In Defense of Objective Knowledge
Louis Pasteur. Portrait, 1885 by painter Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905). Oil on canvas. Detail: Laboratory material. Orsay Museum.

In Defense of Objective Knowledge

Peter L. Levin
Peter L. Levin

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
~Martin Luther King

Some ideas achieve longevity because they are relentlessly exposed to challenge, falsification, and disconfirmation. At the scale of nations, anti-fragile constitutions that enshrine individual freedoms, personal liberties, and legal amendment fare better than societies that prioritize the special interests of the state, racial identity, males, or religious cohorts. At the scale of firms, ideas for products and services must eventually lead to profits, and stand-alone enterprises will only thrive longterm if they continuously deliver innovations that lower production costs, sustainably meet consumer needs, or both. For all its myriad defects and inequities there is simply no better idea than liberal capitalism for both countries and companies. We’ve tried. Nothing works better over time.

At the other end of the epistemic spectrum are ideas that are provably mistaken, emotionally motivated, or simply wrong. Until recently, these eventually burned themselves out because the barkers who promoted them—the ecclesiasts, the megalomaniacs, the charlatans, the quacks—were ultimately ignored, exposed, or fired. Threats of hellfire could not protect purveyors of guilt and pretense from real people who were hungry, infected, bankrupt, or bereaved. Lies eventually cannibalized their hosts and withered.

Alas, today’s franchisees of untruth garner unnatural attention because they paint on digital canvases. Horrifyingly destructive memes are splashed impulsively, propagated quickly, and shielded cynically from open debate. Discourse that was once self-attenuating has become self-reinforcing. The consequence of this electronic climate change is a hothouse of unfounded animosity, thoughtless in-group allegiance and out-group hatred, and rough coercion of teleologic thought and coordinated behavior.

The illiberal Left violates the core tenet of individual dignity (“all whites are racist”), and the authoritarian Right violates the core tenet of truth-telling (“January 6th was a peaceful protest”). Ideological purity tests the boundaries of both constitutional law with baseless appeals for a recount, and of objective knowledge with baseless casuistries of lived experience.

Their entangled sailcloths are woven from the same fragile threads of group entitlement, righteous anger, and retribution visited upon those who question their madness. Their reciprocally irrational abstractions erupt in corporeal violence, on the streets or in the Capitol. Their unreasoned messages collide in the confusion. Both sides ferociously squelch debate and attempt to muffle objective knowledge production wherever and whenever it fails to serve their respective goals.

Racism, misogyny, bigotry, and prejudice are as objectively real as Trump losing the 2020 presidential election and COVID vaccine safety. But which is worse: the bursting hernia of science denial on the Right or the asphyxiating obstruction of motivated thinking from the Left? Both destroy the body politic. Epistemic rigidity is the dominant characteristic; the combatants reject truth and verifiable facts on one hand, and dismiss evidence and intent on the other. False communion is their only reward.

But the apparent safety is a mirage, and, in the era of pandemic, lethal. In his new book, Woke Racism, John McWhorter calls this the “catechism of contradiction.” At some point, the economically, educationally, and environmentally disgusted will organize and purge. The question is how long it will take, and at what cost in time, treasure, and lives?

Consider, for example, the case of Bari Weiss, who resigned from the New York Times 16 months ago, after being subject to what she has described as a "hostile work environment" in part because she questioned “social justice movements that have taken root in recent years.” In her resignation letter, she wrote:

[The] lessons that ought to have followed the election [of 2016]—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.

If Bari Weiss or Nicholas Christakis or Steven Pinker can be publicly eviscerated as bigots, racists, and homophobes, my episode seems mild indeed. But the disease—disregard of truth and the process of finding it, contortion of disagreement into blistering personal attack—is the same, and it is spreading.

In my career I’ve been a tenured engineering professor, a public official, and a start-up entrepreneur. Remarkably little about my formal training or professional experience would recommend me as an expert in progressive entitlement, or the faux curricula of gender, sexuality, and race. I was involuntarily thrust into that world by lies on a public website, and I chose not to remain silent about it.

With the help of a human resources professional, my company surgically removed the lesions of workplace activism. We achieved this by rejecting identity-driven prejudices, and with authentic care for people and their careers. That went—and goes—for everybody, irrespective of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, rank, status, and politics.

I was not and am not interested in sanitized differences for the sake of artificial harmony. I was then and remain committed to creating an environment in which employees can discuss their personal lives and outside-of-work experiences, within reason, without fear of them being weaponized or worse. We welcome people who think, vote, and pray differently. It helps if they enjoy and can take constructive feedback about their work. We are interested in discussions about objective standards of good design or good software, the benefits of authentic collaboration and trust-building behavior, our proscriptive style guide, and our commitment to on-time, high-quality, at-cost delivery. We list “a good sense of humor” among our position requirements.

Principled debate about racism and gender prejudice is not only possible, it is vital. Evidence-free convictions that any company (especially those led by Caucasians and cisgendered males) is irredeemably broken and can only be mended by public confession and continuous re-examination of systemic prejudice is as wrong as evidence-free convictions that vaccines don’t work or that the 2020 election was a sham. Although our public sphere is still democratic, our private workplaces are not. Indeed, this is exactly why victimization and conspiracy meta-narratives are doomed to failure. They do not—literally cannot—deliver a profitable product or service or keep a free country safe from its totalitarian enemies, foreign or domestic.

My company’s credo is that:

Our highest human resource goal is to screen for and nurture employees who, beyond their capability, credentials, or experience, share a profound commitment to supportive interaction and effective collaboration. An undercurrent of presumed bias because of any attribute of personal identity is abhorrent to leadership and hurtful to the morale and cohesion of the enterprise.

