science commentary

name and address
jan 26, 2012; updated apr 12, 2012

Bad politics makes bad science

A nyone who reads the news must be wondering what's happening in science these days. A good example is an article on Yahoo News that mentions a new study by one Gordon Hodson of a place called Brock University in Canada, which claims that "low-IQ" adults gravitate to socially conservative ideologies that stress hierarchy and resistance to change. According to the author, this means "prejudice." And you know what that means.

We can only hope that the poor overburdened Canadian taxpayers did not pay good money for this study. Like most of these studies, the conclusions seem to be hugely biased in favor of improving the self-esteem of the principal investigator. Based on what's in the Yahoo article, the findings sound like little more than calling their political opponents "poopy-heads." But bashing your political enemies without understanding them is not good politics, and it's definitely not good science.

"Social conservatism," according to the Yahoo article, was assessed by the respondents' answers to questions like "Schools should teach children to obey authority" and "Family life suffers if mum is working full-time." The word "mum" gives away the fact that the actual subjects were in England, not Canada.

The patent silliness of these questions shows why so many of these studies are nothing more than junk science. There are only two ways of determining whether someone has socially conservative views: by asking them directly (in which case they might lie or be mistaken) or by asking them questions based on your a priori assumptions about what socially conservative people think. In which case, since most people who do these studies are flaming liberals, and therefore are strongly biased, they'll almost certainly get it wrong, as this fellow did, in ways that would be highly amusing if they weren't so destructive.

Are British conservatives that much different than American ones? Ideologically and religiously maybe, but culturally I doubt it. (Just as an aside, it seems to me that there's a good case to make that Mum jolly well better get her a$$ back in the kitchen and start cooking some food before Western civilisation goes down the drain and becomes further enmired as a bleedin' third-world sinkhole of poverty, starvation, and disease. Ouch! What did you hit me for?)

If I had to guess (which I do, seeing as how our university library only carries a couple issues of this obscure journal), I'd say the ones who used their little No. 2 pencils to fill in the dots on the IQ test with nice little left-to-right patterns, as some of my less highly motivated friends did back in junior high school, probably did much the same on the author's Social Values test as well.

If the so-called "low-IQ" types are more traditional-oriented, it probably means they're less well educated and therefore less familiar with the anti-family, anti-Western, anti-capitalist and just plain zany ideas that are in vogue these days. They probably also don't know they're supposed to parrot back these ideas when ordered to do so, to avoid being called dirty names by the Self-Styled Guardians of the Official Truth (SSGs). In my book, that is no bad thing.

My gripe with this study has less to do with its conclusion, however, than with the seemingly widespread notion that conservatives "resist change." I am neither a liberal nor a conservative myself—we have evolved far beyond such primitive belief systems on my planet—but in my experience observing you humans for the last 117,400 years is that this is simply not true.

If this psychologist would come and visit our country, he would find that almost no one in our capital, Washington, D.C. (which is crawling with liberals), their political slogans to the contrary notwithstanding, really wants change. All they want is to continue and extend the welfare state, to keep on borrowing and spending, taxing and legislating, regardless of the consequences, until you humans' tax code is so big that it creates a spontaneous black hole (and on my planet, that is considered a big faux pas).

If you want to see change, put a conservative in the White House. You won't know what hit you. If all liberals wanted was change, they'd vote for the most right-wing guy they could find. They'd have change up to their earballs.

They don't want social change either: witness the intemperate outbursts and food fights like this one that erupt whenever someone suggests changing some aspect of our culture, such as changing our abortion laws to make them more humane. Throwing food was understood very well by Sigmund Freud—although in this case we can't rule out the possibility that they might have felt the speaker was looking thin and they were just been trying to feed her.

(Continued at right)

For some odd reason, the ones throwing food and shouting speakers off the stage are never conservatives, but always seem to be SSGs—i.e., liberals. Clearly, Hodson's theory about conservatives being prejudiced and intolerant is not corroborated by the evidence.

The impulse to control every single thing we say and do doesn't come from conservatives either, leastways not the ones we have round here, whose biggest wish is for government to get off their backs. It comes from liberals. Liberals tend to have hundreds of little rules, which they seem to want to impose on everybody else to force everyone into being the same. There's a theory that people who make up rules do so because they have trouble using logic to figure things out from first principles. Rules are a way of avoiding the need to think. They're invented to prevent change by ensuring conformity. Try an experiment: say something to a liberal and to a conservative that they disagree with. The conservative will usually respond with more-or-less reasonable, rational arguments. A liberal will call you names. Which side is doing more thinking here?

For example, when the book The Bell Curve claimed a correlation between IQ and race, liberal nabobs predictably called its author nasty names, and nattered on for months about how IQ tests are "racist" and culturally biased. Now that someone has made the same claim about conservatives, the din of liberals crowing about how this proves liberals are "smarter" is proof, if any were needed, that they never really believed the tests are biased.

I have observed that liberals often judge an idea by how it makes them feel, and whether it impresses their friends and the people they admire. In other words, truth for a liberal is defined by whether it increases his or her social status and self-esteem. Conservatives more often base their actions on basic static principles: sometimes philosophical principles, sometimes religious ones. In other words, liberals are status-oriented and conservatives are belief-oriented.

Put simply, conservatives believe actions are right or wrong, based on a general principle. Liberals, clinging to their Priuses and their copies of Roe v Wade, believe that whether an action is right or wrong depends on the social status or "coolness" of the actor, as well as factors such as the actor's race and gender, and must be decided on the basis of whether it furthers their political goal.

As far as intelligence is concerned, some of the smartest people I know are conservatives. Not just ordinary ones, but extreme curmudgeonly right-wingers. Some of these guys are incredibly courageous. They trust in their own reasoning power and come to whatever conclusions the evidence points them to. Public opinion be damned. They don't accept some belief just because everyone else believes it. Lots of liberals do, because it makes life easier. Liberals are basically little kids: they want to fit in so everyone can get along, sing Kumbaya and have a happy face. Conservatives, as another study found, are more willing to "confront" hard and unpleasant facts. Sort of like what we scientists call "grownups."

We need both types. One to make the mess, and the other to clean it up. You can decide for yourself which is which. But please. It's bad enough for my esteemed colleagues up north to clog up the research literature by using it as a vehicle to throw poo at their political opponents. But if they don't even get their definitions straight, people could be forgiven for thinking they care more about politics than about science.

Papers like this one aren't going to hurt conservatives, unless they get hyperventilated by laughing too hard at the sometimes bizarre misconceptions their friends on the Left have about them. But these kinds of papers can and do harm the credibility of science, and they can do irreparable harm to the science of psychology.

Historians remained silent 30 years ago when political activists infiltrated the universities and began making claims historians knew to be false, such as the claim that blacks built the Great Pyramids and that Columbus committed mass murder. As a result of their inaction, everything a historian says today is assumed to be political, and little of what any historian says is taken seriously. If scientists don't speak out, the same could happen to science. We're starting to see it already.