Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1)

I’ve noticed a connection of attitudes in a certain type of person, but I’m not sure what it means. This post is largely speculation. I have a book by Richard Hofstadter on anti-intellectualism in the US and so I’ll write in more detail about this in the future. For now, I just want to point out some thoughts and observations.

Many have noted for the past half century or so that America has a strain of anti-intellectualism that comes to the forefront every so often. I don’t know if this anti-intellectual attitude always correlates with conservatism, but it has in recent history going back to at least the beginnings of movement conservatism. Of course, movement conservatism laid the groundwork for the religious right to gain political power and obviously the religious right has had issues with science ever since science began. It’s true that many popular conservatives were religiously proud/righteous with an element of folksy anti-intellectualism (George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc), but it goes beyond just religion versus science.

This critical attitude towards science, whether motivated by religious belief or not, expresses a basic sense of distrust about experts who claim to know more than the average person (implying they are somehow more worthy). This is the dreaded intellectual elite and scientists are just one variety. Other varieties of intellectual elitists are academics and even politicians. The conservative idealizes the businessman who has knowledge and experience of the real world. The intellectual elite (in academic ivory towers or far away in Washington) are disconnected from the real world and so they aren’t to be trusted. It’s why conservatives claim that government is the problem… not that it ever stops them from trying to elect their own to government or stop them from lobbying politicians.

Beyond this point, it becomes a bit murky. It’s not limited to anti-intellectualism per se. There are even intellectual conservatives that express this attitude of mistrust. For the more intelligent conservative, they’ll express this mistrust epistemologically. They might not entirely dismiss science, but they think scientists overreach. What they do trust is cold hard facts. They even mistrust scientific research. There are various reasons for this which I don’t entirely understand, but one of them is a fear that scientists have agendas (projection?). A person can only mistrust the agendas of scientists if they mistrust the scientific process which is designed to filter out personal agendas (and other subjective biases) over time. This would seem to based on a fear that the entire scientific paradigm is an agenda not to be trusted or to be trusted with great wariness. Maybe science has a role, but it shouldn’t be as primary as we make it. Maybe it’s a belief that scientists should focus on more practical matters like doing research that can lead to technology rather than studying social issues or measuring atmospheric pollution. There might even be a religious element (or a religious holdover for non-religious conservatives) in that scientists are treading on the divine when they investigate beyond mundane subjects.

This mistrust extends also to economics which is something I just realized today. I watched some videos and was involved with some discussions where this mistrust of science was put into the context of politics and economics. The issue with science was connected to economics by way of mathematics. It seems to be a mistrust about how (or if) mathematical models correlate to the sensate world. Even if there is scientific research that corroborates a correlation, doubt remains in terms of causation and explanation. A mathematical model remains an abstract theory and there potentially could be many abstract theories that correlate to the same real world phenomena. This same argument was being used against Keynesian economics because Keynesian theorists like to use mathematical models and to make predictions based on those models.

Even though different reasons are given, I sense that all these varieties of mistrust originate from the same general attitude of mistrust. I’d assume that it relates to the fear traditioal conservatives have about radical change. Psychological research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response (for example, toward rotten fruit)… not that many conservatives would trust this particular psychological research. I’ve noted that conservatives tend not to have as much interest in psychology. Also, surveys have shown that most scientists self-identify as liberal. Is there something inherently “liberal” about science? Or is there something about a scientific education that encourages a liberal mindset? Furthermore, why do liberals seem more trusting of the governmnet, science, and of radical change? Does it come down to the simple fact that research has shown liberalism to correlate to the psychological trait “openness to experience”?

Since research shows liberals are more open to experience, then what do conservatives mean by having more trust in the “real world”? It seems that conservatives define reality as being logical in that any fundamental truth should stand on it’s own. Any real truth would be obviously true.

Many who make these arguments are minarchists or anarcho-capitalists, objectivists or libertarians… or something else along these lines (even mainstream Republicans will at times make these arguments). Two of the major influences for many of these people (either directly or indirectly) are Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. A popular website is the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The following is a section from an article on that website which demonstrates the style of argument:

Psychology versus Praxeology
By Robert P. Murphy

Of course, even this experimental confirmation does not prove the universal truth of the bystander effect.  It could be that, despite their best efforts, the psychologists did not really pick a representative sample of test subjects.  Moreover, even if the bystander effect is indeed a fact for the current population of humans, there is nothing to prevent the emergence in one hundred years of a new breed of humans who, whether through culture or genetics, do not obey the bystander effect.  Just like any “law” from the natural sciences, the “laws” of psychology (insofar as they are validated by the experimental method) are only tentative.

