Academic freedom prevents us from getting trapped in circles of delusion

Without expressing and evaluating ideas, we would never be able to determine what's right or wrong.

Videos
  • Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon in which a large groups of people publicly pretend to believe something is true, even if they privately believe it to be false, out of fear that their true opinions will be punished. Steven Pinker refers to this as a collective delusion.
  • "The ability to express an idea can puncture a bubble of collective, false knowledge and is one of the reasons that we have to cherish that freedom," says Pinker.
  • Free speech and freedom of inquiry must be protected in all arenas, but especially at universities because they are labs for testing ideas and furthering human knowledge. Without academic freedom, do universities deserve the esteem of society and the funding perks that keep them running?
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Democracy: Still the worst kind of government except all the other kinds

In practice, no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. But all the alternatives so far have been worse.

Politics & Current Affairs

"Now in practice," says Steven Pinker, "no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. Democracies are always messy, they’re always unequal. They always involve lobbying and power grabs. But all the alternatives so far have been worse. Democracies seldom go to war with each other. They have higher standards of living. They have higher levels of happiness. They have higher levels of health. And they’re the obvious preferred destinations for people who vote with their feet. The whole world wants to live in a democracy. It’s an ongoing project. It’s currently under threat from a number of directions, but there’s never been a time in which we’ve had a well-functioning democracy in terms of meeting all the criteria in a high school civics class."

Against chaos: The world is a hard place, but maybe humans aren't to blame

When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay.

Technology & Innovation

When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony: politicians, celebrities, parents, etc. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay. That's the second law of thermal dynamics. And the most we humans can do is stave off the inevitability of decline through the organization of resources and information. So next time you're feeling particularly outraged, just remember that it's an uphill battle that civilization is fighting. And the more plentiful resources and information become, the more secure we are from a nature that's red in tooth and claw.

Does everyone have the same values? Yes, but libertarianism isn’t one of them.

It might seem like humanity disagrees over basic values, but the data is in: we actually don't.

Politics & Current Affairs

Is conflict humanity's natural state? Could we ever agree on a set of values? The knee-jerk response for any student of history would be 'no', but the data tells a different story. Psychologist and author Steven Pinker offers proof in the form of Wagner's law: "One development that people both on the Left and the Right are unaware of is almost an inexorable force that leads affluent societies to devote increasing amounts of their wealth to social spending, to redistribution to children, to education, to healthcare, to supporting the poor, to supporting the aged." Until the 20th century, most societies devoted about 1.5% of their GDP to social spending, and generally much less than that. In the last 100 years, that's changed: today the current global median of social spending is 22% of GDP. One group will groan most audibly at that data: Libertarians. However, Pinker says it's no coincidence that there are zero libertarian countries on Earth; social spending is a shared value, even if the truest libertarians protest it, as the free market has no way to provide for poor children, the elderly, and other members of society who cannot contribute to the marketplace. As countries develop, they naturally initiate social spending programs. That's why libertarianism is a marginal idea, rather than a universal value—and it's likely to stay that way. Steven Pinker is the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

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