We must resist the scourge of ‘identity politics’

In the 1970s, a famous social psychology experiment established the in-group/out-group bias.

In what is now called the Minimal Group Paradigm schoolboys were assigned to two different groups according to whether they preferred the abstract paintings of Klimt, or the abstract paintings of Klee. When the two groups were pitted against each other in games where they could allot small amounts of money to each other, they consistently allotted more money to their in-group, despite the meaningless distinction between them.

This in-group/out-group bias was so robust the same results were found when the two groups were assigned with a coin toss. And further psychological research shows that it doesn’t take much for such groups to start really derogating each other.

This is why today’s identity politics can be such a worry. It is a scourge of superficiality, and you see it whenever words like “straight”, “white” or “male” are used as insults, or as apparent checkmates within debate. You can see it when Bill Shorten grabs same-sex marriage to champion, as if he hadn’t spent years indifferent to it, waiting for the issue to go away.

Every time we group people according to crude social categories we are setting up an in-group/out-group bias. When one group is earmarked for special treatment by policy makers, it can set up resentment in those who miss out, leading to a cycle where both groups start to compete with, stereotype, and dehumanise each other.

We can see this today with women’s interest groups who feel aggrieved and dehumanised by men; and the proliferating men’s groups who feel aggrieved and dehumanised by women. Yet this tribalism is by no means limited to gender.

The left do not have a monopoly on identity politics, but it does originate with them. Not from left-wing politicians, but from university campuses, in segments of academia where the preoccupation with gender and race verges on obsession. Yet while identity politics’ home is not on the right, it has become a plague that does not discriminate.

In recent years, journalists from News Corp have attacked the ABC and Fairfax on a daily basis, oblivious to the fact that normal people don’t care about media infighting.

Long before identity politics, left-wing ideology had two things going for it: solidarity and universalism. “Universalism” is an abstract term, but it’s a simple concept. It simply refers to the fact that it didn’t matter if you were a sheep-shearer in Australia, a miner in Wales, or a railroad worker in the US – if you were going to sacrifice your life (and lower back) to a faceless boss, then you had to get paid. But now the battles of worker’s rights have largely been won. And these successes have left an ideological void.

James Bloodworth, a writer in the UK, has argued that identity politics has emerged as the left has become more middle-class. Activists who populate universities and the press no longer focus on material inequalities because they themselves are relatively well off. But it’s not just because activists are middle-class that they focus on easy topics of gender, sexuality and racism.

It’s hard to come up with solutions to today’s policy issues. It’s hard to address growing budget deficits while addressing socio-economic inequality. It’s hard to figure out what to do about climate change whilst creating jobs.

Focusing on identity is simply easier than coming up with original ideas or workable policies. And this is why identity politics has spread to the right. In 2015, the low hanging fruits of policy have all been picked, and the problems that are left over are wickedly difficult. In this context, a retreat into a quagmire of tit-for-tat personal attacks is understandable. These problems have no easy solutions, have no political winners, and difficult trade-offs emerge at every corner.

No wonder the electorate feels unimpressed and dissatisfied. Our politicians keep trying to score cheap points by pigeonholing their policies and marketing them back to us. But if they don’t stop, community detachment will continue apace. Protest parties will proliferate. Left-wingers will turn to libertarianism, and disenchanted conservatives will turn to independents.

Politicians need to realise, and they need to realise it soon, that they can’t unite people through identity politics. They can only divide.

This article was originally published in The Drum.

University production line leads to nowhere

The university system is failing our young. A culture of irresponsibility within higher education has created conditions where the job market is being flooded with graduates seeking jobs in industries which do not need them.

Salaries for graduates are falling, as the rate of employment for graduates is falling off a cliff.

The culture of irresponsibility in higher education begins with the simple fact that too many people are going to university who probably shouldn’t be.

In 1950, one in every 267 Australian adults went to university. Today the figure is one in every 18 adults (including international students). Across Australia, around 1.2 million people are studying for a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

It is hard to know whether we should celebrate these figures or if they should give us cause to pause.

