//
you're reading...
Conventional Wisdom

An Example of Liberal Bias in Academic Social Science



It is my opinion that “Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives,” by Jacob B. Hirsh, Colin G. DeYoung, Xiaowen Xu, and Jordan B. Peterson, available on the Publications tab of the YourMorals.org web site, contains at least three examples of liberal bias in the way it characterizes liberals and conservatives.


Two examples are in the first sentence of the abstract, which expresses an idea that is repeated multiple times in the paper.  The sentence reads:

“Political conservatism has been characterized by resistance to change and acceptance of inequality.”

First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I believe that conservatism is not about resistance to anything.  Conservatism is about respect for the wisdom of experience as represented by the customs, traditions, and institutions of the local culture, whatever, wherever, and whenever in history that culture may happen to exist.  This explains why conservatism can support different ideas in different places and times, a phenomenon which is often used to indicate supposed conservative hypocrisy, or which sometimes baffles people in their attempts to understand conservatism, but which, on the contrary, shows a rather perfect consistency among all instances of conservatism wherever and whenever it may occur.

I realize that the current conventional wisdom, even on the part of many conservatives, is that conservatism is resistant to change, but I am firm in the belief that it is conventional wisdom that is in fact unwise.  There’s a saying, the origins of which are not exactly clear but which is often attributed to Mark Twain, that goes:  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”   I think this is exactly the case for the notion that conservatism is resistant to change.


This is not just semantics.  This is extremely important.  The phrases that are used to describe moralities and political ideologies are a form of affective priming.  They predispose the reader to think about things in a particular way.  This sort of thing can be insidious: Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects. 


Try this thought experiment:  Imagine that every instance of the notion of conservative “resistance to change” that you (and everyone else) has ever read had instead been represented as conservative “respect for experience.”   Don’t you think the world would have a much different collective understanding, a much different “conventional wisdom,” about conservatism?  I do. 


In another post I’ve talked about language, and about how each side brings its own baggage, its own connotations, its own “dog whistles,” if you will, that call out to like-minded thinkers, its own verbal “bumper stickers” that serve as tribal badges(1), through the way it uses particular words.  Well, I believe that “Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives” and many others papers like it are examples of the liberal tribal moral community of academic social science doing exactly that.  I don’t think it is intentional, but I think it happens nonetheless.  Given the choice between seeing conservatism as either a half-full glass (i.e., respect for) or a half-empty one (i.e., resistant to) the community always seems to choose the half-empty version.  Further, it seems that even the possibility of a half-full glass does not exist within the universe of potential explanations.   Through choices like these, I believe the almost purely liberal community of academic social science “primes” the way people think about liberalism and conservatism in a way that favors the liberal “grand narrative.” (2)


It is my firm position that “respect for experience” is an accurate characterization of conservatism rightly understood, and that “resistance to change” is a gross, even tragic, mischaracterization of it; gross because it is so wrong (there’s a huge difference between resistance to and respect for), and tragic because so many people take it for granted as truth (and even write scientific papers supporting it).


The second example of liberal bias in that sentence is that the latter part of it seems to rest on the notion of “conservative acceptance of inequality,” but the paper never defines the word “inequality.”  This is important because liberalism and conservatism rest on very different, and for practical purposes mutually exclusive, connotations of the word “equality,” as well as of related words like “fairness,” and “justice.”   As I mentioned, I’ve described this more completely elsewhere, but briefly, the conservative connotation is that there is (or should be) one set of rules that applies, and is applied, the same for everyone; that is, equality under the law.  The liberal connotation of equality, on the other hand, is that everyone has (or should have) a more or less similar chance of a positive result in their pursuit of happiness (whatever they understand happiness to be), and so some amount of “rigging” of the rules is necessary in order to assist classes of people who are perceived to be handicapped in one way or another in that pursuit; that is, equality of outcome.  I contend that the liberal connotation is a fundamental presumption upon which this paper is based.  For support of my contention I submit the fact that the paper presumes acceptance of inequality as a “core aspect of conservative ideology” without any sort of justification or support.  This presumption is possible only if one also presumes the liberal connotation of “equality.”


I offer these descriptions of the two opposing connotations of equality (and fairness, and justice, etc.) in the same spirit in which the paper offers its conclusion, which is that “these two studies [or connotations of equality] do not indicate the moral superiority of either the liberal or the conservative personality profile.”  Neither is better or worse, they’re just different.


But having said that, I contend that by limiting the discussion to only the liberal connotation of equality this paper exemplifies, as papers from academic social psychology so often seem (to me) to do,  what Haidt means when he says, “If we want to stage a fair fight between [conservative] and [liberal] moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins,” in his essay “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”  
(I replaced Haidt’s original words “religious” and “secular” with “conservative” and “Liberal” in the quote.)

