Teenage Wasteland

An Interview with Clay Routledge at Psychology Today

This interview was originally published at Psychology Today. Read the original here.

Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, an online magazine that publishes essays on a range of topics related to politicssocial life, science, and academia. The magazine is quickly becoming a highly respected outlet for open discussion of topics in psychology and the social and behavioral sciences.

I reached out to Claire to discuss Quillette and the role she thinks it can play in academic and public conversations about issues relevant to psychology and related fields.

Could you describe what Quillette is for Psychology Today readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

Quillette is an online magazine (you can find it at Quillette.com) and we publish articles on politics, science (predominantly social science and psychology) as well as history, art and culture.

What inspired you to create Quillette?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I think there was a confluence of factors. I had been writing a few columns for the local Sydney newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald, and I was very aware that I couldn’t write anything that was too academic or scholarly, and I also couldn’t write anything that was too politically incorrect. It felt very constrained.

I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.

I have seen a number of fascinating psychology-related essays in Quillette on topics such as the role of gender differences in modern professional life, the value of neurodiversity, the nature vs. nurture debate in child development, and how psychedelics could be beneficial in mental health treatment. Did you set out to create a specific space for psychology in your magazine or did this happen more organically?

Thanks. I’m lucky enough to know a lot of interesting researchers (such as yourself) mainly through online networks such as Twitter and have simply been lucky in attracting many interesting submissions. I think I just created a space for unusual viewpoints — but because my own education has been in psychology, and I know several academics in that area, I guess there has been a positive feedback loop that has encouraged this focus.

Quillette has received high praise from some very influential scholars and public intellectuals. This is impressive considering that there is a dizzying number of online magazines, podcasts, blogs, and vlogs focused on politics, science, and social life. What do you think you are uniquely tapping into that has captured the attention of influential thinkers?

Yes, it’s been very humbling to have such support. I think that we are simply offering up an alternative to the blank slate view of human nature that appears to be dominant within the media ecosystem.

The blank slate view, which is the idea that who we are is entirely or predominantly the product of culture and socialization, is very common in left-leaning media. And left-leaning media also happens to provide most of today’s science journalism. It’s kind of ironic, because the convergent evidence coming out of evolutionary psychology, biology, behavioural genetics and neuroscience that falsifies this blank slate view is simply incontrovertible at this point, but most of the media, and even the popular science media keep clinging to it. At times it’s just embarrassing.

Another factor is that although conservative or libertarian magazines are less wedded to blank slate dogmas, they nevertheless do not give a lot of space to science journalism. So there is a gap in the market for data driven, scientifically literate commentary that does not conform to an outdated view of human nature. Quillette has just run with this.

Have you faced any serious backlash for publishing diverse perspectives on politically charged and socially sensitive topics?

In my personal life, no, not at all. I haven’t lost any friends and I’ve only gained new ones. I live in Australia which has both drawbacks and advantages. One of the drawbacks is that there isn’t a very strong intellectual culture here, but one of the advantages is that people are much more chilled out about politics. Politics doesn’t take over people’s lives here, and it’s very normal for people to have friends from across the political spectrum. I really notice a difference when comparing it to the U.S.

That said, Quillette did publish an article on The Google Memo which was received negatively by some, so much so that the website, which was running on minimal infrastructure at the time, became the target of a successful denial of service attack! But thankfully that was resolved, and many people generously pitched in to offer support and donations.

Some of us in the academy are concerned about ideological bias and campus censorship harming academic culture and scholarship, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Quillette has published a number of relevant articles and interviews (including some by and with me). Have these issues influenced your approach to Quillette?  

Absolutely. I have enormous respect for creativity and risk taking. It doesn’t matter what the domain is, whether it is art or science or entrepreneurship, you have to take risks to move culture forward. Local cultures on many campuses are not conducive to risk taking and creativity in all sorts of ways, from over-bureaucratization, to oppressive social and speech norms. So my goal with Quillette is to provide a ‘safe space’ for people, academics or otherwise, who have novel ideas but who might feel stifled by such norms.