An uncomfortable truth is that even with the best teachers, not all of these people will go on to finish their courses. And it is unfair, even cruel, to encourage people to enter into higher education if they do not have the proficiency, or the capacity, to achieve decent grades.

This problem is so serious, yet so rarely addressed, that it has taken the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to step in. The anti-corruption body released a report on the risks associated with the international student industry in April this year. It warned that “there is no simple solution that will effectively eliminate the gap between the capabilities of students and the academic demands of the universities”.

If this gap was not eliminated, ICAC warned, then corruption and exploitation would ensue in the form of widespread cheating, plagiarism, falsified documents, ghost-writing and diluted academic standards. As the Herald has detailed in a  number of reports over the past year or so, this has well and truly come to pass.

And with too many people attending university and the potential for corruption is on the rise, one of the saddest developments in higher education today is the decline of the humanities. Enrolments in the arts have been dwindling for decades. And for those who do graduate from the Arts, many lack proper training in primary research, expository writing or formal logic.

The decline in student numbers  in the Arts is perhaps not surprising, when you consider the median house price in Sydney is approaching $1 million, which reinforces the need for a degree to dispense a marketable  (read money making)  skill.

Apart from being marinated in ideology, Arts students are also drowned for three years in jargon-heavy theory with negligible application whatsoever to real life. A glance at a leading literature conference (an event where researchers come to meet) gives a ready sense of what today’s students have to put up with.

At the Australasian Association of Literature Convention, to be held this year at the University of Wollongong, conference titles such as “Networks of Normality: Rethinking (Anti) Normativity in Contemporary Critical Theory” were grist for the mill. Other sessions have titles such as “Non/fictive Bodies: Fleshing out Absence/Drawing Presence”.

To the “uneducated” person this is not just nonsense, this is badly written nonsense which perhaps underscores the rising disconnect between some avenues of academia and the rest of us.

If we find it difficult to face up to the reality that our university system is letting its students down, perhaps it is because many of us have a nostalgic and romantic perception of the experience of “higher education”. Some may wistfully imagine the sandstone spires at Trinity College, with bright-eyed youngsters spending hours on the lawns or in their teachers’ offices discussing their tutorial topics and latest grand theories.

But this dream bears little resemblance with the modern-day reality. Rather, a university campus is more likely to have a Starbucks than a sandstone spire. Teachers are too overloaded with administrative tasks to have much time for their students. And students themselves are too busy scrambling to pay the rent than to think about current events or new ideas.

Nor is the experience leisurely. Five years ago, research led by Helen Stallman of the University of Queensland found Australian university students suffered mental distress that were at rates five times higher than the general population. The most common complaint from the 6000 students screened, was that they were under financial strain.

The universities have been reckless in pursuing their new “business model”. There should be a clear obligation to their students to ensure their degrees are fit for purpose and they shouldn’t profit from misleading students into pursuing worthless degrees.

The risks involved in opening up the universities to almost anyone who wants to attend, and then coupling that with easy to access loans from the government, are only now starting to be realised.

Many students simply do not finish their degree and end up saddled with debt.   Those who do finish are often met with the depressing reality that they are just one of thousands in a growing marketplace glut.

Universities need to start taking some responsibility for the wellbeing of their students, their success, and future employment prospects. They also need to have accountability – some skin in the game – when it comes to students’ ability to repay their higher education loans. If they do not, then the smartest children of the next generation will simply decide not to attend.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters”

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters”

A pernicious term used for those who voted for Trump and Brexit is the “low information voter”. Most likely uneducated, the low information voter doesn’t know much about “the issues”. He votes according to his gut feeling. He sabotages delicate democratic systems with the blunt exercise of his democratic rights.

Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.”

