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On cognitive dissonance

I’m pretty sure libertarians are wrong. Neo-cons too – in fact, I find neoconservative foreign policy downright immoral. The religious right would be better called the religious wrong, reform conservatives are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg and don’t get me started about the Trump Nation. But I’m an equal-opportunity naysayer – on “my side of the aisle,” the technocratic and neo-liberal left perpetuates inequality and runs roughshod over civil liberties, social justice movements often run disturbingly authoritarian and depressingly sectarian and the scientific illiteracy of the anti-vax and anti-GMO left literally pains me. Everyone’s wrong somehow.

Yes, those characterizations are broad strokes. But I’m not here to argue for or against any particular political or moral philosophy. I probably wouldn’t convince you anyway – I’m a chemistry major, so what do I know? And if I took 800 words to argue against a specific part of a specific worldview held by a specific person –perhaps even your most dearly treasured belief, dear reader –I could indubitably poke a hole in it. Perhaps you’d learn something – perhaps we both would. Because when I mean “everyone’s wrong somehow,” I’m not too confident to include myself in that unhappy count.


If I’ve learned anything in the past four years, it’s that the only way you can learn is to consider the possibility that you’re wrong. And that’s why I was so disturbed when I read a Wall Street Journal column last week accusing academic search committees of changing the search criteria to prevent conservative faculty candidates from being selected, or of explicitly refusing to consider libertarian candidates. The statistics on academic political leanings are unsurprising in their tilt, if not their magnitude: Just 12% of all faculty, and a mere 5% of humanities and social sciences faculty, identify as right-of-center. It’s worse in specific disciplines – by one estimate, 0.03% (yes, you read that right) of social psychologists are right-of-center.

Statistics alone don’t say much. It’s certain that academics are a self-selecting bunch, and a liberal might be far more likely than a conservative to pursue the academic study of social psychology. But the cycle feeds on itself, and if conservatives feel alienated from academia, then academia will inevitably become even more ideologically homogenous, even as colleges make admirable efforts to expand diversity by other metrics. And if the accusations of intentional ideological discrimination are true in even one case, then this is even worse – colleges are intentionally denying themselves the opportunity to learn.

When writing a paper about the ethics of genetic modification last semester, I met up for coffee with professor Robert George, who you might describe as Princeton’s token conservative professor. This is the same Robert George who in ’92 advised and in ’16 endorsed one Ted Cruz, and yes, I’m as opposed as any other good liberal to the specter of a Cruz presidency. But discussing ethics and biotechnology and religion with him made me see the world in a way I hadn’t before and made me consider different approaches to answering the great moral questions of our time.

But here’s the thing. If, before and after our conversation, you asked my views on genetic modification, or abortion, or really just about anything except the quality of Prof. George’s humor (excellent, by the way), you would have found that I had changed exactly zero of my positions. None. But because I had the chance to figuratively hold a foreign philosophy in my head – take it for a spin, see how its logic works – I became a better writer, a better thinker and, hopefully, a better person.

The elites and liberals of this country (overlapping, but by no means identical categories) have struggled to understand, account for and react to the rise of Donald Trump. Thinkers from David Brooks to John Oliver have in the past months realized that they fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated (misunderestimated?) the sector of the American public that supports Trump. And this shows the danger of ideological homogeneity, of close-mindedness.

Maybe if we’re exposed to more alien viewpoints – from professors whose worldviews are shaped by racism or sexism we’ll never know first-hand, but also from professors whose philosophy is based on precepts outside of the prevailing liberal ideology, on logic too-seldom seen first-hand within academia— we’ll spend less time fighting straw men and more time approaching mutual understanding and problem-solving.


Even if we don’t change our minds, we must have the grace and wisdom to at least consider that we are wrong – or else we cannot hope to be correct at all.

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at

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