Is Psychological Research Liberally Biased?

http://www.polipsych.com/2011/02/10/liberal-academics-study-conservative-ideology/

I don’t know if reality has a liberal bias, but I can think of one factor that relates to liberalism and the ability to assess reality. One study I’ve seen showed that liberals were on average less susceptible to confirmation bias than conservatives. Maybe it is unsurprising that conservatives wouldn’t be attracted to a field such as psychological research (or science in general) which seeks to avoid confirmation bias.

This might relate as well to the correlation of liberalism and ‘opennesss to experience’. It is obvious that aspects of ‘openness’ are directly oppositional to confirmation bias. To be low in ‘openness’ would mean to seek out the familiar and known, and as such would lead one to want to confirm what one already knows/assumes. It’s because of ‘openness’ that liberals enjoy discovering something new. A strongly liberal person finds pleasure in this and so discovering something new, even if it disproves former assumptions, is still seen as a good thing from a liberal perspective of ‘openness’. The liberal-minded person will even intentionally seek out the unexpected simply for the excitement of being surprised.

I think there is danger in seeing conservatives and liberals as neutral categories in all ways. For example, research shows conservatives have a better ability at focusing by excluding distractions while liberals are hyper-aware of their environment (and the people around them, i.e., empathetic awareness), and so it would follow that conservatives are going to be overrepresented in fields requiring high degrees of focus (I’m perfectly fine that most surgeons are probably conservatives; heck, give me the most conservative surgeon there is if he’ll save my life with his hyper-focused conservative mindset). Does this mean liberals entirely lack the ability to focus? Of course not. But it would be silly to criticize as anti-liberal fields requiring focus. It’s just a fact that conservatives are better at this just as it’s a fact that liberals are better at ‘openness’.

It’s not that the field of psychology necessarily has an anti-conservative bias, except to the degree that liberal psychologists have biases as individuals. Moreso, I suspect it is simply that the average conservative has an anti-psychology bias. You could possibly attract some conservatives who are moderate in their conservative predisposition, but it’s unlikely that strongly conservative people will ever want to be involved in psychology.

What might be interesting is to consider another aspect. Maybe psychology does have a liberal bias in one sense. Maybe thinking psychologically correlates to thinking liberally, the two either having the same source or simply closely corresponding in style. Maybe teaching conservatives to think psychologically would be equivalent to indoctrinating them into liberal thinking. It’s possible that psychological research couldn’t function (effectively? objectively?) if as a field it became dominated by conservatives. What if psychology itself is inherently anti-conservative?

This is similar to cities having disproportionate number of liberals. What if cities are simply liberally biased by their very structure? Maybe it would be impossible to build a city that wasn’t liberally biased, except in the case of totalitarian oppression that forces anti-liberalism onto a population. Liberals love new experiences and love diversity of culture, the very things that cities embody. What good would it do to try to attract conservatives to cities just to make cities more ideologically balanced? If conservatives choose to move to cities less than liberals, that doesn’t mean that there is any prejudice keeping conservatives from moving to cities. Affirmative action for conservatives probably wouldn’t make cities better places.

Anyway, would it even work? Research shows that children who grow up with cultural diversity tend to become adults who are more socially liberal. You could bring a conservative into a city, but then their kids would just more likely become liberals or at least more liberal than their parents. Similarly, you could force more conservatives into the psychology fields, but this just might change these conservatives toward liberalism. This relates to education overall. What if educating people inevitably makes them more liberal in the way that opening people to diverse cultures tends to do?

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28 thoughts on “Is Psychological Research Liberally Biased?

  1. There is a lot of reification of positions going on here. it is to very definiton of ideology to render natural what is relative to a specific moment and place in time. This is what concerns about the conflation of liberal and conservative as a temperament, which the ideological development of liberalism in history, and the development of conservatism as well. This very language indcates a loading of terms that is definitely a bias.

    • Hello Skepoet!

      I would point out two things in my use of ‘liberal’ here.

      First, the data on psychologists being liberal is entirely self-reported as far as I know. What a particular person labeling themself as liberal means by that label could be vastly different from what you or anyone else might mean by that label. More than anything, such self-reported labels are subjective assessments of how a person perceives themselve in comparison to others in the general public, in comparison to other people they personally know (academics, professionals, neighbors, etc), or in comparison to how ideologies are portrayed in the mainstream media.

      Second, my personal reference point is psychological research itself rather than politics. So, I’m more generally meaning ‘liberal’ in terms of liberal predisposition, i.e., liberal-mindedness. As you know, the correlation between political liberalism and psychological liberalism is far from simple and straightforward. Liberal-minded people can be found upholding many different ideologies.

      The challenge is that there is a strong correlation between self-reported liberalism and actual liberalism and a strong correlation between political liberalism and psychological liberalism. The correlation is very real, but it also isn’t an absolute equivalence and there are many exceptions to the rule. In my post, I’m speaking about averages which apply to the average person. So, everything I state is on average true. The correlations are true in that vast psychological research has confirmed their veracity.

      I realize you don’t like to use ther terms in the way I use them. For you, liberalism means something like a combination of the monocultural statist-idealizing neoconservatism and the monocultural capitalist-idealizing neoliberalism, i.e., the typical position held by politicians who are identified as ‘liberal’ (although it should be pointed out that many politicians who hold this kind of position, such as Obama, don’t self-identify as liberal). You have to understand that many self-labeled liberals and many liberal-minded people attracted to liberalism don’t share your view of liberalism, many of them in fact would deny your perception of liberalism as having anything to do with their perception of liberalism. But I have no interest in arguing about ideological liberalism and its diverse definitions, its complex history.

      I’m more interested in the psychological side of things. I really don’t care about any particular ideology that may be called liberal. That word means so many different things to so many different people. As I see it, self-labels are more about psychology than ideology. Most people know little about politics and the history of political ideas. You’re coming from a perspective of studying political history which, sad as it might seem, probably has little to do with how most people perceive politics especially as it relates to themselves.

      Yeah, these are loaded terms. That is what psychology is about. Psychology seeks to unpack the subjective factors loaded into such labels. You see that as a negative, but I don’t. It’s just about human nature. Not everything in life is about intellectually well-articulated discussion of ideologies. When people label themselves in various ways, of course they are being biased. No one applies a term to themself in an unbiased way. In psychology, there is no way to escape the subjective. The best you can do is speak of correlations and averages, and from that seek meaning.

      It is true that these subjective labels and psychological predispositions are reified. That is what psychology does. Human nature isn’t an objective thing and yet is as real as any objective thing in that it has real results in the real world. We have no choice but to begin from our own human psychology, and based on that manifest our predispositions through our actions and relationships (which does reify labels in our own minds and in the norms of society). We are in a sense trapped in subjectivity, trapped in our minds and perceptions, trapped in collective reality tunnels.

      Ideology is built on the human nature. Human nature isn’t built on ideology. I’m not sure what more you expect. Do you genuinely hope to escape all biases? Why not just accept the biased condition of being human and explore society at that level?

      • That’s a problem with empirical research. What I don’t think this is a systemic bias because psychologists are liberals. I think it reifies a set of categories in a way that is actually fairly convoluted. Common language is convoluted, which is why both sciences and philosophy askew common language.

        • Sure, it is convoluted. All of psychology, all of human nature itself is convoluted. There is no way around that simple fact.

          That is why science, especially psychological research, is so important. Common language is convoluted, but it isn’t as simple as science askewing common language. For example, traits theory arose directly from the studying of words commonly used in language and then deciphering precisely the traits that were being represented in language.

