All posts filed under: Social Science

Political Moderates Are Lying

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once suggested that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Mead is largely correct. Change is wrought by those willing to lead or force others toward it. Which is why we are skeptical that most people truly believe every position they express. Especially in public. Do most people legitimately disagree with one another? Or are they merely conforming to supposedly dominant ideas?  Though there are legitimate disagreements, we contend that modern American political tribalism has been artificially inflated by group-based conformity. That is, the moderate majority’s submission to the demands of dedicated partisans has created a mirage of polarization. Most Americans are not impassioned ideologues, neither coopted by Soros nor swayed by Koch. According to a May 2018 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans considered themselves “Independents” while 26% and 29% considered themselves “Republicans” and “Democrats,” respectively. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to characterize the average American as a disinterested political observer. A …

Beware of Root Causes

What does it mean to claim that something is the ‘root cause’ of a problem in society? It’s common, for instance, to hear the assertion that ‘the root cause of terrorism is Western foreign policy’. The implication being that the responsibility for terrorist attacks ultimately lies at the feet of the West since its interventionist foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East – irrespective of any other source of causality. The phrase ‘root cause’ invites us to become privy to society’s underlying pathologies that, if remedied, could improve the world beyond the scope of someone merely observing the surface. Much like a bug in a software program causing a computer to shut down, or a leaky pipe causing subsidence under a house, the language of root causes implies that problems can be traced back through a cascading chain of events to an initial fault. Under this assumption, our goal should be to target that underlying problem rather than the ways in which the problem manifests itself in society. A framework based around root causes is …

The Birth of the Narcissism Revolution

Editor’s note: the following is an extract of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, The Overlook Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2018), 416 pages. In the months leading up to his death, in 1970, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow began worrying about his legacy. He’d been preparing to write a critique of Esalen ‘and its whole chain’. One of the issues he’d become concerned with was self-esteem. Maslow was famous, most of all, for his hugely influential ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which said that people are motivated to fulfill certain psychological appetites. At the top of his pyramid was ‘actualization’, which was extremely difficult and had, he thought, only been achieved by a few. But just beneath that was ‘esteem’. It seems that Maslow had been carrying out some tests on high-esteeming people that had been the cause of some concern: ‘High scorers in my test of dominance feeling, or self-esteem, were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, …

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch its ‘industrial model’ of school education, the sort of cliché you would expect to hear in the most derivative education conference speech. Instead, each young person must “emerge from schooling as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset” (see here for a double meta-analyses of growth mindset interventions which shows that they have virtually no effect). The details of how to achieve this are vague, but the panel is clear on one key point: rigid, age-based curriculum content must be blown apart in favor of progressing students individually through a set of skills such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and self-management. Despite its managerial …

Race, Gender and Trump: Everything You Think You Know is Wrong

Following Election 2016’s “shocking” finale, many in academic and journalistic circles have seemed less interested in dispassionately analyzing why Trump won than finding excuses for why Hillary lost. As far as excuses go, sexism or misogyny (like racism, “foreign meddling,” or “fake news”) is pretty effective: it isn’t that Clinton was a non-charismatic candidate with a lot of baggage and a boring platform who ran a bad campaign — instead, those who didn’t vote for Hillary were driven by irrational and immoral impulses, preventing them from embracing the only ‘legitimate’ candidate in this race. Therefore, it should not surprise that a vast academic literature has emerged on the alleged role of sexism and misogyny in the 2016 U.S. General Election (given that scholars overwhelmingly lean left). Co-occurrence searches on Google Scholar can provide insight into the scale of this enterprise. Restricting our search to 2016 and beyond, “Donald Trump” and “misogyny” yields 1,480 results to date; pairing “Donald Trump” and “sexism” brings in 2,760 hits; “Donald Trump” and “feminist” has 5,080 entries. There is certainly some …

