Monday, May 17, 2021

Loury and McWhorter, Public Intellectuals

The role of public intellectual is much in debate.  I always associate it with France, which seemed to be putting wildly intelligent thinkers on TV all the time and reading all their books.  Not that I ever watched or read any of it myself.  But they had that reputation. I thought that the UK had its share, and the Eastern Europeans as well.  The lists of American public intellectuals seemed to have little overlap with each other, evidence of a lack of coherent definition.

I would nominate the linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University and economist Glenn Loury of Brown University, and they have had wide-ranging discussions at for the last fourteen years.  They were initially suspicious of each other because of academic disagreements but have been very productive since then.

When listening to discussions in the car or while on walks I am in the habit of stopping to dictate into my phone notes or scribble on a notepad when something particularly arresting, provocative, or well-expressed occurs.  I just can't do it with them, as I am stopping to record their comments so often that I can't get anywhere.  My walks take too long, and it's dangerous to keep pulling the pickup over while hitting the pause button. I need a new solution.

It may seem odd to claim that people who are so stimulating are so relaxing as well, but this comes from a level of trust they have earned. They back up what they say with citations, sometimes almost offhandedly, and give indication that they are well-aware of the thinkers who disagree with them and what their claims are.  I had a similar experience when wondering whether my Christian conversion was a good idea in the mid-70s when reading CS Lewis.  Here was someone who had read all that there was that was pertinent in Western Civ, and he had no objections to this idea of Christian faith.  He might turn out to be wrong, but he was at least a backstop against there being some stunning and obvious philosophical or intellectual objection that was disqualifying.

I wish I could provide that for you here, but I am in the end just a guy who has read some stuff and thought about things who writes down his ideas. If you try to take any of these thoughts out into the world ant they are challenged, I haven't got much in the way of formal or informal credential to help persuade those you interact with.  If they don't like the idea on their own and you are trying to drive a stake in the ground you are reduced to the mild assertions that I write a lot, and seem to have thought about things. Big whoop. They give you more bang for your buck.

A sampling: McWhorter, very attentive to words, notes that when the woke say they believe in empathy, what they mean is teaching about oppression, which is quite a far reach from the original. The growth of "Bad M-F-" rhetoric has occurred among those who are not going to much put themselves at risk, encouraging those who have the most to lose "Don't comply," in the service of some false historical narrative.

Loury believes that the black reckoning of 2020 was created more by people needing to get outside (even though covid rulebreaking supposedly resides on the other side of the political spectrum) than to George Floyd. McWhorter chipped in that the growth of zoom meeting and increased social network time may also have contributed, as people are angrier and less careful in communication when they do not have the in-person cues to slow them down. This has been true since internet communication became common and has worsened, especially in 2014 and 2020.

In the controversy at Georgetown and elsewhere about affirmative action students clustering at the bottom of the class, but no one is allowed to say that, Loury notes that statistically, they are supposed to cluster at the bottom of the class. We hope that by graduation they are at the middle of the class or better.  But if those students aren't at the bottom of the class, then we haven't done affirmative action correctly. That was the whole point.

Showing ID for voter registration is a largely symbolic issue. Getting everyone an ID would be relatively simple, but many black leaders do not want to agree to that solution because it would seem to be giving in to racists. On the other hand, requiring ID doesn't seem to change the percentage of minorities voting.

I had never heard of preference falsification nor the literature about it.  It has a lot of application WRT voting, cancel culture, and workplace fear. They are very close to the controversies in academia and give excellent examples of the phenomenon they are describing about students and faculty and administrations. It adds up more for me a little more each time I listen. They are intensely data-driven when discussing social phenomenon. "Without seeing any numbers, I can't accept that this is a valid interpretation." Music to my ears. In discussing the supposed bias of the LSAT, McWhorter shakes his head. "They're not asking you what wine goes with chicken.  They aren't asking about skiing. Everything there is right thee in the box.  Answer the question."

It was these two who put me on to the research of Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice who started out as a cop before going on to get his IVY League degrees. If you have caught the reporting about Tony Timpa, the white man who died in circumstances similar to George Floyd, it was Moskos who has worked to get the story out.  His contention that all the infuriating deaths of blacks at the hands of police have multiple white counterparts we don't hear about, skewing the narrative. I learned about Scott Barry Kaufman's research into the psychology of victimhood.