          This is what factor analysis does in psychological research. Scientists can take any word relating to human nature, technical term or common language, and derive the factors that the word includes. Once the factors are known, scientists can look for those factors in human nature (genetics, behavior, etc).

          What is so interesting about traits theory is that it has a long cross-cultural history of research behind it. It’s probably one of the most well researched theories in the social sciences, and a lot of that research has been applied to the social and political spheres.

          I’m not interested arguing about it. If you don’t like this area of the social sciences or don’t trust the social sciences at all, that is fine. I personally find great insight, but I’m not going to force this on anyone. It just seems helpful in my trying to understand why people are the way they are and why they do what they do.

          Well, I’m going for a walk with my mother now. The day is sunny and the outdoors is beckoning me. I’ll comment further later on.

      • Human nature is what exactly? This always seems like an empty signifier? Ideologies emerge for complex reasons, but human nature is what and ideology is what? In fact, the argument implied in that appeal is an is/ought convolution. Nonsense, I didn’t say it was possible to be un-ideological, but you can see through it. See through the way rhetoric in science sneaks in assumptions in a way that makes it hard to talk in a clear way. In other sciences there are checks against this, but in psychology, this is harder to do.

        Education actually does not map to change liberalism that much. Educated conservatives tend to stay fairly conservative;
        It’s certainly true that professors are a liberal lot and that religious skepticism is common in the academy. In a survey of more than 1,400 professors that the sociologist Solon Simmons and I conducted in 2006, covering academics in nearly all fields and in institutions ranging from community colleges to elite universities, we found that about half of the professors identified as liberal, as compared to just one in five Americans over all. In the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents outnumbered Republicans by a wide margin; among social scientists, for example, there were 10 Democrats for every Republican. Though a majority of professors said that they believed in God, 20 percent were atheists or agnostics — compared with just 4 percent in the general population.

        It’s also true that young college graduates are somewhat more likely to identify as liberal and to hold more liberal attitudes on social issues than their non-college-educated peers.

        But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.”

        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/opinion/sunday/college-doesnt-make-you-liberal.html

        • “Human nature is what exactly? This always seems like an empty signifier?”

          No more empty than is the human mind. It isn’t an empty signifier, rather an elusively complex signifier. There are very clear facts we know about human nature, but what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know. Then again, that is true for all science. As for the social sciences, I would point out that they’re becoming less separate from the hard sciences as our knowledge of genetics, biology and neurology increases.

          To say it is an empty signifier is an overstatement or at least an unclear statement. We generally think of signifiers in terms of meaning that they signify, but science isn’t trying to prove meaning. All that science does is show correlations and determine directions of causation. For example, scientists can say a lot about what gravity does and yet can’t say what gravity is. Gravity, in a sense, could be called an empty signifier because the word is a technical abstraction which doesn’t correlate to any concrete thing in reality. Even so, that is far away from saying gravity isn’t real.

          You are a person who is used to discussing such things as politics and religion. Such topics are less objective than the social sciences, but we speak of such things as if they were objectively real. What is considered an empty signifier is largely dependent on subjective opinion.

          For some God is an empty signifier and for others he represents a real experience. For some Marxist class analysis terms are empty signifiers and for others they represent real social conditions. These are things that can’t be proven, except to the degree you make them into social science research (such as showing the brain function of someone having a spiritual experience, thus proving the person at least is speaking truly of having a specific repeatable experience; or such as studying social relationships, thus demonstrating that the Marxist ideology behind the term ‘bourgeois’ correlates to actual patterns in society).

          When I speak of ‘liberal’, I’m referring at least to scientific research. I can back up my claims with peer-reviewed data. When you speak of ‘liberal’, you are speaking merely about ideologies and are on very subjective ground. Your use of ‘liberal’ is just your opinion about what ‘liberal’ means to you. Anyone can take any term and talk about it in a particular way. That is neither right nor wrong. But it is much more challenging and I would add more satisfying to attempt to objectively study such issues. To complain that such attempts are imperfect isn’t a justification for dismissing the actual insights that have so far been gained.

          In my opinion, a single social scientist is worth a thousand theorists (whether of politics, economics, religion or history). Of course, I don’t dismiss those who speculate without using science to back up their claims. The limits of science necessitates that much speculation occurs before scientific research can clarify the issues. I love to speculate, but I will never claim my speculations are equal to those doing scientific research.

          “Ideologies emerge for complex reasons, but human nature is what and ideology is what? In fact, the argument implied in that appeal is an is/ought convolution.”

          Nope, it’s not an is/ought anything. It’s a simple statement of fact. Ideologies are inevitably the results of human nature. Such a statement is simple and straightforward as saying gravity causes things to fall for the very act of falling implies gravity. Ideology in the same way implies psychology. It’s not as if ideologies grow on trees where humans pluck them.

          “Nonsense, I didn’t say it was possible to be un-ideological, but you can see through it.”

          What social science research has shown is how easy it is for people to deceive themselves in thinking they can see through it. The best way to see through it is with social science research.

          “See through the way rhetoric in science sneaks in assumptions in a way that makes it hard to talk in a clear way. In other sciences there are checks against this, but in psychology, this is harder to do.”

          It is harder to do, but to be honest you would have to admit it isn’t impossible and you would have to admit that great progress has been made. It is the social scientists who helped develop the controls in science that have made all research more objective.

          It’s because social scientists are so mired in the subjective that they are in fact more careful about bias than most other types of researchers. It’s the social scientists who do research studying scientists themselves, and so have discovered how easy even the physical sciences can lead to biased research.

          • ” Such topics are less objective than the social sciences”

            Actually, I used the the word in historical sense, not in an empirical sense. This is a conflation. “Human nature” is an argument used by conservatives and liberals when they don’t have an answer: the reason why is that is subjective.

            My objection remains that as you have pointed out in other posts: conservative and liberal positions actually don’t map cross culturally. (You are the won who told me about the fact that authoritarian reactions are found on the left on the post-communists societies.) Politically conservative and liberal then are more relative in their use then the historical relationship these words have.

            Social Science’s objectivity, honestly, is weak particularly on these self-described studies. These studies do tell us much about the way people think now but I will hold that “human nature” is much more elusive than trying to map the way people in the US (of college-educated background as much of these have a high sampling biases) do right now. So talking about temperament in terms of long-term ideology and general beliefs of liberals (again, actually, in the historical sense most American conservatives are liberals) seems to confuse things that are historically clearer.

            The “I refer to peer-reviewed research” and “you are using the word as you see fit” is actually, frankly, a red herring. You’re peer reviewed research is not possible to be conducted historically and I should site how word was in the early 18th century and 20th century and do. It’s a problem of KIND of inquiry.

            So the me that pointing out that rhetoric used in prior reviewed research seems to have confuse separate things in historical definitions is not just subjective. (See Losurdo’s Liberalism a Counter-History for historical documentation of how I use this word.) That most social sciences don’t look at the historical development isn’t surprising since its not the field.

            Furthermore, actually looking at some of the studies on the real differences between liberals and conservatives ( http://columbia.academia.edu/DanaCarney/Papers/260212/The_Secret_Lives_of_Liberals_and_Conservatives_Personality_Profiles_Interaction_Styles_and_the_Things_They_Leave_Behind) it seems clear that the authors admit that they can only speak of the way people work now.

