Education

Evergreen State and the Battle for Modernity Part 2: True Believers, Fence Sitters, and Group Conformity

Over a month has passed since the Evergreen State fiasco drew national attention, and since then it appears that the college has only chosen to double down on the insanity. According to one report, in the wake of Professor Bret Weinstein’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, many of his colleagues demanded his resignation for putting their community “at risk.” I will spare all the details, as they can be found all over the internet, but for a quick overview, feel free to go ahead and go over to part 1 for a recap.

Instead, this essay attempts to answer one of the biggest questions that emerged from the previous article—namely how could it be possible that so many people, large cohorts of students, and indeed entire academic disciplines be so bamboozled into believing much of postmodernist rhetoric, including that science is a symbol of the patriarchy (you’ve got to click on the link, the title is “Science: A masculine disorder?”) and the concept of health is merely another tool of Western colonial oppression? In so doing, I will use sound psychological principles and peer-reviewed research to come to some unsettling conclusions, but which will hopefully provide somewhat of a roadmap for tackling virulent, pathogenic ideologies that rob people of their reason and common sense.

Noted skeptic Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, identified two psychological phenomena, attribution bias (which is the tendency to believe one’s reasoning is better than others’) and confirmation bias (which is the tendency to pick and choose evidence that only confirms one’s existing opinion), that reinforce faulty thinking. But this doesn’t explain why the Evergreen State mob all seemed to act of one mind, or why, according to Heterodox Academy, 89% of academics all appear to have similar (left-of-center) political views. Why do so many people share the exact same beliefs, no matter how weird they may be (see above)?

Asked differently, why do so many people conform over the same weird ideas?

To answer this question, psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s conducted a series of experiments to test his subjects’ levels of conformity. Subjects would enter a room and be seated with other participants who were, unknown to the subject, in on the experiment (also called “confederates”). The subject would then be shown a line segment and asked to identify a matching line from a grouping of three other segments of differing lengths. Each participant would verbally announce the matching line segment.

A representation of the stimulus used in the Asch conformity experiments

Here’s where things got interesting. On a number of trials, the confederates were told by the researcher to purposively provide the wrong answer in order to see how the participant would respond, even when presented with blatantly false information. Surprisingly, 75% of participants also picked the wrong answer at least once in order to match the other respondents (confederates). When privately asked to provide the answer, participants were correct 98% of time, indicating they had picked the wrong answer in the group setting even when they knew the answer was obviously wrong.

Picture of a presumably conflicted real subject flanked by confederates leaning forward as if to get a better view. (Taken from the original Asch experiments).

75% is a rather large number, making it seem easy to dismiss the results of the Asch Conformity Experiments as a fluke. Except that these results have been replicated in even more outrageous circumstances. In the infamous Smoke Filled Room experiment of the late 1960s, participants were placed in a small room that slowly began filling up with mysterious smoke. When alone, participants invariably got up and opened the door to leave and investigate. However, when placed in the room with 2 or 3 other individuals who were in on the experiment and told to react as if they did not notice the smoke, a whopping 90% of respondents chose to remain in their seats, coughing, rubbing their eyes, waving off fumes, and opening windows—but not leaving the room to report the smoke.

Other classic psychology experiments (from an era pre-dating independent ethics committees) clearly show that conformity is a powerful aspect of group processes and formation. Some of these studies include the Robber Cave experiment, the Milgram obedience experiment—which found that 65% of subjects administered what they thought were maximum level shocks to another participant when directed by an authority figure—to the Stanford Prison experiment have demonstrated the far-ranging behaviors individuals will take based on their need for conformity. Although these studies’ methodologies (and ethical standards) do not hold up today, they still provide some insight into why even large groups so often share utterly unilateral and sometimes bizarre viewpoints.

Surely, the college town setting must be feel like an intense pressure cooker for those who choose to abstain from conformist thinking. As more and more individuals conform to the dominant viewpoint, the group of abstainers continues to shrink, exerting even more pressure on the diminishing minority to conform or entirely risk banishment from the in-group. In this way, the small towns and communities in which most colleges are located invariably serve as stand-alone conformity experiments in action.

In his seminal book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer describes the “true believer” as a discontented person seeking to place their control outside of themselves and onto a strong leader or ideology. In this way, they seek “self-renunciation” by subsuming their own personal beliefs and ideas into a larger collective. Most importantly, the true believer identifies with the movement so strongly, nay needs the movement in order to fulfil some psychological requirement, that even when presented with contrary evidence, the true believer has no resort except to double down and intensify the belief.

