A few thoughts about Jordan Peterson

Jordan_Peterson_June_2018

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian Psychology professor, has become famous recently for his YouTube videos and his opposition to what he called enforced speech in Canadian Bill C18. This post is a reaction to a few aspects of Peterson’s pubic lectures and YouTube videos. It doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive assessment of everything he’s said.

First, the negatives. I don’t like Peterson’s tendency to link ethics with religion, as tho one needs to be religious to have ethics (although he avoids saying this directly).  I also don’t like the overuse of mythology, ancient stories and psychoanalytic archetypes. If I were to edit his book “Twelve Rules” I think I could remove 1/2 of the text without losing any of the meaning.  Nor do I like his rule about “get your own life in order before you try to change the world.” None of us has our own lives totally “in order.” That would prevent any political activism.

Some of his rules are things people should follow: “Tell the truth, or at least stop lying.” “Be precise in your speech.” “Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

However, some of the dislike directed at Peterson is directed at him because he correctly describes some findings from psychology that contradict the majority thinking of the last 40 years.

Men and women score differently, on average, for many personality traits:

  • Openness (openness to new ideas and experiences, curiosity, being imaginative),
  • conscientiousness (being prepared, organized, efficient, diligent),
  • agreeableness (willingness to compromise, taking other people’s feelings into account, being diplomatic),
  • extraversion (being energetic, outgoing, talkative, seeking company) and
  • susceptibility to negative emotions (especially anxiety, anger, and depression, and mood variability).

Those are referred to as the “Big Five” personality traits.

Men and women also differ on average from each other on a scale of “interest in people vs interest in things.” Women score higher than men in all of these traits. Of course, most of these traits are distributed on a bell curve, so there’s a considerable overlap of two bell curves, one for men and one for women, but with a differing means (average values).

These personal characteristics are a bit like height. Height is a variable you can measure along a scale and put on a graph. Like many qualities it’s distributed like a bell shaped curve. The most common height is at the center, and as you move away from the average height, the number of people at that height starts to drop off, a little, then it drops off rapidly until you only have a small number of people who are very very tall or very very short.

Height males females

To understand some of the things Peterson says, people need to understand that if you have two bell curves, one to the right of the other, it only takes a small difference at the center to make a very large discrepancy at the extremes in the ratio of people from the two groups who are very very x or very very not x. In the case of height (to take a non-ideological issue), the average female adult in North America is 65 inches tall. The average male is 70 inches. That’s only a difference of 8 percent. There are lots of women taller than some men. The two graphs have a large overlap. But if you move a further 5 inches out from the male average and ask “who is it that taller than 75 inches,” men outnumber women by 20 to 1. If you move 5 inches to the left of the female average, and ask, “Who is shorter than 60 inches,” it’s almost all women. There is a spectrum, but one spectrum is to the right of the other.

(Looking at the graphs, you find the number of men above 75 inches by looking at the area under the blue curve to the right of the yellow- orange line at 75 inches. The number of women above 75 inches is the area under the red line  to the right of the orange line. For those shorter than 60 inches, you look at the areas under the curve to the left of 60 – the purple line.)

This property applies whenever you have two bell curves, one to the right of the other. It doesn’t matter whether you are measuring height, weight, or how far two groups of kids (one older than the other) can throw a tennis ball. A small difference in the average  in the middle produces very large discrepancies in the number of members of the two groups out at the extremes. In psychology tests where people are given chance to cheat in games, men cheat more than women. They also lie about it more than women. Men have, on average less concern for the effect of their actions on others (i.e. are less agreeable.) Who are the people who lie a very very lot, break lots and lots of rules, and really really don’t care about the effect of their action on others? Mostly men. They are the sociopaths (correctly referred to as having anti-social personality disorder). Male sociopaths outnumber women by about 4 to 1.

Men score higher than women on interest in things vs interest in people. Women score the opposite. But who are the people who are very very interested in things not people, or very very interested in people not things? That’s like asking who is very very tall (the right hand end of the axis) or very very short (the left hand end). Who gets the PhDs in psychology in the US? 75 percent women. Who gets  the PhDs in engineering? Mostly men.