In contrast, let us analyze a typical economic law:  If the government runs a deficit, then interest rates will be higher than they otherwise would have been.  Now this law too seems commonsensical (just as the bystander effect), but it is more than that:  Once the economist takes care to precisely specify the definitions of the terms, he or she can actually prove the proposition as an exercise in pure logic.  There is no reason to go out and “test” whether it is true, because this would miss the point.  It would be as nonsensical as “testing” whether the interior angles of a triangle (in Euclidean geometry) add up to 180 degrees.

From this perspective, science can only at best deal with relative truths. Logic, however, deals with absolute truths (i.e., axioms):

Statistics, he pointed out, cannot trump logic.


Contrary to the mainstream positivist position, in which all economic theories must lead to falsifiable predictions that can be tested, Ludwig von Mises believed that valid economic theorems must be deducible from the axiom, “Humans act.”

Mathematical data and the scientific research it’s based upon can only ever at best be of secondary importance. These people demand their worldview be absolutely logically consisten, facts be damned. The problem is that the world is infinitely complex. The human ability to use logic is limited. A theory can be logically consistent and yet still be wrong. Also, this idea of axioms is strange. In what way is “Humans act” an axiom that is beyond questioning. There are tons of assumptions this so-called “axiom” is based upon.

This way of argument reminds me of Christian apologists who sometimes are very intelligent and knowledgeable within their narrow frame of interest. Christian apologists often are great debaters and are capable of twisting around words. Their thinking is usually circular and self-contained… meaning it’s logically self-consistent. However, an apologist isn’t interested in new data. The apologists already knows everything that matters. The apologists “axioms” came from God himself.

The axiom in both cases is seen as being unquestionable, a tenet of faith.

I still feel confused about all of this. I don’t understand what motivates it. It’s an attitude about the world and not a specific worldview. People with the same attitude might entirely disagree about the worldview and yet still use the same style of argument to defend their own worldview. It’s very strange. Personally, I find it frustrating. No matter what data I bring up (about poverty or global warming or whatever) will usually be dismissed out of hand or else turned into a philosophical debate about postmodern epistemology. It’s like these people want to avoid the fundamental issues themselves. They feel safest within their system of thought and do everything to defend their system of thought from all that is external to it.

The worst of these people are intellectually dishonest. They use logic as rhetoric, as apologetics, as sophistry. Some of them are quite clever at this game. However, not all of them seem intellectually dishonest. Some will accept scientific research when it accords with their own worldview. For example, Stefan Molyneux uses the psychological research on trauma and I agree with his understanding of this issue, but he uses it to defend a particular ideology which isn’t based on any real world examples.

This attitude of mistrust towards institutions beyond the individual is coupled with a self-certainty held within the individual or within the group that the individual belongs to.

The liberal attitude is different, but I’m not sure how to pinpoint this difference. Liberals can be extremely questioning of the same things conservatives question. So, why does liberal questioning begin and end in a sense of openness? Most liberal who are scientists or interested in science would openly state that science is imperfect. Still, there is a basic trust in the scientific process like there is a basic trust in the political process. I’ve pointed out in another blog how this plays out on the political level (the beginning of the blog post is posted below):

Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust

The other day, I came across data that showed a difference between Republicans and Democrats (Republicans Support Big Government… just as long as Republicans are in power). Republicans support big government when there is a Republican president, but they fight, fear-monger, criticize and obstruct what they label as big government when a Democrat is president. Democrats, however, show more even support for big government no matter which party is in power. For example, almost the same number of Democrats support Obama as supported Reagan. This explains the point (which I think Cenk Uygur made) that bipartisanship is usually Democrats agreeing with Republicans but rarely the other way around.

There is a fundamental difference in worldview. This probably relates as well to my argument that liberals are less dogmatic in their ideology (Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism). Conservatives seem more likely to see themselves as principled and so more willing to stand by their principles no matter what. It’s not that liberals aren’t principled, but a major liberal value is trying to understand the views of others and working towards a middle ground of agreement or at least acceptance. Liberals aren’t against big business in the same way or to the same degree as conservatives are against big government. Instead, liberals think capitalism and democracy need to work together without either being subsumed to the other.

Obviously, there is a very fundamental difference in the conservative and liberal worldviews. Anarcho-capitalists, objectivists & (righwing) libertarians often criticize Republicans and mainstream conservatives, but nonetheless they are clearly conservatives themselves… even if they don’t like to label themselves as conservatives. Ignoring all the differences of ideology, what specifically makes a conservative a conservative and a liberal a liberal? Is it just a difference of psychological traits?

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Continued in part 2:


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6 thoughts on “Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1)

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