Does Paul Krugman Understand Intellectual Diversity?

Does Paul Krugman Understand Intellectual Diversity?

Nicholas Phillips
Nicholas Phillips

Earlier this month, New York Times opinion columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote a striking column that criticized left-leaning publications that hire conservatives in the name of intellectual diversity. Krugman’s argument is simple: these efforts will fail because there aren’t any conservatives worth hiring. Kevin Williamson isn’t merely one bad apple, and the Atlantic wasn’t merely unlucky. The whole conservative barrel is rotten, and every publication that goes bobbing in it will come up with a mouthful of worms.

Is this because there aren’t any smart, talented conservatives? No, Krugman assures us—in his own field of economics, there are plenty of conservative economists with appointments at top universities and publications in top journals. The trouble is they have no influence on the modern GOP, and this state of affairs makes many of the smart, talented ones contort their positions in a bid for influence. He writes:

Am I saying that there are no conservative economists who have maintained their principles? Not at all. But they have no influence, zero, on GOP thinking. So in economics, a news organization trying to represent conservative thought either has to publish people with no constituency or go with the charlatans who actually matter.

The implied problem, as Krugman sees it, is that a liberal publication seeking to feature conservative ideas should want ideas that are both popular and high-quality. But because the modern GOP is popular and taken with low-quality ideas, a liberal publication cannot get both, so it must choose between conservative ideas that are good and conservative ideas that are popular.

But this assumption is unstable. Krugman takes it as a given that intellectual diversity holds no value for a liberal publication if the high-quality conservative ideas it seeks to elevate aren’t actually popular on the Right. He apparently thinks that intellectual diversity must benefit both sides—liberal voters hear good new ideas from their opponents, and conservative voters get the benefits of having their views included on prestigious liberal platforms like the Atlantic. Krugman is essentially saying that if you can’t do both, you should do neither.

This reasoning collapses with a moment’s reflection, for the simple reason that good conservative ideas benefit liberals whether or not they’re popular. If Krugman had said that good conservative ideas didn’t exist, he would be wrong on the merits, but his position would at least be consistent—if you don’t think you can learn anything from conservative scholarship, there’s no sense listening to its practitioners. But he’s not saying that. And this suggests that he doesn’t fully understand why intellectual diversity is worth pursuing.

Intellectual diversity addresses a fundamental problem in human cognition: we seek out information that confirms the views we already have. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, this instinct is well-adapted to creating intra-group solidarity, which is useful when competing for power with other groups. But if the goal is to seek the truth, it’s poison. If everyone in your group shares the same biases, that group will block new information that doesn’t conform to those biases. Since no one is right 100 percent of the time, this dynamic guarantees that falsehoods will persist.1

One solution is to attempt to purge individuals of their biases. But cognitive psychologists don’t yet understand how to do this. The only method that reliably solves the confirmation bias problem is to create groups made up of individuals with different biases. In such an environment, countervailing biases checks one another, prodding at weak points and raising questions a colleague didn’t think to ask. This dynamic is highly adapted to truth-seeking, because it forces every person to justify their biases on grounds other than tribalism.

Once we understand intellectual diversity this way, we can clearly see that left-leaning publications do their readers a service by elevating ideas that challenge prevailing assumptions. Progressive orthodoxies have often been wrong: entire generations of the Left’s most accomplished thinkers devoted themselves to Marxism. No progressive should feel confident that their side’s leading lights are truth personified. Instead, they should wonder what other falsehoods are lurking behind the group confirmation bias.

While exposure to high-quality ideas is an unqualified good, inclusion is not. Inclusion is often valuable, but it is not always so. There are no benefits to including people that are objectively wrong—a university astronomy department should not hire a flat-earther in the name of inclusion. There are ideas that are objectively wrong in politics, too. It is harder to identify them, but the moral horrors of the past confirm that they exist. If a segment of the electorate suddenly embraced unadulterated Stalinism, the harms of inclusion would outweigh the benefits. The same goes for fascism and the worst ideas of the conservative tradition.

Other commentators have assumed, like Krugman, that elevating reformicons, moderates, and other idiosyncratic thinkers isn’t worthwhile because Republican voters don’t actually care what people like Ross Douthat have to say. This is partially the fault of intellectual diversity defenders who market the concept as a way to ‘understand what the other side is thinking’ and shatter the echo chambers that led to Trump’s election. That project has great social value, but it’s not the same value that intellectual diversity is engineered to create.

Liberals should read Breitbart because it’s important to understand the grievances of a large percentage of the American electorate. Ross Douthat should be read for entirely different reasons—his substantive critique of social progressivism has great intellectual merit, and a progressivism forced to rebut it will be a better progressivism.

John Stuart Mill once remarked approvingly that the Catholic Church appoints a devil’s advocate to argue against the canonization of a potential saint. “The holiest of men,” Mill wrote, “cannot be admitted to posthumous honors until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed.” But the Church didn’t appoint the devil’s advocate in order to ensure that the devil’s supporters would feel included. Nor did it seek to better understand the devil. It sought the only thing that intellectual diversity can reliably give us: a better understanding of the truth.

 

Nicholas Phillips is a research associate at Heterodox Academy and president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society. Follow him on Twitter at @czar_nicholas_

Reference:

1 “Race and the Race for the White House: On Social Research in the Age of Trump” al Gharbi, M. Am Soc (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9373-5

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