March 15, 2005

Universities as a reality-based community

In a previous posting I described the disturbing phenomenon that so many Americans seemed to be living is a reality-free world. I argued that this was because they were being systematically misled by people who should, and do, know better.

Further support for my somewhat cynical view comes from an article by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind that appeared in the October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine and that deserves to be better known because of the light it sheds on the extent to which the current administration is ideologically driven. His article has this chilling anecdote:

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend - but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

What you have on display here is a world-view that is so arrogant that it believes that it has the power to create its own realities.

It is not unusual in the hey-day of empires for its leaders to have the feeling that they alone can direct the course of events, that they can overcome the realities they face, and that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

What is perhaps extreme in this case is that this arrogance seems to be causing the leaders to ignore the actual realities and to think that they can create their own version of it. In other words, they believe that what they want to believe actually exists. Now, in some ways, it is always possible to do this. Reality is a complex business, composed of many disparate elements, and it is always possible to pick out those elements that support one's fantasy, ignore the rest, and act accordingly.

But what is happening here is deeper and more disturbing. What this administration is doing is trying to make reality irrelevant by creating an alternate "reality." They do this by quickly and repeatedly and strongly saying the things that they wish the public to believe are true and depending on the media or the Democratic Party to not call them on the lack of support for the assertions. As a result, after a short time, the administration's assertions enter the public consciousness, become the new "reality", and thus become the basis for vacuous 'policy debates' that have nothing to do with the actual situation.

We saw this happen in the run-up to the war with Iraq and we are seeing it again with the recent killing in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri. Using a combination of innuendo and bombast, the administration has managed to make people think that Syria is the culprit even though, until today, no evidence in support of this claim has been presented and there even exists some counterevidence. On the other hand, Robert Fisk reports today that the UN investigation team is due to make a report that will allege that there may have been a cover-up of the investigation by Lebanese and Syrian authorities, so that the situation is still murky.

What most reality-based people realize is that while forcing your own version of reality on events can win you short-term political victories, it is a prescription for long-term disaster because eventually the contradiction between the 'virtual reality' and reality become too stark to make your actions viable. The "judicious study of discernible reality," sneered at by the senior Bush advisor, is the way to arrive at reasoned judgments that have a chance of producing policies that make sense.

In many ways, universities have to be reality-based. The work of universities rests on empirical bases, on data, on evidence. This does not mean that they restrict themselves to describing just what is. Speculative ideas are the life-blood of academia because that is how new knowledge is created. Making bold speculations and pushing the limits of theories is part of the job of universities.

But such efforts must always rest on an empirical basis because otherwise they cease to be credible. You can build on reality, but you can't totally depart from it. Academics know that their credibility rests on their ability to balance speculation and theorizing with empirical data. For example, a physicist who proposes theories that do not have a basis in data would be ridiculed.

But no such constraints seem to restrain the current political leaders. At one time, the media might have played the role of injecting reality into the public discussion, by comparing official statements with the facts on the ground and providing historical context. But now that the press has largely abdicated that role (see the previous postings on The questions not asked part I and part II) in favor of either acting as a mouthpiece for the fantasies of political leaders or debating tactical points while not questioning the core fantasies, it is up to the universities to fill that void.

This is why efforts like Ohio's Senate Bill 24 that seek to restrict what university instructors can and cannot say are so dangerous. They seek to bring universities also under political control, to suffocate one of the few remaining viable reality-based institutions. While opponents decry universities as being too "liberal", what really make universities "dangerous" is that they are fundamentally reality-based institutions that cannot be easily co-opted into accepting fantasies as reality.

It seems ironic that universities, long derided as ivory towers occupied by pointy-headed intellectuals out of touch with the "real world", may in fact need to be the force that brings reality back into public life.


On Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio's Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).


Update on a previous posting:

I received a call yesterday (March 14) from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that my op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await more details on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation and confidentiality prevents the release of more information.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz's statements now that "Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right" and ""I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim."

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.


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I do not think that "lack of appreciation for reality" is something limited only to politicians. I have found many in universities who are just as divorced from reality. Just as politicians are insulated from the reality that contradicts them, so are some members of universities.

Just as George Bush ingests his worldview from the arrays of Republicans around him, the same can occur at universities. When one is surrounded by so many like-minded individuals, it's easy to gloss over inconvenient realities.

I don't think that the fact that universities are billed as "reality-based communities" prevents them from having similarly delusional people. Certainly, there should be no restriction against expounding whatever view one sees fit -- that's the only way to find out what they believe and disagree with it.

And while reality certainly isn't up for debate, many people have very different views of it. To a right-wing Republican, universities and the media are just as guilty of a ignoring "reality" as Republicans. To George Bush, he has conducted "a judicious study of discernible reality" for the Iraq war and simply dismissed the interpretations of it that he thought were incorrect. I don't like Republicans very much, but I won't go so far as to say that they operate in a fantasy world completely devoid of reality's interference. They too look at the same "reality" and facts around us, they just interpret the meaning of them differently.

I personally believe that they're wrong about some things, but I also believe that Democrats are wrong about some things. They are also both right about some things. But just because universities are ostensibly grounded in proving things with objective facts and logic doesn't necessarily mean its occupants will actually use those tools, or even that they're more likely to.