This is exactly what happened with the Seekers, a Chicago-based cult that predicted an end times alien cataclysm that would occur on Dec 21, 1954. The disciples sold all their property in anticipation of the apocalypse, but when the event didn’t occur, instead of retreating into reflecting on where they went wrong, they instead courted the press in order to draw more awareness and attract more converts to their cause. Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, who studied this case, summarized in the following way: A man of conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

This case would seem to indicate that trying to convince the true believer is a lost cause. But large movements are not comprised of only true believers. In fact, I would argue that true believers (along with the people at the very top who are often grifters, but I digress) make up only a small percentage of any movement. One can go through each of the most vile moments in history, such as the Nazi period for example, and find a similar pattern, that a certain ideology may have held large-scale soft support, but only a tiny fraction were directly accountable for the actions of the movement.

It is this soft underbelly that is worthy of further consideration and is most directly relevant to the previous research on conformity. I call this group the “Fence Sitters” since they may be operating on unscrutinized beliefs, but like the subjects in the Asch and Smoke Filled Room studies, merely want to fit in and conform to group standards. As a result, they may be much more likely to change their opinions when exposed to alternative group norms. Indeed, one of Asch’s greatest realizations from his series of experiments was that levels of conformity were based on group size. Conformity increased with the size of the in-group, but levelled off once the size reached four or five. In addition, conformity also increased when other group members were perceived to have higher social status.

Taking these conclusions into consideration, the university/college setting is the conformist’s wet dream. From the very first day, freshmen are exposed to the ideas and beliefs of authority figures (professors) and older peers (upper classmen) and often encounter these same ideas in small group class break out sessions. In this environment, most young, impressionable co-eds are powerless to combat or contradict any idea thrown their way, no matter how nonsensical. Using this picture-perfect set-up, one could conceivably convert an entire cadre of young minds into believing anything from the earth is flat to biological sex is a social construct (oh wait). The ideas themselves don’t matter, they are merely interchangeable software; it is the setting, the hardware itself, that acts as a powerful meme generating machine, and that must be changed before it breaks away from human design and takes on a life of its own, as it’s done at Evergreen State.

But just because people state they believe in some idea doesn’t mean they internally do. Psychologists have identified several different types of conformity. For example, normative conformity refers to changing behavior to fit group norms, while informational conformity is when a person looks to the group to decide what to think or believe. I would identify those individuals experiencing informational conformity as the aforementioned fence sitters. They may not have strong beliefs, or possess some beliefs that contradict the prevailing attitudes, but decide to conform to groupthink merely to conform. This group may be very large and may account for some of the most interesting social phenomena of recent decades.

Social scientist Timur Kuran, in his book Private Truths, Public Lies identifies a concept he calls “preference falsification,” in which individuals articulate preferences that are socially appropriate but do not reflect what they truly believe. This explains why a number of social movements, such as the Russian and Iranian Revolutions completely took observers by surprise. Most recently, the United States was stunned when Donald Trump defied virtually every single major poll to win the Presidential election. The theory of preference falsification suggests that large undercurrents of sentiment exist beyond social awareness and only need to be tapped into for the flood gates to open and for large scale changes to take place.

Let’s now takes all of these ideas to their natural conclusions in order to gain some understanding of how modernists can combat dangerously ridiculous belief systems, within the academy and without:

1) The campus environment is an ideal environment for conformity creep, starting from professors and then escalating quickly to the student body.

2) A high percentage of individuals will state things publicly that they know are patently wrong in order to conform.

3) Based on historical precedent, they likely embody a much higher percentage of any movement than true believers.

4) These “fence sitters” may quickly change their opinion en masse if they feel enough social support to challenge status quo conformity.

5) Because conformity is highest when individuals are exposed to the views of groups of at least 4 or 5, it is imperative that fence sitters are exposed to numerous examples of contradictory evidence.

So, what are the broad implications? I can explore this further in a part 3 if there is enough interest, but in brief, opponents of postmodernism-run-amok must continue to articulate their viewpoints as clearly and as often as possible. All of the articles, commentaries, and essays add up. People need to see that there is a large movement of individuals who disagree with anti-science so that it then becomes safer to align with them. In addition, universities should add requirements for all humanities students to take at least one or two classes in the hard sciences in order to expose them to alternative viewpoints—such as you know, science. I’m sure other readers and commenters will have their own ideas to add, but hopefully this essay provides a rough framework and clear justifications for creating a clear and organized modernist opposition to pseudoscience. The stakes have never been higher.

