IDW for Dummies — A Review of “The Madness of Crowds” by Douglas Murray
Say you have been on a trip with a group of people. You largely stick together, follow the same events, go to the same places etc. Now you near the end of the trip. One person from your group stands up and recites all that has happened. Major events are described in great detail and colorful language. This continues on and on, seemingly with no end. Two hours in you are wondering what the point of all this is. Somebody raises their voice and asks what all in the room likely think: “Why are you telling us this? We know this too well, we experienced it too after all. What do you want to say?”. I suspect that a thoughtful follower of Douglas Murray would react something like this when reading this book.
Reading the title, one is reminded of Surowiecki’s bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, itself alluding to Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. A conservative’s response to Surowiecki’s optimism in this regard, with reference to current events, might indeed be an interesting book. Google features prominently in Surowiecki’s account of crowd wisdom, and Murray partly takes Google to task here — so there is enough overlap in substance that one could take this angle, implied by the title.
But that is not what this book is. Frankly, this book has little to do with what the title suggests, aside from a not so subtle suggestion that we live in times of collective madness. Really, this is not more than a very brief and, unfortunately, shallow introduction to the “Intellectual Dark Web’s” (more on this in the next section) perspective on the cultural topics of the day.
To the structure, the book is a collection of largely self-contained chapters on the most salient issues for figures associated with this eclectic group. These progress in chronological order in terms of when they became publicly relevant for them. The first chapter is on homosexuality, the second on women, the third on race, and the fourth on transsexuality. Each chapter is built around a few prominent cases relating to the chapter’s theme.
Setting the Background: IDW vs SJW
In case the reader does not know what the intellectual dark web (henceforth IDW) is, I should briefly explain, as it forms the interpretative background through which Murray sees the events he cites. It had its beginnings on YouTube, where a small group of individuals began attracting large audiences by speaking about the cultural issues de jour. The format of the videos ranged from videos documenting confrontations (such as the videos that brought Jordan Peterson to fame, where he confronts social justice activists (pejoratively called Social Justice Warriors or SJWs in short) on the University of Toronto campus) to speeches/monologues or interviews. Interviews were particularly held by Sam Harris and David Rubin, the latter of whom can fairly be said to have brought together this unusual group to begin with.
The group is unusual because it is indeed rather ideologically diverse on various issues. To illustrate: Bret Weinstein is economically on the left, while his brother, Eric, seems to be an eclectic mix of left and right, Ben Shapiro is basically a libertarian, Jordan Peterson is moderately right I would say (moderate, because he supports social government programs such as the Canadian public healthcare system), etc. On economic matters it is hard to imagine a consensus emerging among this group.
Interestingly, one would not expect a consensus on cultural issues either. Ben Shapiro is an orthodox Jew, who laments the loss of religion in a rather Straussian manner. Jordan Peterson, too, laments the loss of religion, albeit through the lens of Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis. Sam Harris, meanwhile, is an outspoken atheist, most famous for his scathing critiques of religion. Indeed, he has had huge public debates with Jordan Peterson on the topic of religion. Bret Weinstein is an atheist who views religion as an adaptational strategy in an evolutionary setting. This suffices to show that there is a lack of agreement on fundamental issues here, too.
What connects these figures is not substantive agreement on what they believe, but rather opposition to a common foe — the SJWs. They all agree that these culturally left activists take things too far, be it in their opposition to free speech (advocacy for “hate speech” regulation and deplatforming of invited speakers with differing opinions), their social constructivism, or their claims about the patriarchal and systemically racist nature of society. The name of the group, IDW, was coined by Eric Weinstein in an interview, and then became publicly recognized after Bari Weiss wrote a NYT article on the group referring to them as such.
Douglas Murray himself is closely associated with the IDW, if not an explicit part of the group. It is through this IDW vs SJW lens that we ought to understand this book, where his perspective is the IDW one. Thus, public events are recounted and interpreted as SJW excesses.
Known Cases, Known Figures
Murray tends to take well-known cases and figures in his analysis, especially for those who have been following his work and that of his fellow IDW members. Thus, for instance, a large section of the chapter on race concerns itself with Bret Weinstein’s troubles at Evergreen State University. One portion of the discussion on Google concerns itself with James Damore’s firing from Google, a well-known case in these circles. Jordan Peterson’s interview with Vice also is discussed. The chapter on transsexuality begins with a brief discussion of intersex with reference to Alice Dreger’s work. Dreger, though she did not want to be associated with group through the label of IDW, was sufficiently related in substance to warrant the NYT asking her whether to include her in their article on the eclectic group. She thus is known to IDW figures and their audience, too. Another example of this is the mention of James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose in the context of the publishing standards at postmodern and feminist journals (what they call “Grievance Studies” — a phrase Murray, too, uses). One gets the gist, most cases are known to people in these circles, and will be fresh in mind to those already interested in these topics. I get the sneaking suspicion that Murray wanted to make his task easy by minimizing the effort involved in research, but that is just a suspicion of mine.
