Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part III

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part III

Uri Harris
Uri Harris
3 min read

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.

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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?

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

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part II

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