Posted by Brian Moore on March 15, 2005 12:29 PM

You talk about a reality based university, whose teaching is based on research and empirical evidence. What about non-science classes and the generally shared view that universitys provide a liberal indoctrination along with the classes. Basically what I am asking is are universitys really reality based? I have always viewed college as a vaction from the real worl into a world of intellectualism, where theories can always be proven, regardless of what really happens in the real world outside.

Posted by Will Benish on March 15, 2005 02:30 PM

Interesting points. Universities and their faculty members can be wrong, and often are. But while they do theorize, they cannot separate themselves from reality or create one out of whole cloth.

For example, take the claim that the plays ascribed to Shakespeare were written by someone else. This may be right or wrong and some faculty members may believe it and others not, so one side must be wrong. Neither side is likely to come up with iron-clad proof that conclusively settles the case. But each side does appeal to evidence and uses some kind of reasoned judgment to arrive at their respective conclusions. This reliance on evidence limits the number of possible alternate candidates to just a few.

I think that the notion that universities are divorced from reality comes from the fact that universities study topics that seem useless to some people, who think "Who cares who wrote the plays? What effect does it have on my life?"

But that sense of being divorced from reality is different from the way I am using the phrase. I am using it to mean "disconnected from evidence."

Posted by Mano Singham on March 15, 2005 03:16 PM

There's also the following "insulative" effects:

1. University students at high-tier colleges are not paying for their own education. This was true of most students at Case when I was there. When you are being educated at the expense of others it breeds a certain world-view.

2. University staff have different requirements than the rest of society. If I'm an author, I have to either pander to my customers or convince them. Through tenure and other mechanisms, colleges ensure that students will take certain courses from certain professors, who have no alternative (outside of leaving college). There's very little free market for ideas, not just for popular acceptance, but for their validity.

I hesitate to mention the example of Ward Churchill, but he held some extremely "non-reality-based" ideas, no matter your political persuasion. In any position other than university professor, his ideas are ignored. Now, I heartily agree he should be allowed to preach anything he wants -- but the only place his ideas achieved any semblance of acceptance was in the university. If he were any position where his ideas would have to face reality (business, research or policy) he would fail miserably.

I like the idea that universities serve as refuges for good ideas that are not popularly accepted, but means they also serve as refuges for bad ideas that are not popularly accepted. I think the debate should not be on whose ideas are "reality-based" since everyone believes their ideas are. We should instead debate the ideas themselves.

I think that the notion that universities are divorced from reality comes from the fact that universities study topics that seem useless to some people, who think "Who cares who wrote the plays? What effect does it have on my life?"

I think it depends on the field being studied.

I think the 2nd commenter above pointed out an excellent point in far fewer words than me: for physics/engineering research, universities ARE reality-based environments. For other fields, they are the exact opposite: the university becomes a place where reality is prevented from impinging upon one's ideas.

For example, take the business school: An MBA has a bunch of ideas about how to make a successful business while in college. He could debate and analyze them all day, but it would all be irrelevant until he got out and tested them. College would insulate him from the relative validity of his ideas. Some could be good, some could be bad -- but we would choose the expertise of an entrepreneur currently running a successful business any day.

Posted by Brian Moore on March 15, 2005 07:33 PM

Wow. That's quite an admission. You completely failed to check the facts before you accused someone of lying or incompetence. Yet, the facts come out that it was you who was either lying or incompetent.

What checking DID you do before you felt justified in calling Horowitz an idiot or a liar?

Given your lack of acknowledgement of your dihonesty/incompetence, my guess is that you made no serious effort to check the facts before you went on a tear (other than doing a Google check).

Not to beg the obvious question, but why should anyone take you seriously?

Posted by Oops on March 16, 2005 07:38 AM

Horowitz hasn't "backtracked"! He's corrected a few of his original facts as the university released previously withheld details, but in the process he's provided definitive proof that Mano Singham's editorials about him were unfounded! I'm sorry, they weren't "unfounded," it's clear they had a foundation, and that foundation was either laughable incompetence or dishonesty.

So, instead of coming clean with the 2 readers of this webpage and correcting an indefensible libel, you've come back accusing the man of incompetence?!

Invest in a mirror.

Posted by Some Guy on March 16, 2005 09:58 AM

apparently there is an expression used often on internet blogs and threads "Don't feed the trolls" A troll is someone who says outrageous and rude things just to get a rise out of someone. I think this seems aplicable in this situation. The responses of SomeGuy and especially Oops are clearly "troll"-esque. I wish such commenters wouldn't bring down the level of conversation on this blog to hurling unfounded insults. Try to keep it in the world of the rational and polite.

Posted by Will Benish on March 16, 2005 10:45 PM

I think we are loosing sight of a big chunk of Mano's post, namely the part where he points out that the Bush administration aims to create a new reality and if that means ignoring provable facts, so be it.

We seem to agree that in science/engineering, at least, universities are fact-based. I seem to remember a lot of talk over the last few years about scientists speaking up about the Bush administration playing fast and loose with matters of science. Even with the facts of science.

I always think that if Bush is so disdainful of provable facts, how the heck is he to be trusted on anything else.

Posted by Trish on October 25, 2005 05:20 PM