One or the other goes into a lovely impassioned rant, close-reasoned, well-expressed, and referenced at least once per show. I have lists of phrases I am going to reuse over time.

They have disagreed greatly in the past, with Loury being more successful at convincing McWhorter over time, yet they clearly influence and modify each other's POV.  McWhorter mentioned the poor matching of students to institutions because of affirmative action, resulting in higher failure rate among minorities. Loury pushed back that however true this is, there is also a trade-off.  For those minorities who do survive, they have a more prestigious degree with higher market value.  They have apparently had this exchange before.  I don't know where it will end.


Christopher B said...

But if those students aren't at the bottom of the class, then we haven't done affirmative action correctly.

At the risk of not fully understanding the context of the conversation, what Mr. Loury is pointing to isn't driving at the root argument advanced in support of mismatch theory since obviously somebody has to be at the bottom of any rank order, even at Yale. What proponents of mismatch point to is evidence that the difficulties expressed by low class rank continue to impact students admitted under affirmative action after graduation and that students of similar standing who attend colleges where their standing is in the normal range of all admissions wind up doing better post-graduation. The usual data point is that mismatched graduates of high-ranking law schools are more likely to fail bar exams than than academic peers who attended lower ranking schools for which they were less likely to be mismatched. There are also data points reflected in graduation rates and continuance to graduation in STEM programs. ( Also for a whole host of posts with links on this subject from Gail Heriot)

So affirmative action may produce more minorities who manage to complete a Harvard or MIT degree but there is pretty good evidence that it may not be producing more minorities who are lawyers or engineers.

RichardJohnson said...

It was these two who put me on to the research of Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice who started out as a cop before going on to get his IVY League degrees.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading Moskos's Cop in the Hood. Slight correction: he got his Ivy League undergraduate degree before putting in his 20 months as cop. His suggestions on what to do about drug laws need some pondering.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Christopher B - Loury would agree, but still maintain there is a tradeoff. Fair or not, a stanford degree is going to look better than UCDavis for a long time. I probably did not make it clear that he had accounted for this mismatch limitation as well when he made the statement.

Deevs said...

"I need a new solution."

You're likely already aware, and I'm not sure if it would be helpful to you even if you're not, but they break up their episodes and release them in 10-15 minute segments on YouTube before the full episode is released on Fridays. Maybe the smaller segments throughout the week can help solve that problem of having too many thoughts.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was not aware. The difficulty is that I find sitting and watching a video to be frustrating. Even fifteen minutes is a lot.

Christopher B said...

That is something, though it seems an admission that, at least at the elite/Ivy League level, a degree is a credential more than an education.

I'm still not sure I'm buying what he's trying to sell. My instinct is that most people think of affirmative action existing to redress the exclusion of brilliant minority students due to prejudice. His comment reminds of the quip that we'll know feminism has succeeded when incompetent women are as likely to be found in powerful positions as incompetent men.

At the bottom of his 'Math is Hard' post a couple days ago, Steve Hayward posted a chart produced by the DOJ for the Yale admission discrimination case. (You commented on a link to his post from Maggie's). It showed Yale not admitting about 80% of white applicants and over 85% of asian applicants in the top decile of academic rank. You have to drop to the fifth and fourth decile to see similar rates for black applicants, where less than 5% of white and asian applicants are admitted. The relationship of this ranking to SAT score is not defined but assuming they are similar and SAT scores are an accurate predictor of college success, hope that fourth and fifth decile admissions would advance to the middle of class rankings is probably in vain.

I also think the attitude is overly callous towards those negatively impacted by mismatch. Yes, somebody who gets admitted to Yale can probably get an admission to most any other school but a big assumption is being made about the economic, social, and personal resilience of someone who might have a very thin margin of those resources.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

From his perspective in academia, the institution granting the degree would matter more to him than to others, not because he thought it was so superior, but knowing the realities of hiring. That likely biases his read.

Affirmative action was originally sold with anecdotes about brilliant black students from terrible circumstances getting a chance, and that has also been the sustaining narrative. But at the time it started those were already getting in to top colleges, which were informally acting affirmatively. The counting of heads has benefited other students, and is now so embedded in our national consciousness that they no longer perceive that they are actually not as capable. They have bought the lie that they are just as solid, except for some superficial differences caused by systemic racism, which the school is supposed to account for.