Affirmative action for conservatives?

| February 20, 2011 | 13 Replies

I have written several posts holding that we are all blinded by our sacred cows. Not simply those of us who are religions. This blindness occurs to almost of us, at least some of the time. Two of my more recent posts making this argument are titled “Mending Fences” and “Religion: It’s almost like falling in love.” In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve relied heavily upon the writings of other thinkers, including the writings of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Several years ago, Haidt posited four principals summing up the state-of-the-art in moral psychology:

1. Intuitive primacy (but not dictatorship)
2. Moral thinking is for social doing.
3. Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
4. Morality binds and blinds.

In a recent article at Edge.org, Haidt argued that this fourth principle has proven to be particularly helpful, and it can “reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into and it will show us a way out.” You can read Haidt’s talk at the annual convention for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, or listen to his reconstruction of that talk (including slides) here. This talk has been making waves lately, exemplified by John Tierney’s New York Times article.

Haidt begins his talk by recognizing that human animals are not simply social, but ultrasocial. How social are we? Imagine if someone offered you a brand-new laptop computer with the fastest commercially available processor, but assume that this computer was broken in such a way that it could never be connected to the Internet. In this day and age of connectivity, that computer will get very little use, if any. According to Haidt, human ultrasociality means that we “live together in very large

Image by Jeremy Richards at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group.” Very few species are ultrasocial, and most of them do it through a breeding trick by which all members of the group are first-degree relatives and they all concentrate their efforts at breeding with regard to a common queen. Humans beings are the only animals that doesn’t use this breeding trick to maintain their ultrasociality.

Our evolved trick is our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects and principles.… [Humans] are brought together by their shared devotion to sacred objects, people and principles. This ability is crucial in war areas and in politics. We’re just really good binding ourselves together into teams, mostly when were competing with other teams.

But how does one define what is “sacred”?

Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance …” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.

Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it’s not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin’s ideas began to spread. There’s a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something’s gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. This makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field. And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines.

Although churches are places where we would expect to find these distortions in thinking, you’ll find them everywhere else too. It is well advised that one should root for the home team in major-league cities. Sacred cows are common within families–it is not wise to question whether Uncle Peter actually saved a girl’s life by wrestling three Lions with his bare hands. In my article on “Mending Fences,” I noted many other examples of things skeptics believe despite the lack of evidence (including the belief that the unexamined life is not worth living, and that our actions are “free”).  That is a prime indicator for sacred beliefs:  beliefs despite the lack of evidence or despite evidence to the contrary.

According to Haidt, we find this phenomenon in academic fields too, including the liberal social sciences of anthropology, sociology and psychology. In his talk, Haidt notes several examples of sacred ideas in these fields, including the idea (common for decades) that African-American culture should not be blamed in any way. He also brings up  Stephen Jay Gould’s vigorous argument that evolution stopped 50,000 years ago, Gould’s attempt to avoid discussing the possibility that “racial” differences might have evolved. Despite Gould’s belief-preference, there has been a

gigantic increase in genetic change due to natural selection in the last 20 thousand years. So Gould got it exactly backwards! Evolution isn’t slow, and it didn’t stop 50 thousand years ago. In fact, it sped up, between 10 and 100 times faster. Sure, the Pleistocene era was important. But I predict that in the next 10 years, the Holocene is where the action will be. That’s the last 10-12 thousand years, since the ice ages ended. There’s a vast new frontier opening up for scientists interested in gene-culture co-evolution. The Holocene is a guaranteed scientific growth stock for the next decade. But we social psychologists cannot take part in the rally because of our paralyzing fear of race differences. So we’ll be stuck with 20th century evolutionary psychology for another generation or two. The irony, in my mind, is that if evolution really is this fast, then race is no longer a very useful construct for genetics.

Haidt’s point is that many of the sciences, including the liberal social scientists  to whom he was delivering his talk, have energetically maintained their own sacred cows. Just like religious conservatives are blinded to the scientific data that conflicts with their interpretations of the Bible, scientists are often blinded to scientific facts impugning the sacredness of liberal academic beliefs.  They have a history of resenting even the presence of others who might be sympathetic to prevailing cherished ideas.  Galileo and Darwin are only the most recognizable examples of such victims. Here are several more recent examples of elegant new scientific explanations that were rejected by people (including experts in the same field) despite overwhelming evidentiary support:

  1. Alfred Wegener, the scientist who developed tectonic plate theory in 1915. Despite the existence of evidence supporting his theory, his theory was rejected by most of his contemporaries.
  2. The same thing happened in 1984 to Australian Doctor Barry Marshall, who  argued (to a chorus of ridicule) that many ulcers are caused by bacteria called helicobacter pylori, not stress. It opponents claimed that it was medical fact that stress caused ulcers. Desperate to prove his theory.  Marshall drank a beaker of the bacteria to cause an ulcer in his own liver.  This began a revolution in our understanding and treatment of peptic ulcer disease).
  3. Kilmer McCully, M.D. paid dearly for disparaging the reigning theory of his day, that heart attacks were caused by excessive cholesterol.  McCully published papers contending that high cholesterol was notthe main cause of heart disease. His 1969 theory linked homocysteine—an amino acid that accumulates in the blood—and heart disease. For this work he was banished from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. For the next 27 months he was unable to find a position in North America that would allow him to continue this work.
  4. Lynn Margulis – Biologist who argued for the endosymbiotic theory of organogenesis.  From Wikipedia, “Weathering constant criticism of her ideas for decades, Margulis is famous for her tenacity in pushing her theory forward, despite the opposition she faced at the time.”

Every field needs outsiders who are willing to poke and prod the reining theories of the day. Haidt’s point is that there is not currently a critical mass of other-thinking scientists willing to do this in the social sciences.  Perhaps this recurring problem dovetails with the phenomenon of Kuhnian scientific revolution–the idea that scientific progress is not steadily forward, but occurs in fits and starts.

Haidt is arguing that the social sciences have much to learn from those with conservative world views, but conservatives are woefully underrepresented in these fields.  A show of hands during Haidt’s talk indicated that as many as 90% of the audience of social scientists indicated that they were politically liberal.

Haidt noted that liberals are higher on the “openness” scales (they are more willing to consider novel ideas), meaning that they more often willing to publicly embrace rigorous science to bolster their positions. They tend to believe that their reliance on science gives them a beeline to the truth relative to the opinions of many conservatives.  This is important and largely true, it would seem.  But this also make liberals dangerous, however, in that they tend to think that they have no sacred cows just because they believe they are open-minded science-loving folks.  Haidt argues that the massive underrepresentation of conservatives among social scientists “is evidence that [social scientists constitute] a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.” This has got to change, according to Haidt, because this lack of representation by conservatives in these fields is depriving social scientists of critics:  ”people who are as committed to science as we are, but ask different questions, and make different background assumptions.”

All of the above has been serving as a prelude to Haidt’s call to change this imbalance in the social science fields. He argues that adding conservatives to the mix would help social scientists by exposing them to their own blind spots. Haidt argues that we need to consciously move toward a “post-partisan social psychology” which will, as a result, become more credible to the outside world. He offers several suggestions for achieving this meaningful diversity.

1. Liberal social sciences need to be careful that they are not unfairly bashing conservatives or creating “a hostile climate “that discourages earnest participation by conservatives.

2. Social scientists should consciously expose themselves to other perspectives. This suggestion resonated with me, in that I have worked hard to read websites and magazines that cater to conservative viewpoints. One of the magazines to which I subscribed for several years was National Review– I often found it painful to read, but also worth my while, because reading it allowed me to much better understand (and sometimes sympathize with) conservative perspectives. Here’s what Haidt has to say about this strategy:

[E]xpose yourself to other perspectives. I have a project along with Ravi Iyer and Matt Motyl, at CivilPolitics.org, where we bring together materials to help people understand the other side. I also suggest that you read a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. And consider subscribing to National Review. I read about 8 magazines every month. Seven of them lean left. I get more new ideas from reading National Review than from any of the others.

3. Social scientists should seriously listen to their own rhetoric about the benefits of diversity. He goes so far as to suggest the need for an affirmative action plan to bring conservatives into the social sciences. Rather than arguing for diversity initiatives limited to traditional ethnic and racial minorities, or those with physical disabilities or sexual orientations, shouldn’t we also be seeking those “who bring helpful and underrepresented perspectives in other ways?”

These suggestions will be seen as dangerous by many social scientists, even though a willingness to ask dangerous questions could benefit research:

Just Imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.

I believe that Haidt is correct that the social sciences could very much benefit from an injection of intellectual diversity to include conservative voices.  For purposes of this argument, Haidt is referring to serious thinkers, not fundamentalists–he is not suggesting that we pollute the halls of academia with close-minded ignoramuses.  I sympathize with Haidt’s proposal because I have more than a few times disagreed with well-entrenched liberal political initiatives over the past few decades (e.g., affirmative action based upon skin color and government policies that have encouraged prolonged or indefinite dependence upon government handouts).   I have have repeatedly run up against liberal-minded social scientists who proclaim, without evidence, that humans are born with blank slates and that we are all “equal.”  In the field of education, the orthodoxy is too often to assume that students can do the work, or that they have done the work, despite all evidence to the contrary, resulting in chaotic classrooms that prevent serious students from learning all that they can.  It seems like academic excellence is a threat to many educators, because, for them, it smacks of elitism.   I’ve also repeatedly encountered liberal-minded racial essentialism, which is no less dangerous than the conservative essentialism that more properly goes by the name of “bigotry.”  We could all benefit from popping these bubbles, and many others, with good hard questions, and the best way to do that would be to bring in some “outsiders” who are not as beholden to the prevailing social order.

Yes, we do need vigorous intellectual diversity.  On the other hand, I fear that many conservatives would have it as their primary objective to completely take over academia, and to bring with them large herds of their own sacred cows. It is also my concern that conservatives are more willing to twist arms, shout down opposition and clean up problems with their own versions of “shock and awe,” including the defunding of viewpoints with which they don’t agree.  Creationism is an extreme, but prevalent, example of this.  For many conservatives, the ends justify the means. I am concerned that college social science departments could, if we are not careful, become dominated by Bible-thumping conservatives who will do anything in their power to make sure that “liberal” ideas are completely shut down through ridicule and other inappropriate tactics. The trick, then, is to maintain mutually respectful dialogue, not allowing any group to substitute its notions of the “sacred” as a shortcut for vigorous academic inquiry.

Should the social sciences try harder to incorporate conservative viewpoints? I believe the clear answer is yes, for the compelling reasons stated by Jonathan Haidt. Can social sciences departments pull this off?  I would hope so, but I have substantial concerns about how this could be accomplished while maintaining vigorous academic wide-ranging free-thinking.  As usual, the devil is in the details.

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Category: cognitive biases, Education, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Miles says:

    Without even going into whether religious or secular people have more sacred cows, how many sacred cows do conservatives and liberals hold on strong military / isolationism vs. diplomatic / economic pressure, punishment vs. rehab, rational markets / anti-tax dogma vs. gov't investment, unequal abilities vs. equal opportunities / rights, and equal duties vs. duties pinned to means? Or to summarize even further: stick vs. carrot and unequal people with equal duties vs. equal people with unequal duties.

    These inclinations fairly accurately describe the conservative/liberal divide in America imo, and I could easily argue that the latter (liberal) position on each of the above dichotomies is based on solid reason and evidence, if occasionally taken too far, while the former (conservative) position is always and every single time based on faulty intuition – though I'm sure many conservatives would make identical claims in reverse.

    Modern conservatism is a mark of scientific and historical ignorance; its prevalence among academia is an indictment of our education systems. I'm all for reexamining my liberal biases, and I'm happy to discuss them and hopefully learn from such a discussion, but give the idiots power on a silver platter simply because I might be wrong? Just no. Hell no.

  2. Miles says:

    Eggh, I wrote that too harshly. I don't know whether on average there are significant innate mental differences between sexes or races, but the liberal policy of treating people as if there were none is certainly for the good of all involved as shown by an abundance of historical examples.

    We should be willing to question the underlying assumptions of our political inclinations, but I don't see how things are to be helped by just bringing in people with the opposite inclinations and goals, especially when their derived conclusions are simply wrong.

    Speaking of underlying assumptions, I snuck the ultimate one in above: that the good of all involved is the highest priority. The main competitors for such a priority are probably liberty, fairness, and god's will. Maximizing liberty is an excellent way of maximizing the good for all in most cases, but those who mistake liberty for an end in and of itself create neighboring mansions and slums*. They do not have anything to offer. In fact all they offer is a chance to hand the enemy influence. I know liberals have a hard time drawing a line in the sand sometimes, but this is one of those times.