Just as an aside, I think the problems within higher education go far beyond left-leaning bias. For example, we rarely give serious consideration to the financial and opportunity costs that young people are burdened with, and how this likely exacerbates economic inequalities. We rarely talk about how universities have abdicated their mission of preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of western civilization. The elite schools in America seem more invested in being finishing schools for the wealthy than in preserving the integrity of their liberal arts courses. Of course STEM education is as vital as ever, but STEM training is only a small part of the higher education system.

So I think universities need to be disrupted somehow, but I’m not smart enough to work out how to do that. But I know that Jordan Peterson wants to develop an online accreditation system for humanities education, which I think is a really good idea.

Thank you for your time. How can interested readers find and support Quillette?

Thanks for having me! You can read us online at Quillette.com, and you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter via our website. You can also support us through patronage on our Patreon page.

Just a final word: one risk is that Quillette will become its own little echochamber. I wish we had more left-leaning writers, particularly writing on issues of class and how scarcity of opportunities and resources may be driving political polarization. I’d love to publish more articles on animal rights, effective altruism and progressive policies that would help young parents at work (I’m a young parent). And I’d love to discover some new writing talent: If you want to write for Quillette email me: claire[at]quillette.com

Stress and the Paradox of Female Happiness

This essay was included in the monograph titled “Gifted Women, Fragile Men” submitted to the European Parliament in March 2017. Read the original essay here.

Since the 1960s women have entered the workforce and have achieved financial independence. It has become socially acceptable to leave unhappy marriages. Through careers, women gain status and enjoy intellectual fulfilment and have less pressure on them to conform to narrow stereotypes of what it means to be a “woman”. The stigma that once existed around free expression of female sexuality has softened, and legislation is in place to protect women from sexual harassment. By dozens of objective measures, women in the West have never enjoyed more rights and have never been more liberated. But for all of this improvement it appears that many women are stressed, tired, overwhelmed and unhappy.

In recent years, psychologists have found that women are much more likely than men to suffer from emotional disorders. In 2013, Oxford Professor Daniel Freeman observed that women were 75 per cent more likely than men to report having depression and 60 per cent more likely to report having an anxiety disorder.

Last year, a team led by a group of researchers at Cambridge also found that women were much more likely to have experienced anxiety, particularly within Anglo and European cultures.2 These results also support a 2009 study by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, which found that women reported higher levels of happiness than men in the 1960s, but that this gender gap has now reversed.3 Freeman, a clinical psychologist, noticed a gap in the literature on sex differences in mental health conditions and investigated national mental health surveys taken from the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health disorders, with the sharpest discrepancies being in depression and anxiety. Freeman was careful to examine whether women were more likely to report health problems than men, or more willing than men to seek help. In his 2013 book, The Stressed Sex, 1 co-written with his brother Jason, and published by Oxford University Press, the authors conclude that while self-report and women’s help-seeking behaviours may have an impact, they could not solely explain the differences found between the genders. They show that while men suffer higher rates of substance abuse, ADHD and autism, women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders – and that the rates of these conditions are also on the rise.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a systematic review of studies that reported on the proportion of people with anxiety in a variety of contexts around the world.2 They found that women are almost twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, and that people living in Europe and North America are disproportionately affected. These results also converge with a study which looked at data stretching over 35 years which found that women’s happiness had declined relative to men’s. In their 2009 paper The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that women reported higher levels of happiness in the 1960s and were happier relative to men.3 But by 2009, the gender gap had reversed, with men being the happier sex. The decline in female subjective wellbeing was found to cut across both class and race and held true for women of all ages, with children and without. This cross-temporal study raised interesting questions.

A decline in happiness over 35 years cannot be attributed to such things as genetics – the cause must be largely environmental – adding weight to Freeman’s hypothesis that women are the “stressed sex”. Yet there are no simple explanations for these data. The causes of mental illness are complex and there is very rarely one single factor to blame. Psychologists will look at a range of variables in an attempt to understand why a disorder develops, and biological factors, thought processes, social structures and local cultures are all involved. When it comes to anxiety and depression, evidence suggests that the proximate causes of neurochemistry and thinking styles are heavily implicated, and can dovetail to create the conditions in which a disorder arises. Studies have found that women faced with life stressors are more likely to ruminate, while men are more likely to engage in “problem- focused coping.”4 Notwithstanding this finding, however, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research in January 2017 found that while women do ruminate more than men, this is not able to explain the entirety of the marked discrepancy found in rates of depression.5 Which indicates that there must be other underlying causes.

