Thursday, February 10, 2011

Haidt unsurprisingly off base on academic discrimination

Krugman points out this piece about a speech given by psychologist Jonathan Haidt complaining about the lack of ideological diversity in academia.  Krugman makes some obvious (but good) points in rebuttal, noting that ideology is understood to be a conscious choice of beliefs, not some unchangable circumstance of birth like gender, race or sexual orientation.  I'm told by people I like to read that McMegan has some predictably dumb things to say about the subject, going as far as to call for affirmative action for conservative academics. Hypocrisy for me and not for thee.

My thoughts go to two places:

1)  Conservatives believe in a lot of wrong stuff.  Things either empirically disproven or logically faulty to begin with.  Creationism is the most obvious example, and we can add in climate denial for good measure.  These aren't fringe beliefs for the right, most US conservatives are creationists and/or climate deniers.   Academia is about the pursuit of knowledge and truth and you can't expect to progress there by disavowing these.  Being wrong about germane stuff is legitimate grounds for employment discrimination.  There are a couple successful biologists who don't believe in evolution and while that proves it is occasionally possible to be a competent while rejecting a major portion of a field, such people cannot but be hampered by the baggage of these beliefs.  That's what cognitive dissonance does.  Scientists who reject very well established theories in their fields should have the onus on them to justify that and not be catered to any more than medicine should seek out Stork-theory-of-reproduction proponents.

I know there is a risk of group-think and I am not arguing for any special exclusion of conservatives, only that I see no reason to privilege the nonsense they insist on believing in over any other unorthodox theories that anyone might have.  Academia should value diversity in thinking but seeing as how they are a group of psychologists perhaps they have other ways to ensure diverse thinking that don't involve purposely hiring lots of people known to hold bad ideas as some kind of foil.   Don't they have other metrics of thinking styles or personal background that would avoid uniformity of biases?

2) I think Haidt's thinking on this is informed by the artificial moral equality he has assumed between liberal and conservative belief systems.  He starts from the premise that they are equally valid viewpoints and if that were true, it would make sense for academia to include both in good numbers.  I wrote about this awhile back, when I encountered Haidt's ideas around the differing sources of morality for liberals and conservatives:
[...] Having additional priorities to your moral calculus doesn't preclude your decisions from actually being immoral.  Just because it made moral sense to your value system doesn't mean we should all just agree to disagree.  Conservatives, according to Haidt's test results place a higher value on authority than fairness or avoiding harm.  So they'd rather not weaken a strong President who engages in torture.  Perhaps that result is internally consistent with their values, but it is still immoral, if the word is to have any meaning at all. 
(Quick primer:  Haidt's basic idea is to define five basic values: harm reduction, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.  His empirical research shows that conservatives and liberals value these five at different levels, with liberals giving more weight to harm reduction and fairness, while conservatives tend to value all five nearly equally).

Consider what is happening when you attribute moral value to loyalty, by which Haidt mostly means loyalty to your in-group (however defined).  That is inherently an exercise in contracting the circle of compassion and leaving some group outside it in order to favour others within.  It is the thinking that allows for bigotry, racism, slavery, misogyny and oppression.  If it is moral to harm person X because of fairness or harm reduction then it doesn't matter if group loyalty also supports harming X.  If neither of these are true, then you must being doing something unfair, that does not reduce harm in order to support group loyalty by harming person X.

Consider two people in a position to disarm a shooter spraying a crowd of innocent people.  Person 1 decides to do so because the shooter is killing many people and stopping that is moral.  Person 2 decides that the shooter is "like him" in some sense, sharing some type of identity and decides not to disarm the shooter, because that would lead to one of that person's group being killed or put in jail.

Is Haidt really claiming these two value systems are morally equal? This example is admittedly extreme and I am not claiming most conservatives would decline to disarm a mass shooter if they thought the shooter was also a conservative, just that if your value system valued loyalty to the group that much, it can easily lead to absurd results.  Conservatives do routinely find that actions are moral when America does them (say, waterboarding) which are not moral when others use them (say, Japan).