            So my critique about bias is subtle. It does not invalidate the work of social scientists. It says that the words we use here are confusing. Even studies that claim that differences between liberals and conservatives are real (which I have no doubt) seem a)based in Frankfurt School research about authoritarian personalities, b) admit that they are tracking subtle differences in a one culture and one specific time. So for understanding historical developments, or even the way these categories break down across culture, this work isn’t as useful and the language seems to obfuscate that.

            However, I have no answer as to how to fix this problem in the reports, just perhaps to know that the meanings of those positions have changed radically in different times and different places, while I doubt the temperamental orientations have. (I would agree that the temperaments seem trans-historical).

          • “Social Science’s objectivity, honestly, is weak particularly on these self-described studies.”

            A lot of social science research isn’t based on self-reporting or at least not on self-identified labels. So, your complaint would be less relevant for the field over all, although I would share your questioning of research that soley relies upon self-reports. In speaking about liberalism here, I’m using a wider variety of research beyond just self-reports.

            “The “I refer to peer-reviewed research” and “you are using the word as you see fit” is actually, frankly, a red herring. You’re peer reviewed research is not possible to be conducted historically and I should site how word was in the early 18th century and 20th century and do. It’s a problem of KIND of inquiry.”

            It’s a red herring, except when it’s not. Yes, peer-reviewed isn’t possible in history. That is the limitation of studying history and the danger of basing conclusions upon it.

            “So the me that pointing out that rhetoric used in prior reviewed research seems to have confuse separate things in historical definitions is not just subjective. (See Losurdo’s Liberalism a Counter-History for historical documentation of how I use this word.)”

            Your own use of liberal is also confused. If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liiberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

            Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

            “That most social sciences don’t look at the historical development isn’t surprising since its not the field.”

            Social sciences don’t look at the history of ideologies for the reason that ideologies of the past can’t be studied scientifically, the people of the distant past being dead after all. That is a limitation of history, not really a limitation of the social sciences.

            “So my critique about bias is subtle. It does not invalidate the work of social scientists. It says that the words we use here are confusing. Even studies that claim that differences between liberals and conservatives are real (which I have no doubt) seem a)based in Frankfurt School research about authoritarian personalities, b) admit that they are tracking subtle differences in a one culture and one specific time. So for understanding historical developments, or even the way these categories break down across culture, this work isn’t as useful and the language seems to obfuscate that.”

            Indeed, words are confusing… in both historical studies and social science research. However, only in social science research can words be broken down into specific traits that can be studied in order to lessen such confusion.

            Even on the historical level, social scientists don’t simply submit to the historians. A lot of social science research has been done in many countries during the 20th century. So, when speaking of 20th century history, social scientists can speak with some genuine insight (such as about the psychology of communists in the USSR or the Nazis in Germany). In this way, social scientists can speak about how psychological predispositions correlate to ideologies, political beliefs/policies, and self-reported labels. That is no small potatoes.

            A book like Losurdo’s Liberalism a Counter-History may be interesting, but it isn’t reliable in the way social science is reliable. You can’t repeat it like a scientific study. It maybe an insightful analysis, but it can never be fully objective. The same goes for Corey Robin’s book about reactionary conservatives. On the other hand, the ideas and analyses in such books could be scientifically studied to the degree they could be stated as scientific hypotheses.

        • “Education actually does not map to change liberalism that much. Educated conservatives tend to stay fairly conservative;
          It’s certainly true that professors are a liberal lot and that religious skepticism is common in the academy.”

          This is getting into an area where much speculation is possible. It could be that people who are conservative are likely to remain conservative in that they might resist changing their political position. However, a moderate or centrist might become liberal or a liberal might become more liberal, this being difficult to determine from self-reports on surveys.

          It’s also complex because it’s an area where new data is always coming out and new things are being discovered. A lot of data is disproven by later data that is more accurate and many theories are invalidated or forced to be reformulated. It’s also highly dependent on context. I’ve heard of some data actually showing highly educated people, at least in the US, being more religious than average; but this might just be because wealthier people are more socially involved and in the US social involvement is tied up with religion which doesn’t mean that these people are necessarily any more religious in terms of actual beliefs and practice (such as prayer).

          “But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.”

          I know I’ve seen some research about that before, if not that exact research. That aspect of research is difficult to base conclusions upon. Assuming further research verifies those results, it still leaves a lot open for speculation. Maybe students who don’t move as far left end up dropping out of college or any other number of similar possibilities. Also, for those who shift left while in college, are they more likely to maintain their left position later in life? And for those who shift left while not in college, do they tend to shift back right again later in life? Maybe those who become professors and researchers tend to keep shifting left more than the average person does over their lifetime.

          On top of the infinite factors and possibilities about influence, there is the opposite side to consider. Why is it more liberal people are attracted to higher education in the first place? Are conservatives self-selecting themselves into non-academic fields? If so, why are they doing so? Why do conservatives that do gain higher education concentrate in a few fields such as business management and law? Are liberals self-selecting not to enter those conservative-dominated fields or is there a bias against liberals in business management?

          I see much potential for various forms of social bias and prejudice, but that can’t be all that is going on. The other evidence is just too strong. Research after research, has correlated liberalism (especially social liberral valus and beliefs) to openness to experience, intellectual curiosity, questioning of authority, lower rates of confirmation bias, etc. These same correlations keep coming up according to different research models (MBTI, FFM, boundary types, etc). It’s hard to believe that these consistent (and often cross-cultural) correlations are accidental or superficial. Going by Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is to see these correlations as touching upon something fundamental in how the brain works, especially considering many of these factors have also been correlated to genetics and brain structures (for example, liberals and conservatives actually have on average measurabley different brains, such as different sized amygdalas).

          I find that kind of research fucking amazing. The amount of research done in the past few decades is massive. If you don’t share my interest in this, then there ain’t much I can do about it.

          • I intensely share your interest in this which I why I wish there was a way to make the terminology clearer.

  2. As you know, I don’t hold a specifically ideological view of liberalism. There is a reason I focus on the pychological instead. There are too many ideologies that all get labeled as ‘liberalism’. The only thing all those ideologies have in common is the liberal-mindedness that motivates them. To me, if such liberal-mindedness is core or predominant to an ideology, then that ideology is liberal.

    Besides classical liberalism and progressive liberalism, there are various ideologies that could be labeled as left-liberalism: Marxian liberalism, muncipal socialist liberalism, social democracy liberalism, Georgist liberalism, anarchist liberalism, etc. All left-wing ideologies are distinct and each can be interpreted in non-liberal or even anti-liberal ways. In a sense, no specific ideology is inherently liberal for it depends on what motivates the ideology and what purpose it serves. For example, I’ve heard both liberal arguments for and liberal arguments against affirmative action. It’s not hard to imagine affirmative action being used for a conservative or even right-wing agenda.

    Left-leaning ideologies typically focus on equality and fairness which are liberal values. Right-leaning ideologies typically focus on liberty and justice which are also liberal values or can be interpreted liberally, especially as they relate to democracy. The confusion in this is that we live in a liberal era and so even those on the right hold values that are liberal or that are at least strongly tinged with liberalism. In this context, I would also add that every liberal has some conservative tendencies and probably some potential for authoritarianism, liberalism and conservatism after all being part of the same human nature. In a democracy like that of the US, there is a strong conservative strain that manifests itself even in the American liberal tradition, this being most apparent in how liberalism feels compelled to play the role of traditionalism to balance reactionary conservatism.

