Humanist League's Sagan Fest presents Jonathan D. Haidt of NYU

“Dialogue and reason may seem like the default, but historically, they are in fact a rarity,” said Alex Fogelson, events coordinator for Carnegie Mellon’s Humanist League, setting the stage for last Tuesday’s Sagan Fest talk in McConomy Auditorium.

Professor Jonathan D. Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, was invited to give a talk titled “Finding Truth in a Polarized Age” at the event.

Sagan Fest is named for Carl Sagan, and is an annual event honoring proponents of dialogue and reason in public discourse. Carl Sagan famously promoted critical thinking and the scientific method in popular culture.

This year, Haidt was endowed the Carl Sagan Award for his research on moral judgments, the progression of ideas, and the importance of diversity in perspectives. Haidt opened his speech by saying, “The theme of my talk is that good thinking requires good talking. We can’t be smart on our own.”

“I’m especially honored to get an award named for Carl Sagan,” Haidt continued. “Carl Sagan was such an apostle, such a popularizer. It’s thrilling just to have any association with Carl Sagan.”

Haidt asked people what they thought was definitive of the 21st century. Audience members chirped out answers like AI, the internet, and climate. “The 21st century is the century of social science,” Haidt said.

Haidt introduced the audience to two key concepts: tame problems and wicked problems. Tame problems, as he explained it, sit still while we work on them — like cholera. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are much hairier and stem from underlying visions and values for society.

“Disagreements over social and environmental policy cannot be resolved by experts who, in many ways, make them more intractable,” Haidt explained, in reference to wicked problems. “Getting to Mars is a tame problem because we’ll make steady progress. There won’t be ‘liberal’ Mars trips and ‘conservative’ Mars trips. Scientists will be working together.”

Haidt told the audience that economists aren’t quite so nonpartisan. Machine learning has been employed to find keywords in economist’s papers to indicate political leanings. For example, Haidt noted that papers with the term “Keynesian” tend to belong to left-leaning economists.

To encapsulate current social and political tension, Haidt used the term “wicked polarization.” Haidt cited a Duke paper that claimed people are skeptical of scientific evidence supporting the existence of problems with solutions that threaten their beliefs.

“We filter truth through what we want to believe,” Haidt explained. To put things into perspective, Haidt invoked political-attitudinal statistics showing that free-market conservatives were more skeptical of climatology findings than conservatives with different economic views.

Haidt then showed the audience statistics on the ever-growing partisan divide in political values and parties. “Wickeder problems are going to get wickeder and wickeder, we’re going to have a harder time finding the truth in the 2020s than in 2011,” Haidt claimed.

The Flynn Effect, up until now, has suggested that IQ is rising all around the world. Haidt said that we have come to a point where the Flynn Effect is leveling off, and he attributed it to political polarization and moralization.

“You can moralize or understand. You can’t do both at the same time,” Haidt said. He shared a favorite proverb of his: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”

Haidt used a picture of Muslims gathering around the Kaaba Stone at Mecca when making another point: “Humans have an amazing ability to cooperate by making something sacred and circling around it. A lot of our logical thinking is guided by norms of sacredness, not logic. If a group holds anything sacred, they are part of a tribal-moral community, not a reality-based community.”

“Set good societal norms, and you get smarter. Set bad societal norms, and you get Twitter,” Haidt joked, met with the audience’s laughter. “We need good debates, we need critics, and we need people to disconfirm our hypothesis.”

Haidt confessed that he used to identify with the left politically, and that now has no political affiliation. “We’re almost all left,” Haidt said after polling the audience on their political leanings.

After citing statistics on the shrinking ratios of conservatives in academia, Haidt said, “My field used to have political diversity. Now we don’t. When you don’t have diversity, your science is worse, and peer review breaks down without viewpoint diversity.”

“You can’t just bring people together. You need to find long term commonality,” Haidt concluded.

Reflecting on the speech, Fogelson told The Tartan, “Institutional bias works against uncovering empirical truths, and our own biases often make it nearly impossible to align our beliefs with the truth. Understanding Dr. Haidt’s work is a phenomenal first step to take in critiquing how our society gets stuck circling around fixed ideas.”