In the Washington Post, the low information voter is defined as one who is more likely to respond to emotional appeals about issues such as the economy, immigration, Muslims, race relations and sexism. The Post goes onto explain:

Low information voters are those who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition.” Those with a high need for cognition have a positive attitude toward tasks that require reasoning and effortful thinking and are, therefore, more likely to invest the time and resources to do so when evaluating complex issues.

In other words, low information people react quickly, trust their intuitions and shirk deliberative thought. High information people take the time to think things through.

Depending on how you spin it, however, low information people might also be less prone to rationalization and high information people might be more vulnerable to ad hoc hypothesizing. Being high in intelligence or a need for cognition does not automatically indicate that one is high in rationality. Nor does it tell us much about a person’s practical wisdom.

Other descriptions of Trump voters have been less polite. In Haaertz Chemi Salev writes:

But there is one overarching factor that everyone knows contributed most of all to the Trump sensation. There is one sine qua non without which none of this would have been possible. There is one standalone reason that, like a big dodo in the room, no one dares mention, ironically, because of political correctness. You know what I’m talking about: Stupidity. Dumbness. Idiocy. Whatever you want to call it: Dufusness Supreme.

These words — for anyone who voted for Clinton or Remain — are like a caramel sundae for the brain. They reassure people that their prejudices are not only correct, they are smart. And that those who don’t share their interests, their voting preferences, or their values, are not just different in the way that apples and oranges are different, they are inferior. 

***

In the world according to the misanthrope, the masses need to be saved from themselves. This role is fulfilled by the ‘superior voters’ or those who are high in information. The U.S. philosopher Jason Brennan considers himself to be one of these individuals. He writes:

And while I no doubt suffer from some degree of confirmation bias and self-serving bias, perhaps I justifiably believe that I — a chaired professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at an elite research university, with a Ph.D. from the top-ranked political philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and with a strong record of peer-reviewed publications in top journals and academic presses — have superior political judgment on a great many political matters to many of my fellow citizens, including to many large groups of them.

In his book Against Democracy, Brennan advocates a model of government that would prevent the armies of stupid from voting. He borrows the term epistocracy, where those who know about political matters have increased political purchase, and those who don’t are left watching from the sidelines.

He doesn’t spell out exactly how epistocracy would work, but he does suggest some measures such as additional votes for university graduates, or the requirement of passing a civics exam.

In Brennan’s epistocratic paradise, a twenty-three year old who has recently graduated with a degree in political science and who has passed a civics exam would be more entitled to vote than the Army veteran returning from service in Afghanistan. People with PhDs who call themselves “social scientists” and who use taxpayer funds to write papers on pilates being the embodiment of whiteness and the importance of understanding icebergs from a feminist perspective would have more authority to vote than the common taxpayers who pay their wage.

The great twentieth century historian, Arnold Toynbee, theorized long ago that civilisations start to decline when their elite classes become parasitic. I can’t think of anything more parasitic than pseudo-intellectuals using other people’s money to write about feminist glaciology and the “whiteness” of pumpkin spiced lattes — and then being awarded more votes than returning military servicemen and women.

***

As Sumantra Maitra has written, it really should not be that difficult to understand why the “low information” bloc in the UK or the U.S. have voted for Trump or Brexit:

[T]his revolutionary anti-elitism one can see, is not against the rich or upper classes per se, it is against the liberal elites, who just “know better” about immigration, about intervention and about social values. What we have seen is a “burn it all down” revenge vote, against sententious, forced internationalism, aided with near incessant smug lecturing from the cocooned pink haired urban bubbles. Whether it’s good or bad, is for time to decide. But it’s a fact and it might as well be acknowledged.

On major issues, such as immigration, the Overton Window has been so narrow, for so long, that many people feel that those who speak about these topics are not being straightforward or honest.

Voters can sense that public discourse is driven by a false economy of virtue-signalling. Many see politicians and journalists as a class of people who would prefer to rehearse their dinner party talking points and show-off how caring and open-minded they are, than deal with tough issues in a frank and open manner.

