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
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.