Another Week Ends

1. A mishmash of articles coming our way this week regarding the search for objectivity […]

1. A mishmash of articles coming our way this week regarding the search for objectivity in the public sphere. First, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the “replicability crisis” in the field of psychology. If you’re uninitiated, this is the recent (and ongoing) debunking of numerous landmark studies in psychology, debunked because the results–which had at one time changed the landscape of psychology–failed to “replicate” when the trial has been repeated today. This has definitely bruised the reputation of psychology as an objective science, but many of the would-be defenders of the cause have led the charge in “burning things to the ground.” While some psychologists argue that the replicability movement has shortchanged the massive contributions of field (and wasted a whole bunch of time), other psychologists, who are called “data thugs” and “methodological terrorists” in the article, believe that the field means nothing until all the data is objectively true, inarguably repeatable. It should burn to the ground and start over. But not everyone agrees:

Not everyone thinks it’s a huge crisis, or even a crisis at all. I spoke with several researchers who complain that the real problem is the replication movement itself. They say a field that once seemed ascendant, its latest findings summarized in magazines and turned into best sellers, is now dominated by backbiting and stifled by fear. Psychologists used to talk about their next clever study; now they fret about whether their findings can withstand withering scrutiny. “You have no idea how many people are debating leaving the field because of these thugs,” a tenured psychologist, the same one who calls them “human scum,” told me. “They’re making people not believe in science. Why would you want to be in a field that’s so mean?”

I don’t have a real pony in this race, besides the opinion that psychology is an important science, with probably as many holes as any other field of human sciences which also claim to be objective. What is telling, though, is how scrutiny in the name of intellectual rigor and objective purity can wind up killing a discipline–or at least crushing its motivation for discovery. And how something driven under the expressed interest of objectivity can be so obviously motivated by emotions. Sounds downright psychological!

Changing directions, but ever so slightly, a new book out by Will Davies explores the rise of subjectivity and emotional reasoning in the current populist climate, and the Left’s insistence on using the language of objectivity–science, reason, facts–to restore order. Davies argues that while feelings are certainly not consistent nor dependable resources for decision-making, the 17th century ideal of progress by reason alone has “run aground,” where “objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and even nature can no longer be so successfully insulated from emotions and identities, whether on the left or the right.” Davies argues that, if there is going to be a more congenial, and more persuasive, uniting of the two, it will happen when reason is understood as inextricable from the emotions of the day.

When reason itself is in peril, there is an understandable instinct to try to revive or rescue something from the past. It has become a cliche to celebrate the rugged individualism, cold rationality and truth-seeking courage of the scientific pioneers. But in our current age, when intelligence and calculation are performed faster and more accurately by machines than by people, an alternative ideal is needed. Perhaps the great virtue of the scientific method is not that it is smart (which is now an attribute of phones, cities and fridges) but that it is slow and careful. Maybe it is not more intelligence that we need right now, but less speed and more care, both in our thinking and our feeling. After all, emotions (including anger) can be eminently reasonable, if they are granted the time to be articulated and heard. Conversely, advanced intelligence can be entirely unreasonable, when it moves at such speed as to defy any possibility of dialogue.

2. This week marks the 15th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death, and the Bitter Southerner published an extensive essay by John Hayes about the darker hue of American Christianity that made Cash’s faith resound with so many of us. Cash’s hope in Jesus, in other words, especially later in his career wasn’t temporal or churchy but world-weary and apocalyptic.

And in the religious songs — more successfully woven into the artistic whole than on any Cash album before — salvation didn’t belong to the upright and pious. It was for the broken-down and bereft, who achieved it through loneliness and lament. Cash sang of a mystical salvation train with seats for egregious sinners like Judas Iscariot and John Wilkes Booth. He voiced plaintive prayers for God to “help the beast in me” and of “Lord help me, Jesus, I’ve wasted it so.” And, in the spirit of “Were You There,” he meditated on Jesus’ cross as a “tree of life” with sustaining fruit to fend off lures from “my old friend Lucifer.”

…Likewise, the assemblage of religious songs from varied sources presented a somber Christianity that, woven together with the secular songs, gave deeper meaning to both.

This was most evident in the two lead songs of The Man Comes Around album: the title song and “Hurt.” Buoyed by his resurgence, Cash drew on old material — the personified-Death folk song “Man Goin’ Round” and Blind Willie Johnson’s stark 1920s “John the Revelator” — to compose a mystical song about the end of the world. He sang as the John of Revelation, the imprisoned prophet who had a series of richly symbolic, terrifying visions. “The Man” was Christ, and his “com[ing] around” was his return as the world’s true king, overturning the familiar and sending established patterns into frightening disarray. The staccato guitar and pounding piano accentuated the coming revolution, and with his now aged, weakened voice, Cash seemed a fearful witness. It was a magisterial, singular song, and it could not have been further from the national mood in the early post-9/11 years: Instead of confidence in a God-blessed USA or evangelical personal triumph, it presented cosmic cataclysm wrapped in awe and wonder.

3. Many of us on the East Coast are either away from home or sitting through a rainy weekend watching hurricane updates on TV. Odds are you’re eating Strawberry Pop-Tarts, too. Vox tells us why “hurricane prep” or the lack thereof tells us something about our favorite cognitive biases.

