Friday, August 19, 2005


In 2003, there was published in one of the premier journals of psychology an article about conservatism that attracted widespread attention -- most of it derisive. There is a summary of it here. It purported to be a meta-analysis -- a survey of the existing evidence on its topic. It came to the hilarious conclusion that people like Stalin, Khrushchev and Castro were conservatives! As political psychology is my major area of academic expertise, I replied to it immediately here -- pointing out that the authors had not the slightest understanding of what conservatism actually was and pointing out what a strange "meta-analysis" it was -- seeing that it ignored the majority of published academic research papers relevant to its topic. It was, in other words, a champion effort at ignoring any evidence that did not suit its authors.

Most of the authors of the paper seemed to have some UC Berkeley affiliations and one of the authors was Frank Sulloway, who is better known for his theory that birth order is a powerful explanation of political attitudes and behaviour. Firstborns are conservatives and later-borns are the rebels, apparently. Perhaps because of their love of simplistic theories, psychologists generally took this wacky theory seriously. I doubt that there are many readers here who cannot think of examples from among their own friends and relatives who contradict that theory. I can certainly think of some later-borns among my relatives who are so far Right they are almost out of sight. So a suspicion that Sulloway was picking and choosing his cases in the evidence for his birth-order theory certainly springs immediately to mind. And given that he and his colleagues did just that in the article I alluded to initially above, that suspicion firms up immediately into an assumption for me.

And that Sulloway's birth-order theory is very vulnerable to critical assessments of the evidence for it is also shown by Sulloway's extraordinary behaviour when other researchers began to question it. He resorted to threats of lawsuits to suppress the criticisms! As far as I know, this is completely unheard of in science. Criticism is the lifeblood of science. If it were not for criticism of the existing theories were would be no advances in knowledge and we would still believe that the sun revolved around the earth, rather than vice versa.

And, as this article says: "For example, the greatest revolutionary of our time is Che Guevara. He was a firstborn, and Sulloway says that supports his theory. Huh? Mao Tse-tung was a firstborn. Sulloway says that supports his theory. Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the French Revolution, the symbol of revolutionary rebellious behavior, was also a firstborn, and Sulloway says he, too, supports his theory." And look at those facts in the light of something Sulloway said in his New Yorker profile: "If anyone ever, ever discovers a radical revolution led by firstborns and opposed by laterborns, then I'm out of business"

The only amazing thing is that there are still many psychologists who support Sulloway. It shows how much Left-leaning social scientists love their oversimplifications. There is a big article giving an extensive history of the whole affair here. The bit I liked best was this: "In an effort to refute his critics, Sulloway worked with Stanford statisticians and Berkeley researchers to double-check both his findings and the way he carried out his statistical treatment. A large part of the research involved what is known as meta-analysis". In other words, he relied on another Berkeley "meta-analysis" to back up his claims. Given what I know of the dishonesty and incompetence of the other Berkeley meta-analysis I have mentioned, that really puts the last nail in the coffin of Sulloway's theory for me.

If you want another example of the way Left-leaning psychologists cling on to absurd and vastly oversimplified theories, see here

Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375. (PDF)


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