Politics, US Election

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science

Donald Trump’s victory in the recent US presidential election was a shock to many people. Polls, media pundits, even political insiders almost universally predicted that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably. In the aftermath, there will surely be questions about why they misjudged the situation so badly. I would argue, though, that the problem runs much deeper.

The occurrence of a very similar situation in the United Kingdom a few months earlier suggests that this is not just a polling flaw, nor is it just a group of pundits misreading a single event. The underlying problem, I propose, is in the social sciences. These are the institutions expected to study human behaviour scientifically, and whose theories are spread to the rest of society.

Yet many social scientists have quite openly voiced surprise and perplexity at both the Trump and Brexit events, often supporting their statements with proclamations of immorality directed at the voters. There’s something disturbingly unscientific about this, in my opinion. Imagine a group of physicists responding to an event they are unable to explain by morally condemning electrons? This would never happen, of course, because it is accepted in the physical sciences that models are tentative, and that they must be adjusted when they make incorrect predictions.

Yet a large portion of social scientists seem to hold their surprise and perplexity as a badge of honour, rather than as an opportunity to improve their models of human behaviour. When scientists blame the world for not conforming to their models, rather than the other way around, something is wrong. But why do people who consider themselves scientists not adhere to basic scientific methodology?

The reason, I suggest, is that the social sciences have fostered an environment where certain beliefs are held above scientific inquiry, thus making them unchallengeable. Consequently, scientists are unable to adjust their models of human behaviour when they make poor predictions, forcing the scientists instead into a position of surprise, perplexity, and moral condemnation.

Consider the values Trump has been promoting throughout his campaign. When he promises to make America great again and complains that America doesn’t win anymore, when he promises to reduce government, when he aggressively goes after his opponents, and when he refuses to couch his words in equivocation, he is not just offering a new political direction, he is thumbing his nose at contemporary moral beliefs, and many people are responding to it, especially men.

People have been taught for years that traits such as competitiveness, individualism, aggression, confidence, and national pride are morally suspect, and here comes a figure who is unafraid to challenge that. I’ve heard mentioned that Trump is tapping into many people’s disdain for political correctness, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion. I think he’s tapping into a broad resistance to contemporary moral beliefs, beliefs that have become increasingly institutionalised over the past fifty years.

The problem is that these are precisely the beliefs that are held above inquiry in the social sciences. Under normal scientific conditions, scientists would simply say ‘oh, it looks like we underestimated the extent to which these values are drivers of human behaviour, let us adjust our models’. But social scientists can’t do that, so all they can do is declare them immoral, whether it be Brexit, or Trump, or the movements in France and Germany and many other Western countries that are currently building.

It isn’t just that social scientists disagree on the details of how important this behaviour is to people, but that even discussing it in anything other than strongly moralistic terms is discouraged. And so, social scientists face a dilemma. Treating individualism, competitiveness, confidence, aggression, and national pride as behaviour worthy of description dilutes the power of ideologies to moralise against them. And this threatens the left, which dominates the social sciences and whose ideology is based on declaring these behaviours immoral. It’s hard for social scientists in this environment to remain objective, and since there are virtually no social scientists with opposing views, the science suffers.

Fortunately, this is about to change. A new group of people with heterodox views are emerging in universities throughout the West, sparked mostly as a counter-reaction to the social justice warrior movement that has intensified its pressure on universities. These people don’t just get their information through the mainstream media, and some of them may define themselves unapologetically as being in opposition to some or all contemporary moral beliefs. As they enter the social sciences they will challenge these beliefs, and the best way to challenge them is to examine them scientifically, without holding them in reverence. If they can build better models of human behaviour by doing so, these models will replace existing ones.

History shows that in the long run, the better science wins. If one scientific community is unable or unwilling to submit its beliefs to scientific treatment, it will be outcompeted by another that will.

 

Uri Harris has an M.Sc. in business and economics. His work can be found at theamoralsociety.blogspot.com.

 

See also: Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part II

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part III

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48 Comments

  1. Just one problem. Research has found that Liberals in academia are openly willing to discriminate against conservatives in hiring, grant allocations, and so on… How alternative ideas will break in at all will be a challenge…

    • Uri Harris says

      You’re right, it is a problem. But history shows that you can’t suppress science forever. It just takes a few people to challenge prevailing beliefs and come up with better scientific models. There are very few scientists, I think, who are explicitly willing to place their ideology above science. The reason they’re doing it is that they don’t see the conflict.

      • Tim Hammond says

        Perhaps explicitly, but all scientists place their ideology above science, all the time. That’s fine, provided science remains a competitive enterprise, where fame, money, Nobel prizes and so on are handed out to those whose science “wins”, i.e is shown to make the best predictions about the future.

        It is a problem where science becomes uncompetitive, through say the state becoming responsible for most or all of funding, and/or where one particular view is able to capture journals, universities etc.

        The last couple of decades have seen far too much of the latter, in relation to climate change, much of the social sciences, and in some areas of health, notably “mild” mental illnesses and nutrition.

        • Uri Harris says

          I agree, but I think this is going to change. The key is to *make* ideologies explicit by pointing them out, and it only takes a few people to do so. This forces scientists to choose, and I think ultimately most scientists will choose science.

    • For that same matter, Liberals and Conservatives in academia unite in their discrimination against communists and other political radicals.

      In the case of any discrimination against some Conservatives, it may be warranted because their values are antithetical to the missions of our colleges and universities. For instance, much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals (and, by extension, advocacy for his presidency) amounts to a violation of many honor codes and missions for diversity and inclusivity. In such cases, the exclusion of advocates for values and policies that run contrary to our principles might be absolutely appropriate.

      After all, a cornerstone of democracy is the defining of the demos, of who belongs, and by implication who does not. Furthermore, among the people, there is the potential to define collective principles, and by implication to define what is counter to them.

      I see nothing wrong with defining certain ideas (and certain people who are committed to those ideas) as counter to our institutions, and that’s because I believe that democracy is the best way to steer organizations and communities. Part of the reason Conservatives may hold little quarter in higher education is because they are deeply anti-democratic, harboring a hatred of democracy and of the will of the common people to decide their fate. At the same time, the ability (and unavoidability) to exclude also means that these same people can–and very often do, exclude political radicals. Democracy can certainly produce undesirable results.

      • Uri Harris says

        Of course. But who defines these honour codes and missions? Jonathan Haidt has written on this subject, claiming that there are actually two conflicting forces at work here. He believes, as a liberal, that more conservatives in the social sciences would be beneficial.

        Claiming that conservatives are deeply anti-democratic and harbouring a hatred of democracy seems weird to me.

        • Santoculto says

          Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea or ex Urss are mirages thought.

          Well

          All of this countries are quite socially conservative, 😉 (and economically restrictive too)

          People talk all the time about social e economic freedom or regulation (relative proxy for totalitarianism) but they are forgetting the spectrum to be politically liberal, moderate or conservative. Seems very few people are politically liberal and this people are unlikely to know fully what it mean, because most of us want to fight and conserve our favorite policies giving very little exceptions.

          The very adjective-derived concepts of liberal and conservative are very dependent from the context and perspectives. And the liberal today can be a conservative tomorrow.

          • Uri Harris says

            Santoculto. Yes, people get caught up in tribalism, where they consider the other side the enemy. It doesn’t have to be that way.

      • Asher Jacobson says

        Is your mission diversity? Or is it truth? Can’t be both

      • Tim Hammond says

        Sorry, but who are you to “steer” organsiations and communities? who voted for you, who appointed you?

        And what Conservative values are antithetical to your missions? That sounds as ignorant as anything I have read. You have decided that your institution values what you define as “diversity”. That is nothing more than a personal prejudice you hold. And then you define anybody that disagrees with how you define and value diversity as racist. Seriously, that is utterly subjective, and it is worrying that you think you have somehow defined a superior moral code that you can hold us to.

        Frankly, get over yourself. You are not superior, you are not more moral and you are not a shining light of virtue that can decide who is righteous enough to go to university.

  2. General Monck says

    Good article. But I agree with Cole. Unless universities are challenged through their funding models to change their recruitment policies there will be no possibility of changing the current situation.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. I hope the change can come from within, by scientists who realise there is a conflict between science and ideology.

  3. DiscoveredJoys says

    Good article. I too am concerned by the death grip of the progressives in universities – and of more concern – in training teachers who ‘educate’ our young. On the other hand most ideologies that are held ‘against the grain of reality’ eventually come unstuck as their own internal stresses become too great.

    The unravelling of these ideologies can be a bang or a whimper. If you stand back and squint it seems as if ideological feminism is on the wane. The results of recent elections and referendums is an indicator, but hasn’t reversed the progressive domination of institutions – yet.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. I completely agree. The only thing I would add is that ideological modern feminism is just part of a larger ideology that uses class and ethinicity identities along with gender to further its goals.

  4. Santoculto says

    What illiberals are doing in western academia was what conservs did when their ideology was hegemonic. When you have a ideological hegemony we tend to have ideological nepotism where ideological friends will have green card to do what they want without any substantial scrutiny. In the past so many wrong (factual and/or ethical) academic works with conservative nature were accepted AND introduced in the western societies. Even I really hate stupid illiberals we need to do “sometimes” this flashbacks to see how similar was the conserv attitudes when they were culturally hegemonic.

    • Uri Harris says

      I agree. Hopefully mechanisms are put in place to ensure that *no* ideology is able to suppress science.

  5. Speaking as a graduate from a social science program at a liberal arts college, I think you’re right about the attitude, even when that arrogance obscures morally valid ideas. Many stereotypical views you list there have neuroscientific backing, but the problems in applying them are almost directly parallel to troubles in the democratic party. Ideology formed, in my opinion, as a response to anxiety about “soft science”: anyone wanting to apply the ideas in radical thought experiments, wanting to test or possibly replace them, runs into the kind of gridlock at research conferences (or conflict with administrators). Even though “progressive” has a bad connotation now, the elites funding social science research and engaging in identity politics have resisted progress and taken a dim view of anything trying to move beyond identity.
    Notwithstanding, racism, like sexual assault, on college campuses is still a legitimate problem. There’s no shortage of facts against the logic of voting for Trump, but what visibly infuriates conservatives and liberals like me is wealthy liberals took that for granted. Until now they’ve felt no need to articulate just why and how they are morally superior to whites who felt like “strangers in their own land”

    • “neuroscientific backing”

      Sorry but no. Just about nothing has “neuroscientific backing”. People vastly overestimate the explanatory power of neuroscience.

      “Notwithstanding, racism, like sexual assault, on college campuses is still a legitimate problem”

      They’re vastly overrated as problems. They’re not among the top 100 problems on college campuses.

  6. Uri Harris says

    Thank you for your comment. It’s not just that those behaviours have neuroscientific backing, but that they are necessary to a certain degree for a well-functioning society, I would argue. The problem is we don’t really know, because ideology clouds the science. I think you’re right that it boils down to a feeling of moral superiority. In my opinion, social science is not the place to be preaching morality, it’s for studying human behaviour without prejudice.

  7. General Monck says

    It is interesting that we restrict this to academia. I recognise it is ground zero in this battle, but fights must be fought elsewhere.

    I work for a large, global firm. The same illiberal attitude is prevalent there as well. This week we got an email talking about a “divisive election” and the need to heal through “open dialogue”. But I know that open dialogue does not mean truth. I could not say my real opinions without putting my job at risk.

    We got a similar email after the UK referendum on staying in the EU. But not after the London Mayoral election, which was won by Sadiq Khan. I voted for Mr Khan, he is a Londoner and was the best candidate. It was, though, a very divisive election. No email followed.

    What I would want to talk about is failed communities and what responsabilities those communities have for their own failures. It is 30 odd years ago that we, in the UK, closed down the coal mines. It was the right decision. But all we hear is that it is our fault that they are still unemployed. Is there no chance that they could have helped themselves? In the areas that gave us the original industrial revolution was there no bubbling entrepreneurs?

    Unless we can get to a place where we can have honest dialogue, we cannot progress. The trend toward restricting language, often by criminalising words or thoughts, is the issue. If someone expresses racist, sexist or homophobic language, so be it. They are an idiot and it will be an easy argument to win. But if we deny these lumpens a voice we cannot teach them.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with what you said. There are lots of double standards and speech restrictions. And it is unfortunate that we’ve created a victim culture.

  8. Whyaxye says

    Forty years ago, when I was studying politics at a UK university, there was a strict distinction in principle between social scientists, and normative or prescriptive political theorists. The former used scientific methodology as far as possible, spent a long time valuing and collecting data, and used it to test hypotheses. The prided themselves on being value neutral in research, and tried to copy the procedures of the economics department next door. The latter were far less rigorous, and tended to use a mixture of data and insight in an attempt to show that their openly favoured theory or theorist was essentially right and should be paid more attention. They fell into camps such as the “Marxists”, “Liberals”, “Social Democrats”, “Elite Theorists”, etc.

    Even in the 1970s, that distinction was somewhat blurred in practice.

    I did my research in the latter category, not being good enough at Maths and Stats, and believing then (as now) that the sheer number and complexity of variables, and the difficulty of arriving at genuine data (as opposed to “capta”) made the scientific approach unviable. Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” does a splendid hatchet job on the notion of predictability in Social Sciences, pointing out that the best generalisations of the discipline are little better than older folk-beliefs.

    I don’t think we have the conceptual machinery in place to put social sciences on a par with other scientific disciplines. We have to try, of course. But blaming voters for one’s failures is obviously an attempt to deflect the blame from one’s own inadequacies.

    I really like your bit about the political Left’s domination of Social Sciences. It is the key to much of this. We haven’t really recovered from Marx’s declaration that his method alone was the scientific approach to understanding society and history. When we consider how it was based on favoured philosophical concepts such as the dialectic, and some really faulty epistemology, it now seems laughable. Perhaps we should have laughed louder forty years ago, and saved ourselves a lot of wasted time.

    An excellent article. Thank you, Mr. Harris.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you! I think a major reason the conceptual machinery doesn’t exist is that its development is blocked by ideology. As you say, blaming it on voters just compounds the issue. You’re right about Marxism, I think. Unfortunately a lot of people want to believe he’s right for emotional reasons, and that affects their judgement.

  9. Chris says

    To whyaxeye and uri
    The suppression, by various means, of social science research which threatens the social constructivist (I believe it’s called) model of human nature, is a regular subject matter on this website.
    I’d like to know if you think it would be possible to outflank this internal suppression by going outside the universities. Would it be possible to separate out the “hard” social sciences, which properly use the scientific method, from those built out of unfalsifiable axioms, by devising some kind of test of axioms or methodology. With a view to closing down, or defunding, courses which failed that test, and which are resistant to self correction.
    This would have to be done by government action, by some kind of commission.

    It might be possible to separate the good from the bad just by mapping out citations and linkages across different disciplines: assuming that those disciplines based on the scientific method are all one big interconnected ivory tower, and will have citations and researchers crisscrossing between domains. Whereas the other disciplines will be in a quite separate Ivory Tower, unconnected either by method or personnel to the first.

    • Whyaxye says

      Hi Chris,

      It’s an intriguing idea. My understanding is that this has already happened to some extent in the UK, in that the government became much less keen on funding research which had no tangible benefits and did not address real social problems. One difficulty, though, is that I’m not convinced that we ought to de-fund all speculative “theoretical” research. For me, it sits somewhere near philosophy, cultural studies and the humanities, and these are often intriguing and useful, albeit in different ways. History, for example, is rarely “hard science”, but is still very useful.

      My two suggestions would be

      (1) to argue for greater clarity between these two “wings” of academic political study; to avoid confusion between research which is supposed to help us predict, and that which makes different claims.

      (2) To simply reduce the amount of normative, ideologically motivated research which is funded. Most of it is useless, to be honest. We need to get better at separating the wheat from the chaff.

      In passing, I would also like to say something in support of contributor “Discovered Joys” point above. Teacher training is a real issue here. Most of those who go into teaching in schools have been exposed to sub-Marxist nonsense and a range of dodgy received opinions which they are expected to espouse. The real danger here is not that a few top academics will make fools of themselves, but that a large number of uncritical teachers will make idiots of our children.

      • Uri Harris says

        You both make good points. I think the best way to do it is bottom-up, meaning to start going through individual pieces of research and then pointing out the methodological problems. See my next article.

      • Chris says

        Thanks for that answer. I looked to see if this kind of citation map had been tried and of course it had. The central science, by one method, turns out to be psychology!

  10. You’re right about evolution changing things, but you’re on the wrong side of DNA history. Trump supporters are like the wolves who didn’t turn into dogs, the apes who didn’t turn into humans. What you call “left wing morality” is simply genetically sustainable behavior: nonviolent (one day we will not need police), socialist (not letting the poor starve and die in the first place is actually cheaper than rescuing them), and feminism (women rule the planet as they control the breeding). When you see feminists selectively breeding for liberals, humanity will evolve towards liberalism. This is literally the “ape’s last stand.” Wovles think dogs are crazy and weak, but how many dogs are in the US versus how many wolves? Trump won this, the unevolved’s final skirmish, but it will never get any “better” than this for the left-behind humans who are going the way of the left-behind Neanderthals. Abuses of power will also be bred out of our species simply because it is cheaper to do so.

    • Uri Harris says

      I assume this is a reply to my blog post, and not the article above.

      Your theory sounds to me like a regurgitation of Marx, with some feminism and evolutionary theory sprinkled on top. How do you explain the consistent and disastrous failures of communism? If this was the ‘genetically sustainable’ society, as you put, why has it proven so unsustainable?

      The answer seems pretty straightforward to me, and I cover it at length in my blog article: human society is a system that faces environmental pressures, and addressing those pressures requires dynamism in society. To have dynamism, you need a certain amount of competition, individualism, and aggression.

      Besides, there’s a certain irony in your comment about feminists selectively breeding for liberals. Actually, women in liberal environments typically have less than replacement level numbers of children. And I’m going to venture a guess that feminists have even fewer on average.

      The women who have the most children are religious women who most certainly do not breed for liberals. So that utopia of yours where feminists breed for liberals and nonliberals die off is not on the immediate horizon, I’m afraid.

    • A good deal of what you’ve listed is most definitely not sustainable, genetically or otherwise. Socialists are most definitely not nonviolent (see Trump protests) nor is their method of “not letting the poor starve and die” and I’m not sure why you think feminists are selectively breeding for liberals, as that demographic are producing very few, if any, offspring.

      Humans haven’t evolved much in the past 10k years. The idea that everything should be shared and everyone helped unconditionally might have made sense back in the stone age when there was no refrigeration, survival was achieved by hunting in groups and everyone in the tribe actually worked. Time preference (thinking about the day after tomorrow) didn’t matter. IQ didn’t matter.

      Suffice to say those days are over.

    • You just wrote an argument for left wing ideology by underpinning it with implicitly right wing social darwinist arguments. I don’t think you’d appreciate the irony of this. You’re basically calling conservatives subhumans who are going to be bred out. I’m going to assume you are trolling.

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  12. Very cogent article, however I must disagree with your over-emphasized “leave it to science” attitude. To be sure, those who rely on such faulty models will have a harder time facing opposition and maintaining hegemony, but it’s not a sure things that “science” will triumph.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. I don’t think we should leave it completely to science, just that it’s an important element.

  13. An interesting article, and I agree with much of what you say. I’m an academic in another field but I have recently got interested in social science. Much of it is, as you suggest, stuck in an echo chamber of ideological authoritarian-left groupthink. The irony is that they write so much about confirmation bias and how peoples’ opinions are driven by their worldview, while being completely oblivious of how this applies to themselves!

    Have you tried writing your ideas up and submitting them to a social science journal? I wrote a paper that questioned some of the dogma and got it published without too much difficulty and only modest watering down.

    “Fortunately, this is about to change. A new group of people with heterodox views are emerging in universities throughout the West, sparked mostly as a counter-reaction to the social justice warrior movement that has intensified its pressure on universities.”

    Unfortunately, you don’t name this group or any of the members of the group. There is an organisation called “Heterodox Academy”, led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others that is raising awareness of the problem.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thanks Paul, I will definitely consider it. Also, yes you’re right, the Heterodox Academy is raising important awareness. I was referring more to the students currently in universities, though, and speculated that they would have a different mindset as they enter the social sciences upon graduation (at least be aware of the problem of ideological bias).

      • Ah, I see, I slightly misinterpreted your paragraph. That’s interesting. But is there hard evidence that students really are increasingly questioning the dominant ideology?

        • Uri Harris says

          No, not that I know of. Would be intersting to see. There have been many reports of a pushback to the social warror Justice movement at universities. I read that there’s been a rise in membership to conservative groups on campuses. Also, Milo Yannoupolis, who is a conservative provocateur and tours campuses has claimed that he’s seen a huge rise in people coming to see him. No hard data though.

  14. “When he promises to make America great again and complains that America doesn’t win anymore, when he promises to reduce government, when he aggressively goes after his opponents, and when he refuses to couch his words in equivocation, he is not just offering a new political direction, he is thumbing his nose at contemporary moral beliefs, and many people are responding to it, especially men.”

    Exactly which moral beliefs are you talking about?

    And he doesn’t couch his words in equivocation? No, but not even his followers know if he’s being literal or just shooting his mouth off. He’s as vague as any career politician, just in a different way.

    I assume this is a reference to the moral beliefs Trump challenges:

    “People have been taught for years that traits such as competitiveness, individualism, aggression, confidence, and national pride are morally suspect, and here comes a figure who is unafraid to challenge that.”

    Equivocal terms, all of them.

    • Uri Harris says

      Trump’s words may be equivocal, but they’re less obviously so than typical politicians, I think, and some people are responding to it because they want change.

      For the purpose of this piece I think those terms are sufficiently clear. When Trump talks about ‘making America great again’ and complains that ‘we never win anymore’, I don’t think it’s equivocal to say he’s lamenting a lack of national competitiveness.

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  16. Great article and discussion. This from Whyaxe hit the nail on the head:

    “The real danger here is not that a few top academics will make fools of themselves, but that a large number of uncritical teachers will make idiots of our children.”

    Would that we had more critical educators concerned with not making idiots of our children.

    One request/suggestion. Could we get some citations or links that support claims like this:

    “Yet many social scientists have quite openly voiced surprise and perplexity at both the Trump and Brexit events, often supporting their statements with proclamations of immorality directed at the voters. …Yet a large portion of social scientists seem to hold their surprise and perplexity as a badge of honour, rather than as an opportunity to improve their models of human behaviour.”

    I’m not questioning the truth of this assertion, I’m just looking for places to turn to in order to see what the author has in mind. I don’t move in social science circles, and my impression has been that something like this is going on in the discipline, but I’d like to have some primary-text evidence to keep me from giving in to confirmation bias.

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