The paper presumes the liberal definition of inequality, a definition which in many ways is mutually exclusive with the conservative definition, and then, it should be no surprise, concludes that “Individuals who have high needs for order but low needs for equality are likely to score at the high ends of conservative ideology.”


A third way this paper exhibits liberal bias is in the way it characterizes Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, summarizing its findings as follows:

“liberals tend to be more concerned about compassion and justice, whereas conservatives are more concerned about ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.

This mischaracterizes conservatives, and not to mention Haidt’s findings, in a way that supports the liberal narrative about liberals and conservatives.  The following figure and caption (3) help to explain why:

Scores on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, from 132,000 subjects, in 2011. Data from YourMorals.org.

Scores on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, from 132,000 subjects, in 2011. Data from YourMorals.org.

“This is the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. As the graph illustrates, liberals value Care and Fairness much more than the other three moral foundations whereas conservative endorse all five more or less equally.” (3)

It is true that Haidt’s data shows that “liberals tend to be more concerned about compassion and justice” (if we assume the liberal connotations of “compassion” and “justice”) than about the other foundations. But it is not true that “conservatives are more concerned about ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity” (emphasis added) relative to the others. What Haidt’s data actually shows is that conservatives are concerned about all the foundations to relatively the same degree

As with the semantics example above, this is not trivial. It is important.  It may not seem like much by itself, but when it reinforces similar messages throughout an academic study as it does in “Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives,” messages that support the liberal grand narrative, there’s little doubt as to the  ideas it conveys to the reader about what, and how, to perceive and to think about liberalism and conservatism.    

As mentioned above, the paper claims to be descriptive, not normative.  But then the General Discussion section at the end of the paper fulfills the liberal prophesy that conservatives lack intellect, compassion, fairness, and equality.  It defends the “goodness” of liberalism and it reiterates the liberal narrative of the “badness” conservatism.

Although the term bleeding-heart liberal is often used pejoratively, the current findings suggest that liberals do indeed tend to have higher levels of compassion.  These higher levels of compassion likely contribute to the liberal’s preference for fairness and equality. In contrast, the term compassionate conservative may be something of an oxymoron.  It is true that individuals with a more balanced personality profile may endorse both conservative and liberal values, but conservatism as a political orientation appears to be negatively associated with compassion.”

Isn’t it the least bit curious that this paper, like so many papers that come from academic social science, seems to imply through wording and context, that liberalism, its world view, and its connotations of “compassion,” “fairness,” and “equality,” are the norm, the baseline, from which to measure everything else?  Is it really a surprise, then, that such papers seem so often to support the liberal status quo concerning liberalism and conservatism?

Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that so many of these papers seem to strive to understand conservatism as if it were some sort of anomaly, some sort of curious diversion from the norm?  Aren’t papers like this therefore in some sense high-brow, intellectual/academic variations of polemics like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  and “The Republican Brain” hiding behind a veil of “science,” and therefore exactly the kind of thing Haidt said was “bad for science” in his Post-Partisan essay?


Where are all the papers from academic social science that ask, “What’s the Matter With Massachusetts?” ……..<sound of crickets chirping.>

==========


(1) On pp 156-157 (paperback version) of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, Haidt says “Bumper stickers are often tribal badges; they advertise the teams we support, including sports teams, universities, and rock bands.”  This is true, too, of the political teams we belong to.


(2) From pp 330-331 of The Righteous Mind (paperback version):

In the book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith writes about the moral matrices within which human life takes place. He agrees with Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix. Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives and condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what must be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.

One such narrative, which Smith calls the “liberal progress narrative,” organizes much of the moral matrix of the American academic left. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism.…But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.

This narrative may not mesh perfectly with the moral matrices of the left in European countries (where, for example, there is more distrust of capitalism). Nonetheless, its general plot line should be recognizable to leftists everywhere. It’s a heroic liberation narrative. Authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition are the chains that must be broken to free the “noble aspirations” of the victims.

(3) This is Figure 8.2, page 187 (paperback version), of The Righteous Mind.  It is available on the website for the book, here.  The Diagram and following quote were used in a Scientific American blog entry by Samuel McNerney entitled “Jonathan Haidt and the Moral Matrix: Breaking Out of Our Righteous Minds

Discussion

4 thoughts on “An Example of Liberal Bias in Academic Social Science

  1. ““Political conservatism has been characterized by resistance to change and acceptance of inequality.”

    First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I believe that conservatism is not about resistance to anything.””

    This conflict in how to view conservatives is probably at least in part due to there being both reflexive conservatives and reflective conservatives. Reflexive conservatives are the kinds of people who lament the passing of vinyl and CD’s and the closing of music stores because of iTunes, and talk about how they are sad their children are going to lose out on having the experiences they did with discovering music at the local music store. Reflective conservatives are like this guy.