Filed under: Education

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Michael Aaron is the author of "Modern Sexuality: The Truth About Sex and Relationships," and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Visit his website at www.drmichaelaaronnyc.com.

36 Comments

  1. Matt says

    The first rule of holes: Stop digging.

    While we work to unbrainwash a few people, the universities are brainwashing thousands more. Shutting down federal student loans should be an important and early step to stop the digging.

    • LukeReeshus says

      Agreed, although I would go for limiting federal student loans before “shutting them down.” Doing so would be a good way to suppress the growth of bloated college administrations and other superfluous aspects of the modern American university, like state-of-the-art athletic facilities. In other words, it would be a good way to turn the modern American university from a post-high school singles resort back into, ya know, a university. “But that will mean less people can go to college. And people need an education to be competitive!” they will say. Fine. Far more people are going out for four-year degrees than really need them anyway. Re-route the money into other types of education, e.g. certification programs, apprenticeships, trade schools, etc.

      Those are all practical matters, though. I’m more interested in getting at the root of the problem, which is to say, at the ideology itself. For instance, I would go much further than requiring humanities students to take “one or two classes in the hard sciences.” (As far as I’m aware, they already do, at least in American universities.) While we can’t keep the literati from believing whatever romantic nonsense they want to, we can at least take away the gloss of historical / scientific legitimacy from their beliefs. So, to that end, the social sciences—all of them—should be folded into biology departments, in order that no one forgets that humans are, first and foremost, evolved organisms—not culturally inscribed blank slates. Second, the grievance studies—again, all of them—should be folded into history departments, in order that those who study cultures and human interactions at large can do so with some nuance—at least more nuance than they can with the premise “Western colonialism is the worst thing that has ever happened.” Courses on the Enlightenment (the historical touchstone of modernism) will be required throughout, with a special emphasis on what it was like before the Enlightenment, so that people stop taking it for granted (which is what postmodernists do, whether they know it or not).

      I realize, of course, that none of this is going to happen, at least not anytime soon. Maybe one day though, far in the future…

      • Jase-The-Ace says

        Much of what you describe sounds specifically like the epistemology of reductionism taken to the extreme, in fields that probably shouldn’t being using (or solely using) reductive methods, and bureaucracy gong mad and collapsing under its own weight; follow the money as they say!

        • LukeReeshus says

          I’m confused. It’s “reductionist” to claim that humans are evolved organisms and that there is more to history than the downsides of Western colonialism?

      • Santoculto says

        It’s “teaching” a binary version of recent human history where WHITES as a collective identity is/are blamed for ELITE past “mistakes” (euphemism). When you blame a people you are blaming a regular individuals.

        Again, social class struggle become a racial struggle or divide and conquer middle and working classes. It’s a elite plot to perpetuate in the power dysgenizing “the people”. We even can call this as a new “socialist” revolution instead capitalism and its inherent corruption really helps to sustain and increase it.

        And stupid people (regardless their IQ) are always invited to join to the ideological club because all ideology/religion/culture need true believers to increase “credibility” in the eyes of crowd.

        All discontents of old “golden” conservative order has been recruited to destroy it and with often very good and correct arguments.

        If people were more truly centrist I thought would be quite difficult to cheat them.

      • I suggest that unless the student has already passed differential and integral calculus and introductory statistics they do not have sufficient background to take and pass any “hard science” course.

  2. The problem with science that it has become a religion with all of the excesses and negatives which religions tend to contain because they see themselves as omnipotent.

    Religions as we have tended to know them have been patriarchal constructs and when Science set itself up as a counter to fundamentalist religion, it guaranteed, unconsciously, that it would become the opposite side of the same coin – another form of religion.

    Science sees the world as a material and mechanical construct, which is great for manmade machines and bits of equipment, but destructive, and often deadly for anything which belongs to the natural world, of which humans are a part.

    The ‘masculine’ approach from patriarchy is the foundation of this arrogant belief in the material and mechanical.

    • Duane says

      Material and mechanical. Natural.
      Your ‘insight’ is a distinction without a difference.

    • Santoculto says

      Absolutely agree.

      Science become a tools for powerful and often imoral people, to serve the elite interests and whatever failled current political system but specially capitalism. If originally, science was born from philosophy and was impregnating from philosophical ends: search for wisdom/harmony. Because no matter ”know the facts” if your intentions are not at least to achieve harmony, the fundamental truth of existence, everything that exist is balanced and living beings persecute this ends, to become balanced, stable, as a inanimate existences.

      Egalitarianism serve capitalistic globalism, as a global culture of artificial kindness and lack of logic, to disarm and conquer all people’s.

