On "Default Ideologies"

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

By coincidence, I encountered what may well herald a parade of puff-pieces about a scientific result "proving" yet again that leftists are "smarter" than everyone else -- and a blog postings that would apply to any such attempt. Although the following quote from Ben Goldacre of Bad Science is from a recommendation of his to journalists who attempt to do primary research, it applies equally well to evaluating scientific research as well.

But if they are going to engage in primary research, and make dramatic causal claims -- as they have done in this story -- to the nation, I don't think it's too much to ask that they familiarise themselves with proper work that's already been done, and consider alternative explanations for the numbers they've found.
I haven't the time to consider whether I agree with the results themselves, but several things are worth noting with regard to the slipshod media coverage this article will almost surely get.

First, although the authors cite at least one prominent conservative thinker (Edmund Burke), the fact is that the term "conservatism" is much more broadly used in public discourse, in part because it often refers to a loose coalition between such contradictory ideological types as theocrats and libertarians against the left. On top of that, it often happens in science that a common term takes on a different shade of meaning in the literature. Indeed, the authors give their own definition of the term "conservative", which oddly, to this non-leftist "conservative" includes the contradictory elements of a belief that people have a large degree of responsibility for their lots in life -- and acceptance of the status quo. Anyone who, like myself, opposes the entitlement state would not even be conservative according to this study since our status quo includes a huge entitlement state.

Second, there are several things wrong with taking this study as scientific validation of the notion that conservatives are unthinking dolts (or that their positions are, by further implication, wrong). For one thing, the authors did concede that some conservatives are thoughtful. For another, the idea of a "default ideology" is interesting to me, as it jibes with many things Ayn Rand has said about the influence of philosophy on culture, and about the fact that many people passively accept common philosophical ideas. I, personally, would include the notion that the left-wing position on any given issue is the more thoughtful one as a common default position in certain circles. (Perhaps this explains why people asked to think hard about choosing between two terms pick the more left-wing one than when asked for a knee-jerk response. Also, perhaps the drunkards surveyed, not attentive to the expectations of polite society, gave their actual opinions, while the more sober participants realized their actual answers might appear rude.) On top of all of this, the fact that a position is a default does not necessarily make it wrong, any more than one reached by careful deliberation necessarily makes it correct. While careful thought is always laudable, it doesn't come with guarantees.

Finally, there is the whole issue of whether this paper is correct. Many people assume that just because something occurs in a peer-reviewed journal that it must be correct, but this is far from the case.

Let's hope that a paper that could lead to interesting discussion about the influence of philosophical ideas on culture isn't used, instead, as a way to browbeat others into what its authors called "low-effort thought". We may well need to improve our culture's "default ideology", but we won't do it, constructively, at least, by herding everyone like sheep.

-- CAV


Today:  Edited beginning and end paragraphs. The news story cited isn't really a puff piece.


Mark Lindholm said...

I spent some time trying to figure out the specific questions they asked but was unable to. The methodology they use was created by a man named Eysenck, a behaviorist(!) whos political scale put conservatism just to the left of fascism. And it seems more than likely that like most leftists, his scale is defined by nonessentials, making things like "nativism" a defining characteristic of the right, and minimizing the issue of government control of the economy.

Steve D said...

the fact is that the term "conservatism" is much more broadly used in public discourse,

I wasn't quite certain what you mean here. Do you mean the term conservatism is much more broadly used than liberalism?

Steve D said...

As a biochemist who actually has to do hard research to get published, it always amazes me that people can publish this type of stuff.

Yes, their definition of a conservative contradicts itself; any reviewer worth his salt should have pointed that out.

Please don't waste your time looking hard at the results. There are so many problems upfront that even if their results are 'valid', their conclusions will still be meaningless.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree that the political "ideologies" are defined by nonessentials.


I don't plan to spend much time on this, in part for the above reason.

I had a problem with the definition of conservatism contradicting itself at first, but then realized that many, if not most ideologies do. Regarding the question of whether one adheres to such an ideology, that is immaterial.

Regarding the broadness of the use of conservatism, I meant that people described as such encompass a braoder set of people than the definition given in the paper would.