Guest post by Bo Winegard, doctoral student at Florida State University, and Ben Winegard, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Carroll College.
Jonathan Haidt and others have argued that ideological uniformity has been increasing in social psychology and the social sciences more broadly. According to a recent Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, this ideological uniformity might cause subtle (and not so subtle) biases in the social sciences. We (and Dave Geary) wrote a comment for that article, which we recently expanded into an essay, in which we forwarded a model to help account for bias in the social sciences. In this blog post, we summarize the essay and spell out some consequences. In a second blog post we will explore more consequences of the model and look at historical cases that appear to support it.
Our model uses the concept of meliorism, the belief that human social progress is possible. According to our model, called the Paranoid Egalitarian Meliorist (PEM) model, egalitarian meliorism allows for paranoid egalitarian meliorism, which gives rise to cosmic egalitarianism, which is a major cause of bias in the social sciences.
This sounds a bit abstruse, so let’s start with egalitarian meliorism, which asserts
(1) that all social classes, ethnic groups, and sexes should be allowed equal opportunities and equal treatment under the law; and
(2) that through concerted effort and appropriate social policies, current inequities between classes, groups, and sexes can be ultimately eliminated.
Those who adhere to this and who are very sensitive to potential threats to egalitarianism, we called paranoid egalitarian meliorists (PEMs). Paranoid sounds bad, like something that happens after one has consumed too many drugs, but in our model it refers only to a particular mental bias to detect threats to egalitarian meliorism.
Think of a house alarm. It is designed to commit more false alarms than false negatives because most people don’t want an alarm that remains silent while thieves empty their house of its valuables. It is better, in other words, to have a house alarm that is over-sensitive than under-sensitive. Paranoid egalitarian meliorists are similar to a house alarm. They are “designed” to detect threats to egalitarian meliorism, and they sometimes detect danger where there is none.
This vigilance against threats to egalitarianism leads to cosmic egalitarianism, or the belief (or intuition or vision) that all classes, ethnic groups, and sexes are biologically equal on all socially important traits (see figure 1). Cosmic egalitarianism buffers egalitarianism against potential threats because, according to cosmic egalitarianism, all groups really are equal and any policy that leads to inequalities must be unfair and unjust.
If cosmic egalitarianism is widely believed, people will work to ensure equal outcomes and lack a rationale for discrimination against other groups, classes, or sexes. Note, however, that one can be an egalitarian without being a cosmic egalitarian.
In our essay, we forwarded a two-stage processing model of PEM. The first stage in this model is the detection of a threat (threatening theories and/or data); and the second stage is the intellectual assessment of the theories and/or data. Often, if a theory is detected as a threat, then it will “flip on” a motivated reasoning system that is dedicated to refuting or somehow dismissing it.
Consider the Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence is highly heritable and that some of the well-established White-Black IQ gap is probably caused by genetics. Many scholars saw the book as a threat. Therefore, they immediately began to search for ways to refute it.
They used ad hominem attacks, imputing malevolent motives to Herrnstein and Murray (e.g., “Murray is a racist and misogynist”), thereby poisoning the theory with the posited poisonous beliefs of its authors. And they relied on straw man arguments, asserting that the threatening theory was absolutely preposterous before easily dispensing with it.
Importantly, these tactics are probably not used intentionally; those who are threatened by the theories probably really believe that they are forwarded by ill-intentioned others and are ridiculously thin and easily refuted.
There are many reasons to believe that there are many PEMs in the social sciences and that their numbers have been growing in the past 20-50 years. Because of this, ideological uniformity has increased as many social scientists promote cosmic egalitarianism and rebuke those who dare to challenge its basic proposition that all classes, ethnic groups, and sexes are biologically equal on all desirable traits.
Today, this has become so extreme that some departments openly advertise their quest for cosmic justice, surely deterring many scholars who do not share their social-justice zeal from applying for a job, therefore further increasing ideological uniformity. Consider Kean University’s website advertisement for a degree in sociology and social justice which “prepares students to address inequality based on identity categories such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation and ability [,]” and seeks to inspire a commitment to “firm principles of egalitarianism and equity…”
This ideological uniformity ultimately leads to many of the problems addressed by many scholars in recent years. However, we believe that our theory has a slightly different etiological analysis. Many of these scholars, especially Duarte et al., blamed political uniformity for the rise of ideological uniformity in the social sciences, contending specifically that the social sciences are comprised almost entirely of liberals and therefore exhibit a liberal bias.
Although we believe that this contributes to the uniformity, we are skeptical that cosmic egalitarianism is the unique property of one political party (liberals, in this case). It appears to us that many conservatives adhere to cosmic egalitarianism. Very, very few articles published on mainstream conservative websites or in conservative journals, for example, posit that there are socially important biological differences between ethnic groups or individuals (they do seem to accept that there are differences between men and women). Rather, most of the articles posit that differences in culture, in education, and in parenting practices explain the achievement gaps between individuals and ethnic groups.
Even more tellingly, many scholars who contradict mainstream liberal beliefs on gun control and fiscal policies are allowed to remain in relatively good standing in the academy, whereas those scholars (even when they are liberal!) who violate the cosmic egalitarian narrative are ceaselessly calumniated and driven from the ranks of the mainstream intelligentsia—Charles Murray, Arthur Jensen, Linda Gottfredson, J. P. Rushton, Nicholas Wade, Richard Lynn.