Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

In response to a post by Chris Mooney about Jonathan Haidt, I’ll compare and contrast The Righteous Mind and The Republican Brain. But I’ll begin with a more broad comparison.

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I’ve read both Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book. I’ve also read some of George Lakoff’s books (most specifically relevant is Moral Politics). I’ve read as well a fine book by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics), of which I highly recommend. There are other authors and books I could mention, but I won’t for simplicity’s sake. 

Of these four, the book by Hetherington and Weiler was the most satisfying as an overview of what scientists presently know about ideology and polarization. The other books, in comparison, only sample this vast field. However, Lakoff’s book was most satisfying in offering the most generally useful framework (useful in explanatory power and useful in fairly describing both sides).

Going by a different standard, the books of Haidt and Mooney probably would be the most satisfying to the general reader. Both of them are good at clearly communicating what is otherwise complex and sprawling. It can’t be doubted that Haidt and Mooney have in combination brought this debate to the public in a way that hasn’t been done previously, although Lakoff must be given credit for paving the way.

For the rest of this post, I will solely focus on Haidt and Mooney.

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Personally, I prefer Mooney more than Haidt.

It’s not that Haidt fails in formulating an interesting hypothesis but it certainly requires more research and, I would add, better research. Mooney presented himself as being more intellectually humble in two ways. First, he remained closer to the research itself whereas Haidt constantly speculated and philosophized. Second, he was more upfront in acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties which probably is the reason he wasn’t prone to speculate and philosophize.

Mooney doesn’t attempt an overarching theory like Haidt’s moral foundations theory, instead just following the evidence. Mooney put forth some possible explanations, but he never formalized them into a singular inclusive theory. Mooney’s approach opens up discussion by not claiming to have it figured out. Haidt, on the other hand, can come off as too certain of his own research and arguments.

It’s surprising that Mooney doesn’t perceive the difference between his work and that of Haidt. It was Mooney’s book, among others, that helped me understand the deficiencies of Haidt’s approach.

The best example of this is the issue of research methods (the debate about which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention in books directed at a more general readership). Haidt has relied on self-reports which are notoriously unreliable whereas Mooney presented reasearch that went way beyond self-reports. Haidt’s self-report research is useful as a preliminary step or else when corroborated by more reliable methods, but such research by itself isn’t adequate for the type of overarching theory he wants to prove.

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Related to this, I kept noticing how selectively Haidt used evidence.

It looked like he was often seeking evidence to fit his pet theory instead of a theory to fit all of the evidence, not that he was necessarily doing this intentionally and consciously. Such cherrypicking would even be expected from one part of his theory. Maybe he doubts the human capacity for objective reasoning based partly on self-observations. Or maybe based on the assumption of human unreason he felt it would be ineffective to appeal to the reasoning of his audience.

Considering the data intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the book, it wasn’t hard for me to find holes in Haidt’s arguments. He needed to do a more wide-ranging survey of data before presenting a theory. This, of course, assumes he wanted to present a rational defense in the first place (i.e., a logical argument that is fair and balanced). I suspect he was intentionally emphasizing persuasion more than reason which would make sense considering that is what he should do according to his own theory.

This does make his arguments challenging to analyze. The standard he was using to make his arguments probably aren’t the same standards I hold to in my own valuing of reason. It seems somewhat pointless to rationally analyze a theory that doubts the validity of rational analysis.

Let me make one thing particularly clear.

I don’t doubt his motives per se. I’m sure he has good intentions. In fact, it is because of his good intentions that, as a moderate or centrist or even right-leaning liberal, he wants to understand conservatives and wants to communicate in a way conservatives will understand. This is praiseworthy as a motivation but not praiseworthy in how Haidt acts on it, at least in the case of his book. Persuasion used to doubt reason is a very dangerous thing.

Haidt ends up bending over backwards to reach out to conservatives. He tries too hard to bring conservatives to his side and so as a consequence he is willing to sacrifice treating liberals fairly in his analysis of moral foundations, going so far as to dismiss large aspects of liberal morality and thus defining his entire theory according to conservative beliefs and values. In doing so, he cherrypicks the evidence which distorts his presentation and biases his argument.

Ironically, this causes his book to fail according to Haidt’s own standards. Instead of acting as a bridge over the divide, he simply switches from a former liberal bias to a conservative bias. This switching of biases doesn’t in any way achieve balance or promote mutual respect and understanding.

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Haidt falls into the typical liberal trap of “The Cult of Centrism”. The most famous example of this can be found in the mainstream media’s love of false equivalence.

It’s odd that Mooney doesn’t see this problem in Haidt as he is otherwise fully aware of this problem among liberals. Haidt wants to be reasonable or at least appear reasonable, but it is this very namby-pamby liberal impulse that ends up making him blithely unreasonable.

Mooney interestingly gives a slight nod to this fact at the end of the post in which he praises Haidt. Even so, he somehow concludes that Haidt essentially agrees with his book. This perception of agreement is shown even more clearly in another post by Mooney. I get the sense that there is more disagreement than either wants to let on… probably for reasons of presenting a strong defense against the naysayers both have faced. I also get the sense that Mooney just wants to stay on good terms with Haidt and so feels compelled to defend him against the criticisms Mooney would more objectively apply to a stranger.

Here is from the post linked above at the beginning of this post:

“I have differences with Haidt myself. Most importantly, I think the research he’s surveying–and the research he himself has done–adds up to a much tougher conclusion about political conservatism than he is willing to lead with (if you read between the lines, though…).”

So, the trick is that you have to read between the lines in order to discover what Haidt really meant. Methinks this is being overly generous.

I would argue that this problematic for any number of reasons.

Readers shoudn’t have to guess what an author actually meant, especially not in a book describing scientific research. Mooney didn’t write in such a convoluted or opaque manner. If Mooney is correct that Haidt wasn’t communicating as clearly and directly as he could have, then this is a major failing of his writing style if not a failing of his entire line of reasoning.

Furthermore, why does Mooney assume he knows Haidt’s secret thoughts and subtly implied meanings? One could read all kinds of potential meanings between the lines. Maybe Mooney is simply wanting to believe Haidt agrees with him more than he does and so is reading into Haidt’s bok something that isn’t there. Maybe Haidt wrote precisely what he meant to communicate without any hidden messages to be deciphered.

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This leaves me a bit confused. I’m not sure what Mooney ultimately thinks about Haidt’s book.

If we take the conservative bias away from Haidt’s argument, then we would have a very different theory than what Haidt presents. It seems Mooney would like to reinterpret Haidt’s book according to his own image. I’d be fine with rehabilitating Haidt’s theory by removing the problematic parts, but I doubt Haidt would like this as he doesn’t see those parts as problematic.