Women score higher then men, on average, for agreeableness. Yes, there’s an overlap Yes, there are some men who are more agreeable then some women.  But this time the women’s bell curve is to right of the men’s. So who are the very very agreeable people? Mostly women. Who are the very very disagreeable –  those who like to rock the boat, and will debate with others? Mostly the men. What effect does it have on wage negotiations when professional women are  changing jobs? Or at annual salary reviews? You guessed it. But some people hate  that Peterson says this in public. (Jordan has run classes for professional women on assertiveness training and how to negotiate about salaries. )

But most people have never done a unit of stats. Peterson talks about this, but most people won’t get it because they can’t visualize the graphs. All they hear is “he’s reinforcing stereotypes! He’s talking in binaries!” But some people don’t want to believe that differences between the sexes exist and occur in every society where tests have been done. I think Peterson does a terrible job of explaining  this, especially in TV interviews where you can’t bring in a bunch of graphs and props, and the interviewer often has no statistical training.

Most of have believed that many differences between men and women were socially produced and would be reduced as societies became more gender equal. The interesting findings recently in psychology, is that the difference in average values between men and women for numerous personality variables become bigger, not smaller, in more gender equal societies. This is the reverse of what we (including me) have all expected for the last 40 years. In fact several studies using data banks of  hundreds of thousands of people in at least 46 countries have shown that what we expected  is not true. The average difference between men and women on various psychological test gets bigger, not smaller in more gender-equal societies. This is not Jordan Peterson’s research, but I’ve read some of the papers, and he describes them correctly. (I’ll put a link below.)

Immediately below is a set of scatterplots (two of five from the original article). Each scatterplot has a set of light points (females) and dark points (males) with a line of best fit for both. The vertical axis (the first graph shows a score for agreeableness)  is the average score for that personality trait in a country, and the horizontal axis is a measure of gender equality for that country. Each dot is the average score for males or females in that country. As you move from left to right, the lines of best fit for each gender separates, i.e. the average difference between men and women gets greater, not smaller. I can’t lift the graphs one at a time, but here is a screen shot of two:

scatterplot-gender-differences

The only two personality characteristics where women and men get closer to each other in more gender equal societies are interest in casual sex, and belief that material assets in a prospective mate are unimportant. Women move towards the men’s average position in these two characteristics out of 26 that have been studied (see links below).

Some feminists (perhaps equality feminists  as opposed to difference feminists[1]), aren’t going to like being told that a core belief about social conditioning that we’ve all held for the last 40 years is wrong. However I’ve not found any papers in psychology that contradict these findings.

Many people don’t like Peterson pointing out that in more gender equal societies, there are a smaller percentage of women doing STEM degrees than in less gender equal societies. (See below: the graph with a measurement of gender equality for different societies on the vertical axis and the proportion of women in stem degree on the x axis. Source in footnotes).

scatterplot 2

To the best of my knowledge, there is no dispute about the data. In less gender equal societies doing a STEM degree may be a leg up the income ladder for girls, but in more gender equal societies you don’t need to study something not in accordance with your real interests to be economically secure. (Some people reading this won’t like what I’ve just said, but take a look at the data. Link to an article which explains it more is below.) Essentially Peterson says that if you remove barriers to girls studying what they want (and he says you should) you shouldn’t then be surprised if still more women do psychology or biology and more men study engineering and the non-biological sciences. He says that this is not a problem that needs fixing, people are simply choosing what they are actually interested in. Some viewers don’t want to believe that there are any actually differences between the sexes.

A lot of the literature on gender difference from medical science and psychology needs some understanding of stats to read correctly. However, at my local university one can do sociology and gender studies without taking a single unit of stats. This shocked me when I was told this by a fourth years honors student in sociology, who told me that “bell curves are highly problematic, you know.” When I asked her who said this, she replied “Lots of people.” This is almost shoot-yourself-in the-head- level stupid. If this is typical of gender studies students in other universities (and look at Melbourne and Monash Uni’s website for gender studies  shows no compulsory stats) then we have a problem. (I think, by the way this is also a problem with the Politics Philosophy and Economics degree at my local university. Two units of stats would be good, because if you work as an economist, you’ll be using a lot of stats generated by other people.)

Peterson also says that to say you are a Marxist should be as shameful as saying you are a Nazi, as Marxists governments have killed more people that Nazism last century. (The average estimates I’ve seen online seem to be about 100 million for Marxists governments, taking into account all the revolutions, purges, pogroms, gulags and artificially created famines. The average estimate for the Nazis is a total of 70 million for WW2.) Some people on the left might find this offensive.

Peterson often refers to “Radical feminists,” without specifying whether he means this term in the sense that it is used in feminist literature: radical feminists as opposed to liberal feminists or socialist feminists etc, or whether he means very lefty shouty feminists that he might encounter on campus (who sometimes disrupt his public talks. In a TV interview this might be natural, since the time (and the interest of the viewers) may not allow for spelling out these differences. However in his recorded lectures he could (and I think should) specify this so we could better understand who he is criticising.

Peterson also claims that there’s no such thing as a real atheist. He seems to hold that people who say they are atheists really secretly have some concept of a god, or they couldn’t be moral.  “Without God everything is permitted.” I think this is nonsense. people follow moral rules for two reasons: one is that societies need a certain set of rules in order for the society to function. Don’t steal, don’t murder, pay  your debts, keep promises. Without rules like this you don’t have a society. The second source of ethics is empathy. I don’t want to live in a society where murder, rape or torture are common because I can imagine that these things cause great suffering, and  they repulse me. Parents teach their children ethics by saying, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

I observe that most denunciations of Peterson are not very sophisticated. The critic merely says, “He’s a crock,” without tackling any particular statement of his. This tendency to “papal pronouncements” is unfortunate. One female friend has criticized Peterson because he criticizes feminism, but fails to offer any suggestions about how to make it better (given that most of would agree feminism has legitimate goals.) This seems a valid criticism.

Peterson spent about 20 years studying authoritarian personalities and political systems, especially Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He dislikes identity politics, because it leads to tribalism, and in his words, “tribalism never has a good outcome.”

I also think that we should treat people’s opinions as special only when they speak about things they have some specialist knowledge of. Actors and actresses are not experts on politics, and psychologist are not experts on climate change or economics. People can express any opinion they like, but we have no obligation to treat their opinions as having any special status.

Some of the dislike of Peterson is a  (in my view) a legitimate reaction to the use of old mythology and symbolism that most people don’t appreciate. Some of the reaction against him is a reaction to the fact that he criticizes the radical left more than the radical right. This may be because his job as an academic has been made more difficult by the campus left where he teaches: we tend to attack those who attack us. Some is a reaction to the fact that he’s saying some things people just don’t want to hear, but which are based on research that has now been replicated several times. And some is based on the fact that a lot of people just don’t understand the stats.

None of this is to deny that women face real discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment and male violence. These things are real and should be fixed. But if all these things were fixed, and you still found that more women were doing psychology and more men were doing engineering,  Peterson says don’t be surprised. It may just be people doing what they actually want.

Richard Snow

24 Feb 2019.

READING

A video of Jordan Peterson at the Oxford Union. This video is a good place to start if you don’t know much about Peterson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bRDbFU_lto

A link on women in STEM degrees, and one source of the graph above: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/does-gender-equality-result-in-fewer-female-stem-grads

A psychology journal article on the differences in psychology tests between men and women: Giolla Erik Mac and Kajonius Petri J. 2018 ‘Sex differences in personality are larger in gender equal countries: Replicating and extending a surprising finding’, International Journal of Psychology, 11 September 2018 https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12529

A link to a summary of mine of some articles from psychology on gender differences.

https://richardsnowwriter.com/…/do-differences-between…/

Wikipedia’s article on Difference feminism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_feminism

Wikipedia’s article on Equality Feminism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_feminism

[1] I can’t give an overview of different strands of feminism in this short post. However, Wikipedia’s article on Equality Feminism claims that “Equality feminist theory is the extension of the equality of the male and female into theoretical and philosophical fields of thought. At its core, equality feminist theory advocates for the equal standing of both men and women in terms of desires, wants, goals, and achievement. Thus, from this viewpoint, the basis of human nature outside of culture is androgynous, neutral, and equal.” [Emphasis added] In its article on Difference Feminism, Wikipedia states that difference feminism “holds that there are differences between men and women but that no value judgement can be placed upon them and both genders have equal moral status as persons.”

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Do differences between men and women disappear in more gender equal societies?

SOME NOTES ON MAINSTREAM PSYCHOLOGY STUDIES ON GENDER DIFFERENCES
There has been discussion in some media articles recently about gender differences between men and women, and whether those differences are inherent or created by society. I’ve tried to summarise below the evidence from psychology about which differences between men and women are consistent across cultures, and which persist or are increased in more gender equal societies.
Below is a link to a journal article by Mac Giolla which takes measurements of personality differences in men and women in several characteristics (agreeableness, contentiousness, openness to new experiences, extraversion, and neuroticism, the latter defined as variability of moods and tendency to worry) – qualities that are commonly used in psychology descriptions of personality, and are referred to as the “big 5.” If you scroll down to Figure 2 in that article, you’ll see five scatterplots. Each scatterplot has a set of light points (females) and dark points (males) with a line of best fit for both. The vertical axis is the average score for that personality trait in a country, and the horizontal axis is a measure of gender equality for that country. Each dot is the average score for males or females in that country. As you move from left to right, the line of best fit for each gender separates, i.e. the average difference between men and women gets greater, not smaller.
I can’t lift the graphs one at a time, but here is a screen shot of two:

scatterplot gender differences
From Mac Giolla 2018.
A paragraph in the results says, “The results indicate that women are typically more worried (Neuroticism), social (Extraversion), inquisitive (Openness), caring (Agreeableness) and responsible (Conscientiousness) than men, and that these differences are larger in more gender equal countries.” (Emphasis added.)
This is the reverse to what most of us have been led to expect over the last 40 years. Most of us have been lead to believe that personality differences are bought about by social conditioning, and if we lived in a more gender equal society, these differences would be reduced. This is not what the data shows.
The discussion shows correlations between higher gender equality in a country and increases in the differences between the sexes in the relevant variable. The “mean” is another word for arithmetic average. The degree of correlation is shown by “r” where zero would mean no correlation and 1 means a perfect correlation.
The article by Khazan (2018) includes a scatterplot of women in STEM graduates vs gender equality for several countries.

scatterplot 2
The more gender equal the society, the fewer women take STEM degrees. Why? She says that one possible reason is that in very gender unequal societies, taking a STEM degree is a sure path to a higher income for girls, whereas “Countries with the highest gender equality tend to be welfare states, [with] a high level of social security… It’s not that gender equality discourages girls from pursuing science. It’s that it allows them not to if they’re not interested.”
The article by Brooks summarises a book by David Schmidt, a professor of evolutionary biology. Schmidt compares cross-country data on gender differences for 28 characteristics. In 20 of the characteristics, the differences between men and women grow bigger in more equal societies. Two characteristics narrow in more equal societies (the tendency to value resources in a mate, which become less pronounced for women in more equal societies, and interest in casual sex, which increases for women in more equal societies, both bringing women closer to men.) Six characteristics don’t change. Brooks says, “Likewise, men score higher than women for the “Dark Triad” traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy. Gender equity has the salutary effect of reducing each of these three rather nasty traits, but it does so more for women than for men, resulting in wider sex differences.”
The article by De Bolle looks at personality differences in adolescents in 23 cultures. The differences are consistent across cultures and emerge around age 12 and converge to adult levels around age 17. The differences emerge around puberty.
Overall, moving to more gender equal societies doesn’t reduce differences between men and women. It increases them. This is hard to understand if differences are produced by ‘the patriarchy’ and social conditioning. On the other hand, it’s easy to understand if there are actual differences between men and women that incline them towards different fields of work or study. More gender equal societies are usually higher income societies, with social safety nets, which means there is a lower cost to doing what you actually want to do.
Now to anticipate some objections. Someone is likely to say, “These are only averages, it makes it sound like all women are more agreeable than all men.” No it doesn’t. Take height (and I’m using height because no one has an ideological position on height, so it’s easy to explain something about graphs without an ideological battle.) We all know that men are on average taller than women. We all know that there is a spread of heights around the average. The next diagram shows the average heights for men and women in the US. Men have an average height of 70 inches with a standard deviation of 4 inches. Women average 65 inches with a standard deviation of 3.5 inches. Where the two graphs cross at 67-68 inches, there are roughly equal numbers of men and women. But look what happens as you go out to the right or left.
scatterplot 3
Source: https://www.usablestats.com/lessons/normal

