Barbara Oakley on the dangers of killing with kindness

Can something really be killed with kindness? Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of Photo: Barbara Oakley

OCALA, Fla., September 11, 2012 — Billions across the world rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. Is this a good or bad thing?

The ability to empathize with other people is considered an essential characteristic. Should it be? The old idiom that things are “killed with kindness” can apply to so many of our society’s problems. Which of these has altruism had the worst impact on?

While attempting to learn about key social issues, should more attention be paid to neuroscience? In the second and final part of our interview, Dr. Oakley, author of the bestseller “Evil Genes” and co-editor of Pathological Altruism answers all of these questions.

Q: Billions across the world rely on faith just to get them through the day. This faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. What is your opinion about faith?

A: I think faith can be a wonderful thing — deeply meaningful, and a wellspring of hope and security in difficult times. We appear to have

an innate need and drive for faith and spirituality. Of course, this need can be harmful, as with the Reverend Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre. But faith can also inspire people to stand up against tyranny and to protect the weak and needy.

Modern intellectuals often feel a sense of superiority by wearing their atheism on their sleeve. But they haven’t gotten rid of their biologically-based need for religion, spirituality, and meaning. What creeps quietly into religion’s place are stealthy intellectual cults.

These cults are all the more insidious because they can aren’t labeled as cults. Intellectual cults can be so deep-rooted that I don’t want to name them, for fear of violating atheist proprieties. Certainly, however, the idea that altruism is always good is a central modern dogma for many intellectual cults.

Q: Empathy for others is seen as one of the most important human traits. What do you think?

A: Empathy is a double-edged sword — it is not an unalloyed good.  For one thing, empathetic and caring people are much more easily influenced by the thoughts of others. This means they often gain their conviction simply because everyone else in their social circle believes it. 

That’s a big part of why we suffered through the housing crisis. It is also why we are currently in a higher education bubble, where students take on a lifetime of debt to get a degree for a job that pays less than a plumber’s salary.

Interestingly, scientists and engineers often have low empathy — they don’t care what others think. It’s clear we would never have had the Scientific Revolution without low empathy individuals who found it easier to think independently.

Evil Genes by Oakley

Empathy has indirect pernicious consequences as well. People outside academia, for example, often have no idea how circle-the-wagon academics can be to ideas that challenge perceived wisdom. For example, I was recently told to avoid submitting a study to a journal

that did not support the idea of individual differences in personality. My guide warned “They’ll send your paper back in a body bag.”

Any one academic discipline generally has only a few key journals. The editors of these journals are often selected because they empathize with and generally support the underlying intellectual positions of leaders within that discipline. The decisions of these editors have a profound influence on a field. If an editor glances at an abstract and doesn’t like the thrust of a study, it’s a simple matter for that editor to send the article off for review to intellectual kibitzers who will slice the paper to shreds. 

Reviewers can provide great insight in improving a research paper. But reviewers can also provide ready cover for an editor who has decided — often at a subconscious level — that he or she wants that paper to be rejected because it doesn’t support the “right” conclusions.

Liberals often point towards conservatives as being anti-scientific Luddites.   But many conservatives have a deep respect for science. They are simply also aware of how academics can fool themselves into thinking that “the science is settled” because it supports what academics want to believe.

Q: The old idiom that things are “killed with kindness” can apply to so many of society’s problems. Which problems would you say that altruism has had the worst impact on?

A: Oh my — where to begin? I believe in a good education.  But I know that the monolithic education system we have now has consigned the poor — the ones most in need of quality schooling — to lifetimes of drudgery. This continues to happen no matter how much money we throw at the problem. But anyone who criticizes teachers unions — the worst impediments to reform — is labeled as mean-spirited and against the children.

I’m a pacifist. But I also know that military weakness and “nice” leaders cause war. After all, greedy, self-interested dictators can then see their chance. I believe in decent health care for everyone. But I know that a byzantine, non-transparent medical systems rife with opportunities for graft and political patronage can make things worse for one and all.

Q: While attempting to learn about key social issues, do you think that more attention should be paid to neuroscience?

A: I think we have to be very careful with neuroscience. The results seem so obviously factual that we often don’t realize how much their interpretation depends on what the researcher wants to find. That said, neuroscience has done a lot to help change psychologists’ previous assertions that our underlying biology had nothing to do with how we think.

Q: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a prominent neuroscientist and social observer. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

A: I’m a fiscally conservative, socially liberal, engineering professor who swims in a sea of liberal academics. My work as a Russian translator on board Soviet trawlers in the early 1980s allowed me to see that great swaths of people can, when isolated from others with different perspectives, reinforce each other in a well-meaning, deeply pernicious worldview.

I enlisted in the Army right out of high school and ended up a Regular Army captain. I met my husband while working at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. I’ve worked as a dishwasher, waitress, linguist, house cleaner, radio operator, stay-at-home mom, engineer, game designer, and writer. In other words, I haven’t spent a lifetime cocooned and shielded in academia. At the same time, I’ve earned a doctorate in systems engineering. This provided in-depth training in the hard sciences that avoids the blinkering and indoctrination of current psychology and sociology.

I’ve been very lucky to grow up in a family and society where I was able to steer my own life.  I hope my work helps ensure that those who come after me have the same freedom that I had. As a societal altruist, I’m the whistleblower.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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