Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

            The United States these days seems overrun by the indignantly incurious. They already know everything. They take no pleasure in ambiguity. They bask in certitude, entertain no doubts, and miss the beauty of seeing their preconceptions contradicted by complexity. They populate the political left and the political right, the halls of government, the studios of propaganda outlets masquerading as “news,” and even college campuses. Most seriously, they refuse to listen to those who disagree and even try to silence them.
            Dogmatic absolutists have always found places in American society: Jim Crow segregationists, black-power separatists, white supremacists, true communists, red-baiting conservatives, and ideologues of all stripes who never let facts get in the way of a good screed.
But they have never gained as much national power as today. This feels like something different. Where is the ballast that has righted the country in the past? Has a tipping point been reached?
The problem is not just the “fake news” that permeates the internet. It is the people who believe it. The problem is not just the lying by Donald Trump and his minions--their fabrications about imaginary surveillance, voter fraud, terrorist attacks, and the like. It is the citizens who feed Trump’s frenzy by roaring approval without bothering to reach for truth by checking the facts, which they could do online from home by evaluating sources. It’s not such a daunting task.
Americans are split between those who do just that and those who don’t, between those who are open and those who are closed to the cross-currents of reality. This is a serious fault line running through the United States, this divide between curiosity and complacency, between those willing to accept challenges to their opinions and those who sift out whatever they don’t want to believe.
They are missing an element of intellectual joy. Venturing out from a set of preconceptions, as many of us writers do, it is exhilarating to discover those cross-currents, which sweep you into the delicious realm of nuance and complication. The resulting self-doubt builds character and sharpens perception. The eye adjusts to elements once invisible to you, as if you’ve entered a darkened theater, at first seeing people only as shadowy shapes, then slowly discerning clothes and faces.
This process of learning appears not to be taught in many American high schools, judging by how gullible millions of voters have shown themselves to be. The techniques of filtering through the internet, of applying skepticism in reasonable measure, of thinking critically and finding facts with honest curiosity do not seem an explicit part of most curricula, except incidentally in the run of ordinary coursework.
The same can be said of colleges, evidently. The intellectually dishonest denunciation of books and authors you haven’t read may be a minority phenomenon that gains exaggerated play when students shout down a speaker, as they did at Middlebury earlier this month. But to see it at a fine school like Middlebury, otherwise a bastion of free inquiry, ought to send a chill of concern radiating through the country. There and elsewhere, some students misread an invitation to speak as an imprimatur by their school, which has not yet taught them that in scholarship, literature, art, and politics, witnessing is not equivalent to endorsing.
It is worth reading John Stuart Mill’s meandering defense of argument’s virtue in On Liberty:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. . . . The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
The Middlebury speaker, invited by a conservative student organization, was Charles Murray, whose 1994 book The Bell Curve, written with Richard J. Herrnstein, postulates a general IQ difference between what they call “cognitive classes.” Surely anticipating charges of racism, they avoid discussing race for 269 pages, leaving out blacks entirely and focusing on cognitive classes among whites alone. (Murray said at Middlebury that he and Herrnstein had considered omitting race completely.)
Deep into the book, when they introduce ethnicity, a relatively brief section on race compares blacks’ mean IQ of 85 with whites’ 100. “This means that the average white person tests higher than about 84 percent of the population of blacks,” they write, “and that the average black person tests higher than about 16 percent of the population of whites.” By then asserting that IQ is largely genetic, and less environmental, they seal a doctrine of racial superiority into their research.
A close reading reveals their statistical sloppiness. Again and again, they present correlations as assertions of causality. And they treat IQ in a century-old manner, mostly as a fixed, biologically inherited attribute. They ignore research that shows IQ as the variable result of a host of environmental factors. These include the impact of early malnutrition in poverty on brain development, the influence of parents and teachers, the dimension of capabilities called “emotional intelligence.”
Here was an opportunity for Middlebury students to question and challenge this pseudo-scholarship, perhaps hone their own points of view, and learn something about the techniques of argument and rebuttal and gain “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth,” as Mill said. Murray is not David Duke. He is sophisticated enough to be taken seriously on the political right, so engaging with his viewpoint if you believe it’s misguided, is called education.
Murray also wrote a 2012 book, Coming Apart, on the growing cultural separation of the white working class. I haven’t read it, so I can’t judge, but the topic should have been interesting to any curious person, especially given the recent election. “One of its overriding themes is that economic insecurity doesn’t have much to do with eroding civic values, so we shouldn’t bother using government to tackle inequality,” Nicholas Confessore wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “You will learn about working-class laziness, but you will find little discussion of the decline of trade unions or the rise of a service economy built on part-time work without benefits. Murray dismisses research by scholars who have found that people in bankruptcy court usually end up there because they lost a job, got divorced or faced catastrophic medical bills, pointing to a contrary study of a single year’s worth of bankruptcy filings in Delaware, home to many of America’s credit card companies but very few of its citizens.”
It would have been useful to hear these points made to Murray by students and the Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, who was on the program to moderate and rebut him in a question-and-answer session. But he was drowned out by protesters and driven from the hall into a room with a TV camera to stream a discussion with Stanger, which continued for more than an hour as demonstrators pounded on walls and windows and set off fire alarms.
At the end of the session, with the din in the background, Murray turned to the camera and said, “Allison and I have been sitting here having a conversation. … She does not agree with me on a lot of things, I don’t agree with her on a lot of things. You see what a good time we had talking about this stuff. Is there anything we should carry away from this experience?”
Escorting Murray from the building, Stanger was assaulted, her neck was twisted, and she suffered a concussion—whether by students or protesters from off campus isn’t known.
Afterward, Stanger wrote this indictment: “I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character, while openly admitting that they had not read anything he had written. . . . They offered their leadership to enraged students, and we all know what the results were.”
The incident took me back to 1964, when a few of us organized a demonstration against the segregationist George Wallace, who came to speak at Dartmouth during his New Hampshire primary campaign. As believers in free speech, we had no intention of disrupting or silencing him, just protesting him, so 20 or 30 of us gathered with signs outside the hall. Then we went inside to listen to him.
So disappointing was the size of the protest that a sociology professor, Bernie Segal, organized an Apathy Committee to see what could be done to spark political activism on campus. At the first and last meeting of the Apathy Committee, hardly anyone showed up. 


