Politics, US Election

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part III

I published an article on Sunday where I argued that mainstream social science is pervaded by ideology and that this blocks good scientific methodology. I attempted to demonstrate this yesterday with a concrete example. Today, as the final part in the series, I suggest some methodological changes.

First, let me briefly restate what I consider the core problem: prevalent use of morally charged terminology in the social sciences that serves to enforce an underlying ideology. Examples include terms like progressive, xenophobia, and authoritarian.

Why does this terminology exist? The answer, I suggest, is that throughout Western society over the past couple of centuries, values have consistently shifted in a particular direction, and this has led social scientists to consider the trend universal.

This leads to a conception of values as having a temporal direction. Some values are of the past, and some are of the future, and the more one travels in either direction the more pronounced this becomes. Which is reflected in the use of morally charged terminology. Values that are considered of the past are labelled with negative charge, for example xenophobia and authoritarian. Values that considered of the future are labelled with positive charge, for example progressive.

Morality can be viewed as a universalisation of societal development, so assigning negative charge to a value is effectively saying it is of the past, and thus that people holding it are resisting the natural development of society.

Let’s take a rough look at these values. Some of these can be argued, but the point is to get a general sense of the differences. I’ve tried to avoid moral charging (if there is any, it’s unintended), and that includes the categories themselves, which I simply label A-values and Z-values.

A ValuesZ Values
Individualism
Self-interest
Competition
Confidence
Aggression
Nativism
Strong-leader
Unilateralism
Sturdy
Inequality
Freedom
Collectivism
Altruism
Collaboration
Humility
Restraint
Multiculturalism
Co-operative leader
Multilateralism
Flexible
Equality
Consideration

A-values are associated with the political right, and seem to be more prevalent in men. They view both individual and country as self-interested and competitive. Z-values are associated with the political left, and seem to be more prevalent in women. They view both individual and country as altruistic and collaborative. The values are diametrically opposed, but in practice are on a continuum.

There’s no question that Western society has experienced a consistent A->Z transition of the past couple of centuries. If we were to extrapolate based on societal trends, we would expect this to continue indefinitely.

However, if we look to other situations I think there is at least grounds for further reflection. Let’s consider two situations.

First, the debate on free speech and political correctness that has flared up over the past couple of years. Sam Harris has argued that too much precaution to insulting other cultures has led to the stifling of important discussions regarding religiously-motivated terrorism. Jonathan Haidt has argued that extreme elements in the social justice movement has led to universities imposing measures that potentially harm the quality of their education and pursuit of truth.

Second, the persistent failures of communism. Karl Marx effectively suggested that there would be a universal A->Z value shift until it reached its endpoint. Yet, societies that have tried this approach have fared very poorly, and in hindsight the reason seems quite straightforward: societies require a certain amount of competitiveness to function properly.

These are two parameters, freedom/consideration and competitiveness/collaboration where it seems like a healthy society requires a certain amount of A-values. And if we assume that in the long run societies are likely to move towards healthier states then there’s at least a reasonable chance that A->Z transition is not universal.

And this is all we need to say that using morally charged terminology that effectively assumes a universal A->Z transition, most notably using the term progressive values to describe Z-values, is not a good idea. Social science needs to stay open to the possibility that it is false, and these terms make it difficult to do so.

This may allow for a better understanding of for example the populist movements throughout the West, seeing them as more than just people clinging to their traditional beliefs.

There are also two side benefits to this.

First, replacing morally charged terminology with morally neutral terminology makes for a less hostile environment for A-value people: conservatives and to some extent libertarians.

Second, it removes the ability for non-scientists to misuse these terms. While social scientists may believe that they have operationalised terms like xenophobia, non-scientists sometimes use these terms indiscriminately, thinking that they are scientifically backed.

I’m interested in hearing your comments on this. What do you think?

 

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 I

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part II

 

19 Comments

  1. An interesting article, the three together have been thought provoking and make a lot of sense.

    I think I can answer your comment “First, replacing morally charged terminology with morally neutral terminology makes for a less hostile environment for A-value people: conservatives and to some extent libertarians.”
    You are assuming that the people who use the morally charged terminology WANT to make things a less hostile environment for A-value people.
    Perhaps morally charged Terminology is just a technique that ‘liberals/Z value people’ use to be competitive, aggressive and ensure their own self-interest?

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. To some extent this is probably true, but I think most mainstream scientists are actually willing to set aside ideology in the name of better science. The problem is that they’re either not aware there is a conflict, or that the ideology is so pervasive that they think changing it is impossible.

  2. The ideological biases of social sciences (Political Science [sic], Economics, Sociology…) are even more insidious and pervading than you probably think. Take these apparently ideology-free expressions: “Chinese politics”, “Saudi authorities”. For clarity reasons, we should speak of “politics” and “authority” only when talking about states with undisputably acceptable records of freedom of speech, transparency standards and fully democratic protocols for the determination of the will of the (cognitively-adult) citizenry. Only these states are full democracies (I call them “politeias”). Of the 200 states on the Earth, only 25 can be taken as acceptable politeias. Politics and authorities only take place in politeias, these being the core subject of a genuine Political Science (Politology). In the Old Testament bats are called “birds” (presumably, because bats can fly, as most birds do!). To think that there are politics or authorities in 175 of the 200 states of the Earth is a similar mistake. Needless to say that the presumed distinction between “Left” and “Right” is completely pointless in Political Science.
    Although incidentally, I deal with this issue in my book

    Si Darwin y Sócrates, Sciocracia Mundial,

    where I propose a solution (prosolution) for the ethical, rational-objection-free implementation of a geodemocracy based on the scientifically proven objective knowledge of all humans on Earth.

    For more details, see

    http://www.sciocracy.org/ (the interview has English subtitles).

    The book is only in Spanish for the time being.
    I enjoyed your column.
    Best regards.
    PM

  3. Steve Thomas says

    Focusing only on the terms “competition” and “collaboration” (“cooperation” is often used as well): these are not necessarily opposing values. At least they are not the *only* opposing values.

    In a “competitive” market, for instance, using a very simple example involving just one buyer and two sellers: What’s really going on is that the sellers are “competing” only to see who can be the most *cooperative*, basically, with the buyer. (The seller who is least cooperative with the one who is asking for the product or service loses the competition.) There is a “loser” but there are two “winners”. It’s a net gain of one.

    If two hotdog vendors on opposite street corners decide to cooperate by raising their prices or giving up on trying to deliver their customers the best quality, or both, it might be fair to say they have “collaborated”, even “cooperated”, but in a natural marketplace the apt term for that sort of behavior is “collusion”.

    People joining together and collaborating in order to achieve a common goal may be one of – if not *the* – highest of human functions. But to suggest that it is an alternative (let alone a morally superior one) to “competition” is to play an essentially dishonest word game which skews the conversation from the start.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thanks for your comment Steve.

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re arguing against, though. I probably didn’t articulate it well enough. My point isn’t that you have to choose one or the other, just you don’t have to choose between individualism and collectivism: they are on a continuum. My claim is that people on the right tend to prefer more competition, and people on the left tend to prefer more collaboration (communism is the extreme example, where there is no competition at all). Hence why Trump’s complaining that ‘we never win anymore’ is found appealing by many on the right, while people on the left don’t like it (because they would prefer America to be more collaborative). And in your own example, the reason collusion is generally frowned upon is *because* it is perceived to reduce competition. They are often in conflict.

      And I’m certainly not arguing that collaboration is morally superior to competition; I’m arguing *against* that position.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. I don’t have any immediate plans to write more, but if I can find something interesting I will.

  4. Barry says

    Really interesting series of articles.

    My biggest fear is that, in Western society, we have reinvented heresy. Was not a good thing first time around and unlikely to be so now.

    We need to get back to using language to communicating ideas and having debates. If your opponent is a reactionary racist, homophobe or mysoginist then argue. It really is quite easy.

    That way, we do not end up in such situations where there is a mass revolt against supposed mainstream thinking (Trump, Brexit). We then get more consensual political leadership.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thank you. I completely agree, there are many elements in leftism that bear a remarkable resemblance to religion. Including, as you mention, heresy.

  5. Mark Lefebvre says

    Spot on. Consider, however, the difficulty in measuring some of these factors – I’d say that the less articulate among us (many of which have no college degree) can sense the fallacies of “old white guys are inflexible and immoral but Muslims are not” but simply have no way to express this in their speech. Therefore, their communication breaks down to something which could very well be interpreted (if one were as cynical or intellectually vested in an outcome as possible) to be morally unacceptable (no disagreement except on interpretation). How would you measure this?
    Indeed, we have this problem now, it is hard to tell the hard core racists from the folks who say things that could, in theory, be racist, but likely are not. I personally think most people are demonstrably not racist in action even when I find their expression of their feelings to seem to indicated racist tendencies.
    I’d like to see a forth part in this series, I see a big problem with science as religion (religion has been replaces with nothing in many cases, so ideology creeps in) which seems to me to be fueling all of this.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thanks. I agree that there is a lot of frustration from people feeling they don’t have a voice and are being browbeaten by intellectuals while sensing something isn’t quite right.

      With regard to science as religion I can’t really help. I do agree the replacement of religion with a combination of science and leftism is problematic, but I’m more of the belief that leftism is the problem, not science. I don’t think anyone has it figured out yet, though.

  6. Paul Bismuth says

    Good articles, but a bit naive. Like the first commenter, I think this bias is by design. They are not that clueless. They see their main role as “bringing about social change”, not doing good science. This they say quite openly. The social sciences are now merely a tool in their ideological arsenal. We should just point it out, and then ignore the entire thing.

    • Uri Harris says

      Thanks. I haven’t heard of many social scientists saying that explicitly, especially in the main fields like psychology and economics. There are a few Marxists in these fields who would say that openly, but they are a small minority. I think in most cases social scientists are just unaware of the conflict between science and their ideology.

  7. Fernando says

    Very good article. I like the idea of trying to use values that are not morally charged, but I wouldn’t associate a-values with the political-right and z-values with the political-left. I think that the use of these terms do not accurately describe the people who associate with them. Urban leftist are the most individualistic people I’ve ever met, and religious people tend to be very altruistic. Also, people tend to differ in degrees between those values and even change between them depending on the situation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to measure these values in an accurate form that makes it useful and neither if it will solve the current problems in social science. I think the problem lies mostly in their leftist ideology that refuses to understand and make caricatures of people who oppose their political views, which shows their lack of “humility”. I don’t know, maybe I’m too pessimistic with the state of current social science.
    Wouldn’t it be a good idea that social scientists spend more time relating with working class people? I believe that if they relate with them they could see that their beliefs about them are very inaccurate and could break the prejudices of their ivory tower. I’m sure that anyone that has spend time with them wouldn’t end up thinking that white working class people are racist-homophobic-sexist-machines-and-nothing-more.

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