Consider the example which occurred in Australian parliament just last week. When Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told politicians in Question Time that 22 out of the last 33 people charged with terrorist-related offences in Australia were from a second and third generational Lebanese-Muslim background, Senator McKim from the Greens Party called him a “racist”. Later, on Sky News, Senator McKim said: “Undoubtedly the advice [Dutton’s] got is accurate but just because something is fact doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable or productive to talk about it.”

From the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany and the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Rothertham UK, to the partial release of 911 transcript of the Orlando Nightclub shooting in the US, to an Australian senator saying that is not reasonable or productive for an Immigration Minister to talk about facts — the public feels that on this topic, the powers-that-be are spineless at best, deceitful at worst.

And when policy is not up for debate and when conversation is taken off the table, the natural consequence will be growing suspicion and disillusionment in the populace. This is a bad outcome for liberal democracies.

While it is absolutely true that there is a robust body of literature which shows that immigration is beneficial for economic growth, there is another body of research which shows that increased diversity undermines social cohesion and social trust. “Low information” people may intuitively sense this. But they know which body of research their politicians will refer to on television talk shows and in parliament. And it’s not the research on social trust.

This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative all the time. And while it may be naïve for voters to believe the promises of Trump and the Brexit campaigners — it has also been profoundly naïve for the cosmopolitan classes to believe that years of forced internationalism and forced political correctness were never going to end with a large scale backlash.

Of course there are many people in the world who may not have the intellectual tool-kit to think through policy options carefully. However, “high information” people are not immune to irrationality. They are just as likely to be ideologues who are resistant to updating their beliefs when faced with new evidence. This includes social scientists.

In fact, high information people are likely to be much better at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest. And high information rationalisers are probably more likely to put forward theories about how everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, and is not deserving of the right to vote.

Daily Life’s Boy-Bashing Clickbait Reaches New Low

This essay was published on Quillette on August 17, 2016. Read the original article here.

When Daily Life came onto Australia’s media scene in 2012, I used to read it with bemusement, sometimes morbid fascination. About a year after it launched I started blogging in response to some of its articles, but since 2013, I’ve mostly ignored the publication. One gets tired of clickbait.

Tabloid magazines have been around for a long time and yellow journalism dates back to the nineteenth century. Daily Life has certainly not created anything new. It is also understandable that The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age need to bolster their dwindling readership with cheap and easy commentary on the latest “hot topics”, including those that involve gender and feminism. In the context of the disruption caused by the Internet, it is not a scandal that a media company would do this.

Yet since the public relations fiascos of 2014 and 2015, such as Shirtstorm, and the Tim Hunt affair, it’s also increasingly difficult to become animated by gender politics. From where I sit, the culture war is largely over. No-one serious pays any attention to the likes of Clementine Ford or Lindy West. And Jezebel, the blog that launched it all, has just been sold for a meager price — much less than its former value. Confected outrage has become passé.

Another reason not to care about gender politics is due to the fact that many “men’s rights activists” appear to be just as petulant as third-wave feminists. Engaging in the same kind of toxic identity politics and underhand tactics, it can be hard to take their complaints seriously. However, this week, an article was published by Daily Life, which trivialised boys who underperform in school, and while I don’t sympathise with men’s rights activists generally, when articles such as this one are published, it’s hard not to see their point.

In How to help boys do better at school: stop giving them a leg-up in the outside world — boys’ under-achievement in school is blamed on patriarchal privilege. The author, an “education expert,” Jane Caro, writes:

I find it a little hard to get as exercised as many people appear to do about the relatively poor performance of boys at school. Part of the reason I am fairly relaxed about this may be entirely selfish – I have daughters. But part of it is because I cannot help but notice that this lack of academic prowess in no way seems to hold the male gender back when it comes to the world of work.

She then goes onto say:

I can tell you in one word why I think boys do worse than girls at school, and here it is; patriarchy. Think about it. Boys are not stupid, they look at the world and they see that their gender gets a relatively easy ride thanks to patriarchy. They kick back at school a bit because – quite sensibly – they see that they simply don’t need to work as hard to get ahead.