    Conservatives are also easy to attack because unlike liberals they have nothing resembling a coherent philosophy about how the world works or how the world should look.

    Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that so many of these papers seem to strive to understand conservatism as if it were some sort of anomaly, some sort of curious diversion from the norm?

    No, not at all, why would it? To the authors of such papers conservatives may as well be Martians as far as their understanding of conservatives go.

    Try this thought experiment: Imagine that every instance of the notion of conservative “resistance to change” that you (and everyone else) has ever read had instead been represented as conservative “respect for experience.” Don’t you think the world would have a much different collective understanding, a much different “conventional wisdom,” about conservatism? I do.

    But finding truth isn’t their goal. Self-congratulations and status-whoring are the goal. Mission accomplished I would say.

    Like

    Posted by George (@GeorgeBSmithJr) | April 8, 2013, 8:33 pm
    • RE: “Reflexive conservatives are the kinds of people who lament the passing of vinyl and CD’s and the closing of music stores because of iTunes, and talk about how they are sad their children are going to lose out on having the experiences they did with discovering music at the local music store.”

      I like the distinction between reflexive and reflective. I think people of all ideologies are more prone to reflexive reactions to one another when they don’t understand where morality and political persuasion comes from. If we could “spread the wealth” of knowledge about this then there’d be a little more reflection going on, and a little less reflex reaction, and things would improve. This may seem naïve, but stranger things have happened, so I ask; Why not?

      I wonder, though, if reflexive/reflective is more prevalent in conservatives. It seems to me this is simply a human thing, common to all in equal measure. Do you have resources which show one side more prone to this than the other?

      Sowell is great.

      RE: “Conservatives are also easy to attack because unlike liberals they have nothing resembling a coherent philosophy about how the world works or how the world should look.”
      Why do you say this? I don’t see it.

      Conservatism is straightforward and easy to understand. It is the morality/ideology of seeking balance between the individualizing foundations of care/fairness/liberty and the cohering foundations of loyalty/authority/sanctity. Conservatism innately understands that it is, in fact, impossible for the individual bees to thrive unless the hive of society is healthy too.

      Liberalism is the morality/ideology of care/fairness/liberty, and of those mostly care. It largely rejects the other three foundations; it seems them as tools of oppression against the individual.

      I’m not saying anything polemical here. This is purely descriptive. As far as the latest research, data, and findings of academic social science is concerned, this seems to me to be pretty much a settled question.

      If I were to hazard a theory as to why conservatives are easy to attack I’d say that it is because of moral dumbfounding from both sides. Moral dumbfounding is “the strong feeling that something is wrong without clear reasons as to why that is.” http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-04/23/jonathan-haidt-interview

        “Imagine, if you will, a man going to a supermarket, buying a ready-to-cook chicken, taking it home, and having sexual intercourse with it. He then cooks it and eats it.

        Or imagine a brother and sister who go on holiday, and end up sleeping together. They feel that it brings them closer, and are very careful with birth control so there’s no absolutely chance of pregnancy.

        Don’t worry if you found these stories sick and wrong — most people do. But trying to pin down what exactly is wrong with these stories can be tricky. No one is harmed, the food isn’t wasted, the siblings are happy, yet it’s somehow still wrong. This is “moral dumbfounding’, the strong feeling that something is wrong without clear reasons as to why that is. According to Haidt, this offers a deep insight into human morality, and has profound implications for politics and religion.”

      The “from both sides” part is where, I believe, Haidt misses the mark. He attributes it almost exclusively to conservatives, but clearly it happens at least equally on both sides, if not much more on the liberal side.

      Dumbfounding on the conservative side falls along the lines of, “Do I really have to explain to you why that is bad? You can’t see for yourself?”

      Dumbfounding shows up on the liberal side in their bafflement about conservatism. Liberal moral radar is, for the most part, working at half capacity; it “sees” only three of the (at least) six moral threat detectors. In the sense that perception is reality, conservatism is pretty much external to liberal reality. The result is that liberals are dumbfounded in their attempts to “get” conservatism, and are left with essentially only one way “to pin down what exactly is wrong” with conservatism, which is to ascribe it to some sort of psychological or cognitive disorder.

      Like

      Posted by The Independent Whig | April 9, 2013, 7:04 pm
  2. Came upon this treatment of similar language- and conceptual academic problems with framing conservative thought and attitudes, taking off from the work of John Jost of NYU, who probably the pre-eminent work of this kind, and is much cited. The writer is a psychologist and self-professed libertarian who is also a columnist with Psychology Today, and who writes very occasionally about politics. http://ironshrink.com/2007/01/a-methodology-critique-in-defense-of-those-wascally-wepublicans/

    Like

    Posted by jswagner | May 10, 2013, 5:47 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

I Support Viewpoint Diversity

www.heterodoxacademy.org

A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.

Categories

Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

%d bloggers like this: