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Anti-Science, Conventional Wisdom, Flatland and Spaceland, Liberalism & Conservatism, Religion

A Response To “Why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? A closer look”

This month’s blog updates email from Heterodox Academy features an essay entitled Why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? A closer look, by Bo Bennett.

I believe the essay to be fatally flawed. The farther into it I read the more my blood boiled.  Let me explain.

The first step in writing an essay like this, I would think, would be to accurately understand and describe the subject under study: non-liberals, and specifically conservatives. Haidt goes to great lengths to achieve this in his work and he mostly succeeds, but I see little evidence of in it this essay by Bennett.

Rather, this essay seems to me to exemplify the problem described Heterodox Academy’s centerpiece publication, Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.  (It’s a long academic paper.  A shorter summary is here.)   It reads like a classic case of liberal values and misconceptions about conservatives embedded in research thinking, questions, and methods. It lacks the balanced perspective that a few conservatives might bring to the field of academic social science.  If Heterodox Academy thinks that the dearth of conservatives in academic social science harms the science then one would think it would solicit review and commentary from conservatives before it published an essay.  My reading of this essay indicates to me that in this case this did not happen.

Andrew Thompson and some of the other commenters to Bennett’s essay are right. The conservatism and religiosity presented in it are straw-men. They’re caricatures that seem to me to be a better fit with the liberal moral matrix and grand narrative than with actual conservatism and religion.

In his reply to a comment to this effect by Andrew Thompson, the article’s author, Bo Bennet, says “Honestly, after quite a bit of searching the only sites with conservative values listed were either sites clearly written by liberals…


I have a few suggestions for where one might start if one wanted to acquire a more complete and accurate understandings of non-liberals, conservatism and religion:

1) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.
2) Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding Of Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.
3) The first chapter Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present, by Jerry Z. Muller.

The quickest and easiest way for me to describe the problem with this article as I see it, and really with social psychology more generally, is through the following quote from The Righteous Mind. This quote is about religion but the concept it conveys applies equally to conservatism.

But trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.   The Righteous Mind, p. 290.

Change a few words and the passage works for conservatism too:

But trying to understand the persistence and passion of conservatism by studying values is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the way conservative values work with social policy and practices to create and maintain civil society.”

If moral foundations really are evolved psychological mechanisms as Haidt describes them then presumably they’re present to some degree in all humans at all times and places throughout written history. Values, principles, cultures, and cultural norms vary from time to time and from place to place, but human nature remains essentially unchanged.  In order to understand conservatism, therefore (and liberalism too), thinking about it in terms of values and principles cannot possibly present a complete picture. Rather, you have to break out of the conventional ways of thinking and look at it from an evolutionary, anthropological, and psychological perspective. You can’t examine it only in terms of the traits it exhibits in a particular region of the world or in a particular moment in history, you have to look at how the underlying psychology helps to create and sustain the “absolute miracle” of human civilization that Haidt described in his TED talk about The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. In other words, you can’t look at it only WEIRDly (see here, here, here and The Righteous Mind), you must look at it holistically too.

The problem of liberal assumptions and methods becoming EMBEDDED INTO the theory and method of a discipline consisting only of liberals is bad enough (see Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science), but it’s only half of the problem. The other half is what’s MISSING FROM the discipline. What’s missing is way of thinking – a way of imagining the possibilities of how the dots of empirical data might be connected, and even of imagining what the dots might be, and how to find them – that is possessed by the type of mind that is absent from the discipline, but that is represented by about 85% of the people on the planet.

When essentially every single person in the social sciences is predisposed to “see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships;” (The Righteous Mind, p. 113) and when for all intents and purposes not one single person in the social sciences is predisposed to see humanity in terms of “relationships, contexts, groups, and intuitions” (The Righteous Mind, p. 114) then the questions that are screaming to be begged are, 1) “How likely is it that the social sciences will be able to acquire a full and accurate understanding of people of the latter predisposition?” and 2) “Isn’t is only natural, and practically inevitable, that the social sciences will fail to grasp the full depth and breadth of the psychology, priorities, values, motivations, and principles of the people and moralities of that predisposition?” The answers to those questions, I suggest, are “Not very,” and “Practically guaranteed.”

This is why the work of Haidt and his co-contributors is so remarkable. It bucks the trend.  Haidt is a rare bird: a liberal who can think holistically, as in this example from pages 115 and 116 of The Righteous Mind:

A dictum of cultural psychology is that “clture and psyche make each other up.” In other words, you can’t study the mind while ignoring culture, as psychologists usually do, because minds function only once they’ve been filled out by a particular culture. And you can’t study culture while ignoring psychology, as anthropologists usually do, because social practices and institutions (such as initiation rites, witchcraft, and religion) are to some extent shaped by the concepts and desires rooted deep within the human mind, which explains why they often take similar forms on different continents.

Trend-bucking notwithstanding, I see the overemphasis on WEIRD thinking about the trees and the practical absence of holistic thinking about the forest to be one of the fundamental problems caused by the lack of non-liberals in the social sciences.

