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Bad News / Fantastic News for Conservatism from Social Science

Philip Tetlock wrote essay on Edge.org titled The Epistemic Train Wreck of Soft-Side Psychology in which he describes how liberal ideological dogma has in recent decades had a strong influence on academic social science research and findings.

A transcript of an interview of Jonathan Haidt by Krista Tippet illustrates that Haidt has been the exception to the trend described by Tetlock.

Through Heterodox Academy Haidt, Tetlock, and others are leading the charge in getting the train back on track.

All of this presents a bad news / fantastic news scenario for conservatives.

The bad news is that under the guise of “science” the field of academic social science has arguably been more concerned with bolstering leftist ideology at the expense of conservatism than it has with pursuing actual evidence-based science.  

The fantastic news is that if Tetlock is right and ideology takes its rightful place in relation to science – i.e., is absent from it as much as is humanly possible – then it is inevitable that conservatism will gain respect and admiration in the scientific community, and subsequently in the culture at large, just as it did with Haidt when he himself followed the evidence honestly.

The following quotes from Tetlock’s essay and the Haidt interview help to illustrate what I mean.


The recent wave of disclosures about the non-replicability of many soft-side research phenomena suggests … that a disconcertingly large fraction of the news does not hold up to close scrutiny. The exact fraction is hard to gauge but my current guess is at least 25%, perhaps as high as 50%.

And as the gang of six, Duarte et al, point out in their Behavioral and Brain Sciences article on “ideological diversity will improve social psychology,” …the growing political homogeneity of the field selectively incentivized the production of certain types of knowledge: counterintuitive findings that would jar the attentive public into realizing how deeply unconsciously unfair the social order is. This has proven a dangerous combination.

In our rushed quest to establish our scientific capacity to surprise smart outsiders plus help those who had long gotten the short end of the status stick, soft-siders had forgotten the normative formula that Robert Merton formulated in 1942 for successful social science, the CUDOS norms for protecting us from absurdities like Stalinist genetics and Aryan physics. The road to scientific hell is paved with political intentions, sometimes maniacally evil ones and sometimes profoundly well intentioned ones. If you value science as a purely epistemic game, the effects are equally corrosive. When you replace the pursuit of truth with the protection of dogma, you get politically-religiously tainted knowledge. Mertonian science imposes monastic discipline: it bars even flirting with ideologues.

…I timed my birth badly but those entering the field today should see the train wreck as a goldmine. My generation’s errors are their opportunities Silicon-Valley-powered soft-science gives us the means of enforcing Mertonian norms of radical transparency in data collection, sharing and interpretation. We can now run forecasting tournaments around Open Science Collaborations in which clashing schools of thought ante up their predictions on the outcomes of well-designed, large-sample-size studies, earning or losing credibility as a function of rigorously documented track records rather than who can sneak what by which sympathetic editors. Once incentives and norms are reasonably aligned, soft-science should firm up fast.


So you cannot grow up in this country without being exposed to lots and lots of liberal ideas. But it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I happened to pull a book off a shelf that said conservatism on it that I was ever exposed to conservative ideas. And I’m well educated. And I had never encountered conservative ideas. So, there’s a real asymmetry in access to the other side’s ideas.

I was always very liberal growing up. I, you know, I really hated Ronald Reagan and I — and — my first political memory is having a poster of Richard Nixon, and my friends and I completely defaced it, and we thought it was so funny, because you know, we — we hated him in our seven-year-old minds.

Um, but in doing this research, and — and coming to see that liberals and conservatives each have a piece of the puzzle, each are really perceptive about certain moral values, about the needs of what it takes to have a humane society. And if you let liberals run everything, they tend to burn up social capital. But conservatives tend to focus more on building up social structures that actually do allow us to flourish in some ways. You do need order. You do need some restrictions. You do need some boundaries.

I was a self-righteous, conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal. And, in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist, with just, I’ve got to understand this stuff, over time, I realized, well, they’re not crazy. You know, these ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see. Um, the feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before. That’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.



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