Not Nothing and Speculating Late

by Ada Palmer on April 14, 2017

The “Not Nothing” in Thomas Carlyle’s Protagonization of History

a response to

John Holbo “Heroes and Aliens”

John Holbo’s essay is a masterwork of hinting without revealing, discussing pieces while keeping the veil across the whole.  As I read it, a visual kept entering my mind, of great hands reaching under the belly of a Leviathan, lifting it toward the ocean surface, not high enough to expose its shape or color, just enough for the many reefy knots and house-sized barnacles that stud its skin to poke up through the dark waves like an island chain, so the spectator on the shore can just make out that there is a living vastness in the deep whose structure connects makes many new-bared lands one.

My first contact with Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History came suddenly, in my second year of grad school.  The title lurked on my list of required historiographical background reading, preparation for my oral exams, amid so many histories of Italian city-states, and rebuttals of Hans Baron.  My cohort and I were wolfing down a book a day in those months, looting each for thesis and argument, so we could regurgitate debates, and discuss how our own projects fit with the larger questions of the field.  Only two books refused on that list to be so digested: Carlyle’s, and Burkhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. [click to continue…]

The poverty of psychology, again

by John Quiggin on April 14, 2017

Chris’ post on psychological theories of anti-egalitarianism reminded me of one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, responding to a whole subgenre of the Haidt school of political psychology dealing with the question: why do people maintain false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence? There seems to be an article in the papers on this every week or two (unsurprisingly, given the political situatin), and they are nearly always much the same.

Given the assumption that this is a matter of individual psychology, the answer must be applicable to everyone, and, in the US context, “everyone” means “both Republicans and Democrats”. The answer is some irrational/antirational feature of individual belief formation, such as confirmation bias. I’m not going to pick on any particular writers; examples abound.
The obvious problem here is that, to a first approximation, people believe what members of their social groups believe. So, the relevant questions are:
*How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence ?
* Under what circumstances do people break with false beliefs held by other members of their social group? If this happens, does it involve a break with the social group or the emergence of a dissident subgroup?

Once we look at things this way, it’s obvious that not all social groups are the same, Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. Obviously, scientists collectively are much better at correcting false beliefs than Republicans, even though, as individuals, both scientists and Republicans exhibit forms of motivated reasoning such as confirmation bias.

The question of how the members of groups change their beliefs seems like an obvious topic for study by social psychologists. And perhaps it is, but if so, their work has had no impact on the asocial psychologists I’ve seen talking about it.