    The further confusion is that, besides being part of an ideologically diverse history of liberalism in the Western tradition, American liberalism has diverse origins within North America itself.

    The Puritans and Quakers both coming from a liberalism rooted in the Protestant Reformation and its corresponding democratic inclinations (community governance, public education, etc), Puritanism as the foundation for mainstream progressive liberalism and Quakerism inspiring some of the radically activist left-libertarianism. The Quakers also were at the forefront of spiritualism which often was closely allied to radical politics and which helped form the foundation of the vast variety of New Age religions/spiritualities.

    The Deep South has its ties to Lockean classical liberalism with its focus on property owners and New Netherlands/New York manifesting most strongly the early tradition of classical liberalism in terms of free market capitalism along with religious tolerance. In the border states, in the rural South and into the Southwest, the Scotch-Irish created the most potent form of liberalism that earlier helped promote free soil politics in the Wester expansion and later helped fight for labor rights and environmental protection in mining communities.

    There are also two other currents of American liberalism. There was the New France vision promoted by Champlain which offered an explicit synthesis of European and indigenous cultures, a vision that encouraged a very independent-minded culture in New Orleans. And there was the New Spain colony that created the independent-minded cowboy culture and that unintentionally allowed racial mixing similar to Champlain’s vision, the weakening of Spain’s imperial power led to more freedom in the North American colony which ended up promoting a culture of reform that has since influenced both Northern Mexico and the American Southwest.

    Later on, especially during the mid 19th century, there was other waves of European liberal traditions from Europe. Jews helped create a strong intellectual tradition within American liberalism, a tradition that offered reinterpretations of American history and that offered some strong critiques of the political right. Germans and other Northern Europeans introduced Marxism and socialism into American politics, especially in the Midwest such as with the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists and the various co-ops found throughout the farming states. The German pietists and others created many alternative communities. Catholics, whether German or Irish, formed the community-mindedness and social solidarity that to this day promotes higher rates of union membership in communities with high Catholic density.

    Not only groups but also individuals influenced American liberalism. There were many in the founding generation, such as Paine, who embodied various liberal or liberal-leaning ideologies. A little later on there was Henry George. Also, transcendentalists like Emerson were immensely influential. Emerson, of course, influenced Thoreau and it was Thoreau who shaped the beginnings of American pacifism, civil disobedience and libertarianism (Thoreau having a direct influence on Ghandi who in turn had a direct influence on MLK). On a similar vein of influence, some key figures in Theosophy helped to inspire major activism during the Populist Era and had an impact on the distinctive form of West Coast liberalism. Also, the Theosophists helped create the liberal tradition of biblical and religious studies.

    Obviously, there is no single liberal ideology among all this confluence of factors. What it means to be a liberal today is generally to identify with this complex history that formed the background of the 20th century liberal movement. Not all liberals agree with every aspect of America’s various liberal traditions, but generally speaking liberals accept this inheritance to the degree they are aware of it.

    Considering all this, it is hard to say who is or isn’t a liberal. Even staunch conservatives in America hold values that are quite liberal compared to the conservatives of past centuries. Earlier in the 20th century, conservatives even agreed that liberalism and liberal-mindedness were benificial attributes of American politics. Eisenhower was no wimpy liberal and yet he thought liberalism was the proper attitude of politics.

    Compared to that earlier period, a politician like Obama seems quite conservative. Heck, even compared to Nixon or Reagan, Obama seems conservative in many ways. Why is it that so many people perceive Obama as representative of liberalism today? As far as I know, Obama doesn’t identify as a liberal, nor do most members of the Democratic Party. Obama hasn’t strongly parted ways with the policies of the Bush Administration. What exactly is supposed to be liberal about Obama besides his superficial rhetoric about hope and change?

    Also, why does liberalism get conflated with the mainstream politics of freedom-proclaiming neoliberalism and progressivist-advocating neoconservatism? I just don’t get it. I suppose the rhetoric is liberal in flavor, but I don’t see much that is liberal-minded in mainstream Washington politics, at least not compared to the general public. Anyway, most politicians including Democrats don’t seem to identify as liberals. Why not instead define liberalism according to what self-identified liberals believe? Shouldn’t liberalism be judged according to those who directly advocate liberalism both in name and in principle?

  3. This issue of this post has been on my mind this past week. I keep trying to discern the fundamental difficulty in explaining my perspective.

    I realize that I don’t use the term ‘ideology’ in the same way that some people use it. For some, ‘ideology’ represents almost every aspect of a human perspective and it can be as overgeneralized as the meaning of ‘culture’ is for others. For me, ‘ideology’ is a more specific thing. Liberalism isn’t a single ideology or even necessarily a meta-ideology. It’s more just a loose category of ideologies. The confusion is made clear just by looking at the diversity of self-labeled ‘liberals’ and how they use different reasons to justify often opposing policy positions (e.g., for and against affirmative action).

    As I pointed out in my last comment, ‘liberalism’ as a general category is very vague. Even in narrowing it down to American liberalism, the complexity of factors is immense. All the cultural and historical, legal and political factors informing presentday American liberalism can’t simply be put into a single ideological framework. This is particularly true since, liberalism as ideological rhetoric, can be and is used by conservatives as much as by liberals (such as with reactionary conservatives). For example, Emerson’s individualism was very much in the vein of the ‘liberalism’ of that time, although that term probably wasn’t used; and yet Reagan used that Emersonian individualism to promote conservatism. One problem for America, as explained by Gunnar Myrdal, is that: “America is conservative in fundamental principles…But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”

    The relationship between ideology and ideological rhetoric isn’t always clear, and the relationship between those two factors and ideological labels is even less clear. I make a differentiation in my use of liberalism which is my attempt to lessen the confusion, at least in my own mind. I’ll use liberalism more generally to refer to a predisposition. I realize that those who self-identify as liberal tend to have a more liberal predisposition (and vice versa), but I also realize there isn’t a perfect correlation between them. So, when speaking of liberalism in more ideological terms, I tend to use the stated beliefs, values and policies of people who actually identify as liberals. This is why I find it confusing that Obama gets categorized as a liberal. He doesn’t identify as a liberal and it isn’t clear to me that he would measure higher than the average Washington politician on tests measuring psychological traits correlated to liberalism.

    What is clear to me is that Americans who identify as ‘liberal’ tend to be people who are less supportive of both free market neoliberalism and progressive neoconservatism… or at least in their extreme forms as seen in national politics. What self-identified liberals do agree with is the liberal rhetoric used by some politicians. Liberals are probably as deceived and manipulated by rhetoric as most other Americans. Even so, just because self-identified liberals may be deceived by such politicians, it doesn’t follow that they are identifical to those politicians or that they hold beliefs, values and policy positions identical to those politicians. So, politicians using ‘liberal’ rhetoric may or may not be ‘liberals’ (either in terms of self-identified labels or psychological traits) and may or may not represent the average liberal (but on average such politicians probably don’t represent anyone other than lobbyists and other people of their class).

    The problem I have with discussion of ideologies is that it never is clear what is being spoken about. Ideologies typically are rationalizations to explain the views we’ve come to non-rationally… or else ideologies are simply political rhetoric and propaganda, ways to manipulate and deceive, ways to create conformity and groupthink. It’s rare that an ideology means or represents what it ssuperficially appears to mean or represent, when discussed by one who holds the ideology,

    As far as I can tell, ideology rarely if ever causes political change, in particular beneficial political change. More often, ideology is used to explain or justify the already present facts or already changing conditions. To speak of ideology to often means to miss the point entirely. I suspect that if liberalism or socialism or whatever is merely an ideology they are quite possibly meaningless and irrelevant. What I care about is how to dig down into those deeper causal factors or else just to see the deeper connections that precede all ideology and ideas. For me, the closest thing that I’ve found to this are the social sciences.