Explaining Monogamy to Vox

In the first episode of their new Netflix series, entitled Explained, the folks over at Vox set out to explain monogamy. Or at least, that is what the title (“Monogamy, Explained”) appeared to promise. But by the time it was over, very little seemed to have been explained. The central arguments, as I understand them, are that monogamy didn’t exist until after the invention of agriculture, marrying for love didn’t exist until roughly 1700 AD, and the concept of sexual selection was developed by Victorian scientists like Charles Darwin in part to justify traditional gender roles. Vox interviews four experts for their video: relationship advice columnist Dan Savage, historian Stephanie Coontz, author Christopher Ryan, and evolutionary biologist David Barash. Of these contributors, Barash is given the least screen time. He is allowed to provide a brief description of classic sexual selection theory, noting the problem of paternity uncertainty for males, and that because of differences between sperm and eggs, males can have larger fitness payoffs by being more promiscuous than females generally can. The narrator, however, …

The Limits of Expertise

“People are sick of experts.” These infamous and much-derided words uttered by UK Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove express a sentiment with which we are now probably all familiar. It has come to represent a sign of the times—either an indictment or a celebration (depending on one’s political point of view) of our current age. Certainly, the disdain for expertise and its promised consequences have been highly alarming for many people. They are woven through various controversial and destabilising phenomena from Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, to the generally ‘anti-elitist’ tone that characterises populist politics and much contemporary discourse. And this attitude stands in stark contrast to the unspoken but assumed Obama-era doctrine of “let the experts figure it out”; an idea that had a palpable End of History feeling about it, and that makes this abrupt reversion to ignorance all the more startling. The majority of educated people are fairly unequivocal in their belief that this rebound is a bad thing, and as such many influential voices—Quillette‘s included—have been doing their best to restore …

Are Centrists Really Most Hostile to Democracy?

Last week, David Adler published an article in the New York Times, in which he summarized his research on the relationship between political ideology and hostility to democracy. The recent rise of various populist movements in the West has caused many to fret that democratic norms and institutions may be at risk. The conventional wisdom is that extremists on the far-Left or far-Right are most threatening to these norms and institutions. But the conventional wisdom, Adler argues, is wrong. In the working paper he presents in the New York Times, he contends that, despite what pundits would have us believe, it’s actually centrists who are the most hostile to democracy and most supportive of authoritarian alternatives. As soon as the New York Times published his op-ed, Adler’s findings were promoted and circulated on social media by those on the Left and Right weary of being held responsible for democracy’s predicted demise. If—like me—you are not a centrist, then you may have found this gloating understandable. Centrists routinely accuse their political rivals of undermining democracy, and now here was evidence purportedly demonstrating that they are the …

Silence Around Test Scores Serves the Privileged

Right-wing podcaster Stefan Molyneux recently advised his teenage fans that they should append their IQ scores to job applications. This idea was widely and deservedly ridiculed on Twitter. It’s a serious faux pas to include test scores of any kind — IQ especially, but also SAT or graduate admissions tests like LSAT, MCAT or GMAT — on a resume.  Including test scores will cause many employers to draw negative assumptions about an applicant, and thus reduce the applicant’s chances of being hired, regardless of how good the scores are. But why is there such a taboo against sharing scores, that including them on a resume would cause an employer to draw negative inferences about an applicant’s character? Why is it considered extreme and risible to suggest that a job candidate with a high IQ or a high SAT score should treat that as a qualification? And who benefits from this norm of keeping this data secret? Proxies for aptitude While it is bad advice for a job applicant to share test scores with an employer, nearly every …

“It Has Come to My Attention…”  How Institutional Complaints Procedures are Being Weaponized

In 2005 Charles Murray published a paper entitled ‘How to Accuse the Other Guy of Lying with Statistics’. It summarised methods that social scientists in the USA use to discredit academics whose findings are inconvenient for progressive ideology. Smoke-making, goal post-shifting, nit-picking, the Big Lie – Dr Murray’s paper is stuffed with useful tactics. And judging from their attacks on me over the last couple of years, the left-wing of the UK’s social science community have given it a careful read. Foremost amongst them is Jonathan Portes, whose latest broadside appeared recently in the venerable leftist magazine, the New Statesman.  My cardinal sin was to publish a book three years ago called The Welfare Trait that summarised data linking personality and welfare dependency. Positing such links is blasphemy to those on the left who believe that life outcomes are solely influenced by structural rather than individual factors. And so my discrediting began. In public it took the form of webpages dedicated to detailing my thought-crimes, abusive messages on social media and articles in the left-wing press, …