Think You're a Free Thinker? Think Again

Beware of confirmation bias and mind-molders.

Posted Apr 19, 2016

Cesar Leal Jemenez, CC 3.0
Source: Cesar Leal Jemenez, CC 3.0

Like all countries, America has always had its flaws. But one thing we could always be proud of is that, as long as our viewpoints were benevolently derived, we could say what we want without serious retribution.

Today, we often cannot. Unless we hew to The Principle—that we must redistribute more—we risk suffering not only rude denigration but even damage to our career. We certainly risk our speech being shut down with such epithets as  "Elitist!" "Cold-hearted!" and most silencing of all, "sexist," and especially, "racist!"

On college campuses, not only at Trump meetings, politically incorrect speakers are often shouted down. This goes beyond the domestic. Israelis are viewed as Haves and Palestinians as Have-Nots, and the Left will too often prohibit pro-Israeli views from being uttered. Near where I live, this week at San Francisco State University, the Mayor of Jerusalem had flown all the way from Israel. He was shouted down, not allowed to speak. He should have realized the risk. Not so long ago, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu flew to Berkeley to speak. He was shouted down and not allowed to speak. 

This week, the New York Times reported that at Columbia University, the truncation is even more extreme: Students who dare to support Clinton over Sanders are often denigrated as insufficiently purist in their liberalism. Even more frightening, according to a 2014 UCLA survey of 141,189 college freshmen nationwide, a large majority (71%)  favor censoring speech they don't agree with.  Anecdotally, I read and hear more and more young people "offended," "shocked" and "outraged" over less and less. Thoughtful disagreement seems to be giving way to maximum polarization.

And another 2014 national survey conducted by UCLA reported that there are five times as many liberal faculty as conservatives and that includes science, math, and computer professors, who tend to be less political. Among humanities and social science faculty, the ratio is likely far greater. Can it really be that all right-of-center ideas are so unworthy as to be excluded from students' education?

Mainstream news outlets disproportionately censor right-of-center thought. Check out the most influential media: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR.. Their slant is unquestionably liberal. Ironically, a recent article in the New York Times  of all places, acknowledges, indeed decries, the media's liberal bias.

It's also ironic that the Left, which continues to crank out media decrying Joe McCarthy's censorship of 70 years ago, today so heavily censors views that dare veer right of center. A recent example is the movie, Trumbo, praised more by the media than by viewers.

Of course, worthy arguments can be made for a liberal/redistributionist bias. Just a couple examples:

  • The top 1/10 of 1% are getting richer while the poor is barely budging and the middle class is getting hollowed out.
  • People win and lose in the genetic lottery. For example, you've won if you're born in Beverly Hills to educated, well-adjusted parents. You've lost if you're born in Appalachia to uneducated, deeply problemed ones. Redistribution attempts to counteract luck.

But worthy arguments can also be made in favor of striving for more merit-based decision-making. For example,

  • When we distribute resources based on merit, we get better products and services, from health care to smartphones to government leaders. And we sure could use that.

  • One of psychology's most agreed-on axioms is that we get more of what we reward. For example, If admission to top colleges and jobs is based on achievement, we encourage more people to strive to high achievement. If we select people in part based on non-merit criteria such as whether their parents were alumni or of a particular race, we get less striving, again resulting in worse products and services for all of us.

The argument that alumni should get preference because they're more likely to donate to the college is unfair to the poor, exacerbating the gap between haves and have-nots. Too, the argument is weak that racial diversity is a merit-based criterion because it brings diverse perspectives to campus discussions. There's arguably as much diversity within people of a given race as there is between people of different races. For example, a white from Appalachia brings a very different perspective from that of a white from Beverly Hills.

I'd be less concerned if I thought the hegemony of redistributive bias was merely a part of the left-right pendulum swing that has occurred for time immemorial. But with the Left having taken such heavy control of society's mind molders—the schools, colleges, and media—this bias appears not to be part of a pendulum swing but an irreversible trend: The next generation is being educated to believe what those redistributionist mind-molders tell them. Then they'll become the mind-molders and pass their redistributionist bias to the subsequent generation.

Already, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, the top 1 percent pay more in federal income tax than than the bottom 90 percent and pay a rate 800%  as high as the bottom 50 percent. The top 20 percent pay 84% of the income tax, the bottom 20% not only doesn't pay, they receive money from the taxpayer.

And that single issue—increased redistribution versus increased meritocracy—has remarkably broad implications. It affects who gets taxed, how much we pay in taxes, what it's spent on, how schools are run, who's admitted to colleges, who gets hired, who gets promoted, etc.

Toward freer thinking

It would be hubristic of me to think that any few paragraphs I write can begin to counter society's mind-molders' attempts to convince you that the Left is always right. But this is the best I can do:

Seek out ideologically diverse sources: Read the New York Times and The Weekly Standard or the libertarian Reason. Watch CNN and Fox. Read TIME.com and ZeroHedge.com. If you're a liberal, read Charles Krauthammer and Christina Sommers. If you're conservative, read Hendrick Hertzberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Seek out friends with views different from yours.

Beware of confirmation bias. Once we've developed a viewpoint, we tend to notice or accept only ideas that conform to those views. That's called confirmation bias. So you'll need to be strong to be open-minded to views that aren't liberal and that don't advocate for yet more redistribution.

Beware of commitment bias. Our biases get ossified further when we make a commitment. For example, if we volunteer for a Democratic candidate, to maximize our good feeling about that, we more strongly support Democratic party positions.

Argue for the opposing point of view. If you are, for example, as I am, strongly pro-choice, read a few pro-life articles and then try to make the best case you can for the pro-life position. If you're in favor of gun control, read a few articles against it and then try to make the best case you can.

Be humble. As writer Frank A. Clark wrote, "We find comfort among those who agree with us, growth among those who don't." Beware of being too cocksure you're right, even if the schools, media, colleges, and friends insist you are. On so many issues, especially that foundational one of increased redistribution versus meritocracy, there really are strong positions on both sides.

Parent for ideological diversity.. Your kids and grandkids are likely being subjected to an education that's even more intolerant of ideas that dare veer from the redistributionist orthodoxy. So it falls heavily on you to ensure that your kids' beliefs have been developed based on the full range of benevolently derived ideas.

The takeaway

Few things are more important than a thoughtful citizenry. Key to that is to strive to create and profit from the full marketplace of thoughtful ideas. This article is a mere thimble held up against a tidal wave of my-way-or-the-highway thinking among society's mind-molders but it's the best I can do.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.