Some films are impossible to avoid, even if you don't want to see them. One such film is The Revenant, the new number one at the box office. It needed to be number one. Its marketing campaign has been a global epic.
I did want to see this film, and it did not disappoint. It depicts the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans with spectacular cinematography and even-handed fairness. The film is based on a book by Michael Punke, who, surprisingly, turns out to be the current US ambassador to the World Trade Organisation. He is clearly a serious thinker whose work gave the film a sturdy foundation.
Trailer: The Revenant
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Trailer: The Revenant
In an expedition of the uncharted American wilderness, legendary explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is brutally attacked by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.
The Revenant avoids choosing sides by having the central character, a frontiersman, speak fluent Shawnee and have an adopted Native American son.
It is no longer possible to make westerns about intrepid white men defeating native savages. The triumphal simplicity of the classic cowboy-and-Indian Western has been memorialised and cremated. Now, when I happen upon such films, I find myself rooting for the Indians, then change channels.
This evolution in perspective has seen a more rigorous portrayal of the conquest of North America, which required the crushing of the indigenous people, often via a combination of ignorance, rapaciousness and treachery.
This is now accepted. What is not accepted is that the narrative of greater historical and cultural sensitivity towards conquered peoples is giving way to overkill across the social sciences, driven by another evolution, the victory of ideology over objectivity.
The very concept of objectivity is scorned in the academy.
The victory of theory and ideology is now pervasive in the social sciences, especially sociology and social psychology. Even history is now wrapped in so much historiography, encroaching on the primacy of rigorous factual research and narrative. Communications degrees are now weighed down by useless theory when the field requires rapidly evolving technical skills.
Some fields have the theoretical and ideological as their very basis, notably gender, race and sexuality studies. Rather than concentrating on unflinching field work, data analysis and original research, they produce paper castles of theoretical rights-based obscurantism.
It is no surprise that so many people graduating with degrees in the social sciences, especially theory-based degrees, are encountering indifference in the employment market.
Numerous surveys show that social science graduates are loaded with more debt than in the past and poorer job prospects in their chosen fields. Graduates are facing longer periods finding employment, and are increasingly employed in jobs that do not even require a university degree.
Worse, universities have become havens for intolerance, orthodoxy and unscholarly distortion.
My favourite example, which encapsulates all of the above, was provided by Dr Lee Jussim, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University in the US. He dissected a paper published by a respected journal, Psychological Science, in 2013, and found that it was rubbish, and probably published because the journal's editors shared the ideological bias of the article's conclusion.
The paper was entitled "NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax". The abstract of the study states: "Endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science … This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science."
Note the term "conspiracist ideation". The English language is being brutalised in the social sciences to create a false sense of rigour.
When Jussim checked the data, he found that of the 1145 participants in the study, only 10 thought the moon landing was a hoax. Of those who thought climate science was a hoax, almost all of them, 97.8 per cent, did NOT think the moon landing was a hoax.
The social psychologists who conducted the study had disguised the data and smothered it under a layer of obfuscation. No peer reviewer or journal editor took the time to check the raw data. Instead, the paper was published because it buttressed a pervasive ideological bias in the field.
Jussim's argument is sustained at book length in The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Dr Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business.
Haidt's central thesis is that the academy has gone from being a haven for heterodoxy to a centre of rigid orthodoxies that are compromising scholarship:
"The American Academy has become a politically orthodox and quasi-religious institution. When everyone shares the same politics and prejudices, the disconfirmation process breaks down. Political orthodoxy is particularly dangerous for the social sciences, which grapple with so many controversial topics (such as race, racism, gender, poverty, immigration, politics, and climate science) … Can a social science that lacks viewpoint diversity produce reliable findings?"
The problem has spread downwards, to student behaviour. In an article entitled, "The coddling of the American mind", published in The Atlantic in September, Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue: "In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don't like. That is disastrous for education."
Haidt describes himself as a "non-partisan centrist". He provides studies showing that even non-partisan centrism is becoming rare in social science departments. The argument could also be applied to many Australian, British and Canadian universities.
One practical by-product of group-think and its ideological enforcement is the growing disconnect between the graduates that universities are turning out and the skills the intellectual marketplace is seeking. This is a reality check.
Students should be demanding that the concept of objectivity needs to become a revenant, and rise from its presumed death.