Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science Denial on Left AND Right!

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind ("Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion"), was on the Leonard Lopate show today.

I didn't find myself agreeing with Haidt on everything, and his style is a bit Ned Flanders-ish, but I admire anyone suggesting a calm, conciliatory, even-handed view of our current hot divides. And one point was particularly interesting and insightful:
"Everybody questions science. Everybody denies science when it is inconvenient.

On the left everyone is so comfortable talking about the science denyers, about global warming and about evolution. But in my field of psychology, we deny science when it's uncomfortable on matters of race and gender."

You can't talk about racial or gender differences. Can't touch it. There is a taboo of scientific research on the matter, or of any discussion of the topic. A moral tripwire precedes any/all research; no matter how careful and neutral your work, you are a racist asshole for even going there. For other people, the moral tripwire is evolution. Again, values come first. Don't go there!

Should touchy moral preferences impact how science is done and taught? I don't think so. But before you answer, consider how you'd feel if your children were taught that a particular gender or minority was proven, on average, to be, for example, less intelligent.

My feeling? Who cares! Averages don't apply to individual cases, and that's what counts. I know lots of brilliant people - way smarter than me - of every race, size, and shape. A mean is not a cap, and it certainly doesn't justify preloaded expectations (people who preload their expectations will do so regardless).

As I've previously written:
As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?

Update: it's worth acknowledging that denying fundamental science (e.g. evolution) or direly urgent science (e.g. climate change) does much greater harm than denying comparative nitpicks re: gender and racial differences. But the greater point stands: everyone discards science when it impinges on moral precepts.


Ninnevah Ninnie said...

Whoa.. I was wondering if anyone else heard that line or was it just me.. but although you seem to take the most benign meaning from it.. I instantly knew that there was something MORE wrong with the aptly named Haidt's thesis than Ned Flanderish pedantry. It took just a few clicks to find the guy waxing in the same vein as the recently canned National Review contributor John Derbyshire. Like a sinister game of six degrees of separation.. the gentle wonkish urgings of commentators like this steers the sails into the winds of William Shockley, Charles Murray, and Richard Herrnstein and before you know it.. the end of civilization is at hand.

It's indeed true that we can observe people much smarter than us and more athletically gifted. The problem is that THESE guys are arguing that broad swaths of blacks exist at a minimal level of intelligence while the broad swath of whites are above average(and of course Asians aren't REALLY that smart they just work really hard)... in short.. like the hammer whose solution to every problem looks like a nail.. the academic racist sees every future society as preserving the sweet old hierarchy of today. Whites owning and employing.. asians designing and number crunching.. and everyone darker than a cardboard box sweeping and digging. Murray went so far in his last book to propose that we get rid of four year colleges because they're no longer a good idea!

Trust me... in this hierarchy.. you won't be able to coast along happily saying.. "hey.. those white people sure don't rape that often.. wonder how they don't do it!" in post Patriot Act America.. egalitarianism isn't just a river in Antartica!

Jim Leff said...

But regardless of who this dude is, who he associates with, and whatever weird ideas he espouses, his observation is salient: the left takes moral stands to squelch scientific issues, as well. It's really quite undeniable (you haven't tried to argue against it straight on....though I thank you for posting, anyway!).

In fact, there are realms where they don't just pre-condemn scientific conclusions (right wing analogy: evolution), but apply lots of pressure to prevent scientific research at ALL (right wing analogy: stem cells). Which is cool. But then don't call your opponents "anti-science" when they do the exact same thing.

Now, understand: I'm not crazy about research into this stuff, I'm not crazy about the people who've done it in the past, I suspect their motives, and I'm not crazy about what such data is used to justify. But that's how the right feels on their issues. The question is: does science come first? If so, that's a lot like free speech, in that if your'e truly for it you're forced to reconcile yourself to lots of crap that will make you incredibly uncomfortable (Nazi marches in Skokie, anyone?).

But - again, just as with free speech - you can't deny the other side its moral intrusions while intruding with morals of your own, even if you're very very convinced (as of course everyone is) that your particular morals are inherently righter and better.

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