Disciplined Minds All Think Alike

Disciplined MindsOne of the books that Thomas Frank references in Listen, Liberal is Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds: a Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives. I’ve requested the book, but I know what it is about. He argues that the “intellectual class” is really a system that constrains thought. This is my experience. In fact, getting a PhD is not about showing that the student has reached some intellectual height; it is about proving that they are a member of the tribe.

One could use this idea to argue against global warming, “Everyone is involved in group think and can’t break out of it.” But I know this isn’t the case because I saw the consensus on global warming grow and it wasn’t like that at all. Acceptance of the theory accumulated with the data. But there is another issue when it comes to global warming. It’s just science and it spans many different fields. Everyone has and had a big incentive to find data that broke the theory. Instead, what you find on the denial side is cherry-picked data and conspiracy theories. So the issue doesn’t really need to be discussed regardless.

But the way a PhD trains a mind is not by making sure that it believes the currently accepted theories of the science. It trains a mind to think in the same way. Consider a theoretical case of a department of sociology where no one did field work. Everyone there only studied their science by looking at how student volunteers interacted. A graduate student who was determined to live at a retirement community for a year to study the people there just wouldn’t get a degree. It wouldn’t be because the faculty were afraid of what the student might find. It just wouldn’t be seen as sociology. And from a practical standpoint, who would the thesis adviser be?

We’ve seen something very much like this in the field of economics where the Chicago School determined somewhere along the way that their models were more important than reality. And that would have been perfectly okay. I’m all for useless science in the same way I’m for art or any other creative activity. But artists don’t go to Washington and pontificate about how there will be hyperinflation unless massive cuts are made to Social Security. It is not a coincidence that Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty did not go to the University of Chicago. If they had, they would have washed out or been co-opted by the hive mind.

I’ve been in academia enough to know that this is true. So Thomas Frank’s book has real resonance for me. Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is where he compares the people who FDR surrounded himself with (the “Brain Trust”) and those who Obama surrounded himself with. No one doubts that in both cases, these people are brilliant. But FDR’s geniuses came from different places. Obama’s (and Clinton’s before him) were all from the same place (generally, the Ivy League). And so whereas FDR got advice from people with different experiences, Obama does not. Obama gets advice from people who have all done very well by our “meritocratic” system and so see no cause for alarm.

I often marvel that I got a PhD. But I know how I did it: I am capable of seeming very normal for years at a time. Eventually, the truth will out. So they blew it. But even still, I didn’t go to the Ivy Leagues, even though I know I could have. I think there is something wrong with smart people who make that kind of boring choice.

Of course, for the people who have pursued that kind of life, it just makes sense. They see themselves as the best and so they want to surround themselves with other people who are “the best.” But instead, they end up surrounding themselves with people who think in a very similar way. And the experience of putting them all together makes them think even more strongly that the way they think is the only way to think.

It makes me think that the best thing that could happen to humanity is what happens at the end of The Psychic Parrot, where all the best and brightest are killed. We might (and I do me might) lose some intellectual firepower, but at least we’d have more diversity of thought.

22 thoughts on “Disciplined Minds All Think Alike

  1. > Consider a theoretical case of a department of sociology where no one did field work.

    Isaac Asimov discussed something similar to this in his Foundation trilogy. An archeologist was someone who read earlier works of others who themselves had read earlier works. The archeologist was agog at the idea of going to a planet where he thought humanity might have originated, and doing actual digging. This was a symptom of the society becoming decadent and due for a revolution.

    • That’s largely fact with regard to Heinrich Schliemann. I should have used him as an example. Of course, it’s kind of hard to love him given that he destroyed so much of Troy. Just the same, he found it. And I’m not clear that archaeologists of that time were much better.

  2. The lack of diversity in thought (because of lack of diversity in background) is something that is really troubling. Not sure what to do about it though. Except win the lottery and donate enough money to get taken seriously enough to tell the Dems to quit it.

    So nothing in other words.

    • It’s not just a problem with the Democrats. It’s a general problem. Any established order will define an elite class. I think there is a fundamental problem with humans. We have limits to the way we think. This is why I don’t give the species that much more time. Either we figure things out, which will lead to us all giving up. Or we don’t and we destroy ourselves. I don’t think there’s another option.

