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Pseudoscience and the left/right whiplash

I came across this post by blogger Echidne slamming psychology professor Roy Baumeister. I’d first heard about the Baumeister in the context of his seeming inability to handle scientific criticism. I hadn’t realized that Baumeister had a sideline in pseudoscientific anti-political-correctness.

One aspect of all this that interests me is the way that Baumeister, and other scholars like him, seem to take some of the worst of the traditional left and right. From the 60’s-style left, you get a kind of mystical attitude that reality isn’t important, a mind-over-matter perspective exemplified by his view that “flair” and “intuition” are more important than boring number crunching. From the right (or, I guess we say now, the “alt-right”), there’s science-style justifications of traditional sex roles, racial inequality, and a general feeling that rich people deserve to keep what they have.

Or, to move to political science, the claims that elections are decided by shark attacks and college football games can be given a leftist spin—We’re not really living in a democracy! Voters are being manipulated!—or can be taken to support rightist positions: If voters are really so easily distracted, maybe the scope of democracy should be restricted to people such as business owners who have a real stake in the system.

In discussing the straddling of left/right themes of business school professor and plagiarist Karl Weick, here’s what Thomas Basbøll and I had to say:

Unmoored to its original source, the story gets altered by the tellers so that it can be used to make any point that people want to make from it.

We conclude with some comments on political ideology. Storytelling has been championed by a wide range of scholars who would like to escape the confines of rigor. On the academic left, storytelling is sometimes viewed as a humane alternative to the impersonal number crunching of economists, while the academic right uses stories to connect to worldly business executives who have neither the time nor patience for dry scholasticism. Karl Weick seems to us to express an unstable mix of these attitudes, championing the creative humanism of story-based social reasoning while offering his theories as useful truths for the business world. And indeed he may be correct in both these views . . .

Maybe it’s nothing special, it’s just the usual story that people will use the tropes available for them. After all, why should someone have to be on the political left to feel like a 60’s-style rebel? Cultural commentators ranging from P. J. O’Rourke (on the right) to Thomas Frank (on the left) have been talking about this sort of thing for decades.

So I’m not sure where this leads.


  1. D Kane says:

    Sample size for your inferences about “the academic right”?

  2. That’s very insightful commentary Andrew.

  3. I had forgotten that term ‘trope’. that is the right characterization. We cast out tropes without thinking.

  4. Statsgirl says:

    Poor scholarship builds its house out of garbage. Whether it is ideas discarded by the right or the left, anything that keeps the rotting structure standing another day will do.

  5. Could it be that ideology (whether left or right) simply doesn’t provide a useful guide when the aim is truth? In the social sciences, it’s entirely possible that majority of errors are either made directly in the service of an ideology or left uncorrected because the result was ideologically convenient. That is, I sometimes suspect that very few errors in the social sciences are simple accidents. Even sloppiness isn’t finally accidentally because if the result hadn’t been ideologically serviceable the mistake would have been caught. Neither right nor left is defined by its interest in the truth. Ideologies always support their particular brand of justice. Indeed, an ideology is defined not just by the justice it seeks but by the truths it is willing to sacrifice in its pursuit.

    • leoboiko says:

      I would argue that both leftwing (either socialist or liberal-democrat) and rightwing (either traditionalist or alt-right)–identified scientists are both convinced that they’re doing their best in the interest of justice and truth, and that whichever errors they make specifically due to ideology aren’t conscious sacrifices of the truth, but unconscious blindness to the parts of the territory that won’t fit the map.

    • Anonymous says:

      No, no. It’s all because of the “incentives”! This is what we should tell the public!! Scientists motivations or intentions should not be discussed!! (except apparently when they point to things like publishing lots of papers and/or keeping a job hereby doing minimal damage to the view of science/scientists in general).

      On a more serious note: i think it’s pretty stupid to not talk about intentions or motivation in science. I think it can be very dangerous, and bad for science, when scientists and the people who read/use the science they produce, would not do this (e.g. see tobacco industry links to science/scientists). Also, why do we have conflict of interest disclosures in science? Isn’t that all about motivation and intention?

      I think the general message that has been send out as an explanation of bad practices in science in the past 5 years or so as a result of the “replication crisis” has been that scientists have had no choice but to do bad science because they want to keep their job and that means publishing lots of papers. I think this is BS, naive, and does not seem logical to me.