Granted, a few cases will be new to readers, such as a good portion of the discussion surrounding homosexuality (one cannot help but feel that this is mainly a function of this topic hitting close to home for Murray, as he himself is gay, which gives him a long history of cases to choose from off the top of his head). However, most cases will likely be well-known to the main target group of this book, with the exceptions of new cases being just enough to not make it seem like reading one’s notes for an exam again and again.
Of course, there is nothing bad about grounding one’s analysis in prominent cases. We can relate to cases we already know, and they ground the discussion without requiring tediously long elaboration. In analytical works this method is a virtue, as complex analytical argument can be built around familiar and well-understood cases, which adds to the readability of an argument. But this presupposes that there is a deep analysis forthcoming. The familiar case is useful as a starting point for deeper contemplation upon its meaning or how best to interpret it. A mere succession of familiar case upon familiar case is not particularly interesting or useful, even when interspersed with the odd new anecdote.
But that is precisely what we have here. Cases are not analyzed more deeply, which is why so many fit into such a slim volume. They are retold in such a way that the same rhetorical question underlies them: “Isn’t this mad?”. Well, if we already agree with Murray, I suppose we’ll nod vigorously. But that’s just feeding our biases. As for those who disagree with the underlying thesis, they can always accuse Murray of cherry-picking, as these cases are not that many in the grand scheme of things. Focus on single events that are bad in some way, and you can always write a book that the world is going to hell (isn’t this exactly what Steven Pinker, who is favorably cited by Murray, argued against in The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now!?).
I want to highlight one way with which cases are introduced in particular: Murray sometimes introduces a case to contrast it with another. For instance, he will introduce a politician who has suddenly completely reversed their opinions on an issue, such as gay marriage. This illustrates the way cultural change has been massively accelerated, letting untested ideas replace old-standing norms at a rapid pace.
Another example hints at another intended message. Sometimes Murray cites a case to contrast the conception of race, gender, sex, etc. in one case with that in another. In other words, he tries to reveal contradictions in the ideology he’s opposed to. However, merely pointing to apparent contradictions does not suffice to demonstrate them. The two cases might not actually be comparable. Maybe the participants in them do not actually believe the same thing. I agree that the scholarship underlying these issues oftentimes is rather vague, but it’s not the case that there is no disagreement on what these terms mean in it. If the term gender is used in one way in one case and an incompatible way in another because two different worldviews are at play in them, then that’s not a demonstration of contradictions in one underlying ideology.
So, though tensions between the ideas underlying different cases — such as the case of Rachel Dolezal and race — are occasionally raised, the incoherence is merely brought to the fore and left suspended in midair. They’re begging for further exploration, but just that is lacking. What the cases of this book do is give an artillery of examples for those on Murray’s side in this “culture war” to exploit in debates. This sells well with a partisan audience, sure, but it doesn’t add any substance to the disagreements between different camps, only hardening divisions.
“The Marxist Foundations”
In a section Murray calls an “Interlude” on “The Marxist Foundations”, he appears to blame a specific line of scholarship for the cases he discusses in this book. The timing of the section is a bit of an oddity, as it comes immediately after the first chapter on homosexuality. It is not quite clear how it is to be related to the other chapters of the book, but I think it’s fair to assume that Murray believes this same line of scholarship is responsible for the developments he cites in all chapters of this book, as he mentions several of their themes in this interlude.
His targets in this section are a staple among the IDW. Figures such as Judith Butler (a widely cited postmodern scholar of gender), Peggy McIntosh (the originator of the “white privilege” idea), Foucault, Deleuze, Gramsci, etc. are the core of this section. This section is the only one where structures of ideas and arguments are discussed — but in a terribly familiar way. It could be taken straight from a Jordan Peterson lecture on the postmodernists, critical theorists, etc., though abridged. The line is drawn straight from Marxists to postmodernists, exactly as Peterson implies with his jarring “postmodern neo-marxist” construction. That there is little truth to this line of argument — which requires a view of the history of ideas that groups together individuals in stark disagreement with one other, plus leaving out central propositions of their theories — is ignored.