    • Jim says

      There is no problem with science and it has not “become a religion.” Science is a body of knowledge that is always open to scrutiny and testing. The “problem” people have with science is when a theory that individuals do not like cannot be falsified through the scientific method. This is when people say science is a “religion” or refer to science as person or group of people who have an agenda. Science is knowledge or a system of knowledge gained through observation and the results of testing over time.

      Science is the opposite of religion and it never “set itself up as a counter to fundamentalist religion.” Religion starts with the answer and does not allow that answer to be questioned. Science starts with a question and looks for the answer using the scientific method. This method is ALWAYS open for discussion, debate, ridicule and can be falsified.

      Science sees the world as material because the world IS material—and so are humans. It makes no sense to refer to science as an inferior way to make sense of the world. Is there a better way to make sense of the natural world? If so, what is it? Religion? Feelings? Tea leaves? Magic 8 ball?

      • A religion has laws and dogma which cannot be challenged.

        The dogma of modern science is that all can and must be reduced to the material. This is delusion when applied to the natural world, but, because it is dogma, that is what the scientific system of enquiry seeks to do.

        Like many who talk about Science, you talk about what it thinks it is, what it should be, not what it is.

        Religion does not begin with the answer which just goes to show you don’t know much about religion.

        However, science often begins with the answer and then proves it. Many of the greatest discoveries came in dreams or inspirations and were then proven. Ditto for religion.

        The method might be open for discussion and debate but only as long as no one challenges the materialist mantra, so it is not really open to question.

        Where science censors is in what can be studied and how.

        The world however is not purely material which is what science currently believes. That is the problem.

        A better way to make sense of the natural world is to recognise that nothing can be reduced to the material and mechanical as happens with manmade bits of equipment and machines.

        Objectivity would be useful as a scientific tool. Open minds, objectivity, ethics, would also help.

  3. Uri Harris says

    Nice article. Completely agree that there’s a quasi-religious element to the current state of affairs in academia and the culture.

    • Nate Spears says

      Not quasi-religious – it’s actually religious. Religions are about articulated belief systems and how individuals should order their thoughts and act.

      • Uri Harris says

        Good point. Although the problem with that definition is that it’s so broad that it covers a lot of clearly non-religious activities. Classical liberalism probably falls under it. So does science and mathematics arguably. Maybe even chess. I’m just not sure there is a definition that everyone can agree on.

  4. Regina says

    Great article and I think along with the requirement for students to take hard sciences that they should also have a course on basic statistics because concepts like “per capita” and how to interpret basic data are too often not understood allowing for students to be misled.

    I also believe viewpoint diversity, particularly in the humanities, is key to breaking through the postmodernist fog. Having instructors with competing viewpoints won’t allow for quite so much groupthink.

  5. Chris says

    The article remind me how fragile are the sources of alternative opinion. Some small websites,like this one, some YouTube channels which exist under threat of censorship, etc.
    It may be that these sources initiate a breakout of the fence sitters into a visible movement – despite Trump and Brexit I think we’re still in the time of disorganised, concealed opinion – and sources diversify and the jeopardy of censorship goes away. But right now we need to, at the very least, support the best sources of information with money

  6. Kat says

    Great article, but as a science lecturer at university I can assure you that we are under great pressure to drop the requirement for facts, knowledge, data analysis etc. from our courses and instead focus on social implications, feelings and so called transferable skills. Thus I am not sure you would get much help from insisting all students take science modules.

  7. Nate Spears says

    Great article. I would also suggest that writing articles and making facebook posts, etc, is not as valuable as finding someone with an opposing viewpoint in real life and having genuine dialogue with them. The online conversation adds some performative element that ties into all the issues you’ve delineated.

  8. what this analysis tells me is that people are stupid and easily mislead – nothing surprising there – and must be pointed toward the ‘truth’ – except that these people are too stupid to understand the the truth and therefore remain vulnerable to manipulation – and what is the indomitable tool of manipulation in our society? The media. ‘Truth’ doesn’t stand a chance.

  9. IIlIIlIIlll says

    So I guess for all of us who have no big audience, like students etc., and who are sitting in a department where things are getting weird, or are already, and we don’t know how to speak up without getting a full force backlash in return, a good idea would perhaps be the following:

    Since individuals are easier convinced than groups, first try to win the individuals in one to one conversations or in small groups of two or three. Once you have enough convinced the sentiment could flip, and its easier to speak out on a larger scale.

    Does this make sense?