    • Instead of ideology, I tend to focus on factors that are more directly and tangibly social and/or psychological such as community and culture. Liberal-minded people can hold many different ideologies, but their behavior is going to be more similar to other liberal-minded people than to other people who share their ideology. It isn’t ideology that is the main motivating factor in human behavior, both individual and collective.

      Ideology is also less important in that people change ideologies whereas people rarely change predisposition. For example, progressives who became neocons probably didn’t change their fundamental motivations and agendas. They simply expressed them differently according to changing social and political contexts. As another example, some socialists were persuaded by the socialist rhetoric used by fascists, but those persuaded probably were already predisposed to authoritarianism. It doesn’t matter whether an authoritarian uses socialist rhetoric or fascist rhetoric. What does matter is that they have an authoritarian predisposition.

      So, what matters is actual behavior. I see this as particularly important on the social level which is why I often refer to community and culture. Community in particular gets at the tangible quality of human behavior as it plays out in everyday life. I suspect ideology is less important than we realize when it comes to how well a community operates. If a community is stable and healthy, almost any ideological system (political, economic or whatever) can be made to work. Well-functioning communities will create, promote and sustain well-functioning politics and economics. Even an imperfect ideological system can be made to work well when those in a community work well together in living their shared existence.

      This view of community isn’t specifically ideological. I’m not referring to any particular type of community. Given different contexts, what makes a stable and healthy community could vary greatly. This is hard to discuss because we live in a society that has largely been built on the destruction of community. Because of this, ideology has taken on greater importance than it probably deserves. Ideology can never replace those more fundamental factors such as community.

    • There is another reason I put emphasis on the social. I’ve mentioned before that research shows those raised in a multicultural community tend to grow up to be more socially liberal. So, our communities help form our predispositions and our predispositions help form our ideologies. The particular ideology of a particular person comes at the end of a long line of causal factors.

  4. For the sake of argument, let me discuss liberalism in ideological terms. If liberalism is to be identified as an ideology, then it is more an ideology about ideologies. So, the category of ‘liberal’ can at most be a meta-ideology, although even that would be hard to articulate.

    What is confusing is that liberalism represents a tendency to mistrust ideology, especially the closer it gets to a dogmatic belief system (as all ideologies tend to do). Liberalism is a mistrust of closed systems in general. The more an ideology is clearly defined as a distinct ideology is the degree to which it is a closed system. So, liberals are prone to opening up ideologies to other view points, making ideologies less distinct and hence coherent. Liberals are in a sense anti-ideological.

    This might be the very reason those who more strongly hold ideologies, whether right-wingers or left-wingers, tend to mistrust this liberal anti-ideological nature. To the ideological position, it can seem weak or false. To the ideological position, everything is ideological and so the liberal position makes no sense. Liberals have no loyalty to any ideology which can make them seem untrustworthy. They can seem amoral, if not immoral. It is true that liberal compromise has both positives and negatives. There can be a moral strength to the more non-liberal position of clear and coherent ideology. But liberals have their own moral advantage in embracing complexity and change.

    Liberalism, as an impulse, seeks to embrace or at least allow for many different views, even when they seem ideologically incompatible. This might relate to the liberal love of science. It is science, after all, that idealizes the attempt to put research above theory in that all theories are mere hypotheses until tested.

    I’m a liberal-minded person who has for much of my life identified as a liberal. My view of ideology is not uncommon among liberals I’ve interacted with. Liberals test high on openness which means they are open to experimenting, including experimenting with ideological views. The extreme form of this liberal predisposition would be epistemological anarchism, something akin to the worldview of Robert Anton Wilson. I find it very difficult to try to explain liberalism to someone who doesn’t identify with liberalism.

    • By the way, I’m trying my best to present a value neutral analysis. There is nothing necessarily better about the anti-ideological attitude and the predispositions that motivate it. I’m simply making the argument that it isn’t a rational thing to begin with.

      You could argue that I’m wrong about ideology, that I’m being too dismissive of it. But from my perspective that misses the point. I would suggest that people who hold stronger support for ideological thinking do so on average because of psychological factors that predispose them to thinking thusly.

      Two psychological factors that come to mind are the ‘need for closure’ (what MBTI calls ‘judging’ and what Hartmann calls the ‘thick boundary type’; all of these being opposite of liberal-minded ‘openness’) and authoritarianism. Unsurprisingly, authoritarians test high on ‘need for closure’. Also, they tend toward submission to group norms and groupthink. Nonetheless, those who test high on ‘need for closure’ don’t necessarily test high on authoritarianism. So, you could have a strongly ideological anarchist, socialist or libertarian who tests low on authoritarianiism.

      My simple point is that these psychological factors that predispose one to ideological thinking precede any specific ideology. People begin showing these predispositions in early childhood, even in infancy for certain traits. This, however, doesn’t in any way dismiss any particular ideology or dismiss ideological thinking in general. It merely offers further understanding for how we end up with our particular worldview. In this sense, the how and why of human behavior is more important than the what of ideology.

  5. I suppose Skepoet is no longer following this discussion, but thinking about his view did remind me of something. I first came across Skepoet’s blog because of my looking for reviews of ‘Reactionary Mind’ by Corey Robin.

    I read Skepoet’s commentary and then read the book myself. Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism was bandied about in many of the disiscussions I first had with Skepoet. I don’t recall offhand what Skepoet’s criticisms were, but ultimately he wasn’t convinced of the theory. I, however, found it more convincing.

    In light of my thoughts here, this difference of opinion demonstrated the challenge we face. I love to theorize and I love to read about theories. On the other hand, I’ve read so many theories that I’ve grown wary of them and occasionally weary of them.

    In reality, Corey’s theory is just an untested hypothesis. Skepoet and I could argue about the historical evidence presented by Robin, but that wouldn’t resolve anything and probably wouldn’t help us get any closer to the truth. Only if Robin’s theory were scientifically researched, could it merit the label of theory in the scientific sense.

    I was just now reminded of this factor because I came across the following quote in a recent post from Skepoet’s blog:

    http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/the-left-which-is-not-one-part-1-moderates-begging-the-question-pragmatists-avoiding-the-question/

    “Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact”. – Thomas Huxley

    Ultimately, Skepoet disagrees with Huxley

    “No, it is clear: science is not a matter of common sense or even best policy. In fact, psychological senses indicate that this conception of human reasoning is fatally flawed. Believing in universal logic has a high body count, and as Carlin’s history of moderates role in the World War 2 bombings–including the atomic bombing of Japan–indicate, this brings horrors that are hard to imagine.

    “Huxley is wrong: there is nothing common sense about science. There is no common sense period.”

    From my perspective, I feel of two minds.

    I sense the attractiveness of Skepoet’s line of thought. I’ve read those kinds of criticisms many times over the years. There probably are some truth in such criticisms, but even so that would seem self-defeating as such criticisms lead toward doubt of all truth claims. When the left-wing goes post-modern, it feels like it is announcing its own suicide. Maybe such ideological suicide is the best possible response under such circumstances, although I would hope not. Skepoet comes dangerously close to nihilism. I say this as a person who often comes dangerously close to nihilism. It is hard to find a sure foothold in a world full of so many uncertainties.