      And if you enjoyed this comment, you’ll enjoy my upcoming book, “How to Get Over Your Fear of Suicide.”

      • Don’t you dare give me a copy of that book-my sister will freak out.

        I read a lot of history so I think we humans will adapt. It is what we do.

        • Ha! Unless it was comedy, it would never get published. Anyway, I can’t figure it out myself. The will to live is strong for obvious evolutionary reasons. But it does show that we aren’t rational. Just saying.

                • That would be fun. But I have done quite a bit of canvassing and I — What for it! — absolutely hated it! I’ve also worked phone banks begging for money. So I do know that most of politics is really just the worst job in the world. But I’d canvas for you.

                  • Well no, the reason we would canvass is to discuss our different impressions. Most of the time people tell me I am not seeing things they see.

                    Probably because I don’t see the world the same way anyone else does. My mom calls it Elizabeth Logic.

                    • I’m so caught in my own mind, I don’t tend to notice things. Although I might notice something like, “He’s got a gun!”

                      When I did canvasing, we went to every door. I had heard that it has become targeted. But the most recent supervisor’s race saw me get canvasing from people I would never vote for.

                    • Oh yes, very targeted. When I was running I had lists of just certain households who were likely to vote for a woman like myself but not fully committed.

                      The amount of information gathered on humans is staggering and at one presentation a party flak said they could figure out everything about a person to a 85% accuracy. So when you sign up to make calls or to talk to voters in person, you are going to people that the campaign has figured out are the only ones who need real contact.

                    • That would be much nicer. When I was doing it in the 1980s, I had people yelling at me. Most unpleasant!

                    • Dressing up like a Mormon on his first mission probably didn’t help.

                      I know you were not dressed like that but the image is funny and I keep being sad about Prince so laughter is good right now.

                    • Thinking back on it, I dressed the same then as I do now. And the same as when I was 8. But it is funny to think of me dressed up going door to door. Now people would probably just be relieved that I wasn’t asking if they had any work that needed doing.

                      I’m sorry that you are sad about Prince. You should watch Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion!

                    • @Elizabeth (or should I put it 2 Elizabeth?) — People here have taken Price’s death pretty hard. There’s been parties lasting all night at the club he used to play, and radio stations are just now stopping playing his music constantly.

                      I think it’s because Prince’s best music was always joyous. Even when it was sad, it was funky. Songs by this little tiny man (he couldn’t have weighed much more than 100 pounds) crossed the divide between black music and white music in Minneapolis, and helped generations of geeks be more comfortable releasing their inner horny side.

                      It’d been years since I listened to his music before this weekend, but now I remember how much fun it was!

                    • @Frank Which means this is going to be fun since I will put on a business suit and you will be wearing…well I am sure it will cover all of the necessary bits.

                      I was expecting it but it is still sad to hear about Prince.

                      @James I can believe it. I kept tearing up as I was on Twitter despite the fact I was expecting this news once I heard about his re-directed plane. He was indeed fun and he did a lot for so many other people. Thousands of stories of him using his star power to get people to be successful on their own. And he was one of the smartest businessmen in the biz to be honest.

                      He made being gender fluid okay. He was nonthreatening in his sexy and liked to just make sex fun rather then a duty required. He was black and unapologetic about it.

                      Just someone who was pretty amazing all the way around.

                    • I like hoodies and jackets with hoods. I have no idea why. And I like things that are loose fitting, probably because being painfully skinny most of my life, I’m used to it. Now I like that loose fitting closes don’t remind me how much weight I’ve gained.

                      I can see why people in Minnesota would be especially effected by Prince’s dead. And like I said: I admire him. I just don’t care that much. It isn’t like if Justin Bieber died, where people’s sadness would annoy me.

                    • They are useful for holding popcorn when you watch movies?

                      And you don’t look bad with the extra weight.

                    • I am probably much more healthy. But after 45 years, I get used to a particular image of yourself. Right now, I don’t much care. I’m old-ish. And that means I don’t have to care.

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