  10. Jared Sampson says

    This is a terrific essay. I do note that the SJW crowd is clearly anti-intellectual. But the free-market ideologues who are religious Ayn Rand zealots have run econ departments as cults since the 1980s with real damage done by anti-fact nutjobs like Alan Greenspan. They are better at disguising themselves as academics, but not much. They have their own journals of false beliefs that don’t like dissent and have fancy sentences that when decoded into plain language are often truisms or provably false. A cult is a cult. Letting idiot anti-intellectuals take over a field is never good.

  11. Reading this article, reminded me of the several Nazi death camp guards who were prosecuted in the late 20th and early 21st Century. Uniformly, they were all non-German Baltic and Ukrainian peasants who became camp guards in their late teens or very early 20s.

    It struck me that the righteous indignation directed against them by the US, EU and BRD was quite misplaced in light of the very soft landing very many real Nazis enjoyed between 1945-70.

  12. Kathryn W. Kemp says

    Don’t dump on the humanities, which include courses in logic itself and in other fields that require the application of systematic thought. History, for example, demands that assertions be rational and based on verifiable evidence. (Remember all of those footnotes?) On the other hand, a typical college program in the US requires both math and science as part of the core curriculum. Exposure to the so-called “hard” sciences dose not seem to be a panacea. I suspect that the fact that the brain is still developing in the early 20s may be a significant factor into the rude behavior recently demonstrated on college campuses.

  13. Kathryn W. Kemp says

    Curses on auto correct! DOES not DOSE!

  14. Koken says

    You ask why so many people believe these things, but I’m not clear how many people do believe them. A survey showing 89% as left of centre does not mean that those people believe everything in every wacky article out there.

  15. The problem isn’t “postmodernism”, you dingus.

    The problem is that academia has been overrun by communists/marxists and other far left lunatics.

    These people will push whatever pseudoscience suits them in order to brainwash an entire generation of young people so they can undermine western civilization.

    Do you think that’s a coincidence that the Left has been saying that Jihad is a good thing, while saying that western values is White Supremacy?

    It is time for a robust conservative movement to appear in order to combat the lunacy that the Left is spewing.

  16. The campus, or control-left is a feedback loop of teacher/student/meme media intra-generational & cross generational, now evolving- culturally baked in consesnus on how to find individuated empowerment through shared means. Those means are inherantly & self evidently the recourse of a person prone to blame and shame, a juvenile being energized & enabled by group signifiers.

    Those means are the systems of logic which initiate a space of non negotiation and of zero forgiveness for transgressions of a code. That code is subject to change, and so- like a juvenile is in a tortured and trackless flux and premised only on what it feels… which is blame and shame. The value set at the floor of the code is self pity, loathing and rage embedded in a loss of childhood.

    This gives rise to a desire to kill dad. The motivation to patricide stems from an emasculated relationship to work and courting sexual models of health (whatever orientation) and even food or vital resource gathering including a language for our place in a villiage and in a group in relationship to land.

    All of this disempowered hysterics come from the most privileged and least grateful.

    Those least connected to their bodies/emotional intelligence as a means to find any affect will find a great home on this Left. Those who have been spoiled into a deep resentment at that which has spoiled them, which is in some ways a very natural reflex which one we can sympathize with to a point, these people will be at home. If they age out of the containers (school, rallying social incubators) for this rage and still hold these means and codes as dogmatically ideal then they likely have mental health issues which transcend any political posturing.

    One can be sympathetic to the desire to set sail and to free one’s-self from the constraints of a coddled mind which digs it’s heels in finally and proclaims that an injustice has been done. It has….

    It is the injustice of a culture raising another largely spiritually voided generation of relativist-hedonists who are told to value perversion and various deep layers of irony (which is all fun and stuff but not the apex of vertue) over the courage of honesty and conviction. A conviction premised on some moral truth set inside of the individuated heart/mind . This should be the goal, in order to truly protect that mind and heart of an individual which will ensure a rational strength and consequently a healthy and diverse group capible of negotiation and consesnsus.

  17. Bill Haywood says

    This article is not complete, it lacks a crucial component of a finished argument.. It claims various psychological factors can influence people, and then says they must explain the political positions that students took at Evergreen. But there is no data whatsoever from Evergreen. We are just asked to believe that generic psychological theories described in one article were at work in a campus contretemps described in another. There is not even an attempt to link these psychological theories to specific statements or acts of the students. This is a huge deficiency, especially from an author with the pretense of clinical rigor. Add to this that as several posts about the other article showed, the author does not even know what postmodernism is and makes large errors in describing it. This is hack work.

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