent.
Collins reports:
In short, those famous “No Irish Need Apply” signs—ones that proved Irish Americans faced explicit job discrimination in the 19th and 20th centuries? Professor Jensen came to the blockbuster conclusion that they never existed.

The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months. Explainer websites this year used it to highlight popular myths of persecution complexes that are, as Vox put it, “stand-ins for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America.” That’s from the lede of an article printed in March called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: the fake sign at the heart of a real movement.”

Here, of course, is the problem: After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca, a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.

The Irish were persecuted in the American job market—and precisely in the overt, literally written-down way that was always believed.
Collins is focusing on the remarkable circumstance of Rebecca Fried, a 14 year old, using Google to invalidate widely accepted research that has stood for more than a decade.

I don't know the full background here. Given the encroachment of critical race theory, postmodernism and postcolonial theory in academia, I am presuming that the impetus for Jensen's original research was to clear the field of white victim groups. Given that all immigrant groups in the US have experienced extensive discrimination and exploitation (Scandinavians, Irish, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Jews, Chinese, etc.), it makes it hard to sustain the racial discrimination argument central to critical race theory. I am guessing that Jensen's paper was written in that context with a desire to show that despite what the oral tradition might be, the Irish did not suffer discrimination and exploitation.

Whatever the genesis of the work though, why did it take more than a decade to refute it, given that there were many other historians who knew all along that Jensen was wrong? And why on earth did it take a 14 year old rising sophomore in high school? That is hugely embarrassing to the reputation, not of Jensen but of historians and academia in general. How can one respect anything out of academia if a) it is driven by ideology, not truth, and 2) academic papers are so shoddy that a 14 year old with a computer can refute it?

This is not too dissimilar to the case of Arming America by Michael Bellesiles. From Wikipedia.
Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture is a discredited 2000 book by Michael A. Bellesiles on American gun culture. The book is an expansion of a 1996 Journal of American History article that uses falsified research to argue that guns were uncommon during peacetime in the early United States and that a culture of gun ownership arose only much later.


Clayton Cramer, a historian, software engineer, gun enthusiast and early critic of Bellesiles, later argued that the reason "why historians swallowed Arming America's preposterous claims so readily is that it fit into their political worldview so well... Arming America said things, and created a system of thought so comfortable for the vast majority of historians, that they didn’t even pause to consider the possibility that something wasn’t right."[4] Historian Peter Charles Hoffer, himself an advocate of gun control, lent support to Cramer's charge when, in a 2004 examination of the Bellesiles case, he noted that influential members of the historical profession had indeed "taken strong public stands on violence in our society and its relation to gun control."[5] For instance, the academics solicited for blurbs by Bellesiles’s publisher Alfred A. Knopf "were ecstatic in part because the book knocked the gun lobby."[6]

Bellesiles energized this professional consensus by attempting to play "the professors against the NRA in a high-wire act of arrogant bravado."[7] For instance, he replied to Heston’s criticism by telling the actor to earn a Ph.D. before criticizing the work of scholars.[8] He pointed out that Cramer was "a long time advocate of unrestricted gun ownership" while he himself was a simple scholar who had "certain obligations of accuracy that transcend current political benefit."[9] After Bellesiles claimed he had been flooded by hate mail, both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians endorsed a resolution condemning the alleged harassment.[10] As Hoffer later wrote, Bellesiles was convinced that whether the entire profession agreed with “his stance on gun ownership (and I suspect most did), surely academic historians would not let their expertise be impugned by a rank and partisan amateur like Cramer.” [11]

In the end, however, the politics of the issue mattered less to historians "than the possibility that Bellesiles might have engaged in faulty, fraudulent, and unethical research."[12] As critics subjected the historical claims of the book to close scrutiny, they demonstrated that much of Bellesiles' research, particularly his handling of probate records, was inaccurate and possibly fraudulent.[13] This criticism included noting several serious errors in the tables published in the book, as well as in the Journal of American History article, namely, that they did not provide a total number of cases and gave percentages that "were clearly wrong."[14]
In the Arming America case, things moved like lightning in comparison to the earlier recognition that most of what the intelligentsia wanted to believe about the Soviet Union was wrong, or even of the resolution of the false claim regarding the absence of discrimination against the Irish. It took less than a decade from Bellesiles' first published claims and his final downfall. Despite the differences in time frame for resolution, the cases share similarities. The initial claims were accepted within academia based on ideological affiliation rather than on objective examination of the empirical data, the attacks on the critics of the intellectual status quo were bitter and personal, and in two of the three cases (the Irish and Arming America) it was critics from outside the academy who advanced and carried the argument.

These three cases are cause for alarm about the cognitive health of academia and the intelligentsia.

But there is good news here as well, particularly arising from the story about Fried.

Some refer to the family as the nation's first school house and I think that is more true than most people realize. A child's approach to knowledge and education and reading and behavior, etc. is shaped by the family far more than by schools which are almost too late to reshape a child's intellectual trajectory. The Fried family is an example of this.
Rebecca never set out to prove the thesis wrong. She was just interested in an article her dad brought home from work one day.

“Now and then I bring home stuff for the kids to read if I think they will find it interesting or will convey some lesson,” says Michael Fried, Rebecca’s father. “Half the time they don’t read them at all. Sometimes they’ll read something if I suggest it. Nothing has ever come of any of these things other than this one.”

Rebecca wasn’t even trying to disprove her dad—let alone an academic at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She just figured she’d Google the words and see what came up over 100 years ago.

“Just for the fun of it, I started to run a few quick searches on an online newspaper database that I found on Google,” she says. “I was really surprised when I started finding examples of NINA ads in old 19th-century newspapers pretty quickly.”

So she started collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?

“I didn’t see anything right away. This led me to wonder if it might be worth writing up in some form,” she says. “I showed my dad right away when I started finding these NINA ads. We just didn’t know whether this was already widely known and, if it wasn’t, whether it would be viewed as a topic worth considering for publication.”
So Dad is doing what is desirable - he surrounds his kids with ideas and news and articles and conversation and debate. He doesn't require his children to read the articles, they are there to prime the engine, the spark has to come from the child. Rebecca Fried sparks and he helps her carry it through to the finish. Based on her exchange with Jensen, it is clear that Mom and Dad have not only created a rich environment for Rebecca Fried to grow intellectually but have also taught her useful behavioral and social traits (such as politeness and respect) which facilitate her reception in the academic arena.

First school house indeed.

The other aspect of the article that I regard as positive is the evidence for democratization of learning. We have long treated knowledge from official sources, government and academia, as near sacrosanct. It has been peer reviewed and tested by the experts, it must be true. Well, no. Government and academia are human systems too and are as subject to personal failures and bad incentives and confirmation bias, and constrained thinking as any other system. With the internet and google and communities of interest, we have more and more opportunity for people to scrub hard on proclamations of truth from government and business and academia. We already do this with some reliability with business claims but are only beginning to do so with government and academic claims. But it is beginning to happen as Rebecca Fried so dramatically illustrates. While upsetting of the apple cart, this is unequivocally a good thing.

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