Recently, The New York Times ran an exposé on the “Intellectual Dark Web.” The piece profiles all the heavy hitters of the movement: Jordan B. Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Sam Harris. The author, Bari Weiss, describes in detail how each thinker was alienated from their professional community before building a new network and audience on the internet. The piece characterizes the Intellectual Dark Web as a shadowy underground of renegade iconoclasts who dare to challenge the orthodoxies of academia and the media.
While this characterization is not far off, the article glosses over the reason why these thinkers have been ostracized. The political climate is not hospitable to truth-seekers. The only reason the Intellectual Dark Web is “dark” is because it is controversial to be an open inquirer.
An Age-Old Story
Those who seek truth aren’t afraid of defying society and are usually punished for it.
This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, thinkers who rejected mainstream opinion were ostracized from the community and branded as heretics. The story is as old as the trial of Socrates, who was sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of the community. Those who seek truth aren’t afraid of defying society and are usually punished for it.
Jordan B. Peterson rose to fame when he controversially criticized a “humanitarian” bill legally mandating the use of certain pronouns. Bret Weinstein, who happens to be a progressive, was ejected from Evergreen State because he refused to bow to illiberal students calling for a no whites allowed “day of absence.” Sam Harris rose to popularity after being called gross and offensive by Ben Affleck for criticizing Islamism. After The Young Turks had Sam Harris on their show and Dave Rubin saw how hostile and irrational the host was, Rubin left his job and started The Rubin Report, a show founded on open dialogue.
What these individuals have in common is that, in the pursuit of truth and free expression, they offended arbiters of politically correct opinion. These thinkers are the new heretics who challenge the religious convictions of society and they are excommunicated in the same way that those who went against the church once were.
The Western Pursuit of Truth
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the western tradition of the Scientific Method, first developed by Aristotle, is characterized by “systematic observation and experimentation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the formation of testing of hypotheses and theories.” In addition, the hypotheses must hold up to continuous challenge and disproof in order to be considered legitimate. Any individual who can propose a hypothesis that is falsifiable is welcome to partake in this game of science.
This method has served society incredibly well and has resulted in many important discoveries, such as the eradication of numerous diseases. However, this tradition is falling out of favor. The problem with the modern climate is that we are rewriting the rules of this collaborative scientific process. Our institutions are dramatically changing the way knowledge is pursued. Instead of free inquiry being stopped when hypotheses are disproven, we now stop the pursuit of knowledge when ideas are perceived as offensive to oppressed communities. On its face this sounds like a good thing, but with it comes a potential for disaster: The destruction of knowledge itself.
We can’t put blinders on certain corners of the world and expect to come out with a proper understanding of how it functions.
Protecting the downtrodden might be considered a virtue, but overprotection is a vice. We are selectively choosing which arguments are ok to make by a cabal of politically correct youth, who claim to stand for the oppressed. The world of truth is too dangerous for these vulnerable persons, so we must bubble wrap knowledge as to not harm their sensibilities, so the logic goes. Well, in bubble wrapping the world, we disguise its reality, and that is a surefire way to cause catastrophe. We can’t put blinders on certain corners of the world and expect to come out with a proper understanding of how it functions.
We can’t select the truth based on offensiveness. First of all, the world is an offensive place naturally, and secondly, most anything can be construed as offensive. Offense is subjective by nature and largely determined by individual temperament. A claim of subjective emotion can hardly be invalidated. This means that scientific hypotheses are being rejected on claims of subjective emotion instead of meticulous checking.
Take the widely accepted claim of biological differences in gender. Despite the data being overwhelmingly supportive of innate tendencies, this finding can be disputed on grounds of offense. Instead of conducting a statistical experiment with random sampling, just say the idea is offensive to those who identify as non-binary, then the hypothesis is disproven. We can’t afford to change the rules of science just because some might take offense to objective findings.
The Proper Way to Seek Knowledge
In his book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Jonathan Rauch characterizes proper truth-seeking as “The Liberal Principle.” The Liberal Principle is “the checking of each by each through public criticism.” He contrasts this to other principles such as the “Radical Egalitarian Principle” which holds that “all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect,” but “the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.” He also introduces the “Humanitarian Principle” which holds that “the first priority is to cause no hurt.”
Rauch argues that “The Liberal Principle” is the only acceptable way to search for truth, but laments how it is losing popularity to the other principles.
The science game shouldn’t disallow your findings just because you happen to be a certain race or gender—just as it shouldn’t afford you special privileges due to those distinctions.
I agree with Rauch in this regard. The science game shouldn’t disallow your findings just because you happen to be a certain race or gender—just as it shouldn’t afford you special privileges due to those distinctions. What matters is the principle, the idea itself, which is filtered through a community of meticulous checkers trying to disprove hypotheses using the Scientific Method.
We can’t search for truth through any other principle because that means we would have to afford special protections to those claiming offense. As soon as we do that, we elect authorities who decide what is offensive and what isn’t, and that is where the danger lies. How many times have we seen professors, student groups, and individuals punished for perceived offense determined by institutional authorities? It is for this very reason why our institutions are failing us.
To that end, Rauch states:
When a state legislature or a curriculum committee or any other political body decrees that anything in particular is, or has equal claim to be, our knowledge, it wrests control over truth from the liberal community of checkers and places it in the hands of central political authorities. And that is illiberal.
And this gets to the heart of why the Intellectual Dark Web exists. We have started concentrating the power of who determines truth in the hands of educational administrators, politicians, and bureaucracies. What we have lost is a dialogue between intellectual community members about what the truth is. When not able to satisfy that need in public institutions, many great thinkers have taken their thoughts to the internet.
Death and Rebirth
The Intellectual Dark Web is the start of something much bigger than edgy teenagers looking for unpopular opinions to annoy others with; it is an outlet for truth-seekers to collaborate on the advancement of society.
While it is regrettable that the institutions we use to educate our society are failing us, there is hope. The Intellectual Dark Web is the start of something much bigger than edgy teenagers looking for unpopular opinions to annoy others with; it is an outlet for truth-seekers to collaborate on the advancement of society. It is a place where ideas are freely exchanged as they ought to be. It is a place where great minds can express themselves unfettered from societal constraints.
The Intellectual Dark Web exists because many still venerate objective truth. With the rules of truth-proving being rewritten by our institutions, many expelled thinkers continue their pursuit online. It’s a blessing for those who want to have discussions on evolutionary biology, religion, culture, economics, and politics, without any toxic ideology polluting the outlet.
Hopefully, in time our old institutions will be replaced with new ones—places that abide by the rules science and “The Liberal Principle.”