    *That is the direct result of libertarianism, unless corporations are replaced with worker's cooperatives or unionization becomes nearly universal, which few are willing to advocate as the first step. The unification of corporate power limits the choice of workers and gives corporate bosses all the power.

  3. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Intelligent Bible thinking is not oxymoronic. Do a search: The First Scandal.

  4. Xtech says:

    This is tangentially related:

    A Place on the Right for a Few Godless Conservatives
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/us/19beliefs.ht

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    Xtech, let me add my thanks for the article link. Most of my political position tends towards traditional conservative, but ask anybody who knows me and they would call me a liberal. I just can't abide religion in public matters (that and I vocally despise Fox"News".)

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Miles: As you no doubt noticed, I'm ambivalent about Haidt's proposal. I love it in the abstract, but I fear it in real life because all-too-many many well-known modern conservatives are working hard to richly earn reputations for being intolerant.

    In order for me to want to bring more conservatives into the universities, I need to be assured that we are bringing in first-rate scholars who believe in open-minded self-critical thought. Conservatives often don't test well for open-mindedness (as Haidt mentions), and this leaves me with an image of a group of loudmouth Newt Gingrich-like thugs barging into classrooms and belittling anyone who disagrees. This is a grossly unfair image, of course, because many conservatives are thoughtful and considerate.

    On the other side of the ledger, it recurs to me that if progressive ideas are worth anything at all, they will more than withstand the intellectual arrows launched by conservatives. And in the process of defending one's ideas against conservative ideas, one will (I trust) find that one sharpens one's thought process or (yes, this might happen) decide that conservatives had some valuable ideas to add to the conversation.

    And it's not like "liberal" intellectual methods are infallible. It often seems to me that there are better and worse answers to questions at times when some "liberal-minded" professors seem most concerned about not offending anyone. And consider the examples raised by Haidt, especially the Moynihan example.

    But my prejudice keeps returning. I keep worrying that "open-minded conservative" is an oxymoron, even though it certainly doesn't apply to all conservatives. The mascot for my prejudice is a conservative preacher holding up a bible and arguing that the earth is 6,000 years old despite dozens of rigorous scientific tests to the contrary.

  7. Miles says:

    Pleasantries are often confused for two distinct ideas: not resorting to violence and avoiding painful topics. The former seems to me inherently liberal and the latter inherently conservative, at least by the dictionary definition of whether an act encourages or inhibits change. After all violence ends the conversation, but so does avoiding the discussion in the first place. Liberals who resist offense and multi-culturalists who resist any universal application of law as oppressive are really conservative agents by any reasonable definition.

    You know, I almost like the idea of inviting conservatives into liberal temples of education. It sounds like it might encourage more debates and change more minds, but like you, Erich, I fear that won't happen.

    In my nightmare scenario, there will just be larger conservative / religious groups on campus, more events targeted at a conservative audience, more segregation by political affiliation, and they'll have more weight when they task the authorities with policing respect, AKA shutting people up. After all, it's hard to imagine conservatives getting "oppressed" status and not using it to dampen rational discussion. Ultimately, we'll just have more conservatives on campus.

    Discrimination, positive or negative, often has unforeseen consequences, and I doubt that kind of identity politics will be positive for society. Imagine a future where questioning someone's beliefs is considered as pointlessly rude as questioning their race or heritage, because (to be read in a blonde accent) "You can't change what you are. Duh, silly." Some on this blog would probably argue that we're already there.

  8. Miles says:

    Furthermore, I do think it can be easily shown that every conservative in the US has either been misled or is lacking in compassion or intelligence, traits not to be dismissed in our science classrooms. If you look at politics rationally and systematically (which atheists tend to do) you are forced to become a liberal if your primary goals are the well-being and happiness of all people.

    The only way to be a compassionate, intelligent conservative in the U.S. is to 1) care about liberty more than society, AKA property rights over human rights, in which case I don't see how you can claim to be compassionate, or 2) think happiness follows from growth instead of equitable distribution, and ignore the fact that socialism leads to relative long term growth either through ignorance or masterful compartmentalization in which case I don't see how you can claim to be intelligent.

