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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jonathan Haidt Declares Liberals Are As Anti-Science As Austerian Creationist Climate-Change Denialist Reactionaries... Because Liberals Aren't Racist Enough

Upgraded and adapted from an exchange in the Moot to the post Scientific Authority in Democratic Societies Must Be Democratically Politicized Science, my friend JimF directed my attention to this little number on YouTube:
Who is More Phobic About Science--Conservatives or Liberals? David Sloan Wilson poses this question to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Jonathan's answer might surprise you.
Haidt proposes here that the American left denies evolution as much as the right because on the left we are not racist enough?

In making this case, he pretends the category of "race" is exhaustively characterized in evolutionary terms, even though racial categories are social and cultural in ways that have richly documented historical vicissitudes and diverse forms and effects. While racist behaviors are clearly compatible with evolutionary forces they are also radically underdetermined by evolutionary forces.

Haidt's vaunted evopsycho douchebaggery is actually profoundly pseudo-scientific and yet he declares the exposure of the historical complexities of race-thinking by social scientists and historians of the left as a form of crazyness comparable to young earth biological, geological, cosmological christianist denialisms. How does he account for the repeated and amplifying insistence by political scientists and sociologists working on race that racism is a structural phenomenon not reducible merely to animus, or for the increasing reliance on results in cognitive science (studies revealing that people "remember" people of color as lighter-skinned the more they are associated with elite professions?) and scrupulous statistical analysis (regional investigation of denials of home loans or job applications in ways that reflect visually or acoustically articulated perceptions of race?) in so much recent work on the subject? Does this sound like anti-scientificity to anybody but Haidt?

In his effort to produce his own BS "both sides do it" narrative he proposes (a typical right-wing chestnut, whatever Haidt's avowed politics may be) that the democratic value of equality is a straightforward commitment to homogeneity rather than to equity (equal recourse to law, equal opportunity, active address of abiding inequities) and proceeds as if liberals are hostile to diversity when nothing could be clearer than that, once again, it is members of the reactionary right who exhibit fearful hostility and intolerance of diverse lifeways time and time again. The comments section for that video stinks like a slaughterhouse with racist comments and palpable ignorance, precisely as you would expect, for example.

Haidt's larger point that moral beliefs operate differently than scientific beliefs is one with which I agree as a pluralist, but part of the problem is that the different forms of reasonable belief are far more various than the blunt instrument of fact/value or is/ought: There are scientific facts but also legal facts and the criteria for warranted belief in and application of their facticities differ; so too I have argued at length that moral, aesthetic, ethical, cultural, political normativities have different warrants and satisfy different needs as well. And these examples only multiply the closer you look into the question of reasonableness, both existentially (the Arendtian labor, work, action, narrative, thought, reckoning, judgment typologies provide an inkling of what I mean by that) and disciplinarily (sociology, macroeconomics, literary criticism, molecular biology, aeronautical engineering, and so on).

Reasonableness of belief is both a matter of satisfying the criteria of warrantability associated with the kind of belief on offer, but also identifying which mode of belief is relevant to the situation of belief at hand. Haidt seems to me to be misidentifying the discipline most relevant to the phenomena he uses in his race example to peddle his false equivalency narrative (a cheap way for third rate intellectuals, journalistic or academic, to appear "neutral" and hence "objective" and hence "scientific" and hence "serious" in a train of facile idiocies for the rubes), and it is unsurprising that the usual mischief ensues.

As I have said many times, the decline of respect for science across the Republican right (which is a selective thing, after all, since few who deny, or who cynically pretend to deny for the sake of parochial profit-taking, the consensus of relevant climate scientists on the question of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and resource descent also deny the consensus of relevant medical experts when the time comes for open heart surgery) derives in my view from the increasing need of Republicans for deception more generally in order to keep a voting coalition together that gets majorities to vote against their best interests in service to the greed and authority of elite-incumbent minorities when the demographic diversification and secularization of America undermines the national viability of the usual racist and (hetero)sexist appeals to incumbent fears and resentments of abject, threatening "others." The normalization of deceptions (in the broader context still of a public culture utterly suffused with marketing and promotional norms and forms of deception, distraction, division, hyperbole, and fraud) and the irrational clinging to prejudices that fly in the face of abundant evidence is not exactly an environment conducive to a critical, let alone scientific, temper.


jimf said...

It is true, and it did cross my mind even before your response
to the Haidt video, that one doesn't have to go back very far
in the history of science to find pronouncements by respected
scientific authorities that are pretty outrageous by modern standards.

There's a collection of such things at:


- 1801 Julien-Joseph Virey , a medical doctor,

"All the ugly peoples are more or less barbarians,
beauty is the inseparable companion of the most
civilized nations."

In an essay in the Dictionary of Medical Science (1819),
Virey wrote of the black woman developing a
"voluptuousness" and "degree of lascivity" unknown
to whites. In discussing the Hottentot female* he
stressed the consonance between  the "hideous form"
of their physiognomy and this sexual lasciviousness.

"Among us [whites] the forehead is pushed forward, the
mouth is pulled back as if we were destined to think
rather than eat;  the Negro has a shortened forehead
and a mouth that is pushed forward as if he were made
to eat instead of to think." 

