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July 5, 2013

How Hate Facts Kill Scientific Inquiry

By Robert Weissberg

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When I began by academic career in 1965 as a graduate student in political science, the social sciences seemed on the verge of curing the world's problems. We were scientists; we had statistics and computers, every student studied scientific methodology, and the National Science Foundation funded our endeavors.

Alas, a half century later, pessimism prevails. Science has produced wonders elsewhere, but not in the social sciences. A "Made in the Academy" label attached to social-science solution to anything would be comparable to "Made in Occupied Japan" circa 1950--guaranteed shoddy workmanship.

This failure has multiple roots but let me highlight just one: hate facts. These are empirically established or at least highly credible truths that instigate outrage independent of whether true or false. The fact is "wrong" because it is deemed offensive, not because it is factually false. Hate facts substitute personal emotional reaction for scientific verification; feelings trump science. Critically, the more scientifically true an offending assertion, the greater the fact's hatefulness. This, of course, contravenes science where the stronger the confirming evidence, the "better" the fact. Making purely factual statements can thus be judged harassment, if not persecution.

Scientific proficiency requires multiple talents, but a willingness to follow the evidence regardless of outcome is essential. This inclination is vital for success but the existence of hate facts destroys truth-seeking.

In today's academy hate facts can generally be found in anything touching on gender, class, sexual identity, and race or an assertion that challenges the value of racial/ethnic diversity. To aver that compared to men women lack writing skill is indisputably false thereby not "hateful." But, to demonstrate down to the third decimal point that men are better mathematicians than women is true is a hate fact since this offends some women.

The world of hate facts also undercuts the benefits of professional specialization. Since the hatefulness has nothing to do with scientific validity, anyone can pass judgment regardless of expertise. Now an innumerate professor of Women's Studies can legitimately condemn the statistically complex work of an economist despite knowing zero about the research other than its conclusion (the opposite--an economist criticizing Women's Studies--is highly unlikely, however, since that criticism would be harassment). To paraphrase an old expression: "I don't know anything about economics, but I know hate."

Unwelcome truths are often called "stereotypes" as if an exception (real or invented) renders a generalization totally false. But, if the offending evidence is unambiguously conclusive, the offending fact becomes a "dangerous stereotype" and thus horribly wrong. Another anti-knowledge ploy invokes "controversial"--while the evidence is rock solid scientifically, some people nevertheless disagree, so the solid finding is only one opinion among many and therefore dismissible. If all else fails, just insist that there is no single truth, but many truths based upon personal identify, and so-called "scientific" truth is just the white-male version. On the other hand, if the preponderance of evidence has a happy ending e.g., global warming, the facts are a "settled scientific consensus" regardless of conflicting findings.

Academic outsiders seldom grasp the personal consequences of expressing hate facts. The penalties are especially grim for those who mistakenly soldier on marshalling yet more solid evidence for their "hate." Nor can distinguished academics escape the anti-hate rage. In fact, it seems the more renowned the messenger, the greater the indignation, a perfect strategy to intimidate those with less prestige. The world famous Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson was physically assaulted and repeatedly harassed for his work on sociobiology. Noble Prize winning geneticist James Watson suffered a similar fate when he said that according to his reading of the research literature, low IQ among sub-Saharan Africans Africa limited their economic progress (he also emphasized his unease about that conclusion, but this hardly helped). The American Sociological Association's campaign once tried to excommunicate James S. Coleman after his infamous report on schools' limited ability to boost academic achievement.   

These high-profile attacks are only a small part of the campaign. Messenger-shooting is endemic in today' social sciences and as such is barely noticed. Most censorship is probably self-imposed without public witch burning. Few academics want to be called a racist, homophobic, a sexist, or fascist. It is not that social scientists are anti-science; personally I'd guess that most are secret believers but why invite trouble when so many trouble-free research opportunities exist elsewhere?

The nature of today's academy facilitates the bullying. Between First Amendment protection and a pervasive tolerance for leftist bien pensant there are zero costs for the most vile, unfair attacks. Hard to imagine any academic being punished for being excessively PC (think Ward Churchill). Indeed, when it comes to fighting "hate," even vandalizing property, there are only benefits, no costs. What professor or administrator favors "hate'? There will certainly be calls to have offending culprit removed from the classroom lest he infect students. Better yet, publish attacks in an anthology and thereby not only "fight hate" but earn academic busywork points (disparaging The Bell Curve helped countless professors pad their vita).

Professional ostracism is perhaps the most consequential--not being invited to academic conferences, denied funding, and socially shunned by colleagues (especially anxious junior faculty). Add boycotts of the author's other works having nothing to do with the hateful offense (I recall reading that introductory sociology textbooks seeking course adoptions dare not cite George Gilder's Sexual Suicide, even to condemn it since mere mentioning might entice impressionable students to read it).  And, of the upmost importance, colleagues who know the truth will never defend the "hater" in public.  Never.

What makes the social sciences especially vulnerable to messenger shooting is the low entry cost. Everybody is an "expert" on what social scientists study and hardly anybody wants to wade through all the claims and counter-claims. Just follow the PC crowd. Social sciences are totally unlike the hard sciences with its arduous technical material--no enraged undergraduates will demand the firing of some heretic physics professor who rejects string theory. A professor whose brilliant research might, for example, demonstrates that housewives have fewer mental problems than career women will not be so lucky.

Killing truth is also helped by the lack of clear social-science research standards. Rebuttals, no matter how flawed, are all too easy when the audience is already convinced. In the case of sex differences in mathematical ability, just use a measure that combines everybody from a little above average in mathematical ability to those four standard deviations above the mean into a single category. Guaranteed, this will show zero sex differences. Or just assess mathematical ability among pre-adolescents since large sex-related differences there have not yet emerged. Or use multiple statistical controls to "eliminate" any sex differences (outsiders seldom understand this smoke and mirrors tactic). Or insist that "artificial" gaps will vanish once society becomes totally gender neutral. Pretty soon the rock solid "hateful" research findings will be hopelessly out-numbered and who has the gumption to defend a single outlier finding?

This anti-intellectual flight from hate facts can only grow worse as fans of unvarnished truth leave the academy or, more likely, flee into uncontroversial safe harbors. Moreover, in today's dismal academic job market there are few incentives to be a martyr. Not even tenured faculty, including the President of Harvard can stand up to the abuse from angry thin-skinned activists. Yes, lots of our ills could benefit from solid scientific social science (think James Q. Wilson among others of an earlier era), but personal survival will always take precedence.                  



Comments (1)

Benjamin Ginsberg:

Weissberg is absolutely correct. I remember being chided by a Cornell deanlet for reportedly declaring in class that "old codgers" had lobbied heavily for increased Social Security benefits. The deanlet declared that this term might be seen as racist. I asked him to explain what race senior citizens constituted and he said he would get back to me. This was about 35 years ago and I'm still waiting for a response. In the meantinme, I've stopped criticizing my (now) fellow old codgers.

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