Wednesday, 23 July 2003

I must be missing something here

InstaPundit approvingly links to a post by the Angry Clam, who is “pissed off” about a study conducted by psychology professors at Berkeley, Stanford and Maryland that purports to describe the psychological determinants of conservatism.

I’ll admit that the press release linked to by the Clam makes the research seem rather simplistic, and some of the editorializing by assistant (i.e. untenured) professor Jack Glaser seems inappropriate. And, frankly, I think the researchers are really describing what Virginia Postrel calls “staisism” rather than conservatism. Say what you will about the Contract with America and the post-1994 Republican majority, but planning to roll back decades of creeping socialism is hardly a conservative position (in their terms); the neo-liberal policies of Britain’s successive governments since 1979 are not exactly “conservative” either, even though many of them were pioneered by the political right. And, as a political scientist, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that J. Random Psychologist is qualified to do research on political concepts, just as I’d have serious concerns if a political scientist tried to perform psychotherapy. To top it all off, I generally despise meta-analysis as a research technique, but that’s neither here nor there.

At the same time, though, the research itself, rather than the stupid commentary it was dressed up with in the press release, doesn’t seem (from its description) excessively political. I’d rather read the article (which appeared in the May 2003 Psychological Bulletin, according to the table of contents) and draw my own conclusions, thanks.

Partial defense withdrawn

In this post, I defended the research of four psychologists on the psychological determinants of conservatism. After reading the actual article in question, a response, and their response to the response, I am convinced I was in error in defending their work as not being politically motivated. The authors’ response to the critical response is particularly awful. Anyone who can make the following statement with a straight face is clearly partisan:

Sticking with contemporary American politics, it has been observed that Republicans are far more single-mindedly and unambiguously aggressive in pursuing Democratic scandals (e.g., Whitewater, the Clinton–Lewinsky affair) than Democrats have been in pursuing Republican scandals (e.g., Iran Contra, Bush–Harken Energy, Halliburton). (authors’ response, 391)

Iran-Contra resulted in prison terms for many its participants; with the exception of some peripheral figures (most notably, the self-martyring Susan McDougal and the otherwise-corrupt Jim Guy Tucker), Whitewater and Monicagate combined produced none. The authors also somehow forget about the Watergate scandal, doggedly (and rightly) pursued by Democrats, which brought down Richard Nixon and contributed to the defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, citing Paul Krugman’s NYT op-eds twice as an authority on whether conservatives are more dogmatic than liberals doesn’t pass the laugh test.

More generally, I return to my previous criticisms based on the press release. They repeatedly use single indicators to represent latent constructs. They aggregate across nations without regard for contextual factors. They present bivariate correlations as evidence of causation (just having a bazillion similar correlations does not demonstrate causation). They dismiss exceptional cases out-of-hand, rather than attempting to explain them in terms of their research design (although they do make a half-hearted effort to do so in their response to the critics). They make no effort to integrate any of the previous hypotheses into a well-specified model.

And, to top it all off, most of the research is based on student populations, who are almost certainly atypical of the public at large in terms of their level of political socialization (an important explanation of conservatism in their half-baked theory). Anyone who thinks conservative extremists are less integratively complex than liberal extremists hasn’t had the dubious pleasure of reading both and (two popular cesspits for extremists on the right and left respectively, in case you haven’t had the pleasure). Coupled with a lack of any serious understanding of any of the research done on ideology outside psychology (Converse barely rates a footnote, while nothing newer than McCloskey and Zaller, a 1984 piece, is cited from the political science literature), this turkey doesn’t fly.

One hopes, not knowing the journal hierarchy in psychology, that the Psychological Bulletin is the intellectual equivalent of toilet paper among the APA’s journals, but somehow I doubt that. The editor and reviewers who allowed this garbage to be published ought to be embarrassed.

John Jay Ray, a well-published political psychologist in his own right, has been savaging the piece at Dissecting Leftism.

If you have access to PsychINFO, the articles can be accessed at the following links:

  • Jost et al. (main paper): here.
  • Greenberg and Jonas (response, distinguishes between moderates and extremists on both sides of the ideological spectrum): here.
  • Jost et al. (response to Greenberg and Jonas): here.

If you don’t, you’re not missing much.