It is quite a remarkable argument. According to the theory, little boys are so tuned into social realities that they calibrate their school effort according to how easy they expect to have it later in life. Any boy capable of this level of abstract reasoning most likely will succeed later in life. But we all know that for most little boys this proposition is fanciful.

Such arguments would make sense if boys who did badly at school actually went on to have impressive careers. But they don’t. Boys who struggle in school often drop-out, find it difficult to gain employment, and often end up at the bottom of the social pile; these boys are also much more likely to come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. For any  parent to be unaware of this is surprising. But for an “education expert” to be unaware of these facts is a serious failing.

The tendency of feminist writers to collapse class privilege into gender privilege, without acknowledging that life might actually be hard for men on the bottom, is myopic. Notwithstanding these failures in logic, the article received a warm welcome from its online audience:

 

The article, and its reception leads one to ask the question — just exactly how did feminist analysis get here? Who decided that it was acceptable to conflate class with gender and to trivialise the struggles of school-boys simply because there are more men on corporate boards than women?

How did it become acceptable for “experts” and writers to give such little thought to real social problems? Hand-waving about the patriarchy is not an analysis. When we know that boys are at much higher risk of ADHD, autism and language delay than girls, it should not be acceptable to place the blame of boys’ underperformance at an imagined sense of entitlement.

It might just be that casual prejudice has become so commonplace that many of us don’t even notice it anymore. Have all the avenues of male-bashing now been so exhausted that it must be extended to children? One would sincerely hope not.

Thiel vs Gawker: Why a Defensive Media is the Real Threat to Free Speech

This essay was published on Quillette on June 1 2016. Read the original article here.

In March this year, Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan), was awarded $140 million in damages in an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media.

Gawker Media is an online media company owned by Nick Denton, based in New York City and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. It is the parent company of several different blogs including the infamous pop-feminist rag Jezebel and the much maligned Valleywag and Kotaku.

Gawker Media has tormented both powerful and not so powerful people for some time now. In 2015, The Daily Beast reported that the online magazine belligerently hounded actor James Franco for years even going so far as to accuse him of being a “gay rapist”.

Less than a year ago, Gawker ran a bizarre expose about a thwarted tryst between an unknown business executive and a male escort. It turned out that the escort had attempted to blackmail the executive. When that failed, he went to Gawker, and Gawker ran the story.

In Hulk Hogan’s court case, details emerged of Gawker’s editor-in-chief Albert J Daulerio mocking a college girl who had begged the company’s editors to remove a video of her being sexually assaulted in a bathroom stall. A deposition of Daulerio was also shown at the trial. Daulerio gave the following testimony:

“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” (asked Douglas E. Mirell, a lawyer).

“If they were a child,” Daulerio replied.

“Under what age?” asked Mirell.

“Four.”

***

It was also revealed last week that PayPal Founder and Venture Capitalist, Peter Thiel, was bank-rolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker the entire time it was running. This was hitherto unknown, even to Nick Denton, who responded to the news by penning a desperate open letter to the billionaire begging him to stop.

Thiel has every reason to disdain the company – its subsidiary Valleywag invaded his own privacy in 2007. But revenge was not the primary reason why Thiel funded the lawsuit. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that he helped Terry Bollea (Hogan) so that it would serve as a deterrent to other rogue media companies:

It’s less about revenge and more specifically about deterrence…I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.

When the news of Thiel’s involvement broke, Twitter erupted in celebration with #ThankYouPeter briefly trending. In contraposition with the public, however, was the reaction of the media. Never has the disconnect between journalists and ordinary readers been so starkly illustrated, with the same limp and homogenized arguments being published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian and even The New Yorker. Each masthead argued the same thing: that Gawker was distasteful – yes – but that a billionaire funding a lawsuit against a media company was “worrisome”, and that the funding of this lawsuit would set a “dangerous precedent”.