The tendency of those bracing for a hurricane to stockpile junk food has been well-documented. In 2004, Walmart reported that it orders extra strawberry Pop-Tarts before a hurricane because sales spike significantly. Liquor and beer sales also rise, and many people throw hurricane parties. Milk, bread, and eggs have also been noticed as a natural disaster preparation trifecta (dubbed the Trinity of Winter-Storm Panic-Shopping by the Atlantic), despite their short shelf life.

This week, the Charlotte Observer reported that “jugs of milk and loaves of bread were flying off the shelves Tuesday morning” by those preparing for Hurricane Florence, to which one reader commented, “You want to know why other parts of the country think Southerners are dumb? Well, if you expect to be without power for days or weeks, loading up on the 2 most perishable items (milk, bread) is about the dumbest thing you can do.”

4. I haven’t gotten on the train to The Good Place, but Season 3 is looking good:

Oh hey, and here are all the people who have been thanked on the Oscars stage more times than Jesus or God.

5. René Girard is a favorite philosopher for many, and this is the first biography written about the “Last Structuralist,” as James Matthew Wilson calls him.

In our contemporary cult of victimhood, we see supposed victims of oppression routinely set out on self-righteous crusades to humiliate and punish their former persecutors. Persecution “is pursued in the name of anti-persecution.” The former persecutors become the new scapegoats who must be sacrificed to eliminate social violence and allow peace to reign. That so many of the causes whose advocates now seek to “punish the wicked” are morally inimical to Christianity is incidental in comparison with Girard’s chief insight about them. Modern scapegoating resuscitates archaic religious sacrifice; the post-Christian world is also a pagan world redivivus, as it refuses to learn the lesson of Christ on the cross fixed at the center of history.

Haven’s story conveys how beloved Girard, a warm but withdrawn man, was to those who knew him; how fruitfully his ideas have influenced others; and how powerful his thought proves in explaining the structures of violence and desire in history. Girard was, in a sense, the last of the structuralists. He shows us the possibility of a post-structuralism that does not reduce the life of the mind to a light, meaningless play of “discourse,” but which digs down into the hidden depths of reality in hopes of understanding the “contagion” of mimetic violence and glimpses the possibility of redemption through a renunciation of our deeply ingrained desire to make a sacrifice.

6. For the Enneagram-taking, StrengthsFinder-finding, personality perfectors out there, here’s one to maybe skip (or not). The New Republic tells the story behind the Myers-Briggs test, and the limits of (and crippling law of) self-knowledge. While the essay concludes (too much, I think) that personality tests are prone to make various types marketable in a capitalist society. The takeaway, though, is that while personality tests often deliver a language of understanding where once there was none, when it is used within the confines of becoming something more–more productive, more marketable, more liked–the personality test becomes one more ruling on who you ought to be.

Recently, I encountered an online application for a white-collar job that instructed, “In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and say something that will catch our eye!” What the employer was looking for, of course, was a glimpse of an authentic personality—but undoubtedly one that seemed disposed to authentically work hard and cheerfully, authentically melt into the office culture, and authentically get along with the boss. Maybe after all this time, the significant distinction between types isn’t between the Is and the Es, or the Ps and the Js, but between those who engineer our workplaces for productivity and those who must engineer our personalities to fit them.

7. Before we go, a word from your Houseplants…

I’m forever grateful that you rescued me from that fluorescent-lighted ikea prison, but I don’t appreciate that whenever you water me you give me a look like I’m letting you down. I might be a money tree, but I can’t make you actual money because I am a plant. I do have some financial advice, though. Delete UberEats from your phone and cook, for once. Get a coffee machine and stop going to Starbucks every morning—what is this, 2004? Also, stop buying plants. Your four-hundred-square-foot apartment already looks like a sad botanical garden.


-Good news for the Steve Perry fans out there.

-Americans are shifting all identity markers to fit their political identity.

-Special Mockingcast coming your way this weekend! Keep your ears perked.

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4 responses to “Another Week Ends: Data Thugs and Emotional Scientists, René Girard and Johnny Cash, Hurricane Pop-Tarts, Personality Tests, and Mean Houseplants”

  1. Paul Zahl says:

    The report concerning Steve Perry’s return probably puts everything else in the shade. At least for me. I’m simply aquiver about it, all the time and everywhere.

  2. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I found the reporting on Emre’s book at The New Yorker to be a bit more interesting, particularly Menand’s take, than the TNR overview, but the TNR overview was still an interesting read.

    If you want to read a sample of how Emre approaches the subject of the MBTI here’s an excerpt she published at The Baffler, “Hitler ENTJ”.

    I don’t know that I’ll be picking up the book but since the book is what TNR and TNY have been writing about recently I figure it can’t hurt to throw in that news peg-book release. Menand’s observation about the overlap between an MBTI profile and a zodiac sign summary is interesting.

  3. DLE says:

    I watched a primo job slip away during a team interview, when one of the department heads in a different part of the company with whom my department worked with in collaboration asked me my MBTI.

    “ENFP,” I said without hesitation.

    He grimaced, turned to the hiring manager, stared, and then turned back to me and said, “You look like the perfect person for the role, but I can’t work with Intuitive Feelers, only Intuitive Thinkers.”

    Later, in his office, the hiring manager told me that I was his top choice, but he had to work with that other manager, and his hands were tied.


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