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A social science without sacred values

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An essay about political bias in the social sciences; a working draft.
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A SOCIAL SCIENCE WITHOUT SACRED VALUES
Bo Winegard*
Florida State University
Ben Winegard*
Carroll College
* Both authors contributed equally. First author was decided by coin flip.
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“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In this essay, we follow up on the work of other scholars who have recently cautioned
about the dangers of ideological uniformity in the social sciences. We forward the
paranoid egalitarian meliorist (PEM) model to help account for bias in the social
sciences. Paranoid is not a pejorative term, but describes a sensitivity to perceived
threats to egalitarian meliorism. We argue (1) that many social scientists are paranoid
egalitarian meliorists; (2) that they are therefore very sensitive to threats to a sacred
egalitarian narrative; (3) that this sensitivity may be excessive (at least in the domain of
science) and may cause researchers to unfairly reject research that challenges
egalitarianism; (4) that this may then lead to the marginalization of individuals who
forward controversial theories and/or data; and (5) that these tendencies lead to bias in
the social sciences.
In 1969, Arthur Jensen, a then respected educational psychologist, published an article in
the Harvard Educational Review in which he controversially argued: (1) that intelligence
tests are not biased and measure something real and important; (2) that compensatory
educational programs had largely failed to boost intelligence; and (3) that it was plausible
that some of the black-white intelligence gap (whites score roughly a standard deviation
higher on intelligence tests than blacks) was caused by genetics (Jensen, 1969). Although
the article was responsibly written and completely bereft of stridency or dogmatism, it
was greeted with a fleet of denunciations and ad hominem attacks1. Indignant scientists
and political pundits impugned Jensen’s character, calling him an elitist, a racist, and
even a fascist (Miele & Jensen, 2002). Some political activists began to interrupt Jensen’s
speeches, a pattern that persisted for many years. Worse, some even threatened his life.
For a while, Jensen could not open his mail and was escorted around the Berkeley
campus by bodyguards
Although extreme, this example is not unprecedented. From its inception, science has
often clashed with sacred social narratives. And when it has, the scientists who
propounded the gainsaying theories were often viciously attacked and slandered.
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Sometimes, they were even arrested or killed. To take a common example, Galileo was
violently denounced and ultimately arrested for writing a dialogue that strongly suggested
that the earth revolved around the sun (heliocentrism). Today, we no longer have sacred
narratives about the order of the ether. We have left the cosmos to astronomers and
physicists; therefore, we can hardly understand the consternation that heliocentrism
caused. But we do have sacred narratives about human nature and the social order.
In this essay, we will examine how such sacred narratives create bias in the social
sciences. We will also forward a model that helps explain how this bias works, which we
call the paranoid egalitarian meliorist (PEM) model.
II
A sacred value, according to Philip Tetlock, is a value “that a moral community treats as
possessing transcendental significance,” and that cannot be compared to or traded with
other values (Tetlock, 2003, p. 320; see also, Atran, Axelrod, & Davis, 2007). Put more
simply, a sacred value is something that people really care about, and that they are
unwilling to trade or negotiate. Protecting a child’s life is a sacred value for most of us.
We would not be willing to contemplate killing a child in exchange for something else,
be it money or fame or everlasting beauty. The very thought of trading a child’s life for
something else provokes disgust and an immediate interdiction from our nervous
systems2. Today, as noted, many students, professors, and media personalities do not
have sacred values about the structure of the cosmos; but they do have sacred values
about the structure of society and about the nature of the humans that comprise it.
What these sacred values are depends largely upon what political party a person identifies
with (or, perhaps, what political party a person identifies with depends largely upon their
sacred values). Conservatives and liberals (roughly, Republicans and Democrats in the
United States) have (some) different sacred values (Haidt, 2012). For many conservatives
protecting the life of an unborn child is a sacred value. They are wholly unwilling to
negotiate abortion. It is an unalloyed evil that must be eliminated. For many liberals, on
the other hand, equality is a sacred value. Therefore, inequality is not a tolerable if
unfortunate side effect of capitalism, but a malignant growth that threatens the moral
status of the entire socioeconomic system.
The social sciences are comprised almost entirely of socially liberal researchers (many
are also economically liberal; see Gross & Fosse, 2012; Sanderson & Ellis, 1992). Inbar
and Lammers (2012) found that only 6% of social and personality psychologists
identified as conservative; Bill von Hippel and David Buss, in a still unpublished survey
of members of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, found that a paltry four
out of over 300 members surveyed voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election (quoted in
Jussim, 2015). Because of this, the social sciences are (arguably) plagued by political
correctness (a generally liberal way of protecting sacred values) and (potentially) biased
in ways that preserve a sacred narrative about social (metaphysical) equality.
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Recently, a number of scholars (most of them social psychologists) have raised concerns
about this possible bias and have lamented the growing ideological uniformity of social
psychology (and other social sciences, including sociology). Although some scholars had
expressed concern about this before (see, for example, Redding, 2001; Tetlock, 1994),
they were largely ignored or dismissed. However, the force and eloquence of the renewed
pleas to examine the pernicious effects of ideological uniformity have made the problem
harder to ignore. Many of these scholars collaborated on an article that was just published
in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, & Tetlock,
2015) in which they laid out their arguments and forwarded recommendations for
correcting the problem.
Specifically, Duarte and colleagues asserted that the dearth of conservatives in the social
sciences can (and does) create bias in three ways: (1) it allows liberal values (sacred
equality narrative, for example) to become enmeshed into social theory and method; (2) it
causes many researchers to focus on topics that support sacred liberal narratives while
avoiding topics that might contradict them; and (3) it encourages an incomplete and
unappealing psychological profile of conservatism because most researchers who study
conservatives are hostile toward their political beliefs. Duarte and colleagues supported
their arguments with many examples. Consider two.