It rather appears that loyalty, while a common human attribute and something we value when shown towards us, is not really inherently moral at all.  Actions are either moral or not regardless of whether one demonstrates loyalty in doing them. What is a "whistleblower" but a person performing moral yet disloyal acts?  What is a "cover up" but group loyalty protecting immoral actors from reprisal?

I might be beating this point to death but this is what happens when you ignore the sources of liberal and conservative morality.  Liberal morality preferencing harm reduction and fairness is not some accident, it is the consequence of hundreds of years of philisophical thought and development.  It's not that we don't feel any affinity towards the in-group, have any instincts toward purity and authority, but that we consciously try and override such things.  A quick trip to the latest Obama picture worship diary on the Daily Kos rec list tells you we don't succeed 100% of the time at this, but at least we try to battle the demons of our worst behaviour.

Ironically, Haidt's implied view that liberal and conservative value systems are equal is itself part of the dogma of entirely subjective morality (Sam Harris has recently taken up against this to much controversy).  I hope conservative psychologists enjoy having a moral relativist argue on their behalf.  I am a little proud as a liberal of the reaction of the field to Haidt's speech (read the NY Times piece to the end to learn how they have already begun to heed his call trying to positively support conservative psychologists) even though I think it a poor idea, I do wonder how that same call would go over at a gathering of any right wing leaning profession.


  1. It may well be that Haidt is honest, but the most of the currently fashionable attacks on academic bias are not. They're simply part of our infamous Kulturkampf.

    The mouthpieces of the right attack anything perceived to be a center of opposition to conservative cultural and political hegemony. They have no interest whatever in the truth.

    They should be dealt with accordingly.

  2. If you read the NY Times piece, it says that Haidt now self describes as a centrist, so I would remote diagnose him as a victim of the hegemony but now also a perpetrator of it.

    Like any good pyramid scheme, victims double as victimizers without ever realizing it.

  3. Like any good pyramid scheme, victims double as victimizers without ever realizing it.

    That's the beauty part, as Gramsci used to say. I prefer Wim Wenders' take in Kings of the Road. One of his characters, looking at the GI graffiti on the walls of an old Nazi bunker -- Kilroy was here, etc. -- says: The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.

    I know just how he felt.

  4. 1) The quote about the pyramid schemes is a great one - it deserves a post of its own to be fleshed out.

    2) Krugman makes the conventional point that the line between permissible discrimination and impermissible is the line between what is inherent and unchanging and what is not. I have always found that odd - e.g. arguments over whether sexual orientation generally frame the question in an overly simplistic way, and it is not clear why this should mater. We allow discrimination based on youth, and not on religion. Better, it seems to me, to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, and to be on the lookout for efforts to enforce second hand personhood in the guise of something else.

    3) This sort of nonsense works because too few on the left have confidence in their own views. These claims exploit liberal unease around affirmative action. We spend a lot of time thinking about what will be convincing to the unaffiliated, we need to spend a lot more on what will unite us and lead us to confidently express our values - which is of central importance to stand one's ground and garner additional support.

  5. 2) is a brilliant insight. It's not about who can help it and who can't, it's about whether or not we'll respect the choices of others. The impulse to control is hard-wired into us -- the organization of tribal culture for survival seems to have required it -- but we no longer need to control the impulses or identities of others which at worst broaden the culture, and otherwise are no threat to us. (When I see undocumented immigrants treated worse than domestic animals, and gay people insulted or beaten, I come as close to rage as a person my age ever does.)

    3) may be true for the left broadly defined, but it's never been true for me, or for anyone I know. I spent most of my life figuring out what I think and why I think it, and I'm comfortable with the results. I've also had to live in the world, and to give as well as take, even in adverse social circumstances. As individuals we can't do much to change things, but our combined influence will have its impact. We must be stubborn, at least about the things that matter.

  6. 3) There are many of people who this is not true for (just not enough). I suspect that people who are in the minority in their views (either because of where they reside of because their views are not conventional) are less likely to be that way.

    But on average, I think it holds, and helps explain how conservatives rose from the ashes to their present position of power. The idea that "we have to convince independents" and "we are a center right country" makes that all the more difficult.