    I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the difference between Skepoet and I is a very important difference. I’ve noted one thing about liberals and/or the liberal-minded. It seems to be liberals and only liberals who have a strong and steady faith in certain human abilities and endeavours: compromise, rational dialogue, scientific method, etc. I use the term ‘faith’ here intentionally. These things simply make sense to the liberal/liberal-minded person, but obviously they often don’t make sense or at least aren’t as fully trusted by others, whether conservatives and right-wingers or even left-wingers like Skepoet. I suspect that there is a direct connection between liberals trusting science and rationality and liberals mistrusting ideology and ideological theorizing.

    I might agree with Skepoet that there are major obstacles to human reason. However, I just don’t share his nihilism or cynicism or whatever it is. I’ve noticed this recently with others. I share Derrick Jensen’s criticisms, but I don’t share his conclusions about the inevitability or desirability of civilization’s collapse. I enjoy the thoughts of Quentin S. Crisp and Matt Cardin, but I don’t share their paranoid ludditism. More than anything, this is what makes me liberal-minded. I have immense tolerance for odd views and yet extremist thinking rarely persuades me.

    I noticed this in the second part of Skepoet’s analysis when he quotes Jo Freman:

    http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/the-left-which-is-not-one-part-2-the-ferocious-necessity-of-power-or-to-change-the-world-you-must-accept-what-currently-is/

    “Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.

    “This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy.”

    I agree with the first paragraph.

    This is why I see liberals putting so much focus on community-mindedness and community-organizing, grassroots activism, democratic self-governance and political processes, government regulation of markets and enforcement of social order, etc. Skepoet himself wondered recently in another post about the liberal nature of modern state governments. Liberals are the one group that has most consistently taken this issue very seriously. Some other people such as the former neocon Fukuyama, however, are also awakening to how difficult it is to create and maintain healthy social institutions. The fact that liberals have been far from successful in achieving their ideals isn’t necessarily a criticism of those ideals (knowing the right question may not be as attractive as knowing the right answer, but it’s better than starting with the wrong question).

    It’s in the second paragraph where I see the unhelpful ideological thinking manifesting itself.

    Terms like “structureless”, “objective”, “value-free”, and “free” are dangerous or less than useful when interpreted too ideologically. They can only be understood relatively. To be honest, we have to admit that it is true that some groups are relatively more structureless, that some news stories are relatively more objective, that some social science is relatively more value-free, and that some economies are relatively more free. This thinking in relative terms seems related to the liberal-minded tendency toward such things as compromise and the scientific method. Politically, liberals are less prone to seek ideologically pure solutions. Scientifically, liberals are less prone to seek final conclusions.

    The opposite of this relative-mindedness is a more absolutist thinking of black vs white, of this or that or nothing else. To such absolutist thinking an economy is free or it isn’t, and so “free” becomes just another meaningelss ideological term.

    Skepoet’s style of thinking as a left-winger isn’t dissimilar from what is often found among right-wingers. There is this mistrusting attitude toward larger society in all of its forms that typically either leads to paranoia or nihilism, although I suppose it potentially could lead elsewhere. Whatever the case, I just don’t find such thinking satisfying. It seems to somehow want to avoid looking for the hard answers because the questions are too hard… or that is how it feels to me.

    A particular scientific study or theory might be wrong and therefore all of science and all of the scientific method becomes suspect. I just feel like telling such people to calm down. It’s just science. There is no other way for science to advance than by the systematic process of trial and error, in fact that is the strength of science, not its weakness.

    As such, my criticisms of this kind of left-wing thinking is not dissimilar from my criticisms of right-wing thinking. For example:

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/conservative-mistrust-ideological-certainty/

    While I enjoy and highly appreciate Skepoet’s keen mind, I just can’t quite follow where he is going. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    I often sense more similarities between right-wingers and left-wingers than between liberals and left-wingers. This causes me much confusion in my own political views. I feel uncertain about the label of liberalism for many reasons, but I don’t feel any less uncertain about the left-wing. I’ve made an imperfect compromise by most often referring to myself as liberal-minded. Maybe I’m a liberal-minded left-winger. If that is the case, it might just mean that i’m an atypical left-winger for it isn’t clear to me that most left-wingers are liberal-minded or at least not to the degree I am.

    Then again, maybe liberal-mindedness has simply become altered in left-wing reaction or something similar in the way that conservative-mindedness was altered according to Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism. Maybe all or most of us at this point in history have become stuck in a near constant state of reaction, the paranoia and nihilism just being particular responses to the realization of not being sure about what one is reacting to.

    • There is a particular conundrum here that I should point out.

      If I’m correct about liberals and science, this would mean groups are isolated in methodologies. Only those who trust science in the first place are likely to become scientific researchers who study human behavior. So, science will obviously be biased toward those who trust science and hence biased toward certain predispositions.

      On the other hand, those who don’t trust science aren’t likely to ever do scientific research. This means that the theories proposed by the non-liberal-minded are less likely to ever be tested scientifically. That is my complaint. Criticizing science can be a convenient way of not testing one’s pet theory.

      However, confirmation bias plays its role. People look to what confirms their assumptions, beliefs and values. If a science-doubting left-winger came across scientific research with results seemingly proving their preferred left-wing ideology (or some aspect of it) correct, would that left-winger still equally doubt science and the scientific method? How does someone who doubts science know that they aren’t merely afraid that scienntifc research might disprove their pet theory?

      It is just as true that confirmation bias influences liberals as well. Scientific research has found that conservatives are more influenced by it than liberals, but conservatives would simply counter by saying that it is unsurprising that liberal scientists would find such results confirming their own liberalism. I would counter by pointing to plenty of research that doesn’t flatter liberals. Even if most scientists are genuinely liberal-minded beyond merely identifying with liberalism, it still remains that a sizable number identify as conservatives (some data showing 1 in 10) which means one would suspect a sizable percentage of research is done by conservatives. It’s ironic that the criticism of the liberal bias of scientists often comes from scientists from within the scientific establishment (which reminds me of how often it is mainstream journalists/pundits complaining while on the mainstream media about the liberalism of the mainstream media).

      I couldn’t say what any of that means in terms of a tidy conclusion that I could proffer forth.

  6. I should also make clear that Skepoet’s position is very nuanced. He states very clearly a response to my own view:

    “The next move is to cry: “relativist!, post-modernist!” you are “privileging a sphere.” But this is a false move, no where did I imply that all frameworks where equal or that there wasn’t criterion for judging them, but these criterion themselves emerge out of political and meta-ethical discourses. It is completely false to pretend otherwise. Ironically this is both a version of present bias and a version of asymmetrical insight fallacy.”

    I would respond by pointing out that his position is still relativist and post-modernist. I personally don’t criticize relativism per se, at least not relativism in a more general sense since after all it is just a fact that the world is a relative place (relative just implying that the world is built on relationships, or if you prefer: connections, correlations, causations, etc). Skepoet is simply presenting a more complex and careful view of relativism and post-modernism.

    Yes, based on his assumptions, it inevitably follows that, “these criterion themselves emerge out of political and meta-ethical discourses. It is completely false to pretend otherwise.” What I question is using those premises as a starting point in order to get to that conclusion. Or, maybe more correctly, I wonder about altering those premises or adding to them might shift the meaning or context of the conclusion, thus de-emphasizing or reinterpreting what Skepoet desires to focus upon: the political, the ideological, etc.