One, researchers have consistently complained that stereotypes are inaccurate, unjust, and
maladaptive products of a biased social brain (see Jussim, 2012). However, it turns out
that many stereotypes are actually remarkably accurate. Because many stereotypes are
about talent, skill, and personality inequalities among social groups, this line of research,
according to Duarte et al., was not surprisingly initiated by a conservative social scientist,
Clark McCauley (McCauley & Stitt, 1978). That is, liberal researchers were not
interested in discovering that stereotypes were accurate because that would violate a
sacred liberal narrative about equality.
And two, many researchers in social psychology have argued that the political right is
prone to prejudice, and that it attracts a certain personality type that is often domineering
and authoritarian (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). However, some recent
theorists have argued (and demonstrated) that people across the political spectrum are
biased against others who espouse ideological beliefs that contradict their own (Brandt,
Reyna, Chambers, Crawford, & Wetherell, 2014). Conservatives are biased against
liberals, Democrats, gays and lesbians, atheists, and labor unions, for example, whereas
liberals are biased against soldiers, business people, and Christian fundamentalists. Social
psychologists largely ignored liberal social prejudices because they were not salient to
mostly liberal researchers. (One’s own biases are seldom regarded as biases; they are
regarded as truths about the world).
Duarte and colleagues ended with a number of possible palliatives. Because a lack of
political diversity is the fundamental cause of the disease that Duarte and colleagues
bemoaned, most of their recommendations focused on increasing the number of
conservatives, libertarians, and other non-liberals in social psychology. For example, they
suggested that universities should formulate and adopt anti-discrimination policies
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(against conservatives), should create reach-out programs to attract non-liberals, and
should conduct studies about obstacles and barriers non-liberal students might face in
social psychology. (They made a number of other suggestions, but this provides a useful
sample.)
We (Bo and Ben Winegard) and Dave Geary (Winegard, Winegard, & Geary, 2015)
wrote a comment on the article in which we largely agreed with Duarte and colleague’s
argument that ideological uniformity in social psychology (and social science more
generally) is potentially dangerous and possibly distorts science through biased peer
reviews, grant reviews, and hiring processes. And we tried to elaborate on their
arguments by forwarding a model of bias in social psychology (and the social sciences
more broadly). We argued that most researchers in the social sciences are egalitarian
meliorists, that is, they adhere to a sacred narrative which asserts that all social classes,
ethnic groups, and sexes could be the same on every socially valued trait (biologically,
they are the same save for superficial differences)3 and that people can, through sustained
effort, increase social equality (see, Winegard & Winegard, 2014). This sacred narrative
leads to what we termed “paranoid egalitarian meliorism” (PEM). We also believe that
some conservatives adhere to egalitarian meliorism, whereas some liberals do not, so that
the cause of bias in the social sciences is more complicated than the political affiliation of
the researchers (an assertion with which Duarte and colleagues would almost certainly
agree) (Inglehart & Welzel, 20005; Lyle & Smith, 2012; Tybur, Miller, & Gangestad,
2007).
III
Paranoid sounds bad. Nobody wants to be paranoid. And science is supposed to steer
clear of value-laden terms such as “paranoid egalitarian meliorism,” right? Sure. But, the
term “paranoid,” as used in our model, does not refer to a state of frantic, irrational
vigilance, but rather to an understandable mental bias designed to reduce the costs of
inevitable errors. That sounds horribly abstruse, but the basic idea is simple.
In 2006, Martie Haselton and Daniel Nettle published an article in Personality and Social
Psychology Review entitled “The paranoid optimist: An integrative evolutionary model
of cognitive biases.” In it, they argued that most people are “paranoid optimists”; they are
fearful of potential environmental threats, but romantically optimistic about their ability
shape the world. They are paranoid optimists because their brains were designed to
manage inevitable errors in the least costly (and most advantageous) way possible. In the
case of environmental threats, error management generally leads to paranoia because it is
often less costly to mistake an innocuous stimuli for a threat than to mistake a threat for
an innocuous stimuli. This is probably best illustrated by considering a smoke detector
(Nesse, 2001).
A smoke detector is designed to commit more false alarms that false negatives, because
most people don’t want a smoke detector that remains silent while one’s house burns
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down. It is better, in other words, to have a smoke alarm that sometimes goes off when
one burns one’s toast but that almost always goes off when one’s house is actually on fire
than to have an alarm that almost never goes off when one burns food but that sometimes
remains off when one’s house is razed by flames. Smoke detectors will inevitably make
mistakes (even billions of dollars of investment would not create an error free smoke
detector). They are therefore designed to make the least costly error. We might say, then,
that a smoke detector is paranoid. It is designed to be especially sensitive to cues of
fire.
Paranoid egalitarian meliorism (PEM), then, is egalitarian meliorism that is especially
sensitive to equality threats, and paranoid egalitarian meliorists (PEMs) are people who
exhibit such sensitivities. For example, the idea that biologically endowed personality
traits such as extroversion, ambition, or intelligence, differ among people and/or groups
such that some people and/or some groups have more or less of one or more valued traits,
appears to strike a challenge to equality. If there are more men than women in
engineering departments because men, on average, are better at mechanical reasoning
than women, then this means that certain valued outcomes in society will be unequal
unless society actively intervenes to alter a natural inequality. If, on the other hand, the
disparity between men and women arises because of active discrimination, then
intervention simply allows the flowering of natural equality, which the discrimination
was preventing. PEMs would err on the side of believing that discrimination, not
personality traits, leads to group differences in socially valued outcomes (such as
representation in engineering departments). Put another way, PEMs are like the smoke
detector from above; only they are “designed” to detect threats to equality rather than to
detect fire. Their alarm is especially sensitive, and it is often tripped by potentially
innocuous stimuli (such as research on group differences in personality traits).