  1. There is an art to debating someone whose ideas you oppose and it's an art that is very much absent these days. I remember when Rachel Maddow first started her show on MSNBC (a show I watch regularly and very much admire) and she had on David Frum - a reasonably distinguished conservative writer, whether you agree with him or not. As I remember it, she proceeded to contradict him at every turn, seemingly trying to clobber him with some degree of ridicule and with her own ideas. I was sure that she could have been much, much more effective debating his ideas if she had been more artful about it. I think she has made great strides in the intervening years in handling people of opposing ideas to hers. It is a skill! I don't know if David Frum ever went back onto her program but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he didn't - and I wouldn't blame him! Good examples of this kind of artful argumentation do not come readily to my aging mind at the moment but I know they exist. It takes someone very knowledgeable, very well versed in what the other speaker might say and very skillful in making a smooth counter argument so that a well-informed, clever come-back can be delivered in a very smart - and possibly smarting - fashion. There are very few people who can do this and do it well. Schools should be teaching skills such as this through debating clubs, etc. - as they are very useful for adult conversations about important matters.
    I was an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton for President but I did feel she could have debated Donald Trump more effectively if she had had these skills, rather than to primarily insult him. Such skills are not easily come by!
    I agree with your point about the lack of critical thinking lessons in schools and colleges these days. It's so important to an open society where ideas are freely exchanged - and where voters actually have the power to install someone unprepared and inappropriate to the office of President of the United States!
    I also think that social class plays a role in this. I can tell you as one who lives admidst many working class people, that there is little value given to reading anything! - or understanding pretty much anything heady - or discussing anything in an intelligent manner. My 30 year old country Housekeeper - a very nice, very good, but very working class person - says she wants nothing to do with anything political and she doesn't even know for whom her husband voted. She cannot bear the subject. She has very kindly taken a 19 year old senior in high school under her wing as the girl's father is entirely absent and the mother is a serious, non-functional drug addict. As a special "favor" to the girl, she did the girl's homework last week - answering questions about the book Animal Farm as the girl did not care for the book! I told her that if she really wanted to help the girl, she would do better to make sure that she did her homework herself - all the while being very kindly and supportive. I don't think any of this occurred to her. It doesn't go with the general working class "style" around these here parts - I must say.
    It's a serious problem these days for sure. And the instantaneous quality of life these days - iphones, Internet, video games, etc. - only encourages less and less intelligent reasoning.
    Ironically, I do believe that this "instantaneous" quality to life these days, unnerves people such that they long for something "different" - more conservative - and thus they vote for someone who throws out vaguely conservative-sounding ideas that are appealing to this group - but which are in fact dreadfully destructive to our government and society. And thus ignorance begets more ignorance and it all goes around in a disastrous circle.
    Thanks for the thoughtful piece once again.

  2. As I know you well remember - from having The Working Poor: Invisible in America challenged in my local high school - some parents of high school students object to the inclusion of critical thinking in public school curricula. Better to memorize facts and figures than to delve beneath the surface. In English class, better to read "the classics" because even though they depict moral struggles and human imperfections, kids get lost in the arcane language or historic settings and don't tune into those scary nuances, or so parents naively think. These parents argue that critical thinking belongs in the home. I wonder how much critical thinking actually does happen in their households.