One of the more depressing aspects of the age in which we live is the prostitution of what is called Science for political ends, by people who claim to be scientists. The pursuit of truth is a noble endeavor. At its best that is precisely what Science is. Too often currently what is called Science is politicized junk with a clear agenda at its core. Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard examines this phenomenon in regard to the attempt by liberal academics to claim that those holding conservative political views are irrational, selfish or just plain stupid.
Earlier generations of leftists knew the power of Science to discredit their political opponents. Most famously, in the years following World War II, Theodor Adorno and his fellow sociologists developed the F scale—“F” for fascism—to identify the “authoritarian personality” that so often gave rise to political and cultural conservatism. They discovered that conservatives suffered (unconsciously!) from “prefascist tendencies” like “intolerance of ambiguity” and “moral rigidity.” They acquired this scientific knowledge by reading questionnaires filled out by 180 respondents during the last year of World War II. Among the respondents were Rotarians, patients at mental hospitals, San Quentin inmates, students at the University of California, and members of the Lion’s Club.
You don’t hear much about Adorno anymore. As a political figure he was too extreme, and as a social scientist he was too transparently political, to remain in good repute with scientists who have persuaded themselves that they have no ideology. In time it became clear that in pretending to plumb the authoritarian personality, Adorno and his “investigators had arrived at their conclusions in advance” through a “set of self-validating procedures,” as the great sociologist Christopher Lasch put it.
Our generation of Democrats, in and out of the press, have now rediscovered Adorno’s methods, and put them to the same purpose. Edsall himself has become a booster of a series of “studies” that together form, in his words, “an extensive academic critique of the right.” The studies are boring, which is why the few people who bother to look them up rarely get beyond the one-paragraph summary. But they’re worth studying for an insight into the way Adorno’s heirs, our own psychopundits, continue his work.
The studies rely on the principle that has informed the social sciences for more than a generation: If a researcher with a Ph.D. can corral enough undergraduates into a campus classroom and, by giving them a little bit of money or a class credit, get them to do something—fill out a questionnaire, let’s say, or pretend they’re in a specific real-world situation that the researcher has thought up—the young scholars will (unconsciously!) yield general truths about the human animal; scientific truths. The scientific truths revealed in Edsall’s “academic critique of the right” demonstrate that “the rich and powerful” lack compassion, underestimate the suffering of others, have little sympathy for the disadvantaged, and are far more willing to act unethically than the less rich and not so powerful.
How do we know this? A paper called “Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others” describes a study put together by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, a few years ago. Graduate assistants managed to collect 118 undergraduates, most of them under the age of 21. The kids agreed to participate in the experiment because they were given $15 or class credit for a psychology requirement. A skeptic might point out that the sample of participants was thus skewed from the start, unnaturally weighted toward either kids who badly need $15 or psych majors. And all of them, by definition, were the kinds of kids who want to go to college at Berkeley. Almost half of the participants were Asian American; only 3.5 percent were African American. Caucasians made up less than 30 percent.
Go here to read the brilliant rest. In the old Soviet Union, dissidents were often confined in mental hospitals, since obviously someone had to be crazy to oppose the glorious Worker’s Paradise. Liberals in this country lack that type of power, but it should give us all an uneasy feeling to realize that there are more than a few people on the port side of the politics in this nation who think that those opposing them politically may have, by definition, a few screws loose. This review of the unintentionally hilarious book The Republican Brain is instructive on that score:
I am a scientist who works in evolutionary biology as well as paleoclimatology. I am also a university faculty member who takes time to speak to high school students in the International Baccalaureate program locally. Mooney’s book captures (one) of the most remarkable features of the modern political landscape, the attempt by one of the two classes of ruling elite (here, Democrats) to exploit for political purposes the respect that “science” has among the general public. In doing so, Mooney in this book denies each and every precept of the scientific process that leads to the empowerment that people value from science. This book must be read, but as an example of the distortion of science for the benefit of politics. Science is best defined by Feynman, as a “disbelief in the authority of experts”. It comes further from a recognition that “reality” is very, very difficult to perceive. Finally, as described in “Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method”, science requires a method that “forces the scientist to not always reach the conclusion (s)he set out to reach. Mooney will have none of this. His goal is unabashedly political (such as his endorsement of President Obama’s re-election on page 170). His arguments on climatology and energy are purely arguments-from-authority. His research is conclusion-driven cherry picking; no chance of his arriving at any conclusion other than the one that sells his books. He picks absurd straw men (“equations to refute Einstein”, see p. 13) to gloss over the complexity of reality, much of which his own chosen political class ignores. And, of course, his theories about the brain are, well, ridiculous psychobabble, equal to those of Scientology or the Moonies (did I write really this)? Again, read this book. But read it as an example of how the political class attempts to expropriate the veneer of science and the respect given scientists for political and financial ends.
Science is Science and Politics is Politics, and attempting to confuse the two makes for bad Science and worse Politics.