Rubbish.

Much of the commentary focuses on a hypothetical chill to free speech that the lawsuit might inflict. But this analysis omits a crucial fact. It was Gawker, not Hulk Hogan or Peter Thiel, which struck fear into the hearts and minds of people for years. It was Gawker staff who trawled social media for everyday targets to mock and ridicule. It was Gawker’s CEO Nick Denton who was aware that a trans woman committed suicide after being outed, but ordered his staff to continue outing anyway.

At Gawker’s peak, you could be a regular person, tweet something stupid, and your whole life could blow up. Just ask Justine Sacco, who described “crying her weight in tears” after a badly judged tweet was picked up and published by Valleywag, spearheading a particularly vicious episode of mob justice.

Freedom of speech is not something that belongs to multi-million dollar media companies with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. It should belong to everyone. It should have belonged to Justine Sacco.

And while it is certainly nice that columnists at Slate and The Guardian have suddenly discovered that free speech is an important thing, it might also behoove them to remember that free expression is not only threatened by legal actions or government censorship. Historically and traditionally, free speech is most often suppressed by social norms.

Freedom to make observations about the world and articulate them has always been stifled by oppressive conformity. Whether one is living in 17th Century Italy and fails to declare that the world is flat; or whether one lives in 19th Century Germany and says “God is dead,” there will always be things one cannot say.

Ideally, a free press works to expand these boundaries and gently break down taboos through the piecemeal discovery and exploration of truth. Gawker and friends, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. Denton built a business model out of punishing and policing people for not adhering to social norms. And he even invaded people’s private lives to do so.

***

The lengths to which some writers have gone to defend Gawker’s behaviour casts doubt of whether the industry is capable of recognising unethical or illegal actions in its own ranks.

Will Oremus at Slate wrote that Thiel’s (perfectly legal) funding of Hogan’s lawsuit was itself “proof” that Valleywag was needed. In the same article he wrote that the tactics of Gawker were not actually bullying because “they always saw themselves as punching up”.

In an appalling screed, Marina Hyde of The Guardian wrote that the outing of gay men was a matter of “ethical opinion,” and that Valleywag — while distasteful — provided “much needed irreverence”.

Read enough of these flaccid excuses for bullying from media types and one comes away feeling vaguely sick. The real threat to freedom of expression is not a lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel. It is a vampiric industry that is ready to suck the blood of the public in an effort to cope with its economic stresses.

The media’s response to the Thiel vs Gawker affair has been to make much of Thiel. But the paramount issue is the conduct of the media itself. Journalism fails as a profession when it cannot adequately police itself. Thiel vs Gawker demonstrates the blindness of the press to the unseemly excesses of those within their ranks. The public are disgusted by Gawker, as they were disgusted by The News of the World phone-hacking scandal of the mid 2000s.

Columnists may strike an imperious posture if they wish, and attack Silicon Valley out of resentment. But that won’t do anything to restore the integrity of their profession. If journalism fails to open up its own industry to the same kind of scrutiny that it demands of others, it will not be digital disruption which causes its demise. It will be its own hypocrisy.

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

This post was published on Quillette on December 4 2015. Read the original article here.

The Sydney Symposium

At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology.

Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories.

Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract stated:

We…show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings above and beyond commitment to laissez-faire free markets. This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.

After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming.

“But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.”

His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology. The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.

Jussim explained that within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.

***

Jussim appears to have had an anti-authoritarian streak since day one. Born in Brooklyn 1955, his family moved to Long Island when he was twelve. He lost his mother the following year from illness, and after that, he lost his father as well, although this time not from illness, but from grief. It was at this tender age that Jussim entered into a life of self-reliance. Ferociously independent, Jussim describes having little respect for, or deference to, authority figures. In high school he says he purposely made life miserable for his teachers, and later he would become an anti-war activist.