Unlike the smoke detector example, our model requires two stages of processing (see
figure 1). The first stage is the detection (or nondetection) of threatening theories and/or
data; and the second stage is the assessment of the theories and/or data. Consider the
example of an article about biological sex differences. In the first stage, a researcher
would detect whether the article is a threat to an egalitarian narrative. And in the second,
the researcher would assess the article’s (and other articles’) arguments for and against a
partial genetic hypothesis of sex differences. Generally speaking, if a theory is detected
as a threat, then it will be assessed unfavorably and ultimately rejected (see figure below).
That is, a theory that is assessed as a threat often triggers some form of motivated
reasoning, which then dismisses the threatening theory. So, in the case of sex differences,
a researcher who detected a threat might read copious books and articles arguing that sex
differences are entirely socially caused, convincing him or herself that genes play no role
in sex differences and therefore dismissing the threatening article’s conclusions (See
Haidt, 2011).
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Figure 1. Model of two stages of PEM. First, a theory and/or data are analyzed as threat
or not. If they are a threat, then they often (but not always) trigger motivated reasoning.
If they are not a threat, they generally trigger unmotivated reasoning. The motivated
reasoning is usually capable of dismissing the threatening theory and or data. Some
people are able to use unmotivated reasoning even if a theory is detected as a threat. One
goal should be to emphasize this and strengthen the link from threat to unmotivated
reasoning.
There are two broad reasons the PEM model helps explain bias in the social sciences (we
will explain this in more detail and with more nuances in the next section). The first, as
suggested in section II, is that a large proportion of social scientists are probably PEMs--
or exhibit characteristics indicative of PEMs. For example, Gross and Simmons (2007)
found that social science professors are more liberal than professors in other academic
disciplines; and they found that social scientists are even more liberal on social issues
than they are on economic issues, a finding corroborated by Inbar and Lammers (2012)
and discussed at length in Duarte and colleagues (2015) article. Although we will note
that we do not think there is a one to one correspondence between PEM and liberalism,
and that, in fact, many conservatives and some libertarians are PEMs, social liberals are
almost certainly more likely than conservatives and libertarians to hold a sacred
egalitarian meliorist narrative (Haidt, 2012; Pinker, 2005). This provides prima facie
evidence that many social science professors are PEMs; but more research is needed on
professors’ attitudes toward equality, egalitarianism, and meliorism independently of
their political ideology.
And the second is that many of the topics that social scientists study are fraught with
importance for sacred social narratives, and therefore, many of the theories and/or data
forwarded by social scientists could be interpreted as a threat to the egalitarian meliorist
narrative (for example, research on the causes of inequality, research on sex differences,
research on stereotypes, research on race differences (what little is done), research on
self-control, et cetera).
If it is true that paranoid egalitarian meliorism is a major cause of the bias in the social
sciences, then we would predict that: (1) the higher the proportion of PEMs in a
discipline the more likely it is that that discipline will be hostile to research that threatens
a sacred equality narrative; (2) the more a line of research (or theory) is perceived to
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challenge the sacred equality narrative, the greater the hostility and resistance it should
provoke from PEMs (and areas of discipline dominated by PEMs); and (3) the most
maligned researchers should be those who forward theories or data that threaten the
sacred equality narrative. In part V, we will cover specific historical examples that appear
to corroborate these predictions. Here, we want to note that a few studies support them
(obviously, more research is needed on this).
For example, Geher and Gambacorta (2010) found that researchers in women’s studies
and sociology (fields likely dominated by PEMs) were more likely than researchers in
other fields (not so dominated by PEMs) to view differences between men and women
and even hens and roosters as caused by nurture (not nature), but not differences between
cats and dogs. Presumably, this is because researchers in women’s studies and sociology
are hyper attuned to possible threats to gender equality (that is, they are strong PEMs).
Horowitz, Yaworsky, and Kickham (2014) found that although many sociologists
accepted that differences in intellectual ability among individuals were caused at least
partially by genetics, a majority did not believe that differences between men and women
in skills such as communication and spatial reasoning were at least partially caused by
genetics4. And Winegard, Winegard, and Deaner (2014) found that sex and gender
textbooks were riddled with errors about evolutionary psychology (which often posits
that at least some sex differences are genetically caused and therefore is often perceived
as threatening the egalitarian meliorist narrative); and that sociology textbooks contained
more errors than psychology books (probably more PEMs in sociology, although that is
an empirical question). Taken together, these studies suggest that motivated reasoning is
selectively triggered by perceived scholarly challenges to group level equality.
The PEM model also straightforwardly provides two explanations (not mutually
exclusive) for the consistent use of ad hominem attacks against researchers who
propound theories or data that are perceived to violate a sacred egalitarian narrative. In
the examples below, we will describe the motivations that lead to ad hominem attacks as
if they were conscious and intentional; however, this is a literary technique to make our
reasoning more clear. Probably, most of the mechanisms that lead to ad hominem attacks
are unconscious, and those who engage in ad hominem attacks do so only because they
really believe that another researcher deserves to be “called out” for his or her treachery.
The first is that PEMs honestly believe that the researchers who propound such theories
or data are morally reprehensible people. This might sound extreme--do scientists really
believe that other scientists are bad people simply for espousing unpopular theories? --,
but it is completely rational if our model is correct. Assume you adhere to the egalitarian
meliorist narrative. You encounter Arthur Jensen’s argument that genetics probably play
some role in the black-white intelligence gap. First, you would detect this as a threat to
your sacred value (equality). Then, you would almost certainly attempt to refute Jensen’s
argument in any way possible (confirmation bias). You might read reams of books and
articles arguing against Jensen. After this, you would think that Jensen’s argument was
painfully weak and, in fact, preposterous. You would then seek a reason Arthur Jensen
would have published such a thinly supported theory that had potentially dangerous
ramifications. One obvious reason is because Jensen was a morally corrupt human being.
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(Also, many PEMs may believe that the hypotheses that are forwarded are more extreme
than they really are; in other words, the threat such hypotheses present is often grossly
exaggerated; see table 1).
