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September 09, 2014

Shock: Social Scientists Determine Conservatives Are Stupid

Megan McArdle becomes very annoyed with the social sciences clerisy and their endless experiments in in-group affirmation.

The latest is a "study" proving that conservatives prefer "truthiness" to deep thinking and actual truth.

You always know you're doing good Science when you're getting your hypotheses from a Comedy Central fake news show.

Longtime readers know that I tend to get my back up when I see journalists and academics opining that our national political divide exists because liberalism is smart and conservatism is dumb. Last week, I posted one of those articles to my Facebook page, with a rather biting note that I felt bad about after someone tweeted it at the author. Several people asked me to write up my thoughts at greater length, so here it is, with more elaboration and less sarcasm.

The article in question is by Slate’s Katy Waldman, and most of it isn’t actually about conservatives at all. At the end, however, she slides into a lengthy explanation about how conservative ideas are the product of "low-effort thought." Naturally, that ended up as the subject of the article’s headline and rubric, which is why I clicked on it in the first place, so well played, whoever is in charge of Slate’s click-bait policy.

She offers an interesting counter-interpretation for the study. The study itself claims that people's thoughts get "more conservative" when they're either drunk (seriously, they asked drunks political questions) or distracted (they gave people some distracting cognitive load, like asking them to do a lot of simple arithmetic, then asked political questions, and got "more conservative" answers from people when distracted).

There's a plain, blatantly obviously error in procedure that should have simply caused the drunk study to be dismissed entirely (McArdle notes: You didn't ask these same people the same questions when they were sober -- thus rendering this whole "study" exactly what you sensed it was, worthless).

And as to the others, she posits a counter-interpretation. These are my words, not hers, but the basic explanation is this:

How do you know that the different answers you get from people under a cognitive load aren't giving you different answers because they no longer have the extra time to counterfeit their actual opinions to conform with the obviously socially-favored dominant clerisy-class opinion?

That is to say, even assuming these results are true and sound (which we shouldn't, but we'll get to that later), and that you've shown that people who are distracted by a cognitive load offer more conservative opinions --

Why do you assume that this means that conservative opinions are a sign of lazy, shallow thinking, when another explanation -- that liberal opinions are enforced by a social enforcement mechanisms and people chuck aside their mental double-think on this score when under pressure -- is equally plausible?

Why rush to the interpretation that flatters you and those in your class?

There is no scientific reason to favor one over the other -- only a political, egotistical one.

Apparently these "scientists" don't even consider this, preferring the answer they had in mind from the start: Conservatism is just dumb. Even smart people only agree with conservative ideas when they're feeling intellectually lazy and dumb.

She then notes the complete lack of any acknowledgement of institutional political bias within the social sciences, and therefore the lack of any attempts to restrain this decidedly anti-scientific impulse:

This is particularly vital when you’re dealing with research about conservatives, done by a profession that skews liberal by something like 200 to 1. The unstated assumptions of the group are bound to slip into things such as the questions they ask and how tempted they are to go back and look for a "mistake" when they get an answer suggesting that liberals are close-minded barbarians.

To see what I mean, consider the recent tradition of psychology articles showing that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not. Jeremy Frimer, who runs the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg, realized that who you asked those questions about might matter -- did conservatives defer to the military because they were authoritarians or because the military is considered a “conservative” institution? And, lo and behold, when he asked similar questions about, say, environmentalists, the liberals were the authoritarians.

Even more important than this, however, is the fact that most scientific papers have been found to be incapable of replication and therefore false, as a scientific matter.

I'll direct you to McArdle for that, but it's a very interesting thing. It goes like this: Most published "results" attempting to establish correlation seem to be false positives, simply artifacts of testing. Most tests, if done properly, should show no connection between X and Y, whatever X and Y should be.

However, random chance will occasionally cause a single test to show a minor correlation between X and Y. And of course these are the test results that get published, because human beings unscientifically favor tests that show a correlation over those that don't.*

We shouldn't -- we should be just as interested in a test showing no correlation, no interesting connection at all, between X and Y.

But of course we do favor "hits" over "misses."

Thus, a lot of the shit being muscled out of the ass of the social sciences is Margin of Error nonsense that is non-replicable and scientifically meaningless.

However, when you have a cadre of "scientists" the great majority of whom are intensely interested in what makes conservatives so stupid and crazy, and they keep running the same kind of tests for this proposition (and not a contrary one, like "conservatives aren't dumb" or "liberals are actually the dumb ones), and they don't apply any meta-scientific correctives to their biases, you will keep having Margin of Error nonsense false positives for this, the area of "study" you just can't stop testing, over and over and over again.

It's pretty interesting, actually.

* For example, let's say you want to test the hypothesis that cheese is surrounded by Cheese Boson Field that changes probability curves -- the much-sought "SuperString Cheese" theory of quantum mechanics.

You flip a coin thousands of times -- sometimes holding a slice of cheese in one hand, sometimes not.

Now, 95% of the time you're going to find no difference in the heads-to-tails ratio of the coinflips whether you subject the coin to the hypothetical Cheese Field or not.

However, the laws of probability state that 5% of the time you should get a false positive result suggesting that there is in fact a Cheesy Action at a Distance effect altering the outcome of coinflips.

And that test -- and not the hundreds which showed no signs of a Quantum Cheese Field -- will be the one that gets published and, even more important, seized upon by a scientifically-illiterate cadre of "Science Writers," whose main area of scientific research was graphing plot points in Gilmore Girls episodes.**

There are guaranteed to be some margin of error results -- and if "scientists" continue to ignore this fact, and if they further keep attempting to prove the Grand Unified Cheese Theory, they will keep finding false-positive "hits" and promoting them, while ignoring all the true-negative misses.

Science must take into account experimenter bias, or else it's not science; it's just nonsense involving beakers.

** Oh and let's not forget the Heads We Win Tails You Lose rule of the in-group affirmations which we loosely call "social sciences."

Suppose you run a test to distinguish whether women, or men, are more willing to hire family -- that is, engage in nepotism -- when filling a job.

If it turns out that men are more likely to engage in nepotistic practices, the study will be titled:

Women More Ethical in Business Dealings Than Men

On the other hand, if it turns out that women are more likely to approve of nepotism, whereas men are less likely, the study will have the title:

Women More Caring Towards Family Members; Men Care Only About Filthy Careerism & the Welfare of Total Strangers Who Might Be Rapists

This is why the "scientists" did not consider the possibility that when we are under stress, we default to a more practical set of values more likely to result in success (that is, conservativism).

Whatever the study shows, whether we are more liberal under stress or more conservative, the progressive "scientists" have a way to interpret the results which will flatter the in-group they wish to flatter.



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posted by Ace at 07:20 PM

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