Colleagues who do not believe this tend to have shorter tenures. I am not saying offense is not possible and does not occur, just that when it does it is wrong, no matter who violates the credo, or why. Both the unfounded accusation and the sincere apology are opportunities to learn to be less sensitive and more aware, respectively.

Liberal secularization succeeds; it illuminates the difference between commercial exploration and selfish exploitation. There is a large middle ground between “I built this” rents that accrue to the lucky and the talented, and “I want this” rants of the indolent and illiberal. Kinney Zalesne makes a similar point, describing her experience of pivoting “from head-to-head to shoulder-to-shoulder, working side by side on a common project.”

I fear the situation is going to get much worse before it gets better. In August, Quillette published a piece that reaches even further upstream. While we are dumbing down our K-12 math curricula in favor of bullshit definitions of “data science” and cultural sensitivity, our Chinese competitors are producing more objective knowledge, and more knowledgeable people, than we are:

In order to achieve what the authors call “equity” in math education, the [proposed California] framework would effectively close the main pathway to calculus in high school to all students except those who take extra math outside school—which, in practice, means students from families that can afford enrichment programs (or those going to charter and private schools). [...]
The authors write that “a fundamental aim of this framework is to respond to issues of inequity in mathematics learning”; that “we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents [and the] cult of the genius”; and that “active efforts in mathematics teaching are required in order to counter the cultural forces that have led to and continue to perpetuate current inequities.” And yet the research they cite to justify these claims has been demonstrated to be shallow, misleadingly applied, vigorously disputed, or just plainly wrong.

The emphasis here is mine and it is reminiscent of Antoine Lavoisier’s death sentence during the French Revolution because “The Republic [had] no need of savants.” He invented chemistry. Where does the California Department of Education think electricity, airplanes, GPS, and nitrogen-fixed fertilizers come from? I would previously have included a list of life-saving and provably safe vaccines, but apparently that is contentious now. The Chinese are not confused about this.

Lost wars, like lost competitions, have consequences. The French submarine manufacturers have no diversity officer or woke administrator to whom they can appeal because their feelings were hurt by the Australians. America will be in the same diesel boat if we start losing billion-dollar deals in AI, telecom, and especially semiconductors to China. We are not so different from France, and our prelapsarian approach to forever debts that support forever conflicts has no positive precedent in history. Our preoccupation with non-productive—in fact, destructive—contrivances of amplified offense and obfuscations of knowledge offers, as Dalrymple said of Zweig, “no protection against the enemies of freedom.”

But first we’ll be shellacked in the market. Well-intended parents and teachers who wanted to nourish healthy self-esteem produced instead a nihilistic menagerie of unintended consequences. They unwisely traded the recognition of real achievement for the empty satisfaction of participation awards. Another serious problem lies in our universities, which are neurotically and cravenly conflict-averse. Now employers are faced with a large segment of new workforce entrants who never learned to lose with grace and introspection, bruise a knee or an ego, or understand both can heal with time, effort, humility, and a thicker skin. Instead, they learned to privatize the tribal validation of deflected fault, and socialize the pain of poor grades, poor performance, or poor workplace evaluation by blaming others. For them, criticism can only be born of oppression, supremacy, and subjugation. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay pointed out in their book Cynical Theories:

The job of the Theorist as activist is to scrutinize texts, events, culture, activities, places, spaces, attitudes, mindsets, phrasing, dress, and every other conceivable cultural artifact for hidden bigotry, and expose it and purge it from its sources from society—or at least access to the means of cultural production.

I focus my attention on liberals because I am one, and because our faults are no less dangerous to democracy than anti-intellectual alternative truthers. The unfounded feelings-based skepticism of postmodern theorists about objective knowledge weaken our legitimacy at the ballot box and hurt us in the global market.

So, I reject and abjure the oppression and victimization narratives, safe-thought spaces on campus, and the ascension of emotion-laden theories. We are becoming just as impenetrable to fact- and evidence-based examinations of our ideological defects and moral blemishes as any right-wing science denier. Our sanctimonious wedge is just as heavy and sharp. Every day we pound it deeper in the name of our oppression and their ignorance, as if that elevates the debate or teaches the other side an electoral lesson. The theorist crowd is fighting fire with fire. They’re scorching their ideological supporters.

In her recent piece on acidic skepticism, Katha Pollitt quotes Voltaire: “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” We desperately need the light that exposes absurdities, or we will relive the atrocities we collectively promised never to forget. The esteemed electric power engineer and eyewitness to Nazi massacre, Hans Steinbigler, told me more than once, “It won’t get better till we make it better.” Many years later, when I was the chief technology officer at Veterans Affairs, Secretary Eric Shinseki, who had served as chief of staff of the United States Army during 9/11, told me exactly the same thing. Objective knowledge is the only path home.

I close with an unequivocal expression of my personal commitment to social justice and for civil, human, women’s, and individual rights. And I put my time and money where my mouth is. I founded a company eight years ago, and have created jobs for 70 people who “look like our country” and who provide excellent data management services to the government and private-sector customers. The last two words of McWhorter’s book is an admonition to “stand up.” Amida is the transliteration of the Hebrew word that means, literally, “to stand up.” Our name and very existence are the bulwark he teaches.

Politicseconomics

Peter L. Levin

Peter L. Levin was a Clinton and Obama Administration appointee. He’s now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and co-founder and CEO of Amida Technology Solutions, Inc.