Nobody claims that all men are taller than all women, and nobody accuses anybody else of thinking this. However there is a point to be made here. If you have two groups of people where the average measurement is different, and the standard deviation (the degree of spread) is even roughly similar, out at the far left and far right of the graph, there will be a large discrepancies between how many members of each group have (or lack) that quality to a very strong degree. At and above 75 inches, tall men vastly outnumber tall women. At and below 60 inches, short women vastly outnumber short men. This will be similar in anything that can be measured along a scale where the two groups differ on the average and which have the usual bell shaped curve. In the case of height, an eight percent difference in the middle (5 inches over 65) results in differences of about 20:1 in the ratio of tall men (over 75 inches) to tall women.
Evolution may have selected for women to be nurturing, since that maximizes the chance of a child surviving. This is not the same as saying, “all women are more nurturing than all men.” But it means that there will be large differences in the number of women and men who are very nurturing or very indifferent to the needs of others. If men are on average more narcissistic than women, the will be many more very narcissistic men than very narcissistic women.
One aspect in which men and women differ is “orientation to things” versus “orientation to people.” Exposure to androgen – a male hormone – in the womb (because of a medical condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia  or CAH)) makes girl foetuses become girls with a higher than average orientation to things, so there appears to be a hormonal basis for this difference (Beltz 2011). As Beltz says:

Consistent with hormone effects on interests, females with CAH are considerably more interested than are females without CAH in male-typed toys, leisure activities, and occupations, from childhood through adulthood (reviewed in ); adult females with CAH also engage more in male-typed occupations than do females without CAH ()

If there are some jobs which call for a certain quality or aptitude, and that characteristic has a different mean (average) for men and women, there will be a large differences in the number of people who have (or lack) that quality to a strong degree (i.e., out at the left and right of the curve). If men score higher on “interest in things” and women score higher in “interest in people,” and there are some jobs which suit people who have that quality to a strong degree, (e.g., engineering vs child care or social work) then men more will be attracted to some jobs and women to others. It’s not a binary, and no sensible person would claim it is. You can (and should) remove obstacles to girls pursuing engineering (if they want) but creating a more gender equal society doesn’t bring about equality of outcomes.
Above, I showed the actual graphs for male and female heights in the US. The average male height is about one and a half standard deviations above the females. Below I’ve show two bell shaped curves moved apart by one standard deviation. The two graphs both have a standard deviation of two, and the second curve is one standard deviation to the right of the first. If you move one standard deviation to the right again (to the value 14), draw a line, and look at the total number of people (the area under the graph) the number of group 2 members will be six times the number of group 1 (compare the areas under the graph to the right of the black line). To the right of 15, group two will outnumber group 1 by 9 to 1 (draw a vertical line at 15 and look at the areas to the right of that line under the two graphs). If the two genders differ on some quality by only one standard deviation, there will be a very large difference in the number of women and men who display that quality to a very large degree.

bell curve 02

In the case of many jobs, for example, this doesn’t really matter. Most jobs don’t require you to have some personality characteristic to an extreme degree. But some do. Engineers tend to be very interested in things, rather than people. Social work, psychology and medicine tend to attract people who are more interested in people rather than things. For a discussion of how different personality types are attracted to different university courses see Vedel 2016, or Ali, which is a non-mathematical discussion of Vedel. Law and economics appear to attract people who score low on trustworthiness and concern for others.
To talk as though apparent differences between men and women are “binaries” which we should reject because ‘binaries are wrong’ is to criticise a straw man. Nobody in psychology claims they are binaries. However even when there is a large overlap, there will be an imbalance in the number of men or women exhibiting a characteristic to a high degree. There is no contradiction between saying that men and women can both be narcissistic (or agreeable or tall) and saying that there are gender difference in whether those qualities are exhibited  very strongly i.e. i the number of people out at the edge..
Costa, Terracciano and Mcrae (2001) summarize differences in gender across 26 cultures in surveys of 23,000 people.
To sum up: men and women score differently in various aspects of personality. Those differences appear to be consistent across numerous countries and cultures. The qualities involved are not binaries. They are measured along a scale. The differences are greater, not less, in more gender equal societies. This is the opposite of what most of us have believed for the last 40 years. If patriarchal oppression makes girls be more agreeable, contentious etc, it is unclear why the differences between men and women would be greater in more gender equal societies. If men and women score differently on average for a certain quality, then there will be a large difference in the number of men or women who possess that quality to a very large degree. There is no contradiction between saying “men and women can both have quality x” and saying that “there are many more men or women who are very x.” Gender equal societies reduce the disadvantages to women pursuing classes or jobs that actually interest them, so if a job attracts or requires a very strong degree of some quality, the sexes may, and do, select differently.
Richard Snow.
14 Oct 2018