A little wordsmithing of some text from The Righteous Mind helps to illustrate this point.

Original text:

It makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. The Righteous Mind, pp. 113-114.

Altered Text:

It makes sense that WEIRD” social scientists have mostly generated interpretations of liberalism and conservatism that value and/or overrepresent “individualistic, rule-based, and universalist,” traits and devalue and/or underrepresent  the tendency to “see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions.”  

When you step back and understand conservatism (and liberalism) from the wider perspective of holistic thinking a picture emerges that is much clearer, more accurate, and easier to understand than is possible from a WEIRD analysis of the separate objects of a questionable list of conservative “values” from a single un-vetted source.

Conservatism, rightly understood, is about preserving social capital.  (Social capital, according to Haidt, is the left’s blind spot). Conservatism is an innate intuitive grasp of fundamental human nature, and of the fact that “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.” (The Righteous Mind, p.299). Conservatism is an inherent predisposition to value, respect, and preserve the collected wisdom of the local culture and those aspects of it which, given human nature, facilitate(d) the establishment, continued health and longevity of that culture. This explains, I suggest, why conservatism can seem to want to conserve different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, things at different times within a culture or in different cultures throughout the world. Conservatism is, quite simply, merely seeking to preserve the virtues and ethics of the local culture, grounded in human nature, whatever wherever, and whenever, they may be.

Conservatism is not primarily about the values it happens to esteem at a particular time within a particular culture. To analyze it in these terms as Bo Bennet does in  Why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? A closer look seems to me to be the intellectual equivalent of analyzing an entire movie by looking at only one frame from it.   The approach seems to be short sighted, prone to misinterpretation, and likely to arrive at incorrect conclusions. Conservatism is a holistic approach to human nature and to human social interaction that appreciates “relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions,” and therefore interacts with the social world with an approach that is “more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules.”  It’s disappointing to see such a short sighted representation of conservatism coming from the very source that takes as its mission to increase viewpoint diversity in the academy, with a special focus on the social sciences; Heterodox Academy

There are several other reasons I see this article as exemplifying the problem described in Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science:

Each of the examples in this article presents a false choice; conservatives value X, but psychologists understand Y. The implication being that conservatives don’t understand, can’t understand, or are prevented by their values from understanding what trained psychologists understand.  This implication seems to me to be a liberal value embedded in the analysis.  It fits the de rigueur liberal analysis of conservatism: Liberalism is the morality of care, science, and enlightenment, conservatives disagree with it, therefore conservatives don’t care, are anti-science, and are unenlightened.  None of this is true. If you keep moral foundations theory in mind as you listen to the centuries-old debate between liberals and conservatives you hear something quite different from the liberal caricature of it. What you hear is conservatives saying “Yes, you’re right, care and fairness and liberty are most definitely critical elements of civil society and of morality, but there’s more to both than just those things. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity matter too, and we neglect the latter at the expense of the former at our peril.”  

Not only is it untrue that, as the examples imply, conservatives can’t understand or won’t understand or are prevented by their values from understanding, what psychologists understand, the evidence suggests that the opposite is closer to reality.  According to Haidt’s research and conclusions, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, and conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals (see videos here, and here.  Transcripts here).  Which leads to the following.

Bennet seems to assume that the relationship, the dynamic, between liberalism and conservatism is an either/or proposition. It’s not. The dynamic, rightly understood, is either/AND. Moral foundations are psychological mechanisms of social intuition and reasoning – of the elephant and the rider – that evolved in the human psyche as we became The Social Animal. There’s no liberal foundation that is not also a conservative foundation, but half of the conservative foundations are, practically speaking, unavailable to the liberal righteous mind. It’s not a coincidence that conservatives understand liberals and human nature better than liberals understand conservatives and human nature.  They operate like subconscious radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patters of thoughts an actions that represented opportunities and threats to our genetic ancestors, and sending flashes of affect forward to consciousness when such patterns are detected.  The more of them one employs the better sense of the social world one tends to have.  The dynamic between liberalism and conservatism, therefore, is not, as Haidt used to say, Yin/Yang. It’s Flatland/Spaceland.  The evidence suggests that the implication that liberals “get it” and conservatives don’t is exactly backwards.  If anything, the conservative values that are used as examples in this articles are examples of ADDITIONAL, NEW, DIFFERENT, DEEPER, insights and perspectives that conservatives bring to the discussion that liberal psychologists generally fail to see. It’s not either/OR, it’s either/AND.  Moral foundations reveal and enlighten.  This, I propose, is The Missing Fourth Principle of Moral Psychology that explains what the other three principles alone cannot; the asymmetry of understanding between liberalism and conservatism about each other and about human nature, and the Flatland/Spaceland dynamic between them.   

There’s also a very strong implication in the way the examples are presented that conservatism by its nature is anti-science, and/or that conservatives are inherently incapable of being educated. The examples might as well say “Uneducated layman conservatives believe this, but trained psychologists know the truth.” It’s insulting, frankly, and untrue, and specious as an argument.

