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Is Social Science Flying Around in Circles, Using Only Its Left Wing?

What's the matter with social psychology? Everybody in social science (including social psychology itself) has a diagnosis, because everybody thinks something is amiss ("it's a terrible field," an anthropologist once told me). As John Tierney reported on Monday, Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia believes the problem is intellectual tribalization: Though ostensibly a collection of open-minded seekers, his field actually is a "tribal-moral community," adhering to "sacred values." New ideas don't get get judged on their merits, he says, but rather on their relationship to these idols of the tribe, which are standard-issue American left-wing. It's an interesting idea, (you can read or hear the talk here), but it left me wondering: Why was social psych singled out? Tribal behavior is common all over the social sciences, if not in all sciences, period.

In my book, I describe how the celebration of their discipline's "sacred values" went down some years ago at a meeting of evolutionary psychologists: It was a 45-minute lecture devoted to the faults of Stephen Jay Gould ended with the speaker shouting "long live the adaptationist program!" to cheers and hoots. Dispassionate weighing of evidence, this wasn't.

What it was, I think, was an example of the inescapable consequences of being a social primate. Most of our ideas come from other people, so most of our ideas have a social meaning riding along with their intended subject. When I say I don't believe in God, I'm making a claim about reality, but I am also declaring what kind of person I am, and who I stand with. Similarly, if I say that the only meaningful unit of selection in evolution is the gene, I'm not just presenting evidence—to anyone in the know, I'm taking sides in a battle.

Conversely, if I want to know if a new idea is sound and serious, do I go off and do a few years' research on my own? I do not. Instead, I look to see who proclaims it, where it was published, what others with credentials have to say about it.

To weigh ideas, we weigh the social position of those who carry them: Are they our kind of people? Do they have authority we respect? That's why it was a big deal that a mainstream social-psychology journal published experiments that supposedly show evidence of ESP. Lots of people already believe in ESP, but their evidence and passion aren't enough. To convince many people, that evidence has to be attached to the right kind of person.

Science could be called a method for counteracting the social effects of ideas—a system for bringing us back to evidence and logic, despite our social instincts. But it's an imperfect system. Scientists are loyal to their mentors and colleagues, invested in theories that won them prestige and tenure. To fight against this social inertia takes immense determination and effort. Not just to make the case, but to get other scientists to bring the social self under control. Hence the cynical maxim: Science progresses one funeral at a time.

Haidt's argument is a little different. It's that social-psych is hamstrung by a particularly virulent kind of tribalism—not just the inertia of "no one believes that any more" and "if I publish this my colleagues will think I'm nuts" but a sense that dissenting ideas are morally wrong.

Haidt is far from the first to notice that social psych has a moral-crusader ethos. (In 2004, for instance, Joachim I. Krueger and David C. Funder called for the field to abandon its "problem-seeking" approach to the mind and look beyond sin and injustice.) When you study discrimination, prejudice, and injustice, you'll want to reduce the harm they cause—to fix things, not just describe them. That inclines a researcher to judge work on the basis of its moral worth. This is hard to reconcile with the disinterested search for knowledge. (Years ago I watched a neuroscientist and a social psychologist write up a press release which touched on how a brain region interacted with perceptions of racial difference. The neuroscientist called that part "the area of interest"; the psychologist called it "the culprit.")

In his research Haidt has found that people are much less tolerant of threats to shared moral values than they are to other kinds of identity. So they'll have a strong incentive to accept scientific results that align with their values and reject equally valid results that don't. The discipline needs to open itself to conservatives, he argues, to become "post-partisan."

Now, I know as well as anyone how an earnest Kumbaya atmosphere can stifle the mind (I used to write for the Village Voice.) But I find the ideal of non-partisan social science a bit hard to fathom. After all, the problems of social science emerge from people's partisan concerns. An American doctor in 1851 cooked up the psychological disorder known as "drapetomania"—an unfortunate malady that caused slaves to want to run off—because slavery had its partisans. In 1956 an American psychiatrist was quoted calling rock and roll "a communicable disease" because partisans of the music, and their enemies, wanted to know what science thought. Maybe a conservative influx into social science would add new perspectives, but it's hard to see how the enterprise can be freed from its time and place.

I also wonder how much moral fervor adds to an already-present tendency to tribalize ideas. Still, it was interesting to read, in Tierney's story, how the social psychologists reacted when Haidt presented his ideas at their annual conference. Like, well, the good lefties they are, the group, according to Tierney, voted to welcome "diverse perspectives" among researchers and broadened its outreach efforts beyond people who are underrepresented due to race, class, disability or sexuality. The didn't go for Haidt's suggestion of a quota for conservatives in their field, but at least they're doing what they do best: Trying to fix a newfound injustice.

Illustration: William Hogarth, via Wikimedia Commons

Krueger JI, & Funder DC (2004). Towards a balanced social psychology: causes, consequences, and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 27 (3) PMID: 15736870

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