Monday, July 31, 2006

Empiricism

Are liberals more "empirical" than conservatives? Here are a few items that seem relevant:

1. This is from a review of The Bell Curve by Douglas Massey, a prominent liberal sociologist from Princeton. It appeared in the American Journal of Sociology in 1995 (vol. 101, pp. 747-53):
The way to discredit theories you do not like, of course, is to confront them directly, test them rigorously, and prove them wrong; but, in adopting this course, you must accept the possibility that an explanation you perceive as noxious might, in fact, be correct. Rather than accepting such a possibility -- that culture may somehow be implicated in poverty or that differences in cognitive ability might help account for variation in social outcomes -- sociologists stuck their heads in the sand and hoped the unpleasant ideas would just go away.

The situation would have been bad enough if that is all they did, but many also sought to ensure that no one would investigate such thorny and divisive issues. In a variety of ways, the field actively discouraged the examination of social differences with respect to culture and intelligence. For those who were slow to catch on, object lessons were made of Oscar Lewis and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, after the treatment these two prominent social scientists received, no one could miss the point.

Using years of ethnographic research conducted in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York City, Oscar Lewis published a series of works in the 1960s arguing that poor people adapted to their structural circumstances by adopting behaviors, attitudes, and social arrangements that, while useful in their immediate environment, were disadvantageous in the wider society. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at that time a Harvard sociologist serving as assistant secretary of labor, wrote a report entitled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," which noted the rising rate of family dissolution and unwed childbearing in the black community and linked these trends to high levels of black male unemployment in the ghetto. He warned of dire consequences for society unless something was done to check the rapid rise in black female-headed households.

Both views implied that, under certain circumstances, the behavior of poor people might contribute to the perpetuation of their poverty, and, for this heresy, both men were excoriated by liberals throughout the social science establishment. . . . The calumny heaped on these two distinguished social scientists had a chilling effect on social science over the next two decades. Sociologists avoided studying controversial issues related to race, culture, and intelligence, and those who insisted on investigating such unpopular notions generally encountered resistance and ostracism.
2. James Coleman is one of the most famous sociologists of the 20th century. He was the primary author of the 1966 "Equality of Educational Opportunity" study for the U.S. government -- I've never seen another social science study of that magnitude (several hundred pages analyzing the performance of several hundred thousand students in thousands of schools).

In 1975, Coleman put out another report titled Trends in School Segregation, 1968-73. What made this report controversial at the time was that Coleman showed that "white flight" was occurring in response to desegregation plans. Coleman's thesis is now the conventional wisdom, of course, but it wasn't greeted with open minds at the time. Coleman explains why on pages 166-67 of his book Equality and Achievement in Education:
For many who were not sympathetic to the extensive school reorganization that a desegregation plan entailed, the report was seen as a revelation that the emperor had no clothes, as a statistical analysis documenting what ordinary persons had known all along: that busing did not work. Because a person who had been seen to be at the forefront of the social movement – the person who, as author of the “Coleman Report,” was seen by some as the “father of busing” – made the revelation, it was even more powerful.

One can understand the outrage with which many advocates of massive desegregation plans (including the then-president of the American Sociological Association, who proposed to have me censured by the association) greeted the report by recognizing the heterogeneous nature of the coalition on which the social movement depended. . . . The vehemence with which many of the leaders and most ardent supporters of busing plans greeted the publication of this report stemmed from the report’s potential for destroying this heterogeneous coalition by leading those interested only in achieving desegregation to withdraw support: If busing were shown to be ineffective in its announced intention, through its indirect resegregating effects, then the movement would lose a large fraction of the support on which it depended.
3. The work of James Coleman supplies yet another example of the over-politicization of social science. In the 1980s, Coleman and several co-authors wrote a couple of books showing that Catholic schools were superior to public schools – in terms of academic results, civic education, and improving the education of racial minorities. Coleman was once again very unpopular for daring to reach such an incorrect result. Ultimately, his vindication came when the American Sociological Association gave him an award and later made him the president of that association. On receiving the award, Coleman’s response included this passage:
James S. Coleman, “Response to the Sociology of Education Award,” Academic Questions (Summer 1989): 76-78.

I ask you to recall the extraordinarily strong pro-public school consensus [within the academic community], the consensus that private schools were inegalitarian, and that Catholic schools were both ineffective and inegalitarian. . . . It was not accidental that the first research that dared to claim that private schools, and even (as it turned out, especially) Catholic schools produced higher achievement for strictly comparable students, was done by someone whose reputation was secure. And it is not accidental that these results were followed by similar results from others younger in the field who until then had been inhibited by their own discipline from asking these questions. . . . How can the discipline . . . so structure itself that it does not erect norms against research that challenges the conventional wisdom? Or more pointedly, how can the discipline structure itself so as not to violate academic freedom, as it has done in the past? . . . I accept [this award] in the name of all those researchers whose academic freedom was constricted by the norms of the discipline. Perhaps most of all, I accept it in the name of all those who have braved these norms and have had their reputations warped, twisted, or destroyed by doing so.
One of Coleman’s compatriots – Andrew Greeley – had these thoughts on his own similar research:
I often regret that I ever became engaged in this area of scholarly investigation. It has been a waste of time. Doctrinaire slogans, conventional wisdom, shallow ideology, pessimism, and nonsense have dominated the discussion of Catholic education for so long that I have little hope that mere findings, no matter how solid, will be taken seriously. Certainly my own work and that of the research heritage I have described has had no impact at all.
4. One of the relatively early books proposing school vouchers was Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, published by Brookings and written by John Chubb and Terry Moe in 1990. In a more recent book on vouchers (The Education Gap), Paul Peterson and William Howell point out how Chubb and Moe’s book was received at the time:
So intense was the opposition that a nationwide and quite unprecedented (at least to our knowledge) letter-writing campaign was organized to stop the appointment of one of the authors to a prestigious position at one of the country’s leading universities.

6 Comments:

Blogger Brian Moore said...

Don't forget all the "praise" heaped on Edward Banfield after he wrote a chapter titled "Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit" in his book "Unheavenly Cities." Liberals just loved that guy!

7:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

It seems to me you are proving the opposite point--liberals are in fact more empirical; that is, more likely to follow the facts. Your examples here show that. Moynihan challenged the establishments facts and was unfairly vilified by those nutty liberals by being . . . elected to the US Senate! That's punishment? And all of these examples of irrational liberals are taken from a retrospective written by . . . another liberal.

Show me where conservatives are engaging in this kind of self-criticism. Jon Chait was correct about liberals being more likely to simply follow the evidence If health savings accounts and big tax cuts really would get better health care access to everyone and keep costs down, we liberals would happily advocate them.

If one the other hand, a single payor system were conclusively shown to be the best way to operate the health care system, conservatives would still oppose it for ideological reasons.

Thus: liberals are more empirical

8:27 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Your question is rather disingenuous. As to empiricists: no ideologue, be he a liberal or conservative, is empirical in nature.

Empiricists can be either liberal or conservative; their distinguishing factor is that they use empiricism as the foundation of their inquiries.

2:11 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

The question isn't originally mine. It arose last year because Jonathan Chait wrote an article claiming that liberals are more empirical than conservatives. (See here.)

7:42 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Stuart: my apologies.

I still think the question is rather disingenuous, or at least poorly phrased.

4:45 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Many of your examples are themselves liberals who were swayed by the evidence they found. Although I suppose they are "exceptions that prove the rule".

Coleman & Moynihan are both discussed in Timur Kuran's "Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification"/

11:05 AM  

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