The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘The Believing Brain’

Allegations of Ideological Bias are Anti-Scientific

Posted by John Jost on September 22, 2011

Author’s prologue: In science, it doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or not; whether you are Black or White, a man or a woman; whether you are a religious person or an atheist; whether you are liberal or conservative, a socialist or a libertarian. The scientific community agrees to consider your truth claims on the merits, according to conventional standards of reason and evidence. Scientists do not—or at least they should not—simply engage in reflexive ideological critique. But increasingly, I encounter students and, more disturbingly, professors, journalists and others suspending their critical faculties and doubting or rejecting scientific findings on the basis of something they think they know about the ideological leanings of the researchers (either as individuals or as a community).

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from a book review I wrote for Science magazine (click here to access the review in its entirety). This excerpt specifically addresses Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” from his latest book, The Believing Brain, but I think that it applies much more widely to the rudderless post-postmodern predicament in which we find ourselves. The time has come for advocates of the social and behavioral sciences to stand by their methods and renounce allegations of ideological bias—whether they are sincerely offered or cynically proffered—as anti-scientific.

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Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” opens with an attack on a paper that I co-authored (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), so the author will not be surprised to learn that I found it to be the worst chapter in his book by far. He could have rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the now abundant scientific literature documenting significant differences between adherents of leftist (or liberal) and rightist (or conservative) belief systems in terms of personality and cognitive and motivational styles (e.g., Gerber Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009) as well as neurocognitive and other physiological structures and functions (Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Kanai, Feilden, Firth, & Rees, 2011; Oxley et al., 2008). Instead, he besmirches the entire enterprise of political psychology, perpetuating canards from the right-wing blogosphere and lazy, empirically unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias.” For example, Shermer writes:

Why are people conservative? Why do people vote Republican? The questions are typically posed without even a whiff of awareness of the inherent bias in asking it in this manner—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Much as medical scientists study cancer in order to cure the disease, liberal political scientists study political attitudes and voting behavior in order to cure people of the cancer of conservatism.

In passages such as this, Shermer is not merely hyperbolic, inflammatory, and wrong about the specifics of the scientific articles he purports to critique. (Given the above characterization, one doubts he even read them.) By resorting to ideological deconstruction and essentially ad hominem forms of attack, Shermer violates his own intellectual standards—succumbing to the tendency, which he scorns in others, to reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.

Shermer ought to know better, but he is enabled (and led considerably astray) by Jonathan Haidt, whose non-peer-reviewed internet provocation entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” provides the only data Shermer considers and, at the same time, a title to which he can object. What happened to the relentless thirst for empirical evidence and the evaluation of such evidence according to rigorous, established scientific criteria? When push comes to shove—as it often does with politics—Shermer sets the evidence aside and trades in stereotypical assumptions about the ideologies and personal backgrounds of the investigators. Consequently, the origins and dynamics of political beliefs will forever remain an unsolved mystery to readers of The Believing Brain.

The broader point, which I think is crucial to the future success of the social and behavioral sciences, is not that scientists themselves are somehow immune to cognitive or other sources of bias. It is that the scientific community is and should be ruthlessly committed to evaluating claims and settling disputes through the inspection and analysis of empirical data and through meaningful discussion and debate about how to properly interpret those data, using agreed upon methodological standards—and not through ideological deconstruction or all too convenient allegations  of bias. Resorting to such means is not only unscientific; it is profoundly anti-scientific.

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Read full review here.

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