- 1812 Georges Cuvier:  (1769-1832) the Aristotle of
his age, the founder of geology, paleontology,
and comparative anatomy.  Stated Africans are 

"the most degraded of human races, whose form
approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence
is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular government"

[Cuvier, 1812, p. 105 Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles. Vol. 1]

"The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose,
to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and
which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also
superior to others by its genius, courage and  activity.
(And that there is a) cruel law which seems to have
condemned to an eternal inferiority the races of
depressed and compressed skulls. ...and experience
seems to confirm the theory that there is a relationship
between the perfection of the spirit and the beauty of
the face."

[Tableau élémentaire de l'histoire naturelle des animaux
(Elementary Survey of the Natural History of Animals), 1798]

Haidt glosses over the political left's justified suspicion of
supposedly scientific narratives that reassure incumbent elites
that their power and privilege are part of the natural order.

At the same time, it's certainly true that politically-sensitive
questions -- Are there inherent differences between the sexes,
or between distinguishable popululations of humans? What are
the origins of sexual preference? -- are a minefield for would-be
objective investigators, even if their motives are beyond
reproach (as if that could ever be established beyond doubt).

Maybe that's as it should be; I don't know.

I am not enough of a knee-jerk leftist to assume that arguments
and framings of reality that happen to be congenial to leftists are
ipso facto correct. To that extent, I'm in sympathy with Haidt.
I would be drummed out of any "serious" left-wing organization
as quickly as I'd be drummed out of any "serious" right-wing

Dale Carrico said...

Depending on what you mean by "serious," I've been in loosely default-left academic settings and among activists all my life -- no question viewpoints across the political spectrum provide hooks for intolerant assholes and zealots to hang their hats on -- but the knee-jerk liberal characterization seems to me to largely a matter of folk mythology.

I mean religionists often pretend they are being crucified simply by being confronted by the existence of atheists and agnostists and secularists, however nonjudgmental and cheerful and welcoming the latter are trying to be, you know? So too some cry "political correctness!" and "thought policing" just to discover themselves in setting whose norms are not defined by white middle class heteronormativity or when people different from them report that their prospects are dimmed or even simply that their feelings are hurt when issues are framed from that normative vantage.

Again, there are self-righteous folks and conversation-stoppers to be found in every ideological precinct -- but my experience is that once someone reveals themselves to be open to discussion the progressive polycultural left really tends to give folks the benefit of the doubt and to treat folks as generally open to change of conviction to the better through argument. Such conviviality seems to me an entailment of the left's animating premises, not that this would stop your common or garden variety jerk particularly.

Too many complaints of left humorlessness and intolerance to the contrary seem to me to arise out of the efforts of boors to crash what are in effect private parties among marginal folks looking for safe spaces or among wonks with highly specialized argot not really ready for prime time. Or, again, too often they really do seem to amount to expressions of incumbent outrage at having pet pieties challenged.

The long and the short of it is, I really do think you are little likely to be drummed out of any serious lefty assemblage worthy of the name when someone as prickly as me finds welcome in such places -- and did even back when I was much more of an oaf and ignoramus than I have managed to become later in life.

Dale Carrico said...

As for the specific issues you raise, it seems to me that sexual orientation arises from historically and situationally contingent articulations of material propensities. Some flower seeds germinate different morphologies depending on the altitude at which they are planted. The reason these issues are fraught tend to be the result of moral and political judgments that inevitably freight what are often framed as neutral observations. Even if one makes a defensible case for a more exhaustively genetic account of sexual orientation, it seems to me important to find a way to account for the experience of sexuality as importantly unchosen by straight folks as much as by queer ones, or to account for the extreme variation of sexuality (butch/femme, top/bottom, eroticization of morphological differences and so on) that seem conspicuously underdetermined by genetics and yet quite as foundational in their individuating sexed/gendered force. People who are marginalized in their differences also tend to be more sensitive to the ways in which animus is articulated in what bills itself as objective description -- as when physical differences are described not as differences but as deficiencies, excesses, imbalances, and so on.

As for differences among "the races" or "the sexes" it seems to me that much that gets excoriated as anti-scientific denialism among reactionary douchenozzles claiming to be champions of science is really a highly pro-science insistence on more careful language and specificity of observation. When bigots speak of "race" in the delineation of traits the populations subsumed by the category tend to be different from one another -- observations of susceptibility to certain diseases, observations about drug sentencing, observations about wealth tend to refer to loosely overlapping populations woven together by a conspicuously contingent sociocultural category of race as a space of identification/dis-identification. These things matter, and should matter to folks who claim to respect scientific rigor.

Again, rationales for irrational patriarchal or racist prejudices that peddle themselves as matters of respect for science often indulge in sleights of hand over the domain to which questions are properly put. Even if one were to demonstrate a difference in general IQ differentiating women from men or Pacific Islanders from Subharan African or whatever if one is in charge of a public university or defense attornies one has a commitment to provide equal access to public resources to the served community and equal access before the law whatever the differences among citizens. If Larry Summers decides he has sound evopsycho evidence that women in general are less good at math than men are he cannot justify giving less scholarship money to women on the basis of the belief that such money will be "wasted" since his institution serves the whole community, quite apart from the fact that even if such a generalization were true judgments on its basis would irrationally benefit men of less than the average male math intelligence over women of more than the average math female intelligence even on his own premises, quite apart from the fact that the premises themselves are the most flabbergasting false sexist idiocy imaginable in any case.

And, again, I do not agree that the left is more hesitant to address sensitive questions than the right is -- I think too much of the right just want their insensitivity to be treated as a virtue when it isn't, which is not at all the same thing.