      Or perhaps i should say, if that were the primary cause, i don’t understand 2 things:

      1) Why does it seem to me that lots of senior scientists oppose things like “Registered Reports” where the results are published no matter the outcome. That would result in far more publications for the individual scientist, so why are people against that format, and why isn’t there a massive demand by the scientists for journals to adopt that format?

      2) Tenured professors can’t lose their jobs when publishing less papers can they? So why aren’t these senior people the ones who set the right example, and engage in what can be considered to be “good” science? They don’t have to play the “publish or perish” game anymore i would reason?

      I think far more explanatory power of the bad state of science can be found in individual motives and intentions. Ideology, money, power, etc. Just like in the real world.

      I actually recently started hypothesizing that some scientists might get something out of doing research that may be connected to the feeling of “being right”/”being able to manipulate people or things”/”being smart” (e.g. i am the only one to be able to get this effect in my lab, and all others who can’t are simply not as good a scientist as me).

      I think a lot more research into “bad” science/scientists should be done regarding individual characteristics, and motivations, and intentions. Here is a start (2016):

      “Machiavellianism may be a risk factor for research misbehaviour. Narcissism and research misbehaviour were more prevalent among biomedical scientists in higher academic positions. These results suggest that personality has an impact on research behavior and should be taken into account in fostering responsible conduct of research.”

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      +1 (sadly — I wish it weren’t true)

    • Matt Skaggs says:

      “Neither right nor left is defined by its interest in the truth.”

      That is not correct. In the most simplistic Game Theory formulation, left and right roughly map to “cooperator” and “defector” (or “individualist” if you think defector is unnecessarily pejorative). A cooperator communicates her willingness to cooperate through truthful expressions of goals and desires. Since defectors will be persecuted by cooperators if they express their goals honestly – tragedy of the commons and all that – they generally must resort to subterfuge. This is the basis of the phrase “truth has a liberal bias.”

      Basically no one conforms to being a perfect cooperator or defector, and some defectors hide behind a façade of cooperation. Also, people make mistakes. These factors result in lots of noise, making the underlying stuff hard to see. But it just isn’t right to say that cooperators/liberals lack an interest in the truth.

  6. Thomas that makes sense to me. I am often surprised how tenaciously we hold to ideation that on deeper analysis is pretty superficial. Education reaps mixed blessings and consequences. I think in part in goes back to habits of mind we learn as well as the fact that cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of our knowledge acquisition, whether in law, culture, governance, etc.

  7. Ian Fellows says:

    “Men create most organizations and work hard to succeed in them. Indeed, an open-minded scholar can search through history mostly in vain to find large organizations created and run by women that have contributed anything beyond complaining about men and demanding a bigger share of the male pie.”

    Wow… just wow… Is this 2017 or 1817?

  8. Our education today is so homogenized that the elites, regardless of gender, are socialized similarly. Ethically too. Given what I’ve observed of human rights & humanitarian law communities. Naturally women will advocate for equality but the context bears recognition.

    To reiterate, we learn rather mediocre ethics through our culture, families, colleagues, institutions, etc. I began to listen more carefully to others and myself. I was appalled at things I said and what others said.

  9. Brazilian anon says:

    It may be a little off topic, but I think people on the blog will like to know what I found when reading the agenda of a business event in Brazil:

    A postura da vitória: como manter uma presença física e mental para superar grandes desafios
    Amy Cuddy

    É psicóloga social e professora na Harvard Business School. Seu TED Talk é o segundo mais visto de todos os tempos, com mais de 32 milhões de visualizações. Foi nomeada ?Jovem Líder Global? pelo Fórum Econômico Mundial e umas das ?50 mulheres que estão a mudar o mundo? pelo Business Insider. Sua pesquisa foi considerada uma das 20 Principais Ideias Inovadoras da Harvard Business Review e abordada por publicações do mundo inteiro, incluindo o The New York Times, Financial Times, Wired, Fast Company e a The Economist. Obteve PhD e MBA em Psicologia Social pela Princeton University.

    In English, it says:
    Victory pose: how to keep a physical and mind presence to overcome great challenges.