    I find myself trying to do a balancing act with Skepoet’s analysis. I honestly can’t say I disagree with him entirely, but there is some inner locus that differs in our thinking.

    • I was just thinking about how language comes off to others.

      When Skepoet speaks of “political and meta-ethical discourses”, to me this just screams out ideological theorizing that refuses any scientific, factual or objective truth claims. As Skepoet makes clear, this isn’t to say that all truth claims are denied, only those that don’t fit into this particular left-wing framework of analysis.

      To me, “meta” comes off sounding like it implies theorizing of the most abstract (and hence most hypothetical) variety. Also, to me, “discourse” seems to imply a type of analysis not conducive to the scientific method. Such discourse, by its nature, can never come to any shared conclusions or relatively objective truth claims. Such meta-ethical discourse can never be meta-ideological for this is an ideology that assumes there is no escape from ideology or rather that nothing significant within the human mind exists outside of ideology.

      What this leaves us with is a situation that we can only confront ideology witth more ideology. We get meta with a particular ideology for the reason that it is assumed we can’t get meta with ideological thinking in its entirety. However, this is just an assumption. According to science, such an assumption is just a hypothesis that would need to be tested, but Skepoet’s perspective denies science the position of authority to judge this assumption. To Skepoet, this assumption just seems true for it is the lynchpin of his entire worldview.

      This disallows a full meeting of the minds between Skepoet and I. This assumption acts as a wall blocking the view or else a chasm that can’t be bridged. By saying this, I’m not implying that I’m without similar assumptions. My point is that these assumptions are more psychological in nature than ideological. It’s just our two sets of assumptions don’t seem to meet on a fundamental level, despite the fact of many points of connection on various issues.

  7. I also should add Skepoet’s basic conclusion or else maybe his basic working hypothesis:

    http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/the-left-which-is-not-one-part-1-moderates-begging-the-question-pragmatists-avoiding-the-question/

    “As a operating principle, I have always assumed that ideology was a meta-discourse informed by various heuristics and feedback loops which are created by a necessary meditation between something one would call knowledge and something one would all its use. The more we know about heuristics and biases inherent to psychology: present bias, asymmetry insight fallacies, the sunk cost fallacy, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, etc, the more reason seems to point to the fact that human beings did not develop reason until very late.

    “Indeed, irrationality is in some ways rational as a cost expenditure to time.”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I’d add that all of liberalism, at least as a common trait of human nature, may be a very late development in human evolution. Rationality and liberalism were less useful prior to civilization, and my pet theory is that civilization may not have been possible prior to their having become more with the environmental conditions that set the stage for civilization.

    Still, that in no way belittles it. Newer genetic traits in evolution can potentially have a great impact on the entire genetics and how they express in human behavior. My related theory is that liberalism may be an adaptation to conservatism itself. As an adaptation, liberalism and rationality wouldn’t be separate from all of the rest of human nature. Change one part and everything else changes along with it. So, all of human nature has been by necesity has been put into the context of liberalism and rationality.

    “The pragmatist and the moderate stem and say, “See, we don’t need politics or a grand ideology–we can just let the facts lead us to good policy. We can manage society.” But this is always question begging: It assumes to know what society is, and what its ultimate goods are. The moderate move is to position itself between to polls and pretend that the managerial center is the best way to move forward. This pretends that meta-ethical and meta-social questions are already answered. In Hegelian terms, this just assumes the endstaat of the dialectic like Kojeve posited could happen and Fukuyama posited has happened.”

    That may or may not be true. Either way, it doesn’t seem directly relevant to my own position. I don’t think I’m either a pragmatist or a moderate in the way it’s being used by Skepoet. This is where my agreement with Skepoet begins to end and where my confusion begins. I don’t know how someone like I fits into his analysis.

    • After writing the above comment, I was walking to work and pondering Skepoet’s view. I’m truly struggling to understand. There is something I sense that I can’t quite put my finger on, a disconnection or a blindspot or something.

      Let me try to get at it simply by pointing out a specific example. I’ll quote again something Skepoet wrote:

      “The more we know about heuristics and biases inherent to psychology: present bias, asymmetry insight fallacies, the sunk cost fallacy, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, etc, the more reason seems to point to the fact that human beings did not develop reason until very late.”

      Reading this superficially, it is a straightforward criticism. It could be interpreted even as damning evidence. Psychology is harshly and decisively judged a failure.

      Execute psychology for its sins of heuristics and biases! Purge the mind of such mushy-minded psycho-babble! How dare psychologists be biased like all humans! The audacity of psychologists who think they are superior to the rest of us! Well, who is the fool now that the tables have been turned!?! Score a point for “meta-discourse”, let it rise above the muck and mud of mere psychology, rise up like a lotus flower of true insight! Rise up and we will defeat psychology once and for all!

      Okay, I got a little carried away there.

      Let us now read into it a bit more deeply. How did we discover and/or prove the reality of such heuristics and biases inherent to psychology? This isn’t a trick question. In fact, the answer is found in the question itself. We’ve come to know so much about how humans deceive and confuse themselves through the scientific method, specifically through psychological and other social science research. It’s ironic to criticize psychology according to the knowledge gained by (corroborated or proven by) psychology itself.

      That isn’t what I would call a fair criticism to make. This supposed criticism of psychology in reality ends up pointing to psychologies strength and merit. The criticism undermines itself. How would humans be less biased if they spent less time psychologically studying biases and hence knowing less about biases?

      The failure of this criticism is obvious to me. So, why isn’t it obvious to Skepoet and other people who are persuaded by similar arguments? What am I missing? Is there something in this criticism that actually is valid? If so, what is it?

      Skepoet is far from stupid or unlearned. I don’t mean to criticize him merely to attack the attacker. I don’t even feel attacked by Skepoet. He seems like a perfectly well-intentioned person who has always treated me respectfully. Why is it that such an apparently reasonable person as Skepoet can be so apparently unreasonable in his mistrust of psychology? What is it that Skepoet is actually mistrusting of? What does ‘psychology’ symbolize in his worldview?

    • Let me put this in the context of this larger discussion I’ve had with Skepoet, larger in the sense of our previous dialogue from above. Skepoet wrote:

      “See through the way rhetoric in science sneaks in assumptions in a way that makes it hard to talk in a clear way. In other sciences there are checks against this, but in psychology, this is harder to do.”

      In response, I wrote:

      “It is harder to do, but to be honest you would have to admit it isn’t impossible and you would have to admit that great progress has been made. It is the social scientists who helped develop the controls in science that have made all research more objective.

      “It’s because social scientists are so mired in the subjective that they are in fact more careful about bias than most other types of researchers. It’s the social scientists who do research studying scientists themselves, and so have discovered how easy even the physical sciences can lead to biased research.”

      What is interesting here is that Skepoet shows some bias toward naive realism in his trusting the physical sciences over the social sciences. As I pointed out, if not for the social sciences, we wouldn’t know about how biased the physical sciences have been. It was because of social science research that many of protections against bias began to be used in the scientific method for all scientific research, social and physical.

      In response to my response, Skepoet wrote:

      “Furthermore, actually looking at some of the studies on the real differences between liberals and conservatives ( http://columbia.academia.edu/DanaCarney/Papers/260212/The_Secret_Lives_of_Liberals_and_Conservatives_Personality_Profiles_Interaction_Styles_and_the_Things_They_Leave_Behind) it seems clear that the authors admit that they can only speak of the way people work now.”

      So? What is his point?