Ali, Aftab, 2016, ‘New study finds link between ‘Big Five’ personality traits and which subject students study at university’ The Conversation, June 21, 2016 https://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/Studies/new-study-finds-link-between-big-five-personality-traits-and-which-subject-students-study-at-a6846996.html#r3z-addoor [This article is a discussion of Brooks, Rob, 2016, ‘Gender equity can cause sex differences to grow bigger’]

Beltz, Adriene et al, 2011, ‘Gendered Occupational Interests: Prenatal Androgen Effects on Psychological Orientation to Things Versus People’ Hormones and Behavior Volume 60, Issue 4, September 2011, Pages 313-317 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166361/

Charles, Maria, and Bradley, Karen. 2009 ‘Indulging our gendered selves? Sex segregation by field of study in 44 countries.’ American Journal of Sociology Vol. 114 pp. 924-976. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19824299

Costa, P Terracciano, A and McCrae, R 2001, ‘Gender Differences in Personality Traits Across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 81 pp 322–331

De Bolle, et al, 2015, ‘The Emergence of Sex Differences in Personality Traits in Early Adolescence: A Cross-Sectional, Cross-Cultural Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ‘Volume 108(1), January 2015, p 171–185

Giolla Erik Mac and Kajonius Petri J. 2018 ‘Sex differences in personality are larger in gender equal countries: Replicating and extending a surprising finding’, International Journal of Psychology, 11 September 2018 https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12529

Khazan, Olga, 2018, ‘The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM’ The Atlantic, Feb 18, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/the-more-gender-equality-the-fewer-women-in-stem/553592/

Vedel, Anna, 2016, ‘Big Five personality group differences across academic majors: A systematic review’ Personality and Individual Differences Volume 92, April 2016, Pages 1-10

A newspaper article which discusses the topic of gender differences being wider in more gender equal societies, without the maths:
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/patriarchy-paradox-how-equality-reinforces-stereotypes-96cx2bsrp

Where Does Moral Thinking Come From?

Jonathan Haidt tackles a big question in his book ‘The Righteous Mind.’ Haidt, a psychology professor who has done stints as a speech writer for democratic politicians, looks at why democrat and republican voters in the US seem never to agree on almost any moral issue.

Book cover righteous mindAfter doing extensive opinion polling and interviewing voters to get their reactions to hypothetical moral situations, he finds that people seem to take five factors into account in forming moral judgements. These are: (i) Is anyone injured by an action? People generally avoid doing harm to others, and see it as wrong. (ii) Fairness. – not cheating, not taking more than you are entitled to.  (iii)  Loyalty to a group. This comes from our early origins as tribal creatures.  People who show disloyalty to  organisations, sporting teams, the army or their country are often condemned. (iv) Respect for legitimate authority. (v) Showing respect for ‘sacred’ objects, such as national flags, or religious objects, and avoiding ‘dirty’ or contaminated things.  A person who places a lot of weight on this factor will disapprove of burning national flags, and, for example, disapprove of the photograph ‘piss Christ’, by Andres Serrano, which shows a crucifix in a jar of urine.  More details are available here  here  here.

Interestingly, when Haidt asks American voters to rate themselves on a seven point scale where 1 represents a very liberal (in the American sense of progressive or democratic voter ) and 7 represents very conservative, he finds an interesting result. Voters who rate themselves as 1 on that scale use criteria (i) and (ii) in their reasoning, but give almost no weight to the other three. And as you move across the political spectrum, the emphasis on  the last three factors rises steadily People who rate themselves as very conservative give all five factors roughly equal weight.

Some of this jells with other things I’ve read elsewhere. For example, conservatives are usually strongly opposed to pardons to people like Chelsea Manning who leaked documents from the army. This relates to criteria of loyalty and respect for authority. I’ve read that having strong reactions of disgust at photographs of ‘unclean’ objects such as meat with maggots, or a person treading in dog poo is a strong predictor of voting conservative – this relates to the criteria about avoiding things that are seen as disgusting.