Another trigger of emotional disorders in women, are reproductive events that affect a woman across her lifespan. It has long been known that female sex hormones can trigger emotional instability and that marked changes in hormonal levels can develop into premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression and postmenopausal depression.5When a woman is pregnant, the surges she experiences in oestrogen (a 50 fold increase) and progesterone (a 100 fold increase) are intense.

6 These hormonal surges are thought to trigger repetitive thoughts, fixations and impulsive behaviours that can become highly distressing. 6 During pregnancy, the stress hormone cortisol also spikes, as does testosterone, preparing the mother for the vigilance required to protect her newborn. 6 After pregnancy, the drop in oestrogen and progesterone can lead to “hormonal deficiency” which is likewise associated with disruptive emotional experiences.6

Scientists now also know that becoming a mother also has long term effects on a woman’s brain.7 It was recently discovered that when women become mothers, the grey matter volume in regions subserving social cognition is pruned away during the final stages of pregnancy.7 This again, is thought to be an adaptive measure to help themother focus on her highly vulnerable infant. In this context of rearing children,women’s propensity to ruminate – while distressing for the mother – can be also be seen as an adaptation from an evolutionary standpoint. The developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson has suggested that in precarious environments (such as those that would have been shared by our ancestors) women may have evolved to worry about their own health and the health of their children, in order to survive. It is likely that women who were more vigilant about protecting their children from threats were more successful in passing along their genes to successive generations than women who were less vigilant. Therefore this susceptibility for worry may have been selected for, indeed, in her book Warriors and Worriers, Benenson has said that “anxiety is part of what it means to be a woman.”8

There are many biological mechanisms unique to women which may drive women’s propensity towards depression and anxiety. And while rumination may have originally been an adaptation, it is clear that excessive worry is not serving women well in modern western societies. The hypothesis presented in The Stressed Sex – that women are increasingly over-worked, overwhelmed, tired and rushed – remains compelling.1 It may be that women’s own biological predisposition towards anxiety may make them more reactive to stressful life events (such as giving birth) and chronic life stressors (such as working full-time while raising children). And when biological vulnerabilities towards emotional disorders are combined with the increasingly complex and busy lifestyles that most women in the west live, we may have a recipe for a widespread mental health problems.

Some will say the decline in women’s happiness are due to ongoing prejudices against women, structural barriers, and patriarchal oppression. While these issues may be a factor, especially in the context of the unequal distribution of domestic labour, it is clear that the increase in emotional disorders amongst women has arisen in concert with an increase in the amount of hours worked by women outside of the home.2 In the U.S., half of all two parent families have both parents working full-time.9 In most cases, women still do the bulk of the “second shift” when they get home; the child-care and the housework, making lunches, and packing school bags and so on. In survey results collected by Pew Research Center, 56% of working parents said that they found balancing work/life difficult, and that parenting was “tiring” and “stressful”.9

Today, life is a struggle for many middle-class working families, for both men and women. But women are particularly sensitive to social rejection, and anxiety and depression often hit us when we feel as though we don’t measure up. With so many domains to now excel in, it is understandable that women may feel less than adequate for not achieving excellence in all of them. Women make constant decisions about how to parcel out their time most efficiently. And the conflicts between careers and time spent with children as well as relationships and domestic labour are almost impossibleto resolve and create an backdrop of tension in the majority of women’s lives. Making apriority of one area always leaves another to be neglected (even just for a short time). Men too face these challenges, but for women it seems these trade-offs are pressure- cooked. The unending negotiation of conflicting life domains takes an emotional toll.

