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E-Pluribus | February 16, 2022
When not being nice trumps science; misinformation about misinformation; and the spoils should still go to the victor, even in politics.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Nicholas Wade: End Merit As We Know It
Politicians often claim they just want the best, most qualified people for the job, whatever that job may be. Presumably, Joe Biden chose the person he believed was best for the “cancer moonshot” project resurrected from Biden’s time in the Obama White House. But President Biden and his choice, his top science advisor Eric Lander, soon found that qualifications are not always enough in the current climate. Nicholas Wade at City Journal addresses this most recent assault against merit.
Lander, to the manifest detriment of cancer research, was a victim of tribal warfare prosecuted by radical feminists, a lobby that Biden lacked the courage to challenge.
The feminist assault on Lander began the moment his appointment as science advisor was announced. A collective called 500 Women Scientists wrote a letter in Scientific American in January 2021 accusing Lander of being white and male. They went on to attack Lander for a 2016 article he wrote in Cell about the role of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in the invention of the CRISPR technique of genetic manipulation. That article, the 500 Women wrote, “erased the contributions of two women colleagues. This conspicuous exclusion is emblematic of the forces in science that hold back women and scientists of color from attaining the level of prominence he enjoys.”
[ . . . ]
Within a few months of Lander’s tenure as White House science advisor, women started complaining about his harsh manner. Rachel Wallace, then general counsel to Lander’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, accused Lander of bullying behavior. “Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated,” she told Politico. An investigation was launched and concluded that Lander had spoken to women “in a demeaning or abrasive way.”
The investigation wrapped up in December, but nothing happened until its findings were leaked to Politico this month—obviously with the intent of damaging Lander’s chances of keeping his job. He apologized profusely. But apologies work only with people willing to seek reconciliation, not with activists who see them as a signal for further attack. Wallace dug the knife in further. “Lander’s apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she said. The president could have sent Lander for charm training. Instead, Biden cut him loose.
What exactly was the “egregious behavior” that Wallace mentioned? Did Lander touch anyone inappropriately, make unwanted advances, or commit any kind of sexual harassment? The investigation found not the slightest evidence. Even stranger, it found “no credible evidence” that he treated men and women differently. Lander’s sole crime was caustic speech, to which apparently only women took offense.
Read the whole thing.
Matthew Yglesias: The "misinformation problem" seems like misinformation
Some have suggested misinformation is one of the biggest threats to our society and our democracy in the internet age, but Matthew Yglesias plays the contrarian and suggests that misinformation about misinformation may be the real story.
That said, I do not think there is much evidence that misinformation has become more widespread, that this increase in misinformation is due to technological change, or that it is at the root of the political trends liberals are most angry about. If anything, people seem to be better-informed than in the past — which is what you would expect because our information technology has gotten better — and it is very hard to think of any cure for misinformation that would not be worse than the disease.
[ . . . ]
And on the basics of civic life, that [people have become more misinformed over time] doesn’t seem to be the case. A survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that in 2006, only 33 percent of people could correctly identify the three branches of government. By 2021, that was up to 56 percent. That’s way higher than 33 percent! It’s also a powerful reminder that a huge share of the population doesn’t pay any attention at all to politics and government. A broader survey of political knowledge from the American National Election Survey shows no change in civic awareness except perhaps a small rise since the 1990s in knowledge of which party controls the majority in Congress.
Both of those seem consistent with the idea that politics has gotten more polarized and high-stakes, with more people paying attention.
Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist who literally wrote the book on conspiracy theories, painstakingly cataloged old letters to the editor and found a fairly constant level of conspiracy theorizing in them for over a century.
Brendan Nyhan, another political scientist who studies misinformation in detail, writes in one of his papers that “no systematic evidence exists to demonstrate that the prevalence of misperceptions today (while worrisome) is worse than in the past.”
[ . . . ]
I tend to think that a lot of what is going on is that people see the internet increasing polarization — more people are fighting about politics and saying things they think are really dumb — and confusing that with people being misinformed.
Read it all.
Gary Abernathy: Partisanship is a perk of winning. Civility would be accepting that fact.
Earlier in February, we featured an essay (item 2) by Christian Schneider, “Don’t Like Gerrymandering? Be Wary of the Alternatives,” where Schneider argued there are worse ways to do redistricting than gerrymandering. In a similar vein, Gary Abernathy writes at The Washington Post that although some political customs and practices may seem unequitable, they can also simply be considered the benefits of victory and/or the consequences of defeat. The true demonstration of civility is recognizing that in politics, as in life, you win some and you lose some, and graciously accepting the results of elections is part and parcel of maintaining a workable political system.
A few short decades ago, both parties acknowledged that winning brought benefits such as redrawing legislative districts, determining state election regulations, and making appointments to boards, commissions and courts. The losers complained, sure, but that was part of the dance.
From 1955 to 1995 — from the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton — Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. Somehow, this one-party domination prompted little anguish from reformers or the media. In most states, drawing state and federal legislative districts was recognized as a perk of winning. Some states have new laws designed to take the partisan fun out of it, but in places like Ohio and Michigan they have proved problematic.
In states where the old ways prevail and Republicans are modifying districts and revising voting laws, Democrats cry that democracy is imperiled. But when the power is theirs, they flaunt it. In Illinois, congressional maps drawn by Democrats were “given an ‘F’ grade by a nonpartisan evaluation group because of the gerrymandering tactics,” according to Newsweek. In New York, Democrats “proposed a starkly partisan redesign … offering the party’s candidates an advantage in 22 of the state’s 26 House districts,” the New York Times reported.
[ . . . ]
Many people say they yearn for the restoration of civility in politics. That’s possible, but it requires both sides accepting the notion that the lawful exercise of power — with a practical measure of partisanship — is earned by victory. That power includes drawing legislative maps, determining state election standards, and allowing a president, regardless of party or ideology, to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court — now, and when the court’s ideological makeup again hangs in the balance.
Read it all here.
Via Heterodox Academy: Colm O'Shea asks, Is the College Essay an Artifact of White Supremacy? [Spoiler: No]
John McWhorter borrows from Shakespeare to make a point about how to approach life and interacting with others:
Wesley Yang with the Free Speech version of the Golden Rule:
And finally, if you’ve lost San Francisco…