Table 1. Often hypotheses that are moderate and reasonable are exaggerated by those
who see them as dangerous. For example, Jensen’s hypothesis, cited in the introduction,
that some of the black-white gap in intelligence is probably caused by genetics is
interpreted to mean that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. It is unclear how much
of this misinterpretation is willful and how much is automatic. However, such hypotheses
are often presented to the public in a grossly exaggerated form, convincing fair-minded
people that those who originally proposed the hypotheses must be acting with malicious
motives.
And the second is that it discredits such researchers, and it deters others from engaging in
similar research (or reaching similar conclusions). This explanation, of course, is more
obvious and is quite well documented (Haidt, 2012; Watson, 1998). So, to stick with the
Arthur Jensen example, imagine, again, that you are a paranoid egalitarian meliorist. You
fervently believe that evidence of genetic differences between blacks and whites will lead
to deleterious consequences, so you want to prevent others from encountering such
evidence or from taking such evidence seriously if they do encounter it. If you attack
Jensen’s character, you may undermine his arguments by associating them with racism or
some other nefarious attitude; and you may deter other scholars from pursuing research
about race differences in intelligence.
We should clarify, before moving to section IV, that our theory does suggest that the
focus on political party affiliation is slightly (though certainly not entirely, as noted
above) misguided. A straightforward hypothesis of the political party affiliation theory of
bias is that researchers who forward theories and/or data that contradict any of the sacred
tenets of liberalism (because the social sciences are overwhelmingly liberal) should be
attacked, criticized, and maligned as much researchers who forward theories and or data
that violate the sacred tenets of egalitarianism meliorism. The PEM model, on the other
hand, predicts that the most vicious attacks will be reserved exclusively for those who
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threaten the sacred egalitarian narrative, and that many of the attacks will come from
conservatives and libertarians who also adhere to the sacred egalitarian narrative5.
Although this is obviously an empirical question, history suggests that the PEM model’s
predictions are accurate. Many scholars who have attacked various tenets of (modern
political) liberalism (for example, Matt Ridley, Thomas Sowell, Clark McCauley, and
Steven Pinker) remain in good standing in the academy, despite some snipes and
slanders. On the other hand, those scholars who have threatened the sacred egalitarian
narrative (for example, Charles Murray, J. P. Rushton, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, and
Linda Gottfredson) suffered relentless smear campaigns and remain outside of the
academic mainstream (and are especially abhorred in fields such as social psychology
and sociology).
IV
Duarte and colleagues (2015) forwarded several reasons liberal dominance in social
psychology can lead to bias. They also addressed some of the mechanisms through which
such bias might manifest. We agree with most of what they said; therefore, we will only
briefly describe how PEM can lead to widespread bias in the social sciences. In other
words, we believe that Duarte et al.’s description of bias is largely accurate, and we mean
only to add a few nuances and to adjust the model to account for PEM.
In our model, there are two distal causes and four direct causes of bias in the social
sciences (see table 2). The two distal causes are (1) that the number of PEMs has
increased in the population, especially in the population of educated citizens; and (2) that
PEMs are naturally attracted to the social sciences. The four proximate causes are (1) that
more PEMs in the social sciences leads to the establishment of a sacred egalitarian
narrative and pressure to conform to it; (2) that this shared sacred narrative (possibly)
leads to biased hiring and tenure processes, and also to administrative pressures; (3) that
this development of a shared narrative also leads to biased peer review decisions and
scientific double standards (Gottfredson, 2012); and (4) that all of these distorted peer
review processes feedback into the system, augmenting existing biases (see figure 2).
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Table 2. Causes of bias in social sciences.
DISTAL CAUSES
(1): Social scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005;
Welzel, 2013) have shown that there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of
emancipative values across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Emancipative
values, according to Welzel, reflect a desire for autonomy and equality of opportunity
(Welzel, 2013, p. 67). We believe that such emancipative values also lead to what
Thomas Sowell (2007) called an “unconstrained vision” of human nature. According to
this vision, humans are largely perfectible and are limited only by the flaws and
shortcomings of their surrounding environments. This vision is an almost inevitable
concomitant of emancipative values because it emphasizes individual autonomy and
freedom from constraint (in this case, from internal constraint). It also almost inevitably
gives rise to a desire for what Sowell (2002) called “cosmic justice,” that is, the
extirpation of all undeserved inequalities (including individual and group differences).
And this leads to a sacred egalitarian narrative, which not only contends but sacredly
proclaims that all groups are identical on all socially valued traits. Therefore, across the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries as emancipative values have increased so has the
number of egalitarian meliorists (and paranoid egalitarian meliorists).
(2): This cause is more speculative than the others. However, it seems plausible to us that
PEMs would be more attracted to the social sciences than they would to other disciplines.
We have focused largely on the egalitarian part of paranoid egalitarian meliorism, but the
meliorism is also important. PEMs believe that they can (and should), through dedicated
effort, alleviate many existing ills in the world. In the social sciences, they believe that
they will be able to pick research areas that promote their goals. Therefore, through self-
selection, the social sciences become comprised of a large proportion of PEMs.
PROXIMATE CAUSES
(1): Because many social scientists share the same egalitarian narrative, they can elevate
that narrative almost to the level of an orthodox theology. Certain assumptions are simply
accepted; they are true, and anyone who challenges them is cast out and attacked as a
heretic (in part V, we will examine some researchers who were thus cast out and
attacked). This prevents researchers from exploring certain hypotheses and, indeed, seals
off entire areas of research from investigation. These areas become taboo--untouchable
by any researcher who desires to maintain good standing in the academy.
(2): The establishment of a sacred narrative almost inevitably leads to biased hiring and
tenure processes. In section III we noted that ad hominem attacks are a natural, though
not inevitable, manifestation of PEM. PEMs often honestly believe that researchers who
forward theories and/or data which challenge the sacred egalitarian narrative are morally
reprehensible. Because of this, they are very unlikely to desire to hire those researchers.
