David Gelernter and the ideology trap

From “The Rational Optimist” blog

October 19, 2016

David Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist, whose talk I wrote about previously. Afterwards, I wanted to speak with him, but didn’t want to buy the new book he was promoting. So instead I bought a previous one, America-Lite, which looked more fun.

America-Lite actually argues a serious point, but is aptly titled, being, well, lite. This is no weighty Closing of the American Mind(which he mentions). Indeed, given my general sympathy with much of what it says, I found the book annoyingly supercilious and off-putting.

WASPs

It concerns America’s cultural revolution since the 1960s. Gelernter basically doesn’t like it. He attributes it to two related phenomena. First, “the Great Reform” in higher education. Key here was the breakdown of old efforts to limit Jews on campuses, which changed their WASP culture, as mainly social institutions, to mainly intellectual ones. And shoved them leftward. Meantime, secondly, there emerged “Imperial Academia” — an enlarged influence of the university world upon the broader American culture. This was largely down to sheer heft — a much bigger percentage of today’s population has been through higher education than in past epochs.

Gelernter says the old WASP elite has thus been replaced by post-religious globalist intellectuals — “PORGIs” — who now run the country. Not everyone in academia buys this intellectual stance, but its influence is leveraged by the fact that non-subscribers care much less about politics and just go along with the flow, taking on board the indoctrination, while nonconforming viewpoints are cudgeled into silence and delegitimized by the PORGIs’ political correctness policing.

The result is what Gelernter relentlessly labels PORGI Airheads (always with a capital A) — people full of received wisdom but empty of factual knowledge. Indeed, he sees much of PORGI-ism as contrary to fact, but uninterested in learning as much. After all, it’s far easier to reach judgments from preconceived ideas than from factual analysis.

For Gelernter, President Obama exemplifies the PORGI Airhead. He denies Obama is an ideologue — saying the President’s thinking doesn’t even rise to that level, being instead a zombie-like slavishness to the PORGI theories about the world that, like so many other students of his era, Obama had installed in his brain while at Columbia and Harvard.

I’m no Obama fan; but willing to give the Devil his due. Gelernter’s book itself epitomizes a lamentable trend in American political discourse: the notion that our side thinks and the other does not. Indeed, the left is inordinately fond of this gambit too, always casting itself as coolly rational whereas the right is a bunch of unthinking automatons. Al Gore even wrote a book titled Assault on Reason with that exact theme.

No. You may disagree with how the other guy thinks. But don’t imagine that youare thinking while he is not — a grossly arrogant self-delusion. While I am certain anti-evolutionists are wrong, I never forget they are equally certain I am wrong.

That said, it is true most people seem to view the world through pre-shaped lenses of bias. I have written about trying to base my beliefs upon what I see to be facts — my “ideology of reality” — whereas most people do it the other way around, letting their beliefs dictate what they see as facts.

Gelernter is right that many have beliefs about the world because those beliefs fit ideas they like, not because they’re actually factually true. A perfect example is GM food. It must be bad, on principle, a certain mindset holds; so the science must support that view. The Albany Times-Union recently editorialized that the issue remains open and some scientists see dangers. False! The newspaper commits exactly the sin for which it repeatedly pillories climate change deniers. They too see that issue as scientifically unsettled — because that fits their preferred picture.

And like small children, bedazzled by shiny objects, the left in particular is bedazzled by labels — like “socialist.” It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, convincing them of its beauty — like Venezuela’s vile regime, or Mugabe’s.

In all these cases, the ideatrumps the reality. The left sees itself as holding lofty ideals. They’ll burble on about inequality and the 1% making people poor — which is factually untrue — while failing to notice how “socialist” regimes domake people poor. Or how their prejudice against GM food, factually baseless, condemns millions of poor people to malnutrition and starvation.

They just think differently than me.

Meantime, Gelernter’s whole shtick about “Airheads” seeing the world through a veil of theory uncontaminated by facts was hard to take seriously — when one perspective whose waning he laments is the religious one. Gelernter, an observant Jew, doesn’t see how people can figure out moral issues without religion.

Well, I can. In fact, atheists without religion’s prepackaged answers are forced to thinkthat much harder about moral issues. And if ever there was a belief system impervious to factual realities, surely it’s religious faith!

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