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Paul Bloom: Okay, so maybe we materialists went too far, but …

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Bloom, Yale psychologist, writing in The Atlantic on the recent backlash against the materialist perspective he espouses, takes a more sophisticated approach to warding off criticism than  “you just didn’t evolve so as to understand Evolution,” the usual type of explanation.

For one thing, he admits there are problems. First, he acknowledges that his fellow materialists are indeed engaged in a war on reason; it is the title of his article.

But, he argues that while they are in general right, it is possible to find a teeny little place for reason in our new psychologies— because we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning:

Our capacity for rational thought emerges in the most-fundamental aspects of life. When you’re thirsty, you don’t just squirm in your seat at the mercy of unconscious impulses and environmental inputs. You make a plan and execute it. You get up, find a glass, walk to the sink, turn on the tap. These aren’t acts of genius, you haven’t discovered the Higgs boson, but still, this sort of mundane planning is beyond the capacity of any computer, which is why we don’t yet have robot servants. Making it through a single day requires the formulation and initiation of complex multistage plans, in a world that’s unforgiving of mistakes (try driving your car on an empty tank, or going to work without pants). The broader project of holding together relationships and managing a job or career requires extraordinary cognitive skills.

So reason is allowed to stay, but apart from that, we shouldn’t take it too seriously:

Irrational processes do exist, and they can ground political and moral decisions; sometimes the right explanation is groupthink or cognitive dissonance or prejudice. Irrationality is unlikely to be perfectly proportioned across political parties, and it’s possible, as the journalist Chris Mooney and others have suggested, that the part of the population that chose Obama in the most recent presidential election is more reasonable than the almost equal part that chose Romney.

Sure thing. Readers will find the things Bloom does acknowledge revealing:

A more general problem with the conclusions that people draw from the social-psychological research has to do with which studies get done, which papers get published, and which findings get known. Everybody loves nonintuitive findings, so researchers are motivated to explore the strange and nonrational ways in which the mind works. It’s striking to discover that when assigning punishment to criminals, people are influenced by factors they consciously believe to be irrelevant, such as how the attractive criminals are, and the color of their skin. This finding will get published in the top journals, and might make its way into the Science section of The New York Times. But nobody will care if you discover that people’s feelings about punishments are influenced by the severity of the crimes or the criminals’ past record. This is just common sense.

Whether this bias in what people find interesting is reasonable is a topic for another day. What’s important to remember is that some scholars and journalists fall into the trap of thinking that what they see in journals provides a representative picture of how we think and act.

Three things are radically wrong with this statement of the problem:

1.The “flyover country is racist” (etc.) theme, implied above and referenced elsewhere in Bloom’s article, is not counterintuitive to the people who go into social psychology. It is one of their core beliefs. A significant number of  retracted  studies allegedly demonstrate these beliefs as facts, conveniently packaged for the public as “counterintuitive.” However, not everyone out there is a boob or a stupe, and we all grasp the true situation quite clearly, creating a climate where whistleblowers sometimes even risk coming forward.

2. “Whether this bias in what people find interesting is reasonable is a topic for another day.” It is probably the only fact of longterm public importance Bloom has adverted to, but it somehow a topic for another day.

3. The “trap” that “some scholars and journalists” fall into is precisely the groove they want to and are supposed to fall into and all hell would break loose in their own comfy watering holes if they didn’t.

Does Bloom really believe that no one sees this? Perhaps he can afford the luxury of contempt for the intelligence of others. Perhaps not. 

As for accommodation, sorry, the ship has sailed. The controversies around peer reviewed fraud testify to  the heart of the problem.

See also: New social sciences scandal: Oft-cited paper is complete rubbish —again? There was no way of distinguishing this Sokal hoax from the real thing, apparently.

What is the backlash and why?:

Does science know the answers to absolutely everything? (Widespread backlash against scientism)

Decline in belief in God masks rise in superstition

Are two out of three people really secret torturers?

“I will” means something aftr all

An end to th madness (the fall of the DSM)

Scientists clash over the origin of monogamy

The slow death of a pseudo-discipline

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3 Replies to “Paul Bloom: Okay, so maybe we materialists went too far, but …

  1. 1
    Barry Arrington says:

    News, thanks for the update on the famous Yale torture experiments. I learned of that experiment in college and I remember being deeply disturbed. Now, over 30 years later I learn I was being told lies, or at best half truths.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Barry, an Australian j wrote a book about it (as you’ll know from my MercatorNet piece). She sifted painstakingly through all the documentation and interviewed as many persons as she could who were involved. the lead investigator was long deceased. THe main problem was that only the most striking results that supported the thesis received wide publicity. (Cherry picking.)

    The actual results, taken as a whole, are probably as good a sample as any of why authoritarian government didn’t tend to catch on in North America in those days.

  3. 3
    groovamos says:

    Yes the part of the population that voted for the soft Marxist with ZERO accomplishment beyond law degree is just so rational, more than the rest.

    Oh almost forgot – Major accomplishment – he sweet talked his way into high office the first time after an invisible 2- 1/2 years as senator.

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