Note that this does not need to be some kind of top-down conspiracy (although it
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certainly can be) with shadowy bureaucrats colluding to punish heretics. It can be a
natural, bottom-up process. Imagine, again, that you are a PEM. You believe that Arthur
Jensen is a bad person for forwarding dangerous hypotheses about racial differences in
intelligence. You definitely don’t want to hire him. Most of your colleagues would
probably feel the same. Therefore, researchers who challenge the egalitarian meliorist
narrative have a difficult time finding and keeping desirable jobs.
Although this contention is very hard to test, some research does support it. Rothman,
Lichter, and Nevitte (2005), for example, found that, controlling for productivity,
conservative academics were at less prestigious institutions than were liberal academics.
Conservatives, as we have noted, are probably more likely to challenge egalitarian
meliorism than are liberals. However, many conservatives are egalitarian meliorists in
one way or another. Therefore, we suspect that this effect would be larger if one were to
look directly at the degree to which researchers challenged the egalitarian meliorist
narrative rather than at their political party affiliation. That is, because many conservative
researchers do not directly challenge egalitarian meliorism they are not so discriminated
against as those researchers who do. And if one focused only on those researchers who do
challenge egalitarian meliorism, one would probably find that they paid a steep price in
institutional prestige for their defiance of the orthodox sacred narrative.
Furthermore, many social psychology and sociology job advertisements and mission
statements directly appeal to egalitarian meliorists, almost certainly dissuading others
from even applying. For just one example, the Santa Cruz social psychology website (see
http://psychology.ucsc.edu/about/research/research-areas-social.html) has an
informational essay on its main page that is entitled “Social Justice.” The essay describes
the mission of the department, noting that they “examine justice-related issues in
different cultural, political, and policy contexts, through a variety of research methods.”
Students are encouraged “to attend to issues of race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender,
and physical ableness, and are steeped in critical theoretical perspectives such as feminist
theory.” Of course, this is a very unique and ideologically saturated description of “social
justice,” which excludes, for example, attending to the amazing progress Western
civilization has achieved because of the development and expansion of democracy and
free markets (Pinker, 2011; Ridley, 2011).
(3): Scientific article submissions are reviewed by other scientists in the field. Of course,
this usually makes sense. Who can better assess the qualities of a scientific paper than the
experts in the field? However, when most scientists in a community share a sacred
narrative, this process can lead to biased journals because reviewers are more critical to
manuscripts that violate that narrative than they are to manuscripts that don’t; and, they
may be more favorable to manuscripts that explicitly or implicitly support it than those
that don’t. Such scientific double standards act as a sieve that selectively filters out
challenges to the sacred narrative.
Some evidence supports these claims of reviewing bias, but, as is usual, more research is
needed. For example, Abramowitz, Gomez, and Abramowitz (1975) asked psychologists
to review a manuscript and rate its suitability for publication. The article’s methods and
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analyses were held constant across conditions. In one condition, however, student
protesters who were occupying an administration building were described as more
mentally healthy than a cross-section of students on campus, and in the other, the
protesters were described as less mentally healthy. Reviewers who were more liberal than
others were more lenient in the pro-protestor condition than in the anti-protester
condition. And those more liberal reviewers were stricter than less liberal reviewers in the
anti-protester condition. In a large study of the peer-review process, Mahoney (1977) also
found congruent results, noting that reviewers were biased against articles that
contradicted their theoretical perspectives.
Ceci, Peters, and Plotkin (1985) found similar results in assessments of Internal Review
Board applications. Specifically, they submitted proposals that hypothesized either
“reverse discrimination” (that is, discrimination against Whites) or traditional
discrimination (that is, against ethnic minorities). The rest of the application was held
constant. The Internal Review Boards approved the “reverse discrimination” proposals
less often.
(4): Assuming that proximate cause three is true (and we think it is), it would inevitably
create a synergistic effect with existing bias because journals would publish many more
articles that support the sacred egalitarian narrative than that challenge it. New
generations of researchers would be educated with those articles, imbibing and
internalizing evidence that buttresses the narrative while not encountering strong
challenges to it. And this all leads to increasing ideological purity because those
researchers who do not agree with the orthodoxy in the social sciences will choose other
careers (perhaps, for example, in economics). In a sense, this last cause acts as a boiler to
cook out the remaining impurities, leaving behind an unadulterated ideology.
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Figure 2. A model depicting bias in the social sciences. First, many people who are
attracted to the social sciences are PEMs, because they believe they can ameliorate
social ills by studying social relationships. Second, they are trained to perceive humans
as largely determined by social forces; also they conform to peers who believe that
humans are largely determined by social forces. These individual tendencies are
intensified by institutional forces (hiring decisions, tenure decisions, and administrative
pressures) which are depicted as squeezing a lens in this model, making it more biased.
These forces all lead to biased publications, which then feed back into the system
(depicted by dotted lines), reinforcing existing biases. See text for further explication.
V
In the above, we described the PEM model of bias in the social sciences. We contended
that many social scientists adhere to a sacred egalitarian meliorist narrative and are
especially sensitive to perceived threats to egalitarianism. In this section, we will examine
three historical examples of vicious and sustained attacks on academics who were
perceived to have threatened the egalitarian meliorist narrative. Each example illustrates
that this problem not only plagues the social sciences and academia but also plagues
much of the intelligentsia more broadly (for example, mainstream media outlets). Each
example also illustrates the deadening effect on discourse such crusades can cause.
1. Charles Murray and The Bell Curve
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In 1994, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve:
Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The book was an incredibly long
exploration of the relation between intelligence and life outcomes in the United States.