    Amy Cuddy is a psychologist and professor at Harvard Busines School. Her Ted Talk is the second most viewed of all time, with more than 32 million views. She has been nominated ‘Young Global Leader’ by World Economic forum and one of the 50 woman that are changing the world by Business Insider. Her research was considered one of the 20 main innovative ideas from Harvard Business Review, and approached for news outlets from all over the world, including The New York Times, Financial times, Fast Company and the Economist. Has a PhD and MBA in Social Psychology from Princeton University.

    I guess it will not help a mention of a failed replication in her bio, huh? And I thought she had lost (or left) her job at Harvard. Anyway, what strikes me is that, contrary to that NYT piece, she seems to continue promoting power pose (the mention to victory pose). Unfortunately I will not be able to attend her speech to see what she says.

    ps.: to provide more context on what kind of event is this, other speakers are: Taleb, Jack Welch, JB Straubel (CTO from Tesla Motors) and Michael Phelps (yep, the swimmer). A single ticket to attend the three days of the event is R$ 8000 (about USD 2500).

  10. Jean Searl says:

    I love your blog Andrew, but here I think you cross the line of the scientific critique in the wrong direction. You may disagree with Baumeister’s argument (I do myself) but it is put forward in an academic forum, free for all to criticise. Saying that it is “pseudo scientific” should not be used as charge against a thesis with which you disagree (except in cases where ideas are resilient to scientific critique, e.g. homeopathy).

    There is a dangerous trend in academia where some themes are heavily politicised (e.g. gender) with an external political pressure to shut down some factual arguments with personal attacks on the researchers making them. I believe it is a duty for academics not to participate in this movement and to protect the scientific debate. If Baumeister and Vohs are wrong, publications will criticise their argument based on the strength of evidence not based on political interpretation of their motives.

    Whether we agree or not with their argument, it is a dangerous slope to criticise them for their alleged intentions rather simply for their methods and facts. As a matter of fact, from what I know of Baumeister, I do not believe he supports “traditional sex roles, racial inequality, and a general feeling that rich people deserve to keep what they have.”

  11. Joe Hoover says:


    I don’t disagree with your general point; however, I don’t think it applies here. The authors almost only cite themselves, which raises the question of whether their claims are grounded in any independent research. Further, the paper is rife with unsubstantiated cultural/historical musing. For example, one of their primary claims is:

    Men created almost all large institutions; the idea that women have been systematically excluded from these institutions is disingenuous and one must look very hard to find evidence for such exclusion.

    That is, the authors make a claim about women as a population, but they try to substantiate that claim with post hoc references to the historical record. Even if men created almost all large institutions (they don’t provide evidence for this claim), that does not imply that the absence of institutions created by women is an indicator of women’s incapacity for creating institutions.

    Indeed, a major reason we do science is because causal inferences based on post hoc historical analysis don’t actually yield a reliable model of reality.

    Further, as the blog post points out, the claim that there is no clear evidence that women have been excluded from large institutions seems profoundly misguided. That is, unless institutions like the military, the government, the electorate, education, the arts, science, law enforcement, and clergy don’t count for some reason.

    As far as I’m concerned, this is textbook pseudoscience.

    • Joe Hoover says:

      Whoops. In my summary of their argument I should have also included their proposition that women have not created large institutions because they lack the capacity to do so (e.g. they don’t have the capacity for the right kinds of social networks and they are less motivated and ambitious than men).

      • Joe Hoover says:

        That is: Men created almost all large institutions. Women hardly ever create large organizations because they don’t have the capacity for the right kinds of social networks and because they are less motivated and ambitious than men. The idea that women have been systematically excluded from these institutions is disingenuous and one must look very hard to find evidence for such exclusion.

    • I don’t think Andrew was harsh or anything. I might suggest that using a term like ‘pseudoscience’ may gloss over finer characterization.

  12. TK says:

    Susan Fiske, to the best of my knowledge, it’s very progressive. Some of what she does is pseudoscience. To the best of my recollection Andrew never connected her politics and her inability to handle criticism (or data).

    Charles Murray appears to have very reasonable attitude towards his critics (he only gets upset when they attack him physically). Murray is a responsible scientist. Murray writes, among other things, about racial differences. Could it be that when we don’t like the ideology, we tend to tie to it otherwise bad behavior?

  13. Sofia says:

    Wow. I had managed to stay unaware of Baumeister’s, ehm, gender-political writings. Makes me mad I can’t stop citing him twice.

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