“The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s” – The New York Times

Maya Jasanoff reminds us of the time when anarchists terrorized Europe. The reaction to these acts of terrorism fit a familiar pattern: in response to fear we turn against the Other (immigrants, foreigners, minorities, etc.). The period examined by Jasanoff fits into this pattern, as she notes, “then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.”

While history never repeats itself exactly, there are discernible patterns of human behavior that are instructive and this is one of them. To Jasanoff’s example we could add many others. Unfortunately, the knowledge gleaned from the past is by itself not enough to bring about change. The barrier to making this knowledge useful, as I see it, is also rooted in human behavior. To overcome this barrier we need to turn to psychology.

Here is just a few of the psychological barriers that prevent us from acting rationally:

  • the irrational knee-jerk reaction in the face or fear that prevents us from acting or thinking rationally.
  • the mismatch between the perception of threat and the actual threat. For example, the actual fear of terrorism does not match the slim probability of being killed by an act of terrorism.
  • the tendency to scapegoat those who are different from us even when the evidence clearly doesn’t warrant it.
  • the tendency to reject claims that are contrary to one’s intuition, ideology, or preferred positions, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence.
  • the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias).
  • our irrational response to cognitive dissonance (the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two inconsistent beliefs). For example, when an anti-vaxer is confronted with the evidence that are putting kids at risk pits the belief that they are a smart and responsible parent against the claim that they are not.  To reduce the dissonance we could change our behavior or our beliefs, but more often than not we find a way to either ignore the claim or rationalize it away.

And of course, we need an educated population with the skills and desire to do the hard work to have informed opinions.

Read the informative article on anarchists here: The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s – The New York Times


History News Network | What’s the Voters’ Problem? That’s a Lot Harder to Determine than You Might Suspect.

This is an interesting article suggesting that we can get out of the ideological polarization that is destroying our country. Research shows that if given enough information people will form their positions inline with the evidence. Therefore, the solution is to solve the ignorance problem. As Shenkman shows this is a difficult task. But even more of an obstacle beyond just ignorance is that what they do know is false. Fox News and other media sources have been filling people with nonsense for years, so that now they aren’t even open to considering evidence that is contrary to what they already believe.

So, how do we solve this ignorance problem? Shenkman offers the Scandinavian model, but has doubts that it can work here. He lists some attempts to create a civic-minded culture, but these have all failed. Now what? He offers no other possible solutions and leaves readers hanging as if he had given up on achieving any meaningful change.

Shenkman’s ambivalence is understandable, but giving up all hope is not an option. We are facing incredible challenges, such as climate change, and we need an educated, rational population that will elect real leaders whose actions and beliefs are grounded in reason and evidence not ideology.

Source: History News Network | What’s the Voters’ Problem? That’s a Lot Harder to Determine than You Might Suspect.

Should we be concerned about the dangerous ideas in Hitler’s Manifesto? “Mein Kampf Enters the Public Domain” – The Atlantic

“As Hitler’s infamous book enters the public domain, its history shows that censorship can’t stop dangerous ideas.” Censorship has never worked (Exhibit A:  The Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum ).

The concern about public access to Mein Kampf is understandable, but unfounded.  Those who are inclined towards those ideas already have access to the text via the Internet. And the ideas contained in Mein Kampf have spread so extensively there is no way to prevent access to them (unless we’re willing to take drastic measures in violation of our own values).

As Abraham Foxman, author of the introduction to Houghton Mifflin reprint of Mein Kampf, described the book this way: “Its theories are extremist, immoral, and seem to promise war and catastrophe if taken seriously.” (xxi) This is not a call to ban it but instead to take it seriously. He noted that the first time around we ignored it, resulting in “a tragedy of unprecedented proportions.” The lesson, he continues, is “the lesson of vigilance and responsibility, of not closing our eyes to the evil around us.” Ignoring it will not make “the evil” go away.

As far as I’m concerned the more people who read Mein Kampf the better. The ideas found in this work are so horrific and extreme that I’m confident (barring extraordinary circumstances) most people will reject the hateful and destructive ideas contained in it. Those who are unfamiliar with the ideas advanced by Hitler are more susceptible to falling under their spell.  Rather than trying to deny access to such ideas, we should counter them with reason and evidence.

And, as the author of The Atlantic article points out: “In today’s environment, it is better to discuss Mein Kampf openly and critically in the classroom than to have curious students seek it out on the Internet, where teachers will have no chance of influencing them.”

If you haven’t read Hitler’s despicable work, I would highly recommend it. I say this confident that you won’t be persuaded by his sentiments.

Source: Mein Kampf Enters the Public Domain – The Atlantic

Propaganda and De-humanization: “The Brain with David Eagleman” PBS

The study of history is the study of human nature. However, it’s not the only way to understand human behavior. Science can also illuminate the mysteries of human behavior. Scientists may approach the problem in a different way, but they are also trying to understand human beings. So, I was thrilled when David Eagleman turned to the subject of ethnic/religious conflict in the third program in a series on the brain.  And he used the War in Bosnia (something I’ve spent years studying) to illustrate the problem.

What have scientists found? That when people are confronted with people in our out group (however defined) our brains react as if they were objects, not human beings. The ability to empathize with those in their out group had been lost. How does this de-humanization happen? Usually, through propaganda.