Specifically, Herrnstein and Murray argued: (1) that general intelligence is real and can
be measured reasonably well with existing instruments; (2) that individuals vary in
general intelligence; (3) that the heritability of general intelligence is probably no lower
than 40% and no higher than 80%; (4) that various forces in the United States were
conspiring to make general intelligence more important than it had been before; (5) that a
“cognitive elite” was separating from the rest of the population; and (6) that social
problems were becoming increasingly populated among those with low cognitive ability.
Herrnstein and Murray also included two chapters (13 and 14) in which they reviewed
evidence that there were large ethnic differences in intelligence scores, that at least some
of those differences were (probably) caused by genetic factors, and that those differences
had large real-world consequences. It is important to note, before addressing the
conflagration of criticism and outrage the Bell Curve ignited, just how cautious and
moderate Herrnstein and Murray were when they addressed ethnic differences in
intelligence:
“It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something
to do with racial differences. What might that mix be? We are resolutely agnostic
on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an
estimate.” (p. 311)
The response to the Bell Curve was furious. After a few thoughtful reviews (for example,
in the New York Times Book Review, see Browne, 1994), the book was excoriated and
review after review panned Herrnstein and Murray, calling them elitists and racists. Soon,
many academics joined in, writing reviews, essays, and even books criticizing the Bell
Curve and eviscerating its authors. Stephen J. Gould (1994), in a representative review,
stated that Herrnstein and Murray “claim that racial differences in IQ are mostly
determined by genetic causes…[emphasis added].” And concluded that the message of
the Bell Curve must be resisted or else it would “cut off all possibility of proper
nurturance for everyone’s intelligence.” Many reviews made Gould’s distortions appear
tame. For example, Bob Hebert, writing for the New York Times (1994), wrote that “Mr.
Murray” was “getting kicks by thinking up ways to drape the cloak of respectability over
the obscene and long-discredited views of the world's most rabid racists.” He concluded,
“It's an ugly stunt. Mr. Murray can protest all he wants, his book is just a genteel way of
calling somebody a nigger.”
Murray is still hounded by accusations that he is a racist and an anti-poor elitist. In fact,
Murray’s reputation was so thoroughly besmirched by the “bell curve wars” that those
who cite his works today are also vulnerable to accusations of racism. In 2014, Paul
Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, was blasted simply for quoting a
Charles Murray book (in this case, Losing Ground, not The Bell Curve). For example,
Josh Marshall (2014) wrote that, “When you start off by basing your arguments around
the work of Charles Murray you just lose your credibility from the start.” Marshall then
lists a few reasons one loses credibly for quoting Charles Murray, including that Murray
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“is best known for attempting to marshal social science evidence to argue that black
people are genetically not as smart as white people.”
Not every attack or criticism on The Bell Curve was unconstructive, and science requires
robust and vigorous debate. It is doubtful that Herrnstein and Murray got everything
right. And scientists, therefore, need to discuss, debate, and test their contentions. But
many of the fulminations against The Bell Curve followed the pattern illustrated above:
they disregarded most of the book (which is not about race differences), misrepresented
Herrnstein and Murray’s arguments (for example, Gould claimed that Herrnstein and
Murray argued that race differences in IQ are mostly determined by genetic causes,”
which is demonstrably untrue), and attacked Herrnstein and Murray’s personal character,
accusing them of nefarious motives (racism). In a sense, the intelligentsia turned Murray
into an effigy to publicly pummel so as to deter other scholars from daring to challenge
so directly the sacred egalitarian narratives that they hold dear.
2. Larry Summers and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM)
In 2005, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard university, gave a talk to the National
Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in which he addressed the differential
representation of men and women (there are more men) in tenured positions in science
and engineering at prestigious universities and research institutions. He forwarded three
hypotheses to explain the differential representation: (1) the high-powered job
hypothesis; (2) the differential aptitude at the extreme end of the intelligence distribution
hypothesis; and (3) the socialization and discrimination hypothesis. According to
hypothesis 1, men are more willing than women to work the long, grueling hours required
to be successful in a math or engineering department at a top-tier university. According to
hypothesis 2, there are more men than women at the extreme ends of the intelligence
distribution (both on the low end and the high end); therefore, there are more men than
women of exceptional intellectual ability. And, according to hypothesis 3, women are
socialized to pursue “feminine” hobbies and jobs and are discriminated against in certain
academic disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The response to Summers’ speech was rapid and vitriolic. MIT biologist, Nancy Hopkins,
who attended the conference, first provided details of the speech to a Boston Globe
journalist, and reported that she had to leave the talk because if she had stayed she
“would’ve either blacked out or thrown up” (Bombardieri, 2005) The Globe contacted
five other participants who said they were “deeply offended” by Summers’ speech (and
four who were not). As soon as details about the speech spread, Summers was widely
depicted as being an intolerant sexist. For example, in a relatively representative article at
the Guardian, provocatively (and misleading) entitled Why women are poor at science, by
Harvard president, Suzanne Goldenberg (2005) painted a tendentious picture of
Summers as a right-wing bully who had clashed with his African-American and left-wing
colleagues. Although these details (even if true) were not at all relevant, they were
included in the article to “contextualize” selected snippets from his speech. Those
snippets, of course, were also carefully chosen to look as damning to Summers as
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possible. There were few sentences in the article addressing the actual empirical status of
Summers’ hypotheses.
Similar mischaracterizations were reported in many media outlets, leading to more and
more hostility.
The growing furor over Summer’s comments eventually led to his resignation (although,
this controversy was certainly not the sole cause).
As with the criticisms of The Bell Curve, not every criticism of Summers’ speech was
ugly or ill informed. And Summers’ almost certainly got some things wrong (and he was
actually quite circumspect in the speech, and noted that he was certainly not an expert on
many of the issues he was discussing). But many of the attacks on Summers’ speech
completely ignored his cautions and assailed his character, accusing him of maleficent
subterranean motives such as a desire to oppress women or discourage them from
entering science (which is the exact opposite of what he said in the speech!). Similar to
Murray, Summers’ reputation was thoroughly besmirched by the nasty attacks he faced,
and he is still haunted by accusations of sexism (See, also, Pinker, 2005, for a good
analysis of this controversy).
