Is civil rights morality blinding social scientists?

By Alan Bean

Two articles in recent editions of the New York Times caught my eye.

Although the scientific community is nearly unanimous in backing biological evolution, a new study shows that only 28% of high school biology teachers teach a strong version of evolutionary science, 13% teach straight creationism and the rest are noncommittal. 

The second article highlighted (with apparent approval) University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s belief that his profession is riddled with liberal bias.  While at least 80% of social scientists report being politically liberal, studies show that 40 percent of Americans report being conservative while only 20 percent are liberal.   

Haidt says social psychologists comprise a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” (rooted in the civil rights movement) that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

Maybe so, but if we follow Haidt’s logic, the working scientists who endorse biological evolution are similarly biased because high school teachers more accurately reflect the views of the average American.

I’m sure that social scientists have a liberal bias, just as biologists have an anti-religious bias.   We are a biased species; I’m sure there is some evolutionary explanation.  Nonetheless, when I want an informed opinion on the mating habits of the iguana  I will take the opinion of a trained zoologist over that of your basic high school teacher any day.  And if I want to understand the relationship between poverty and public policy I’ll ask a social scientist (or better, five or six of them).

Mr. Haidt has a problem with the legacy of the civil rights movement.  According to the article (and it’s hard to tell if  journalist John Tierney is paraphrasing Haidt or giving us his own take) “academics can be selective . . . as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.”

It is hardly surprising that Moynihan, or anyone else studying the black family in 1965, would find that folks were hurting.  Jim Crow might have just ended at the voting booth and the drinking fountain, but it was still going strong in the public schools, in the workplace and in the real estate market.  The big question was whether black families were struggling because of poverty, bigotry and gross discrimination or due to “pathologies” created by “black culture”.  Did Moynihan have the slightest idea how hard it can be to keep a marriage together when the unemployed dad has to pretend he wasn’t married so a desperate mother could get a welfare check.  No, he didn’t.  So Daniel Patrick concluded that black families needed to get their act together and white conservatives loved him for it.

Social scientists rejected Moynihan’s thesis, Haidt suggests, because it conflicted with civil rights orthodoxy.  “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” a shared morality that “binds and blinds.”  As a result, it was considered impolitic to blame the victims of racism.

After centuries of oppression, shouldn’t white Americans exercise caution when describing black social issues, especially in 1965?  Of course they should, just as post holocaust Germans should have been inclined to caution when commenting on “the Jewish problem.”

Similarly, Haidt is aghast that anyone would criticize poor Larry Summers (president of Harvard University in 2005)  for opining that women might not have as much aptitude as men in the fields of math and science.  Again, the assumption was that women’s achievement in these fields fell short because they just didn’t have what it takes. 

It should come as no surprise that social scientists are more liberal than the average citizen–they are attuned to the complexity of social relationships and have meticulously documented the harm caused by punitive and ill-advised public policies.  Sure, some of them are arrogant, and professors do treat their conservative with a contempt they don’t deserve.  

But in the end, the hard facts side with the evolutionists over the seven-day-creationists and with the social scientists over the small government conservatives.   Only in politics do we pick the winner by counting the votes.

6 thoughts on “Is civil rights morality blinding social scientists?

  1. I think this is right-on. Yes, social scientists can be arrogant and self-righteous, and they can discriminate against conservatives. All of that is true–I’ve seem ’em do it! But they are also following the hard facts. Conservative policies are a dismal failure. There is no empirical way around it. Stephen Colbert once bemoaned, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” I wouldn’t have biologists teach straight creationism, just because that was the popular view. Likewise, I wouldn’t have social scientists shut up about their findings, just because they are more liberal than the average American. Maybe they hold those positions–in part–because that’s what the evidence supports.

  2. HOW many high school science teachers teach only creationism? Well, it’s surprising to a Canadian where one of our provinces funds a whole separate religious school system (which teaches science, but ‘en francais’), but weren’t a whole lot of “Christian Schools” opened just to keep white kids out of desegregated public schools?
    And interpretation of scripture isn’t done by Gallup poll either, but I would think that those who hold tenaciously and loudly to their literal interpretation are few compared to all the rest of us who take the Bible seriously as sacred scripture–they just get more attention.
    One radical change in social science in the late 20th century, was the concept of how the point of view of the “objective scientist” affected the results of the study or experiment. How average the observer is on some political scale does not matter, the observer’s bias, point of view, or motive for doing the study must be taken into account and considered in sociological observation, double-blind medication trials, and even in particle physics, as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle shows.