I’ve spent years studying religious/ethnic conflict to come to the same conclusion. He also proposed the same solution: educate students to detect propaganda. In other words, we need to educate students to be good B.S. detectors and independent thinkers. This is one of the reasons why the humanities are so important, particularly philosophy and history.

Here’s the link to the website for the PBS program:  The Brain with David Eagleman

“The Price of Denialism” – The New York Times

Climate denialists (as well as other science deniers) present themselves as reasonable skeptics, when in fact they are anything but. Lee McIntyre, author of Respecting Truth, explains why they cannot honestly present themselves as skeptics: “True skepticism must be more than an ideological reflex; skepticism must be earned by a prudent and consistent disposition to be convinced only by evidence. When we cynically pretend to withhold belief long past the point at which ample evidence should have convinced us that something is true, we have stumbled past skepticism and landed in the realm of willful ignorance. This is not the realm of science, but of ideological crackpots. And we don’t need a poll to tell us that this is the doorstep to denialism.”

Read McIntyre’s trenchant critique of the proponents of denial: The Price of Denialism – The New York Times

“Democratic Socialism Has Deep Roots in American Life” | History News Network

Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has prompted a heated debate over the meaning and viability of “democratic socialism.” In response to claims that it is un-American, Lawrence Wittner demonstrates that democratic socialism has long been part of American life: History News Network | Democratic Socialism Has Deep Roots in American Life

The Master of Political Spin: Arthur C. Brooks and “Academia’s Rejection of Diversity” – The New York Times

Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), claims that “[m]any academics and intellectuals are biased against conservative viewpoints.” But Brooks’ claim is built on rhetorical trickery.

And it’s important to note that Brooks works for a political think tank that has no interest in diversity in personnel or ideas. The goal of the AEI is not the pursuit of knowledge or truth, but the promotion of their ideology.

Brooks uses the language of liberalism (“diversity” and “open-mindedness”) to portray conservatives as victims of liberal bias. To pull this off, he takes advantage of the progressive affinity for “diversity.” However, it soon becomes clear that Brooks is not talking about  diversity of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., he is referring to the diversity of ideas (something that is very important to academia). This sounds like a good thing, but what Brooks is asking for is the acceptance of certain ideas (his) in the academic world based on something other than merit.

The acquisition of knowledge in the academic world is the result of a brutal competition of ideas. Only those ideas that survive this process are generally accepted as knowledge, and then only provisionally. If new evidence comes in, we must revise what we know. Academia is committed to the pursuit of knowledge (something that AEI is not because they believe they already have the truth). The process has its flaws, but over time it brings us closer to the truth. So if Brooks wants his ideas accepted they have to the same rigorous process that all ideas are subjected to.

So, for example, in my own field of history the conservative claim that the Civil War was over states’ rights because the evidence does not support it.  In science, biologists don’t reject creationism (or its newer form ID) because they are biased, but because the evidence doesn’t support it! Climate scientists claim that the climate is changing not because they have a liberal bias, but because the evidence supports this conclusion!

Not all ideas are equally valid! The ideas that become accepted as knowledge win through merit not through appeals to fairness. Open mindedness requires only that the idea be given a fair hearing. If an idea is to be accepted, it must stand up to the rigorous standards of logic and evidence. Truth is not about fairness, although there should be fairness (based on relevant qualifications rather than irrelevant factors such as race, gender, etc.) in who participates.

Source: Academia’s Rejection of Diversity – The New York Times

“The Dangerous Nonsense Ben Carson Is Spreading About Muslims” | History News Network

More nonsense coming from Ben Carson with no apparent concern for the truth  or the consequences of his claims. Brian Catlos explains why Carson is wrong at the History News Network.

“In the last few weeks, the radical right of the GOP and its various organs have come upon a new concept to cloak their Islamophobia: taqiyya. As they would tell it, taqiyya permits Muslims to lie and, therefore, it effectively makes every Muslim a potential mole, traitor, or fifth-columnist. As Ben Carson, himself a presidential hopeful, would have it, it is because of taqiyya (and not because of simple bigotry) that he believes – the constitutional ban on religious tests for public office notwithstanding – a Muslim should not be permitted to serve as President of the United States. This is a dangerous and insidious argument: not only does it vilify a whole class of people, it does so in a way that makes them permanently suspect. Any Muslim who denies he is practising taqiyya, it may be presumed, may be practicing taqiyya when he or she does so. Therefore, no Muslim can be trusted, ever.”

It’s unfortunate that this kind of nonsense is what has helped him overtake The Donald (who also has a problematic relationship with the truth) in the polls.

“A history professor explains why Americans are so prone to conspiracy theories” – Business Insider

In an interview with Alysia Santo, Robert Goldberg explains why Americans are prone to conspiratorial thinking.

Here’s an excerpt: “And add another piece to this: the Internet. You go into this echo chamber, all saying that this is true, that this is possible. And what I argue is that people go onto the web, not for information, but for confirmation. If they’re already suspicious, they’re going to find their suspicions validated, and what the psychologists say is the more and more you are presented with the truth of your opinion, the stronger you hold onto those opinions and the more extreme you get.”

Read the entire interview here: A history professor explains why Americans are so prone to conspiracy theories – Business Insider