In 1975, at the age of 20, he was a university dropout. He did not return again to study until four years later, when he began undergraduate psychology, and it was not until 1986, at the age of 30, that Jussim achieved his first publication. By this stage he was already married with a baby.

Jussim may not have known at this point that he was destined to continue living a life of non-conformity. He was a reformed delinquent and anti-Vietnam war activist. He had his PhD and a publication under his belt. He had settled down. His former life of rabble rousing and trouble making was over.

Or so he thought.

Very early in his career, Jussim faced a crisis of sorts. An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating – for three more decades.

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30%-50% could be replicated.

The reproducibility project follows in the wake of a crisis that has engulfed social psychology in recent years. A slew of classic studies have never been able to be fully replicated. (Replication is a benchmark of the scientific method. If a study cannot be replicated, it suggests that the results were a fluke, and not an accurate representation of the real world).

For example, Bargh, Chen and Burrows published one of the most famous experiments of the field in 19963. In it, students were divided into two groups: one group received priming with the stereotype of elderly people; the other students received no priming (the control group). When the students left the experiment, those who had been primed with the stereotype of the elderly, walked down a corridor significantly more slowly than the students assigned to the control. While it has never been completely replicated, it has been cited over 3400 times. It also features in most social psychology textbooks.

Another classic study by Darley & Gross published in 1983, found that people applied a stereotype about social class when they saw a young girl taking a math test, but did not when they saw a young girl not taking a math test.5 Two attempts at exact replication have failed.6 And both replication attempts actually found the opposite pattern – that people apply stereotypes when they have no other information about a person, but switch them off when they do.6

In the field of psychology, what counts as a “replication” is controversial. Researchers have not yet reached a consensus on whether a replication means that an effect of the same size was found. Or that an effect size was found within the same confidence intervals. Or whether it is an effect in the same direction. How one defines replication will likely impact whether one sees a “replication” as being successful or not. So while some of social psychology’s classic studies have not been fully replicated, there have been partial replications, and a debate still rages around what exactly constitutes one. But here’s the kicker: even in the partial replications of some of these stereotype studies, the research has been found to be riddled with p-hacking.4 (P-hacking refers to the exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom until a desirable result is found).

***

When I went through university as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of – stereotype accuracy – is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.7 This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so.7

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals.7 It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be.8

A Cool Reception

Studying the accuracy of stereotypes is risky business. For many, investigation into stereotypes is tantamount to endorsing bigotry. To understand why this is the case, one has to take a long view of the discipline’s history.

Social psychology arose from the ashes of World War 2. An entire generation had to come to terms with the legacy of the war, and the study of prejudice and authoritarianism naturally captured their imaginations. Gordon Allport, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, conceptualised stereotypes in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice as inaccurate, pernicious and unshakeable, and influential in shaping the social world9. From this point onwards, this conception has largely remained unchallenged.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:

“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. One academic, John Jost at New York University, who argues that conservatism is a form of motivated cognition, runs what he calls the Social Justice Lab. Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.

Jussim has weathered aloof, and at times openly hostile attitudes to his work for virtually three decades. In an email to me earlier in the year, he wrote that he felt like his work life has been lived in solitary confinement. It is possible that Jussim’s citation count – or impact factor – has been artificially suppressed. And for renegade academics such as Jussim to get published, they often must resort to sugar-coating and camouflaging their results, leaving important findings out of journal titles and abstracts.

Yet he points out that despite the hostility towards stereotype accuracy, he has been well treated by social psychology – having been given an American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1997 – and being cited by his peers over 6000 times. Jussim also points out that while doing research that breaks taboos and undermines political narratives is hard, it is not impossible. Ultimately the scientific method wins.

It is too early to know how research into stereotypes will unfold in the future. And we do not know yet if social psychology will ever be able to achieve ideological diversity, or realistically address its left-wing bias. What is certain, however, is that despite producing work that has been unwelcome and unpopular, Lee Jussim has remained a faithful servant to the scientific method. Even in the face of great personal costs.

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