3. Nicholas Wade and A Troublesome Inheritance
In 2014, Nicholas Wade, then a respected scientific journalist at the New York Times,
published the book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
(2014a). The book was, with possibly one exception (see Sarich & Miele, 2004 ), the first
of its kind: a mainstream book (published by Penguin) about race differences and their
possible consequences in human societies. In it, Wade argued: (1) that researchers have
shied away from studying racial differences because of moral concerns; (2) that those
moral concerns are legitimate but probably misguided because our society is not
threatened by a rebirth of racist policies; (3) that race is a biologically real and useful
category; (4) that human races are probably different from each other in small, but non-
trivial ways; and (5) that some of these differences may explain variation in the structure
and function of different human civilizations. It is useful to note, before examining the
copious attacks and curses Wade’s book provoked, how forthcoming Wade was about the
speculative nature of his undertaking (because this was a source of many attacks)6:
“The conclusions presented in these chapters fall far short of proof. However
plausible (or otherwise) they may seem, many are speculative. There is nothing
wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear. And
speculation is the customary way to begin the exploration of uncharted territory
because it stimulates a search for the evidence that will support or refute it.” (p.
15)
The response to Wade’s book was swift and almost universally hostile. After a laudatory
review by Charles Murray at the Wall Street Journal, a deluge of antagonistic essays and
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reviews followed, many of them ignoring Wade’s cautions and candor and assailing his
character, insinuating, often not subtly, that he was either a racist or an ignoramus who
would inevitably provide fodder for racists. For example, Eric Michael Johnson, an
evolutionary anthropologist writing at Scientific American, published a review entitled
On the Origin of White Power which included a picture of the Ku Klux Klan. The review
begins, with strong suggestions of irony, “Nicholas Wade is not a racist” (Johnson,
2014). It goes on to associate Nicholas Wade with all kinds of unsavory political
organizations and attitudes, quoting David Duke as saying, “Wade says in this book
many of the things I've been saying for the last 40 years of my life,” which is, of course, a
transparent attempt to smear Wade by association. In between, the review does address
some of the science and raises several useful criticisms of Wade’s narrative; however,
these are almost certainly lost to most readers and what is left is the strong insinuation
that Wade is a racist who is trying to provide “scientific” support for those who share his
white supremacist views.
Many similar reviews were published, and eventually, 139 geneticists and evolutionary
scientists published a somewhat strange open letter in the New York Times that appeared
to denounce A Troublesome Inheritance (Coop, Eisen, Nielsen, Przeworski, &
Rosenberg, 2014). In it, the authors accused Wade of “misappropriating” research from
geneticists to “substantiate” his own “guesswork.” The letter states that “...Wade
juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic
differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences
in I.Q. test results, political institutions, and economic development…” It is not entirely
clear what the authors want to reject about Wade’s book: his presentation of their
research (possibly?), or his hypotheses about race differences around the world (almost
certainly?). Obviously, these researchers are free to write, sign, and publish such a letter,
and to engage Wade in a critical dialogue (which, unfortunately, Wade sometimes
undermined in the weeks ensuing his book’s publication by using ad hominem attacks of
his own, see, for example, Wade, 2014b). However it is not common to write an open
letter repudiating someone’s legitimate hypotheses without forwarding evidence that
those hypotheses are wrong. Many researchers, no doubt, disagree with other researchers
who cite their own work. They do not usually write an open letter disavowing those other
researchers’ hypotheses.
But, of course, those hypotheses are not usually about race differences. What is likely,
then, is that these geneticists were attempting to separate themselves from Wade’s very
public violation of a sacred egalitarian narrative; and, in fact, some quite clearly wanted
to rebut what they considered Wade’s dangerous speculations. Mark Jobling (2014), for
example, asserted that he signed the letter because the book is potentially dangerous and
will possibly provide “succor for racists by using speculation to support the idea that
differences between population groups are in their genes” (Jobling, p. 2). We do not
mean to suggest that the signatories were acting in bad faith; they were probably
confident that Wade’s book really was dangerous and really might provide useful
ammunition for racists. In other words, the book tripped their threat detectors, and they
were strongly motivated to denounce Wade and his speculations.
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As with The Bell Curve and Larry Summers’ speech, Wade’s book did receive some
healthy and deserved criticisms. And science of course thrives on attempting to annihilate
hypotheses, which it can then discard (or retain, if those hypotheses pass many empirical
tests), so Wade’s speculations should be exposed to rigorous criticism. However, many of
the criticisms of Wade’s book were either aimed at its author, accusing him of
propounding pernicious doctrines because of some character defect or another, or
misrepresented his views, reducing his nuanced presentation to simplistic assertions
about racial essences7. As with the two examples above, Wade was made an effigy and
then publicly bludgeoned. It remains to be seen if his reputation will recover.
These three examples appear to illustrate quite well what happens to scholars who violate
sacred egalitarian narratives. First, their works are often mischaracterized in crude ways.
Second, the mischaracterized accounts are savagely attacked. And third, the scholars
themselves are assailed for having hidden malignant motives (for example, sexism or
racism). These three examples also seem to support our contention from section III that
the sacred egalitarian narrative not political party affiliation per se is the major cause of
bias in academia (and in the intelligentsia more broadly). We cannot think of a single
comparable case in which a scholar was viciously smeared and denounced for attacking
components of liberalism not associated with egalitarianism. For just one example, Gary
Kleck, a professor at Florida State University, has published many articles that argue that
many gun-control policies are useless and that the influence of gun ownership on crime
rates is effectively neutral (Kleck & Patterson, 1993; Kleck, 2015). Kleck has certainly
earned the ire of many liberals who vigorously dispute his findings and arguments;
however, he has not been removed from the domain of respectable discourse or forced to
suffer the unremitting assaults that Murray, Summers, Wade, Jensen and others have.