Haidt claims one reason why democrat politicians fail to appeal to conservative voters is that their speeches and advertisements only ever appeal to criteria (i) and (ii), and leave out the other two. He tried to persuade democrat politicians to include more of the last three factors in their speeches, with limited success. Progressive and conservative voters are, in a very real sense, speaking a different languages.

Haidt also discusses the role of religions in moral thinking. He believes they act as reinforcers of moral values by giving  a stamp of approval to rules that promote social cohesion, such as don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie or cheat, or commit adultery, and so on. All societies have these rules, because you need them to keep harmony ain a primitive society that relies on group harmony to be able to function. All religions promote these rules because in Haidts view, that’s what religions are for.

It’s an interesting read, and I strongly recommend it.

Political Viewpoints are not Just Like Food Preferences

Recently on a social media thread I was commenting on, I said that I said that I was bothered at how people seem to adopt political opinions in ‘bundles’ without thinking individual policies through based on evidence. They buy the centre-left bundle, or the libertarian bundle, or the conservative bundle. Someone else commented, “An opinion is just that an opinion. It is not truth or fact and doesn’t need to be. I hate okra. My opinion is based on the “fact” that it is slimy and tastes bad to me. What if I said okra is bad, that’s a different story but still it’s still based on my personal view. ”

Soup from pixabay dot com
Not a political opinion. 

The notion that political opinions are just opinions like food preferences lies at the heart of what is wrong with much of political discussions. When it comes to describing political problems and proposing solutions, there usually are relevant facts. They may be sometimes be hard to discover or hard to weigh up, but some relevant facts usually exist and we should make the effort to know them before we advocate positions.

There are actual facts available on police shootings of black people in the US, and those statistics can and should influence your view on whether there is a real problem that needs to be fixed. If you deny the existence of a problem when the stats say there is a problem, then you won’t take action when it should be taken, and if the stats were to show that there isn’t a problem then you would be making major changes and spending money to fix a problem that didn’t exist. (Note here, and below that I’m talking about the relevance of facts to the policy you do or don’t advocate, I’m not – here- adopting a position on BLM, I’m saying that relevant facts usually exist.)

When environmentalists advocated removing CFC gasses from refrigerators and aerosols in the 1970s and 80s because CFC gasses were damaging the Ozone layer, those claims about CFC damage were either factually right or they weren’t. If the factual claims were wrong, then an incorrect policy was being advocated. to solve a problem that didn’t exist. Refrigerators and aerosols would cost more to consumers when perhaps they didn’t need to. If the factual claims were right then the policy being advocated was correct and the need to fix the problem was real. The facts actually mattered.

In relation to abortion, there are many factors that might influence your position. One of them might be when a fetus becomes pain capable. If this is correctly claimed to be at 24 weeks, this may be a factor you want to take into account on when, if ever, you allow abortion.  If someone falsely claims that a fetus becomes pain capable at 10 weeks, this may make a difference to your position, and you would then be adopting a position on the basis of incorrect claims of fact.  There might be many other factors you want to take into account, but if you are influenced by a false claim of fact that’s really not a good thing.

In relation to NAFTA and whether you oppose further free trade pacts, it actually matters whether the people who have lost their jobs to cheap imports would have lost them anyway due to robotisation. A belief (for example) that free trade benefits countries as a whole but that free trade agreements should only go ahead with generous retraining packages for workers who will be displaced, and incentives for new industries to be established in affected areas is a position that involves millions of dollars of expenditure. If such policies are advocated or opposed, it actually matters whether factual information exists and whether it supports one side or another. It’s not the same as ‘I like pumpkin soup but I don’t like potato soup.’

If you adopt the position that opinions are all just like food preferences, then politics just becomes a process of tribes screaming each other about soup, resulting in whoever screams the loudest getting to spend billions of dollars on policies that might or might not work at fixing problems that might or might not exist.

Note that I’m NOT starting a debate here about BLM, abortion, or NAFTA. My point is that on almost all political and social issues, relevant facts exist. A disregard for facts leads to mere tribalisation of politics followed by bad policy and expenditure on wrong policies when that money could be spent on policies that really would fix real problems. If we think that social policies are just opinions about soup, we are in a lot of trouble, and that thinking needs to be challenged.

 

 

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