And I’m losing control

9 02 2014

This is shit, isn’t it?

I mean, I’m not a social psychologist, and even fellow political scientists doubt the soc-sci cred of theorists like me, but Jonathan Haidt seems to be siphoning way too much meaning out of a poorly-designed linguistic study.

To wit:

When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”

To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind.

To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) [delinked two items]

Anyone else see the problem? He’s comparing three books explicitly against religion to three general right-wing texts, i.e., not three texts explicitly in favor of religion.

That’s some shit sampling right there, providing shit comparisons. If you want to compare the effect of a variable on x across two populations, then you need to hold everything constant except that variable: You need to compare anti-religion text to pro-religion texts.

Even a political theorist knows that.

And which had the most comments on Amazon? Uh huh. (Others at that second link point out problems with linguistic analysis generally.)

I am admittedly a skeptic of Haidt’s work, precisely over the issues of definition and control. I haven’t read The Righteous Mind so can’t comment on the arguments he presents there, but I have read other, shorter pieces by him and about his work. And while I do agree that American liberals and conservatives may—may—assign different priorities to different values, I think it’s just as likely that we assign different definitions to different values.

For example, libertarians and social-welfare liberals may both agree that fairness matters, but disagree as to what fair is. To the libertarian, fairness may mean being able to profit from the fruits of one’s labors; to the liberal, fairness may mean that every person has a shot at/be guaranteed a decent life.

Again, I haven’t read Haidt’s book, so it is entirely possible that he covers the definitional issue. It’s pretty basic, after all.

Then again, controlling your sample populations is pretty basic, too.


I have no opinion about that

4 09 2011

Riddle me this how do we decide how much info/understanding should we have about a topic before we feel justified in having an opinion that is more than a gut hunch? —dmf

I once introduced myself to colleague as someone who “has lunch and opinions”, so I can’t say that it ever occurred to me that I needed to justify the having of an opinion. As far back as I can remember, I have had opinions about something or another, from the superiority of homemade jello pops over store-bought popsicles to the belief that swimming was the summer activity, to the obviousness that racism was stupid and girls were equal to boys, and on and on about cars and music and food and friendship and clothes and alcohol and sex and money and liberty and justice for all.

No, for me, the corker was justifying not having an opinion.

I do, in fact, now qualify my opinions in ways I didn’t when younger, and I do justify not having opinions about a whole range of topics, based on 1) lack of information and 2) lack of interest. “Don’t know/don’t care” is a pretty damned effective gate to conversations which would otherwise drive me off a cliff.

Still, I don’t regret my previous opinion libertinism, and I don’t begrudge anyone else their expressive needs. I learned a lot in spouting off, both in how to put together an argument and in prompting others to take issue with me. I hate hate hate to be wrong, but I hate even more the persistence of error. I could—and can—also be sloppy in my pronunciamentos, so getting smacked (or wanting to avoid getting smacked) for spilling too many words has forced me to steady my tongue.

(There’s the additional question of credentialism and the desire not to want to make a fool of oneself in front of one’s colleagues which may lead to a crippling reticence, i.e., in not challenging a majority view for fear that the mere expression of a minority opinion marks one as untrustworthy—but that’s a separate issue.)

Given my own history, then, I’m more likely to indulge than shut down opinionists, especially if they’re willing to go back and forth on an issue. Shooting the shit can be an highly enjoyable way of passing the time.

What I do narrow my eyes at are those who state their opinions as fact and who substitute their subjective experiences for objective certainty. That you have a right to an opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to trump all other opinions. Oh, and shouting doesn’t make you right. (*Full disclosure: I have shouted. More than once.)

So anyone can have any opinion about anything. If, however, you want that opinion to have any weight with anyone else, you gotta do the work—the (self-)education, the reflection, the reasoning—to convince them. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones got it right when she admonished: Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict.

Educate yourself. Quite so.