Where’s the data that proves “conservative candidates OVERWHELMINGLY have been supporting positions that are contrary to the scientific community at large?”  Which conservatives? Which positions? Describe them. Show the position papers or the public statements. And prove “overwhelmingly.” The whole conservatives are anti-science meme is much too glib, much too offhand, much too unexamined, much too “everybody knows,” to be taken seriously. It’s straight out of the liberal talking points playbook.  A playbook designed, by the way, by people who have less of a grasp of human nature than those they assert don’t get it.  And be very careful with phrases like “the scientific community at large.”  That sounds an awful lot like “scientific consensus,” and “the science is settled,” both of which are sentiments that are in themselves anti-science. “The scientific community at large” sounds more like scientism than actual science. It sounds more like cherry picking only the science that supports the liberal meme about conservatives and ignoring or suppressing the inconvenient truths that challenge the sacred values of liberal Asteroids.     

Liberalism itself arguably rests on a vision of and for human nature that is counter-factual to “what psychologists understand” human nature to be. Liberal thinkers from Condorcet to Krugman have taken positions that to varying degrees rest on beliefs about human nature that are as anti-science, and arguably more so, than conservative beliefs. Anti-science liberal notions include but are not limited to such things as: the mind is a blank slate at birth; morality is purely taught/learned; reason is the path to moral truth; morality starts and ends with care; differences in race, class, and gender have no genetic component and are purely social constructs ; the “good society” is simply a matter of putting in place the correct social constructs; liberalism is based in science; conservatism is anti-science. Liberalism itself, for its very existence, rests essentially on what Haidt calls The rationalist delusion. If not for anti-science beliefs about human nature – what it is and what it can be – liberalism itself as we currently know it would not, could not exist. If liberals cared a whit about evidence and reason then they’d be forced to change their entire outlook on humanity, including, and especially, on issues of race, gender, and class, their views of which tend to be very much anti-science.

For pete’s sake the whole premise behind vindictive protectiveness and the cognitive distortions that liberals pass off as reasoning and argumentation that Haidt and Lukianoff described in The Atlantic is logical stilts in factual quicksand.

Haidt seems to hold Thomas Sowell in high regard. From what I’ve seen of Haidt he tends to respect people of any political persuasion who are straight thinkers; that is, they’re good critical thinkers. Sowell is one of those people. Sowell’s book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy contains a litany of fact and evidence-free liberal ideas. If liberals cared about evidence and reason then they’d see and admit the devastation that has been wrought on the social capital of Western cultures by the entitlement mentality and its destruction of the family. They’d have to rethink their positions on poverty, economic equality, and who pays their “fair share” of taxes too. The gender wage gap, for example, is factually unsupportable.  But no. What’s their suggestion? More of the same – more entitlements, more redistribution, more taxes, with no end in sight.

For a cliffs notes version of how liberals ignore facts and evidence, read the following essays by Sowell:
Fact Free Liberals
Fact Free Liberals Part II
Fact Free Liberals Part III
Fact Free Liberals Part IV

If Haidt is correct that intuition comes first and strategic reasoning second, then the question becomes: “Which set of intuitions is more congruent with what psychologists understand about human nature, and which set is less congruent?” Granting that seldom is any set of beliefs 100% correct or 100% incorrect, which belief set is scientifically more right than wrong, and which is more wrong than right? The answer to these questions, respectively, is conservatism and liberalism. Conservative intuitions are much more congruent with what psychologist know about human nature liberal intuitions. Further, liberalism as we know it, in order to even exist, rests on defying and denying parts of human nature.  One of the chief lessons of The Righteous Mind is precisely this. 

If you’re going to base your arguments and observations about liberalism and conservatism on science then don’t the principles and practices of the scientific process and the ethics of the scientific community demand that you use all of it, rather than just the parts that happen to fit the liberal grand narrative about how anti-science conservatives are? One would hope that the answer to this question is yes. But the monism of academic social science seems to prevent it from happening.

Those who live in the glass house of liberalism ought to put a little more thought into casting anti-science stones at conservatism.

It is completely appropriate to take a closer look at why there are no conservatives in social psychology.  But please, do it fairly.  Represent conservatism accurately.  Try to avoid regressing into the same old factually incorrect liberal talking points about conservatives and conservatism.  Try to include conservatives in your peer review of essays before you publish them.

For more on these topics see these additional essays:

The Thesis of the Independent Whig
The Missing Fourth Principle of Moral Psychology
Conservatism Is Not Resistance To Change, It Is Respect For Experience
Religion, Morality, and Ideology: Different Names for the Same Underlying Element of Human Nature
Religion, Morality, and Ideology: Like Things That Should Be Judged Alike
Liberalism is Innately Anti-Science
Liberalism Is Anti-Science Magical Thinking
How To Better Articulate Conservatism (and Liberalism Too)



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