If we are to take the science of sex differences in mental health seriously, we mustacknowledge that women may be more susceptible to developing emotional disorders in response to stress. At the same time, a cautious approach needs to be taken to ensure that women are not cast as “less capable” than men, particularly in the context of high- pressure careers. Women have worked hard to be taken seriously within the professions and within the public and private spheres, and losing ground in these domains would be extremely regrettable. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that significant events in a woman’s life – such as giving birth – are anxiety inducing, and that women need a great deal of support when these events occur. The feminist ideal of “independence” might have to give way to a refocus on inter-dependence, both within families and within communities, if women’s stress levels are to be reined in.

Finally, discussions on this issue must not be stalled by the political sensitivity of the topic and acknowledging scientific data should not be seen as a blow to gender equality.

Recognising that women are stressed, should not precipitate unfair or unequal treatment. On the contrary, recognising sex differences in mental health may actually promote more ethical policies within the workplace, in recognition of the vital work that women do in the home. When women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, we must use the best tools in our intellectual toolkit to understand why, and how we can best alleviate them.

References

1. Freeman, D., & Freeman, J. (2013). The stressed sex: Uncovering the truth about men, women, and mental health. Oxford University Press.

2. Remes, O., Brayne, C., Linde, R., & Lafortune, L. (2016). A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations. Brain and Behavior, 6(7).

3. Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2009). The Paradox of Declining Female Happines. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(2), 190-225.

4. McLean, C. P., & Anderson, E. R. (2009). Brave men and timid women? A review of the gender differences in fear and anxiety. Clinical psychology review, 29(6), 496-505.

5. Sundström Poromaa, I., Comasco, E., Georgakis, M. K., & Skalkidou, A. (2017). Sex differences in depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 95(1-2), 719-730.

6. Albert, P. R. (2015). Why is depression more prevalent in women?. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 40(4), 219.

7. Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García-García, D., & Ballesteros, A. (2016). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience.

8. Benenson, J. F. (2014). Warriors and worriers: The survival of the sexes. Oxford University Press.

9. Pew Research Center. (2015) Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load. Washington D.C.

 

Motherhood on Campus and at Work

Born in the 1980s, my generation has grown up hearing from our elders that gender is a fiction. “Men and women are the same,” my humanities lecturers taught me. “To romanticize motherhood is to do women an injustice,” we’re told.

Parenthood for women, we learned, should be the same as parenthood for men. It should be optional, and it should be delayed. And if we opt-in, home duties should be delegated fifty-fifty, after some careful negotiation. This is the ethical, progressive way to start a family.

Millennial women of a certain class have grown up internalizing these messages. We heed the lessons of our foremothers. We know that whatever maternal urges we may have, they have to wait. And there is nothing inherently “female” about care-giving, anyway. If we think there is, it is because we have been brainwashed by dominant social norms.

But what if reality were not so simple?

What if the notion that gender is a fiction—(that psychologically, physically and emotionally, men and women are pretty much the same)—actually hinders some of the changes that would make life better for a great deal of women?

When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the early ‘60s, she had already gone through early motherhood, and she had already established herself as a freelance journalist. She urged unfulfilled housewives (or mothers) to experience the dignity of paid work, but in her narrative, there was no question of ever having to make a choice between the two.

Since Friedan’s seminal text, paid work has been the feminist prescription for the problem with no name. And this prescription—in concert with a free-market system—has revolutionized all Western liberal economies for the better. Countries that have not legislated for equal opportunities for women flounder in economic mediocrity. So in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is more than an issue of feminine identity or middle-class self-actualization. Our progress depends on it. If a society handicaps a woman’s ability to generate social or economic capital, the society is handicapping itself.

It turns out, however, that combining work and motherhood—particularly early motherhood—is not so easy. Women must engage with the workforce (and higher education) on men’s terms. That is, we must prove that we are capable of economic or intellectual productivity during our peak childbearing years. It is an emotional and physical feat not expected of men.

This challenge affects women of all races, classes, and backgrounds who have, or want to have, children. Even for women who work and study on university campuses, which are the home of the purportedly progressive gender-studies departments, this challenge finds no amelioration.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Mason, in Do Babies Matter? (2013), points out that in the U.S., pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest contributors to female drop-out rates in grad-school and post-doctoral positions. Married mothers are 35% less likely to gain tenure-track positions than their male counterparts, while single women without children are almost as likely as men to gain tenured jobs.

Despite these facts, when it comes to gender gaps in income, political representation, and more, we tend to focus most of our attention on sexual harassment and implicit sex biases. But if we were to direct our efforts to what the empirical evidence suggests is the most pressing concern for women—family responsibilities—we might make more progress towards leveling the playing field. U.S. workplaces could start by offering paid parental leave, which would help them retain talented, experienced women in their workforce (as well as helping those women fulfill their responsibilities as mothers). And beyond the first year following child-birth, research shows that women’s overwhelming preference is to work part-time, while having access to affordable childcare. Accommodating these preferences would ensure that more women could participate in the economy without sacrificing their family lives.

Of course, no top-down policy, however well-designed, will solve any problem entirely, and some workplaces cannot afford to provide the benefits that young parents want. Small businesses and start-ups, for example, require around-the-clock dedication. But arguably, public and private higher education institutions are different. Completing graduate school, followed by a post-doctoral appointment, takes many years and can be a long journey. And while education is a profit-driven industry, it also retains a vital public function. Ideally, talented young women who aspire to become academics, but who wish to start their families also, would be able to do so.

It is not unusual for some feminist scholars to argue that making special accommodations for women sets women back. Women shouldn’t be treated any differently from men, and if they are, they’re likely to lose respect. This argument had merit a few decades ago, but for my generation it rings hollow. Apart from a few isolated outposts of sexism, women generally do not have to worry about receiving condescending treatment like they once did. Girls born after second wave of the women’s movement have been raised in egalitarian families with working mothers. We do not know a world in which women’s economic independence is not a reality.

Similarly, for reasons that probably made sense at the time, the women’s movement, historically, was afraid of the family. Earlier feminists who wanted to free women from the kitchen sink had to put family a distant second, to the priority of establishing economic participation.

But in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is a fact of life, and there is no longer an excuse for dismissing children. The desires of the majority of women to combine career and family are legitimate. Some five decades after Friedan wrote, it should not be an impossible or unrealistic task to implement structural changes to help women achieve their dreams.

There is reason for hope, however, that change is on the way, especially in academia. At UC Berkeley, and a handful of other universities, faculty are aiming to support not only doctoral candidates who become parents, but also students. Mary Ann Mason herself has been at the forefront of advocating for student equity at Berkeley and has developed a suite of measures to help campuses become more family-friendly. The new policies include subsidized back-up child-care, and paid child leave for grad students and post-docs. Stopping the tenure clock for one year is becoming standard practice. Moving towards a part-time tenure track for primary caregivers (mostly women), however, will be the change that will ultimately revolutionize campus culture.

Career tracks incompatible with raising young children are inherently anti-social.

While there will always be circumstances in which flexible conditions for parents are not realistic, we must raise our expectations. The current models for our professions were conceived well before women had entered into the workforce. Career tracks that demand so much time and energy from women (and men) that they cannot succeed while raising young children are inherently anti-social. We can do better.

Denying the weight that babies exert on a woman’s time and body is a pernicious and toxic form of sexism. And to acknowledge the importance of babies is not to “romanticize” motherhood: it is simply to be realistic about it. And it is to be fair to our children.

Mothers do not need to be worshipped as inherently life-affirming nurturers. We just need to be seen as individuals whose work at home is important, work that in the long term benefits us all.

And we need to be afforded the flexibility to do our work properly.

This article was originally published on The Family Studies Institute Blog.

We must resist the scourge of ‘identity politics’

In the 1970s, a famous social psychology experiment established the in-group/out-group bias.

In what is now called the Minimal Group Paradigm schoolboys were assigned to two different groups according to whether they preferred the abstract paintings of Klimt, or the abstract paintings of Klee. When the two groups were pitted against each other in games where they could allot small amounts of money to each other, they consistently allotted more money to their in-group, despite the meaningless distinction between them.

This in-group/out-group bias was so robust the same results were found when the two groups were assigned with a coin toss. And further psychological research shows that it doesn’t take much for such groups to start really derogating each other.

This is why today’s identity politics can be such a worry. It is a scourge of superficiality, and you see it whenever words like “straight”, “white” or “male” are used as insults, or as apparent checkmates within debate. You can see it when Bill Shorten grabs same-sex marriage to champion, as if he hadn’t spent years indifferent to it, waiting for the issue to go away.

Every time we group people according to crude social categories we are setting up an in-group/out-group bias. When one group is earmarked for special treatment by policy makers, it can set up resentment in those who miss out, leading to a cycle where both groups start to compete with, stereotype, and dehumanise each other.

We can see this today with women’s interest groups who feel aggrieved and dehumanised by men; and the proliferating men’s groups who feel aggrieved and dehumanised by women. Yet this tribalism is by no means limited to gender.

The left do not have a monopoly on identity politics, but it does originate with them. Not from left-wing politicians, but from university campuses, in segments of academia where the preoccupation with gender and race verges on obsession. Yet while identity politics’ home is not on the right, it has become a plague that does not discriminate.

In recent years, journalists from News Corp have attacked the ABC and Fairfax on a daily basis, oblivious to the fact that normal people don’t care about media infighting.

Long before identity politics, left-wing ideology had two things going for it: solidarity and universalism. “Universalism” is an abstract term, but it’s a simple concept. It simply refers to the fact that it didn’t matter if you were a sheep-shearer in Australia, a miner in Wales, or a railroad worker in the US – if you were going to sacrifice your life (and lower back) to a faceless boss, then you had to get paid. But now the battles of worker’s rights have largely been won. And these successes have left an ideological void.

James Bloodworth, a writer in the UK, has argued that identity politics has emerged as the left has become more middle-class. Activists who populate universities and the press no longer focus on material inequalities because they themselves are relatively well off. But it’s not just because activists are middle-class that they focus on easy topics of gender, sexuality and racism.

It’s hard to come up with solutions to today’s policy issues. It’s hard to address growing budget deficits while addressing socio-economic inequality. It’s hard to figure out what to do about climate change whilst creating jobs.

Focusing on identity is simply easier than coming up with original ideas or workable policies. And this is why identity politics has spread to the right. In 2015, the low hanging fruits of policy have all been picked, and the problems that are left over are wickedly difficult. In this context, a retreat into a quagmire of tit-for-tat personal attacks is understandable. These problems have no easy solutions, have no political winners, and difficult trade-offs emerge at every corner.

No wonder the electorate feels unimpressed and dissatisfied. Our politicians keep trying to score cheap points by pigeonholing their policies and marketing them back to us. But if they don’t stop, community detachment will continue apace. Protest parties will proliferate. Left-wingers will turn to libertarianism, and disenchanted conservatives will turn to independents.

Politicians need to realise, and they need to realise it soon, that they can’t unite people through identity politics. They can only divide.

This article was originally published in The Drum.

University production line leads to nowhere

The university system is failing our young. A culture of irresponsibility within higher education has created conditions where the job market is being flooded with graduates seeking jobs in industries which do not need them.

Salaries for graduates are falling, as the rate of employment for graduates is falling off a cliff.

The culture of irresponsibility in higher education begins with the simple fact that too many people are going to university who probably shouldn’t be.

In 1950, one in every 267 Australian adults went to university. Today the figure is one in every 18 adults (including international students). Across Australia, around 1.2 million people are studying for a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

It is hard to know whether we should celebrate these figures or if they should give us cause to pause.

An uncomfortable truth is that even with the best teachers, not all of these people will go on to finish their courses. And it is unfair, even cruel, to encourage people to enter into higher education if they do not have the proficiency, or the capacity, to achieve decent grades.

This problem is so serious, yet so rarely addressed, that it has taken the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to step in. The anti-corruption body released a report on the risks associated with the international student industry in April this year. It warned that “there is no simple solution that will effectively eliminate the gap between the capabilities of students and the academic demands of the universities”.

If this gap was not eliminated, ICAC warned, then corruption and exploitation would ensue in the form of widespread cheating, plagiarism, falsified documents, ghost-writing and diluted academic standards. As the Herald has detailed in a  number of reports over the past year or so, this has well and truly come to pass.

And with too many people attending university and the potential for corruption is on the rise, one of the saddest developments in higher education today is the decline of the humanities. Enrolments in the arts have been dwindling for decades. And for those who do graduate from the Arts, many lack proper training in primary research, expository writing or formal logic.

The decline in student numbers  in the Arts is perhaps not surprising, when you consider the median house price in Sydney is approaching $1 million, which reinforces the need for a degree to dispense a marketable  (read money making)  skill.

Apart from being marinated in ideology, Arts students are also drowned for three years in jargon-heavy theory with negligible application whatsoever to real life. A glance at a leading literature conference (an event where researchers come to meet) gives a ready sense of what today’s students have to put up with.

At the Australasian Association of Literature Convention, to be held this year at the University of Wollongong, conference titles such as “Networks of Normality: Rethinking (Anti) Normativity in Contemporary Critical Theory” were grist for the mill. Other sessions have titles such as “Non/fictive Bodies: Fleshing out Absence/Drawing Presence”.

To the “uneducated” person this is not just nonsense, this is badly written nonsense which perhaps underscores the rising disconnect between some avenues of academia and the rest of us.

If we find it difficult to face up to the reality that our university system is letting its students down, perhaps it is because many of us have a nostalgic and romantic perception of the experience of “higher education”. Some may wistfully imagine the sandstone spires at Trinity College, with bright-eyed youngsters spending hours on the lawns or in their teachers’ offices discussing their tutorial topics and latest grand theories.

But this dream bears little resemblance with the modern-day reality. Rather, a university campus is more likely to have a Starbucks than a sandstone spire. Teachers are too overloaded with administrative tasks to have much time for their students. And students themselves are too busy scrambling to pay the rent than to think about current events or new ideas.

Nor is the experience leisurely. Five years ago, research led by Helen Stallman of the University of Queensland found Australian university students suffered mental distress that were at rates five times higher than the general population. The most common complaint from the 6000 students screened, was that they were under financial strain.

The universities have been reckless in pursuing their new “business model”. There should be a clear obligation to their students to ensure their degrees are fit for purpose and they shouldn’t profit from misleading students into pursuing worthless degrees.

The risks involved in opening up the universities to almost anyone who wants to attend, and then coupling that with easy to access loans from the government, are only now starting to be realised.

Many students simply do not finish their degree and end up saddled with debt.   Those who do finish are often met with the depressing reality that they are just one of thousands in a growing marketplace glut.

Universities need to start taking some responsibility for the wellbeing of their students, their success, and future employment prospects. They also need to have accountability – some skin in the game – when it comes to students’ ability to repay their higher education loans. If they do not, then the smartest children of the next generation will simply decide not to attend.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters”

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters”

A pernicious term used for those who voted for Trump and Brexit is the “low information voter”. Most likely uneducated, the low information voter doesn’t know much about “the issues”. He votes according to his gut feeling. He sabotages delicate democratic systems with the blunt exercise of his democratic rights.

Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.”

In the Washington Post, the low information voter is defined as one who is more likely to respond to emotional appeals about issues such as the economy, immigration, Muslims, race relations and sexism. The Post goes onto explain:

Low information voters are those who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition.” Those with a high need for cognition have a positive attitude toward tasks that require reasoning and effortful thinking and are, therefore, more likely to invest the time and resources to do so when evaluating complex issues.

In other words, low information people react quickly, trust their intuitions and shirk deliberative thought. High information people take the time to think things through.

Depending on how you spin it, however, low information people might also be less prone to rationalization and high information people might be more vulnerable to ad hoc hypothesizing. Being high in intelligence or a need for cognition does not automatically indicate that one is high in rationality. Nor does it tell us much about a person’s practical wisdom.

Other descriptions of Trump voters have been less polite. In Haaertz Chemi Salev writes:

But there is one overarching factor that everyone knows contributed most of all to the Trump sensation. There is one sine qua non without which none of this would have been possible. There is one standalone reason that, like a big dodo in the room, no one dares mention, ironically, because of political correctness. You know what I’m talking about: Stupidity. Dumbness. Idiocy. Whatever you want to call it: Dufusness Supreme.

These words — for anyone who voted for Clinton or Remain — are like a caramel sundae for the brain. They reassure people that their prejudices are not only correct, they are smart. And that those who don’t share their interests, their voting preferences, or their values, are not just different in the way that apples and oranges are different, they are inferior. 

