Q: What’s the difference between a social scientist and a polemicist? A: A social scientist’s ideas agree with your politics, and a polemicists ideas do not.
That’s not entirely true, of course. Polemicists have an air of deliberate antagonism or provocation to them. Here’s a definition from Vocabulary.com:
A polemicist is a person who attacks someone else with written or spoken words. A heated debate is the perfect venue for a polemicist.
If you’re a polemicist, you have very strong opinions, and you’re not afraid to state them — even if they hurt other people. A polemicist might publish a fiery online essay criticizing many of her high school classmates, for example. The word comes from polemic, “a strong verbal or written attack,” which has a Greek root, polemikos, “warlike, belligerent, or stirring up hostility.
But with that said, my point remains: polemics is very much in the eye of the beholder.
For example, I’m sure The Coddling of the American Mind, Two Incompatible Sacred Values in American Universities, Political diversity will improve social psychological science, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, all, have been criticized to some degree as right wing polemics because they burst the bubble of some deeply entrenched left wing orthodoxies. But in truth they’re science based; they’re not polemics.
This begs the question: Where does psychological social science end and polemics begin? When does it switch from logical and empirical investigation to taking ideological sides, whether intentionally or not? If all it does is follow the path laid out before it by empirical evidence to its logical end, and it ends up concluding that some of today’s most popular orthodoxies are wrong, at what point along the way did the logic or data or reasoning suddenly become polemical? Did it at all?
I suggest that polemics start with cherry picking the questions that are asked and the data that is mined during the quest to answer them.
I suggest that the data that’s left out of the investigation is at least as important, if not more so, than the data that’s included.
As to the selection of data, I suggest that It’s not just The WEIRDest People in the World upon which psychological social science is based, it’s today’s WEIRDest people. Practically all of social science – all studies, questionnaires, surveys, etc. – is conducted on people who are alive today.
The problem with that is that Western Culture today has a very strong left wing (aka WEIRD) tilt. The sensibilities, likes and dislikes, grand narratives, all of it, even conservative ones, are decidedly more leftist today than they were maybe even just a decade ago.
I suggest that there’s a vast but apparently untapped wealth of empirical data – an entire academic field, actually – directly applicable to psychological social science which, were it to be included in its investigations and analyses, would cause dramatic changes in the landscape of social science inquiry and analyses. The scope of understanding of moral psychology would be significantly broadened.
I suggest that by leaving this field of social science out of social science’s investigations into psychology and morality biases social science in favor of the progressive left and its cognitive style, values, and principles. .
That rich mine of empirical data about human nature that’s left out is metaphorically just across the university hall from the psychology department, in the history department.
My personal intellectual journey is the other side of the coin from Jonathan Haidt’s. Whereas he studied the moral foundations of ideology first and then stumbled upon serious conservative writing, I first studied history for years, and only accidentally stumbled upon psychological social science in the form of Haidt’s TED talk.
What I discovered after my stumble was that psychological social science resonated uncannily accurately with what I’d learned from history.
The field of psychological social science would benefit immensely if it included history in its investigations. But, sadly, it seems to operate in a vacuum, intellectually removed from an untold wealth of extremely important and insightful data.
Everything evolves, even ideologies, ideas, and principles. But by examining essentially only today’s WEIRD culture academic social science deprives itself of a vastly broader and deeper understanding of human nature than it currently enjoys.
How many psychological social scientists truly, deeply, understand which moral foundations and ideological principles drove, for example, the Glorious Revolution in England, The Declaration of Independence, The American Revolution, The Constitution, The Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Reagan, Communism, Socialism, Fascism, etc., etc., etc.?
Has any psychological social scientist with a deep and intuitive grasp of human nature read Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood, Forrest McDonald?
Can any psychological social scientist answer questions like the following?
What, from a psychological social science perspective, are the differences between the French and American Revolutions?
Why did the American Constitution turn out the way it did? Upon which of Haidt’s moral foundation and ideological principles – upon which of Thomas Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions – does it rest?
Did they get human nature mostly right or mostly wrong?
Knowing what you know now, if you had to draft a Constitution, what would it look like?
Which moral matrix did the Founders consciously, deliberately, and explicitly try to promote, and which did they try to prevent?
The answer would shock social science, and the world. But since social psychology science operates nearly elusively within the bubble of only its WEIRD, living, subjects it never even occurs to it to ask those sorts of questions.
.It’s not the first time this sort of problem has occurred. In examining the reasoning of the New Atheists in Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion notes:
Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins
By ignoring history and studying ONLY today’s WEIRD Western culture, psychological social science does nearly the same thing to the psychology and cognitive style associated with the all-foundation moral matrix. It eliminates that morality from the conception of “normal” by definition before the match, or the study, begins.
As a result we end up not with science, but with scientism, in the form of books like The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science, and Reality, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? And article after article about how Trump, not Hillary, presents the greater danger to America and her values, principles, and ideals.
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