It’s a useful reconstruction in the IDW figures’ view, which tracks some underlying mentality regarding oppression to the Marxist analysis of class conflict. But this gives Marx too much credit; surely, he cannot be thought of as the originator of the idea of oppression, right? One cannot help but shake the feeling that all Murray has done is summarize some YouTube videos of fellow IDW members in this section — and that’s the bulwark of the analysis of the arguments of the other side in this book.
To convince the reader that I am not misrepresenting Murray, here he is, at length, on the topic:
“Today a version of this old image [a Marxist triangle modelling societal levels of oppression] has made its way to the centre of the social justice ideology. Just one of the things that suggest the Marxist foundations of this new structure is the fact that capitalism is still at the top of the pyramid of oppression and exploitation. But the other top tiers of this hierarchy pyramid are inhabited by different types of people. At the top of the hierarchy are people who are white, male and heterosexual. They do not need to be rich, but matters are made worse if they are. Beneath these tyrannical male overlords are all the minorities: most noticeably the gays, anyone who isn’t white, people who are women and also people who are trans. These individuals are kept down, oppressed, sidelined and otherwise made insignificant by the white, patriarchal, heterosexual, ‘cis’ system. Just as Marxism was meant to free the labourer and share the wealth around, so in this new version of an old claim, the power of the patriarchal white males must be taken away and shared around more fairly with the relevant minority groups.” (Kindle position 953)
This is not to say that I agree with or even like the scholarship he is referring to. I think it’s terrible oftentimes. That said, there are no real objections cited here. All we have is a hodgepodge of figures to whom Murray attributes certain purported features of the scholarship he dislikes. It is heavily implied that they are wrong, but there is no argument to be found to support the tone. This pattern repeats — more on that now.
Lack of Argument — the Google Searches Case
I want to focus on one section of the book to reveal a common shortcoming I found throughout. As previously suggested, the conclusion Murray wants us to come away with is heavily implied in many areas, but rarely is an argument provided that leads to that conclusion. Presumably, the reader is supposed to fill the gaps on their own.
In a section called “Machine Learning Fairness” Murray finds that Google searches of various kinds (such as for Renaissance art, straight couples, etc.) lead to unrepresentative results in line with the culture war biases one would expect at Google. For instance, should you search for “straight couples” you’ll find an oddly high number of gay couples on the first page. Similar problems emerge in other searches (though only in English Google searches). The origin of the problem is Google’s “Machine Learning Fairness”, argues Murray.
To make sure that I am not misconstruing what he writes, here is Murray himself on the topic at length:
“Machine Learning Fairness doesn’t just take the whole process of judgement-making out of the hands of prejudiced, flawed, bigoted human beings. It does so by handing judgement over to the computers which it ensures cannot possibly learn from our own biases. It does this by building into the computers a set of attitudes and judgements that have probably never been held by any human being. It is a form of fairness of which no human being would be capable. Yet it is only since users started to notice that something strange was going on with some search engine results that the tech companies have felt the need to explain what MLF is. Understandably they have tried to do so in as unthreatening a manner as possible, as though there is nothing much to see here. Whereas there is. An awful lot.” (Kindle position 2108)
Before explaining what is wrong, Murray briefly explains what is meant by preventing our biases from entering into the machine learning algorithm, based on Google’s own explanation. The machine learning algorithm is only as good as the data set from which it learns. If you let it learn in an environment in which some biases play a role, you are introducing biases into the algorithm. Any real-world environment is filled with human biases. Google wants to counteract these biases with MLF.
Now, I am no expert on this topic, but from what I know of machine learning, this is in fact true. And it is not at all easy to address, especially since biases are not equal in type and effect across domains. Further, biases might shape people’s expectations in adverse ways (Google certainly thinks so). Murray himself admits that “there is something to be said for this”. However, Murray never addresses the ethical dilemma posed by the possibility of biases entering himself. He acknowledges it as a real concern and then fails to address it, instead focusing on how bad the search results are.
In and of itself it is not bad to point out how flawed the searches are. But one needs to be clear about why one is criticizing them. Is there something wrong with the ethical principles underlying Google’s fudging of the search algorithm? Or is it only their execution that is terrible? I think the tone implies the former, but Murray never explicitly addresses the principles in question. And to make the latter criticism, one would have to take a closer look at the technology, to understand the difficulties involved in tinkering with the algorithm to prevent biases (it may be unproblematic in some domains, only to lead to the terrible results Murray lists in others). Murray does not go into what machine learning is, though.