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In the world according to the misanthrope, the masses need to be saved from themselves. This role is fulfilled by the ‘superior voters’ or those who are high in information. The U.S. philosopher Jason Brennan considers himself to be one of these individuals. He writes:

And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.

In his book Against Democracy, Brennan advocates a model of government that would prevent the armies of stupid from voting. He borrows the term epistocracy, where those who know about political matters have increased political purchase, and those who don’t are left watching from the sidelines.

He doesn’t spell out exactly how epistocracy would work, but he does suggest some measures such as additional votes for university graduates, or the requirement of passing a civics exam.

In Brennan’s epistocratic paradise, a twenty-three year old who has recently graduated with a degree in political science and who has passed a civics exam would be more entitled to vote than the Army veteran returning from service in Afghanistan. People with PhDs who call themselves “social scientists” and who use taxpayer funds to write papers on pilates being the embodiment of whiteness and the importance of understanding icebergs from a feminist perspective would have more authority to vote than the common taxpayers who pay their wage.

The great twentieth century historian, Arnold Toynbee, theorized long ago that civilisations start to decline when their elite classes become parasitic. I can’t think of anything more parasitic than pseudo-intellectuals using other people’s money to write about feminist glaciology and the “whiteness” of pumpkin spiced lattes — and then being awarded more votes than returning military servicemen and women.

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As Sumantra Maitra has written, it really should not be that difficult to understand why the “low information” bloc in the UK or the U.S. have voted for Trump or Brexit:

[T]his revolutionary anti-elitism one can see, is not against the rich or upper classes per se, it is against the liberal elites, who just “know better” about immigration, about intervention and about social values. What we have seen is a “burn it all down” revenge vote, against sententious, forced internationalism, aided with near incessant smug lecturing from the cocooned pink haired urban bubbles. Whether it’s good or bad, is for time to decide. But it’s a fact and it might as well be acknowledged.

On major issues, such as immigration, the Overton Window has been so narrow, for so long, that many people feel that those who speak about these topics are not being straightforward or honest.

Voters can sense that public discourse is driven by a false economy of virtue-signalling. Many see politicians and journalists as a class of people who would prefer to rehearse their dinner party talking points and show-off how caring and open-minded they are, than deal with tough issues in a frank and open manner.

Consider the example which occurred in Australian parliament just last week. When Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told politicians in Question Time that 22 out of the last 33 people charged with terrorist-related offences in Australia were from a second and third generational Lebanese-Muslim background, Senator McKim from the Greens Party called him a “racist”. Later, on Sky News, Senator McKim said: “Undoubtedly the advice [Dutton’s] got is accurate but just because something is fact doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable or productive to talk about it.”

From the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany and the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Rothertham UK, to the partial release of 911 transcript of the Orlando Nightclub shooting in the US, to an Australian senator saying that is not reasonable or productive for an Immigration Minister to talk about facts — the public feels that on this topic, the powers-that-be are spineless at best, deceitful at worst.

And when policy is not up for debate and when conversation is taken off the table, the natural consequence will be growing suspicion and disillusionment in the populace. This is a bad outcome for liberal democracies.

While it is absolutely true that there is a robust body of literature which shows that immigration is beneficial for economic growth, there is another body of research which shows that increased diversity undermines social cohesion and social trust. “Low information” people may intuitively sense this. But they know which body of research their politicians will refer to on television talk shows and in parliament. And it’s not the research on social trust.

This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative all the time. And while it may be naïve for voters to believe the promises of Trump and the Brexit campaigners — it has also been profoundly naïve for the cosmopolitan classes to believe that years of forced internationalism and forced political correctness were never going to end with a large scale backlash.

Of course there are many people in the world who may not have the intellectual tool-kit to think through policy options carefully. However, “high information” people are not immune to irrationality. They are just as likely to be ideologues who are resistant to updating their beliefs when faced with new evidence. This includes social scientists.

In fact, high information people are likely to be much better at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest. And high information rationalisers are probably more likely to put forward theories about how everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and is not deserving of the right to vote.