    Just to cover #2 above, we have the data from our 30 year experiment in Reaganomics. The top 5% have benefited greatly, while the bottom 90% have suffered considerably – most people work more now for the same pay – especially compared to what could have been if the War on Poverty had been continued indefinitely. We now have a Gini coefficient of 41, nestly snuggly in between Ghana and Senegal. U.S. GDP per capita grew 67% from 1980 to today, while it grew 74% over the shorter period of relative socialism from 1950 to 1973. Privatization and deregulation appear to decrease growth slightly over the long term, so there's not even a trade-off between growth and stratification, just one between the rich and everybody else. How is the misery of 90% of a population worth the ecstasy of 5%, no matter how great their joy? I have a hard time seeing how the math works in conservative minds even when I'm being generous; I suspect it doesn't.

    There's no such thing as a compassionate, intelligent conservative. Or maybe I'm just hardened from too much Chomsky lately. His worldview of open war between the corporations and the people, a war fought alternately with guns and propaganda, makes imminent sense of political affairs everywhere, foreign and domestic. It makes the confusing platitudes and ignorance of our politicians and public far more understandable, and even provides an implicit reason for why scientists are overwhelmingly liberal: it's the only rational, compassionate position, but only those lucky few who have seen behind the curtain, or have the tools to decipher truth from fiction (scientists), are any good at cutting through the propaganda machine. Indeed the perfect predictions of this political theory are the only reasons I have to doubt it. It's too neat.

    Then again, maybe I question myself too much o.0 I'm off to make some cocoa.

  9. Miles says:

    If anything I think there are good reasons to discriminate against conservatives: they are more likely to be stupid / evil. Which is not to say we can't coexist peacefully or that they are all beyond reason, but I do think it can be easily shown that every conservative in the US has either been misled or is lacking in compassion or intelligence, traits not to be dismissed in our science classrooms.

    If you look at politics rationally and systematically (which atheists tend to do) you are forced to become a liberal if your primary goals are the well-being and happiness of all people.

    Ignoring the obvious stupidity of the religious right and the cruelty of the neocons, the only way to be a compassionate, intelligent conservative in the U.S. is to 1) care about socio-economic liberty more than socio-economic security, AKA property rights over human rights, which as far as I can tell is a convenient way for conservatives to care about others without really caring about others, or 2) think happiness follows from growth instead of equitable distribution contrary to the best available evidence – though admittedly not the most widely available analysis – in which case I don't see how you can claim to be anything other than lazy or disinterested in the truth.

    Just to cover #2 above, we have the data from our 30 year experiment in Reaganomics. The top 5% have benefited greatly, while the bottom 90% have suffered considerably – most people work more now for the same pay – especially compared to what could have been if the War on Poverty had been continued indefinitely. We now have a Gini coefficient of 41, nestly snuggly in between Ghana and Senegal. U.S. GDP per capita grew 67% from 1980 to today, while it grew 74% over the shorter period of relative socialism from 1950 to 1973. Privatization and deregulation appear to decrease growth slightly over the long term, so there's not even a trade-off between growth and stratification, just one between the rich and everybody else. How is the misery of 90% of a population worth the ecstasy of 5%, no matter how great their joy? I have a hard time seeing how the math works in conservative minds even when I'm being generous; I suspect it doesn't.

    There's just no such thing as a compassionate, intelligent conservative who has sincerely investigated politics. Or maybe I'm just hardened from too much Chomsky lately. His worldview of open war between the corporations and the people, a war fought alternately with guns and propaganda, makes imminent sense of political affairs everywhere, foreign and domestic. It makes the confusing platitudes and ignorance of our politicians and public far more understandable, and even provides an implicit reason for why scientists are overwhelmingly liberal: it's the only rational, compassionate position, but only those lucky few who have seen behind the curtain, or have the tools to discern truth from fiction (scientists), are any good at cutting through the propaganda machine. Indeed the perfect predictions of this political theory are the only reasons I have to doubt it. It's too neat.

    Then again, maybe I question myself too much o.0 I'm off to make some cocoa.

  10. Miles says:

    I would double post an insulting diatribe about intelligence. Oh well, egg on my face.

  11. TheThinkingMan says:

    Robert,

    That is intelligent Bible thinking? Looks like reaching for straws to me.

    The problem with Biblical stories is that, if chosen to be interpreted allegorically, one can determine nearly any meaning out of it.

    So how are you certain this meaning is the valid one?

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