Sunday, October 16, 2005


Given the compulsive Leftism that permeates the social sciences, it is not surprising that the standards of scholarship in social science writing are normally so slight as to require a metaphorical microscope to find them. For many years I regularly wrote formal critiques of the most egregious examples of bad scholarship in psychology and sociology and I usually got them published in the academic journals concerned. It was however a great waste of time -- as both facts and reason are noted in the social sciences only insofar as they accord with Leftist prejudices. I think I should however keep the pot boiling to some extent so I do from time to time note on this blog and elsewhere how absurd various current claims from psychology are -- even if I can no longer be bothered to do a full formal critique of the particular article concerned. So I am going to make a few comments today on: Hastings, B.M. & Schaffer, B.A. (2005) "Authoritarianism and sociopolitical attitudes in response to threats of terror". Psychological Reports, 97, 623-630. It is fairly typical of the rubbish that psychologists produce in the guise of research so a critique of it might serve as a useful proxy for critiques of many similar such articles.

As is the usual fashion among psychologists, the authors make no attempt to sample any known population and proceed to base broad conclusions about human psychological processes on the answers to questionnaires given by 61 women and 10 men drawn from various classes at the small Mt. Aloysius College in Pennsylvania. The results are therefore of totally unknown generalizability. For the sake of the exercise, however, let us assume that there is some generalizability to their results and ask how those results were obtained.

What they did was to correlate several "scales" (standard collections of questions) with one another. They found that scales allegedly measuring Right-wing authoritarianism (the RWA scale), Democratic Values and Militarism tended to correlate with one another. They seem to think that this constitutes proof that conservative "authoritarians" are anti-democratic and militaristic. What a laugh! I won't bother reproducing any of the items of the three scales here but all three scales include many statements that would normally and uncontroversially be taken as indicating conservatism. So all that they have shown is in fact that people are consistent in their conservatism. People who express conservative views on one "scale" also tend to express conservative views on all three scales. Big deal! It is what scientists call an "artifactual" (researcher-induced) finding. I have been noting that sort of charade among psychologists for many years (see e.g. here).

The other thing they found, if I read it aright, is that people got more "authoritarian" (Read: "conservative") when they felt threatened. That is however just a regurgitation of the old New York adage: "A conservative is a liberal who was mugged last night". And everybody knows how conservative the armed forces are. As a former Army man myself, it has never surprised me (but has always pleased me) how many supportive emails I get with "mil" at the end of the sender's email address. So even if we take the Hastings & Schaffer results far more seriously than we should, we find that their final conclusion is little more than a commonplace. What would have been interesting is if they had explored WHY encounters with reality make people more conservative -- but that enquiry would have led them in very uncomfortable directions, I fancy.


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