      In admitting this, social scientists are just admitting reality. If anyone claims to know anything outside of the now, they could be interpreted as being severely deluded.

      Nonetheless, the ‘now’ is a broad term. The ‘now’ in terms of psychological research includes the 21st century we are currently in, the entire 20th century and then further back into the 19th century when psychological research first began. Even historians are dependent on scientific research to determine history. Just look at Biblical studies to see the heavy reliance on scientific research.

      Psychologists may be limited in their knowledge, but for damn sure they are less limited than the person unscientifically theorizing about political history. Why is admitting reality considered admitting weakness or failure? Psychology succeeds because of, not despite of, its willingness to admit the limitations of comprehending reality.

      “So my critique about bias is subtle. It does not invalidate the work of social scientists. It says that the words we use here are confusing. Even studies that claim that differences between liberals and conservatives are real (which I have no doubt) seem a)based in Frankfurt School research about authoritarian personalities, b) admit that they are tracking subtle differences in a one culture and one specific time. So for understanding historical developments, or even the way these categories break down across culture, this work isn’t as useful and the language seems to obfuscate that.”

      I agree his overall critique is subtle. I don’t dismiss his view out-of-hand. I consider it praiseworthy that he admits that his critique doesn’t invalidate social science. His conclusion, however, seems unhelpful. Sure, words we use here are confusing. As far as that goes, words we use everywhere are confusing. The fact of the matter is the words used in social science are less confused and confusing than words used almost anywhere else, in particular anywhere outside of the scientific fields. It’s just social scientists are more open about admitting their confusion, a fact that I would emphasize again is a strength validating the merits of the field over and above unscientific or worse still anti-scientific theorizing.

      I specifically wanted to put this last quoted section in context of the quote I’ve shared already:

      “The more we know about heuristics and biases inherent to psychology: present bias, asymmetry insight fallacies, the sunk cost fallacy, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, etc, the more reason seems to point to the fact that human beings did not develop reason until very late.”

      Between these two statements of Skepoet, one thing seems evident. If social science is to be judged by this dual standard, social scientists can’t win for losing. Skepoet criticizes social scientists for not being careful enough about biases to the point of being oblivious to them. And Skepoet criticizes social scientists for being so systematically and self-awaredly careful about biases that they end up too narrowly focused.

      How can both critcisms be valid at the same time? Why doesn’t Skepoet see that his criticisms equally or even more clearly apply to those outside of the field of social science? If the only way to be intellectually honest about and protective against biases is to be narrowly focused, why is it a positive thing that he instead prefers more wide-ranging political theorists who are less careful?

    • I keep returning to my comments here because I keep feeling confused and keep fearing that I’m being unfair to Skepoet. I was just re-reading what he wrote from one of his more recent posts:

      http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/the-left-which-is-not-one-part-1-moderates-begging-the-question-pragmatists-avoiding-the-question/

      “As a operating principle, I have always assumed that ideology was a meta-discourse informed by various heuristics and feedback loops which are created by a necessary meditation between something one would call knowledge and something one would all its use. The more we know about heuristics and biases inherent to psychology: present bias, asymmetry insight fallacies, the sunk cost fallacy, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, etc, the more reason seems to point to the fact that human beings did not develop reason until very late.”

      He is criticizing rationality, but I realize I might have been mis-reading this as a clear criticism of psychology itself. Reading this again, it seems he is aware that it is through psychology that we know of these limitations of rationality. However, he does criticize pragmatism and science is wholly within the pragmatist tradition. He doesn’t make a differentiation between individual attempts at rationality and the scientific method of controlling for biases. Social science can more closely approximate rationality than unscientific theorizing for the reason it isn’t soley or even primarily dependent on the individual attempt at rationality.

      I would argue that Skepoet’s meta-discourse will inevitably fail if it doesn’t include and isn’t grounded in social science. Most importantly, there is no contradiction or lack of compatibility between Skepoet’s meta-discourse and social science’s scientific method. Assuming there are merits to Skepoet’s meta-disciourse in and of itself, wouldn’t such meta-discourse be stengthened rather than weakened by being combined with the merits of social science and the scientific method?

      I do particularly appreciate his analysis in certain places:

      “The “moderate” then can only play the role of manager: broker between two poles. But there are no two poles: there is no simple right and no simple left. The primitivist has more in common with the fascist romantic than the techno-Utopian, but all three primitivist and the techno-Utopian both believe that “civilization and its politics” inhabit us. Furthermore, the libertarian shares the beliefs of liberty that the primitivist and techno-Utopian does, but generally their belief in great men make them more similar to the fascist romantic. The “moderate” says, “I told you so: the extreme ends resemble each other.” In temperament, often, this is true. However, the moderate neglects to see how his or her position is already predefined with a set of assumptions that avoids political and meta-ethical questions.”

      In that comment, he acknowledges the complexity… and I’m all about complexity.

      Even so, his own ideological biases still leak in. There is no particular reason for his denial of two poles. I would clarify the confusion by pointing out that there are many sets of two poles (especially as found in social science) and every set of two poles has a spectrum (as found in traits research). The problem here is that Skepoet is allowing the confusion of words muddle the larger context. The confusion of words is a greater problem for unscientific theorists than for social scientists.

      Also, I would add my own response as someone who is more or less moderate. Reading his comment about moderates, I immediately feel that his critcisisms are largely if not entirely irrelevant at least to my own moderate tendencies. So, he might be criticizing particular types or cases of moderates, but he isn’t criticizing moderates as a general category which is what is implied by his using the term generally.

      “No, it is clear: science is not a matter of common sense or even best policy. In fact, psychological senses indicate that this conception of human reasoning is fatally flawed. Believing in universal logic has a high body count, and as Carlin’s history of moderates role in the World War 2 bombings–including the atomic bombing of Japan–indicate, this brings horrors that are hard to imagine.”

      There were some moderates complicit in the violence of WWII. So what? There were some socialists complicit in the violence of fascism. There were some Marxists complicit in the violence of communism. It is a long way from criticizing those guilty of such charges, possibly a minority of each respective ideological group, to castigating the entire group as guilty of an inherent moral failure.

      Am I being unfair in my criticisms of Skepoet? Or am I correct that Skepoet is being unfair in his criticisms?

  8. I just randomly came across something that is a perfect response to Skepoet’s theory. Skepoet wrote about the problems of heuristics and biases. The question is: Do we find these problems equally among all people? Among psychologists as equally as found among non-psychologists? Among liberals as equally as found among conservatives?

    Should we be so mistrusting of rationality as Skepoet suggests? Well, it might be true that rationality is relatively new in human evolution, but then again so may liberalism. So, doubts about rationality may only apply to people who aren’t liberals. This conclusion appears to be corroborated by the evidence:

    http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6892:the-republican-brain-why-even-educated-conservatives-deny-science–and-reality

    “An overall result is definitely that liberals tend to be more flexible and open to new ideas—so that’s a possible factor lying behind these data. In fact, recent evidence suggests that wanting to explore the world and try new things, as opposed to viewing the world as threatening, may subtly push people towards liberal ideologies (and vice versa).

    “Politically and strategically, meanwhile, the evidence presented here leaves liberals and progressives in a rather awkward situation. We like evidence—but evidence also suggests that politics doesn’t work in the way we want it to work, or think it should. We may be the children of the Enlightenment—convinced that you need good facts to make good policies—but that doesn’t mean this is equally true for all of humanity, or that it is as true of our political opponents as it is of us.”

  9. Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

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