There is a further problem with Murray not explicitly addressing the underlying values; Murray presupposes the values a search engine should have. It is heavily implied that an image search engine should yield representative results relative to the search query. As Murray writes, it is a problem that…
“on any number of searches what is revealed is not a ‘fair’ view of things, but a view which severely skews history and presents it with a bias from the present” (Kindle position 2132)
Alternatively, however, (not that I endorse this value) one could say that accurateness of searches is secondary to the prevention of adverse effects through biases. Nobody will take a Google image search of Renaissance art to be an accurate account of history — for that we have articles and books on history we can read. It is not enough to list bad search results to make the case for Google’s malpractice, one first needs to make a normative case for why accurate search results are more important than avoiding biases. Of course, a discussion of the technological possibilities through an understanding of machine learning and its limits would be helpful in doing so, but we are not offered either of these things.
Murray’s assumption of the right value is even clearer in his approving use of Google in other places in the book. He contrasts Google searches in languages other than English with those in English, as the former do not yield odd results. He uses Google scholar to track citations. He uses Google to find articles with specific phrases. So, Google is not all bad, in fact, there is a baseline where it is good. It is only when Google moves away from this baseline that results are bad. However, what Murray merely implies and never explicitly argues for, is why these ‘normal’ results are better than those we get with English Google searches.
To conclude this section, we learned that Google search results are terrible because Google wants to avoid biases, and Google employees have liberal values (in the American sense), which inform their views on biases. That does not suffice for a criticism of Google’s practices. And the gaps in the argument will be filled by the reader, depending on their views on the matter, for better or worse. This pattern repeats in other parts of the book. Problems are raised in a critical tone, but the arguments against or for are largely left to the reader.
Events Over Structures
My biggest gripe with this book is the perspective it takes. In an economic history class of mine, the professor offered the following (admittedly overly simplistic) comparison between economic history and history as disciplines:
“History focuses on events that transpired. Economic history focuses on underlying structures.” (paraphrased)
If we use this useful distinction (which is not to say that it describes all works in the respective discipline accurately), then Murray falls decisively in the history camp. In fact, Murray ignores underlying structures almost entirely. I think this is a significant shortcoming.
It is impossible to understand the development and spread of ideas that formed in an academic context without addressing academia as an institution with a certain form. Academia has an incentive structure that needs to be addressed; progression in an academic career has a few well-defined endpoints, such as becoming a professor/getting tenure. If one wants to get tenure, one needs to get published in top journals. So, we also need to understand journals. Further, one may need to get funding for one’s research. All of this constrains the research of academics considerably. Also, this occurs through a plurality of departments, such as administration, teaching/research staff, ethics boards, etc. To ignore this environment is to treat ideas like Richard Dawkins treats religion — viruses that infect individuals apparently arbitrarily. There is no understanding of why the ideas are adopted or why they spread. The closest Murray gets to this is briefly mentioning that academia is disproportionately left-leaning.
And it’s not as if this structural approach hasn’t been done. Another book I’m reading at the moment is Geoffrey Hodgson’s Is There A Future For Heterodox Economics?. In chapter 1, he explains the institutional structure of the economics departments in Cambridge in the 20th Century (one of the main sources of heterodox economic ideas historically). It is through an analysis of this institutional environment that he explains Cambridge economics’ failure to become an accepted research paradigm. This also includes the politicization of the departments, which presumably is a problem with the departments Murray is critical of. But whereas Hodgson succeeds in using this institutional lens to make sense of the phenomenon of Cambridge heterodox economics, Murray does not address the institutional environment of the “grievance studies” fields he thinks are responsible for these trends.
In short, the reader cannot know how these fields became a problem or why just from reading this book.
Here’s the problem: if you agree with Murray that the events he recounts are concerning, he doesn’t help you understand why they emerged, or why the underlying ideas became popular. Without such knowledge, how could you know how to address the problem? If Murray is just pointing to problems without addressing causes or underlying solutions, is he really any better than the young activists who scream about problems (climate change for instance), but have no solutions to offer? Even worse, he doesn’t even offer any real arguments against the supposedly underlying ideas. There is an overall shocking lack of explicit argumentation in this book.
If all he is trying to do is recount recent events of the culture war from an IDW perspective, then this is just an entry to the “… for Dummies” series of books, but to the IDW side of the culture wars. This adds nothing of value. His intended audience are disproportionately likely to already have opinions on this matter, and to know most of the events and figures he discusses. It is red meat flung into the willing masses, devoured with glee and then proffered up as proof of the righteousness of their side, though there is no real argument within the book that could serve as such proof.
I would only recommend this book to people interested in how an IDW historian would recount the current cultural moment. Aside from that, there is more substance to gleam even from the talks of other IDW figures, freely available on YouTube. Conservatives should care about these issues, but they also should care to offer proper arguments to support their stance.