  3. Sandy, I went to high school in Edmonton, Alberta (Strathcona High). One vestige of the old Social Credit Party was an insert in our biology textbook asserting that biological evolution was simply a theory and that students should consider alternative views. My teacher started class on the first day by saying, “Some of you may have an insert at the back of your textbooks. If you’ve got the insert you can read it if you feel like it; if you don’t, you aren’t missing anything.” That was it. Alberta can be considered the Canadian “South” due to the influence of “Bible Bill” Aberhart and Ernie Manning’s Back to the Bible Hour, the persistence of religious fundamentalism in small towns, and the large number of Texans involved in the oil industry. But even there, creationism wasn’t taken that seriously. I also remember that the University of Alberta chapter of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship brought in a biologist named Duane Gish to debunk evolution. Some of my preacher-in-training buddies were convinced by his presentation but a biologist buddy insisted that the evidence overwhelmingly supported some form of evolutionary process. True, this guy worked with scientists and had been influenced by the scientific community, but he claimed his own research on the reproductive organs of male and female moths had convinced him. Since I was completely ignorant on that subject I was inclined to take his word for it.

  4. Well, I guess if your faith depends on a 24 hour day, 6-day Creation, it would be hard to not at least mention it alongside evolution. Some science teachers, even ones with no ethical or religious views that touch on the subjects they teach, have little to no grounding in the scientific method, how to design an experiment, and so forth. So for a teacher to say, “evolution is just a theory, here’s the other explanation” doesn’t seem unusual. Teaching is a hard job, and a lot more poorly paid in the US than Canada, but even with good compensation you may burn out, and end up teaching from the textbook only, as happy to be there as most of the students.

  5. This piece made me think about this CNN interview of Lander the author of Stuff White People Like. (He specifically means white liberals.)

    CNN: What’s some stuff white people don’t like?
    Lander: Other white people. That’s it. The wrong kind of white people.
    CNN: Who are the wrong kind of white people?
    Lander: Anyone you blame for everything that’s wrong in America are the wrong kind of white people. Not only do they hate them because they create all of these problems, but if those kinds of people start liking anything on this list, they immediately become unacceptable.
    CNN: Stephen Colbert made the list, and he’s renowned for making fun of the right wing. Do you consider yourself a type of Stephen Colbert for the lefties?
    Lander: I don’t know because Stephen Colbert, in his heart of hearts, is a lefty and so am I. I consider myself a self-aware, left-wing person who’s not afraid to recognize the selfishness and contradictions that come on the left. I think a lot of people who are on that side really fail to do that a lot of the time.

    I think the people I write about here are very, very self-righteous and believe that everything they do is right, and they are very resistant to cast a critical eye to themselves. It was really fun for me to write in a cathartic way, sort of like I am attacking my own pretentiousness and my own ridiculousness. It’s just amazing because these people are so self-aware but so unaware at the same time.

    Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently gave this commencement speech. Excerpts:

    There are times when the “call of the tribe” just might be a siren’s call, and when an excessive focus on “identity” just might lead one badly astray.

    Growing into intellectual maturity has been, for me, largely a process of becoming free of the need to have my choices validated by “the brothers.” After many years I have come to understand that until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd, I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or about life – to know my “calling,” to perceive my deepest value commitments and to recognize the goals which I think are most worth striving toward.

    The most important challenges and opportunities which confront us derive not from our cultural or sexual identities, not from our ethnic or racial conditions, but rather from our human condition. The particular features of one’s social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of one’s life. They do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated; it must be a product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of this existence for which no political or ethnic program could ever substitute.

    Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, the socially contingent features of one’s situation – one’s racial heritage, family background, or sexual orientation, for instance – and the prevailing views and attitudes about such identity tropes of other people in society – these things are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which an individual must yet construct the edifice of a life. The authentic expression of a person’s individuality is to be found in the blueprint that he or she employs to guide that project of self-authorship. And, the problem of devising such a plan for one’s life is a universal problem which confronts all people, whatever their race, class, ethnicity, or other identifying category. By facing and solving this problem we grow as human beings, and we give meaning and substance to our lives. In my view, a personal program wholly dependent on the contingency of identity falls tragically short of its potential, because it embraces too parochial a conception of what is possible and of what is desirable.

    This is an especially important consideration for those of us who belong to a historically oppressed and stigmatized group. Ironically, to the extent that we blacks see ourselves primarily through a racial lens, we may end up sacrificing possibilities for the kind of personal development that would ultimately further our collective racial interests. We cannot be truly free men and women while laboring under a definition of self derived from the perceptual view of our oppressor and confined to the contingent facts of our oppression.

    In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce says this about Irish nationalism:

    When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by these nets….Do you know what Ireland is? …Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.

    Wearing one’s racial identity too heavily can work similarly to hold back young souls from flight into the open skies of American society. Of course there is the constraint of racism that also holds us back. But the trick, as Joyce knew, is to turn such “nets” into wings, and thus to fly by them. One cannot do that if one refuses to see that ultimately it is neither external constraint nor external opportunity, but rather an in-dwelling spirit, which renders such flight possible.

    In the speech he tells a personal story where he attends a Black Panther Party rally and his light colored friend tried to interject something and he was immediately demeaned for his efforts. Lourey did not defend his friend fearing that he would also be set upon unfairly. I’ll let you read it for yourself.

  6. “I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all. It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree.”

    The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1791)

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