V
A few scholars have started to draw attention to potential biases in social psychology
(and in the social sciences more broadly) (For example, Duarte et al., 2015; Haidt, 2012;
Jussim, 2015; Tetlock, 1994). In this essay, we praised these scholars for focusing
attention on this problem, and we largely agreed with their contention that the
overwhelming proportion of liberals compared to conservatives in the social sciences is
one cause of bias. However, we located a major cause of bias in the social sciences in a
sacred egalitarian meliorist narrative, which is partially independent of a
liberal/conservative divide (although, certainly not entirely).
We argued that many scholars in the social sciences are paranoid egalitarian meliorists
(PEMs). Although paranoid sounds pejorative, we explained that in this context it simply
refers to a fine-tuned sensitivity to threats to egalitarianism. PEMs are people who hold a
sacred egalitarian meliorist narrative and who are very sensitive to perceived challenges
to it. From this perspective, paranoid egalitarian meliorism (PEM) is not necessarily bad;
and, in fact, in some respects, PEM is a positive good. People should be vigilant to
potential threats to vulnerable populations. As the rise of numerous demagogues across
history illustrates, it is troublingly easy to convert social unease into fear and hatred of
marginalized groups. However, in science, PEM can lead to bad outcomes because the
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scientific enterprise requires relative objectivity and freedom to inquire and explore. The
goal of science is the pursuit of truth, and truth often challenges our cherished narratives
about reality (Dreger, 2015). This means that some data, some hypotheses, and some
theories will inevitably impugn someone’s favorite story about human nature. Truth, in
this sense, is almost certainly an equal opportunity offender (Hunt, 1998). Science will
better thrive if these offenses are accepted as unpleasant but necessary steps on the path
toward truth rather than rejected as intolerable affronts to decency.
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End Notes
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1 A scientific article can be responsibly written and also wrong (whether Jensen was wrong is a
complicated debate that we do not need to resolve here). Scientists forward hypotheses, which
they and other scientists then feverishly attempt to refute (or falsify). It is perfectly reasonable to
forward a hypothesis that is later falsified, and it is not evidence of bias or personality flaws to do
so. Jensen was, according to everyone who knew him, singularly without racial bias.
2 Some trades are more acceptable than others. The thought of trading a child’s life for a material
good, say a new Porsche, would disgust all normal humans. However, the thought of trading a
child’s life for the lives of 56 children is different, although certainly disturbing (see Tetlock,
2003).
3 Egalitarian meliorism appears to accept that there are some biological differences among
individuals, but that these differences are relatively unimportant. However, it does not accept that
there are any systematic differences among social classes, sexes, or ethnic groups (Horowitz,
Yaworsky, & Kickham, 2014).
4 Adding more complications to this model, we can imagine 5 types of attitudes toward individual
and group inequalities: (1) such inequalities would have no or few pernicious consequences; (2)
such inequalities would have dire consequences but those are irrelevant; (3) such inequalities
would have dire consequences and are very relevant; (4) such inequalities may or may not have
dire consequences; and (5) such inequalities would be positively good (see table 1). Each of
these attitudes corresponds to a type of detection system. For example, attitude 1 would result in
the creation of a Bayesian system that is designed for optimal accuracy and that therefore makes
an equal number of false alarms and false negatives. It is not designed to systematically err in one
direction or the other. Upon the other hand, attitude 3 would result in the creation of a system that
operates very much like a commercial smoke detector and that therefore makes many more false
alarms than false negatives. Consider the example about men and women in engineering. System
1 would not see research that personality traits caused outcome differences in men and women as
a threat; therefore, system 1 would analyze the data evenhandedly. System 3, on the other hand,
would see the research as a threat to equality and would therefore strive to somehow dismiss the
data.
5 It is almost certain that conservatives and libertarians are less likely to adhere to egalitarian
meliorism than liberals (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009); however, our experience and
observations suggest that many conservatives and libertarians do, in fact, adhere to some form of
egalitarian meliorism, often blaming inequalities in society on failed schools, broken families,
degenerating morals, and welfare dependency rather than (even partially) on biological
differences among individuals or groups.
6 Possibly, this is still a legitimate source of criticism, because Wade does, from time to time,
appear to forget about his cautions (see, Orr, 2014). Nevertheless, one would not guess how
candid Wade was from reading most of the reviews about the book.
7 Wade, for example, was very clear in the book that racial categorization is complicated and that
“because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races--that is the nature of variation
within a species. Nonetheless, useful distinctions can be made” (2014a, p. 92). However, when
many researchers rejected his hypotheses, they accused him of crude Platonism. For example,
Jennifer Raff argued that “If Wade is right and races are distinct biological categories…,” which
is literally the opposite of what Wade argued (Raff, 2014). And Sarah Tishkoff, a signer of the
open letter against A Troublesome Inheritance, noted that “You may see that individuals cluster
by major geographic regions. The problem is, there are no firm boundaries,” (quoted from
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Callaway, 2014) which is exactly what Wade asserted, namely, there are no “distinct races,” so,
of course, there aren’t any “firm boundaries.”
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... For just one example, there are many articles in prestigious journals that suggest that pornography and violent video games are potentially harmful, a line of argument that is appealing to many social conservatives (Bushman & Anderson, 2002;Foubert, Brosi, & Bannon, 2011;Kenrick, Gutierres, & Goldberg, 1989). It seems, instead, that the serious problem in the social sciences is ideologically motivated skepticism against theories and data that challenge a specific suite of (generally liberal) sacred values which we have called equalitarianism (Garret, 1961;Winegard & Winegard, 2015;Winegard et al., 2018). ...
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