Wednesday, April 11, 2007


A coherent alternative to moral relativism

By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D. -- article originally written December, 2003 but subsequently expanded -- up to 2007)

In moral philosophy the view that "ought" or "is right" statements are ordinary statements about the world (empirical statements) rather than having some privileged and peculiar "moral" quality is termed "ethical naturalism". Like all positions in moral philosophy it has its difficulties but I believe that such difficulties arise from a misunderstanding of how moral statements arise.

In fact, I do not think that the nature of "ought" or "is right" statements is very problematical at all.

It seems to me that statements such as "X is right" (or "X is good" or "You ought to do X") can be unpacked in only four or perhaps five basic ways:

1. I like it when people do X
2. Doing X generally leads to widely desired results
3. It is the will of God that you do X
4. X has an eternal, inescapable, universal "moral" quality.
5. X is the prevailing rule around here (though if the person was asked why that rule exists he would almost certainly reply by referring to some version of one of the preceding three statements).

I think most people would agree that "You ought" statements can mean 1, 2, 3 or 5 above. I do. You might dispute the truth of any of them but you would understand what is being said and understand that it is a factual claim. I would for instance dispute an "ought" statement that is unpacked as 3 above because I am an atheist but I accept that the person making the claim is trying to make a statement of fact that can be proved or disproved in some way.

Interpretation 4 above however is untestable, undemonstrable and hence gibberish -- though it does seem to be widely believed. But lots of clever people believe in global warming so beliefs are neither any proof of anything nor any cause for surprise. Now isn't that simple?

Not everybody agrees that it is simple. A famous objection is the objection by David Hume. David Hume contends that there is an unbridgeable gap between "is" and "ought" statements -- so that you cannot justify "ought" statements by "is" statements. Yet that is precisely what people normally do. An "ought" statement always commends some course of action and when people ask WHY that course of action is commended the reply is often in terms of "is" (empirical) statements (e.g. the commendation of X can be explained as: "X leads to generally desired consequences" or "X leads to consequences that you would like" or "I like X" or "X is the prevailing rule in this culture"). So in my view the fact that an "ought" statement can be explained in that way shows that it is an empirical statement to begin with. Statements in general have all sorts of influences on people (for example, if someone said to me: "Your son has just died", it is clearly an empirical statement but it would also have an enormous influence on me if true. It would cause me to take many actions that I would not otherwise take) and an "ought" statement is an empirical statement with what is expected to be one particular sort of influence -- a commendatory influence. So an "ought" statement is often simply a shorthand (compressed) "is" statement that can be promptly expanded if desired.

A major way in which I differ with many philosophers, however, is that I accept that "ought" statements are used in a variety of ways rather than in one single way and I do not try to make sense out of ALL the ways that they are used. And I have SHOWN that usage of moral language differs from person to person by way of psychological research. As I see it, "ought" statements always commend but they are not always empirical statements. Sometimes they are in fact very incoherent statements (at best pseudo-empirical statements) and I think Hume's difficulty arose out of a determination to find meaning in incoherent uses of "ought" statements (i.e. when "ought" statements are elaborated as being or emanating from timeless and universal rules that are "known" only in some mysterious and untestable way -- typically expressed by saying "X just IS right", with no further explanation given) and I simply regard that quest as a fool's errand. The world is awash with incoherent gibberish and baseless assertions so there is no reason to be either disturbed by it or interested in it when such assertions occur in moral discourse. When I encounter it, my usual response is to point out its incoherence and untestability and then refuse to have any further truck with such things (as I did here).

Being primarily a psychologist, I am of course interested in WHY what I have called incoherent uses of moral terminology arise and I find the explanation given by philosophical psychologist John Maze persuasive: That they are a conscious or unconscious attempt at fraud -- an attempt to persuade by saying that immutable and peculiarly moral properties exist and that they have some claim on us because of that. Maze's work is not online but if you have access to a university library, you can find it in: Maze, J. (1973) "The concept of attitude". Inquiry, 16, 168-205. Maze also had a book published in 1983 called The Meaning of Behaviour which I have not read but which almost certainly would contain similar arguments. I have summarized Maze's arguments at somewhat greater length in my academic paper on the present topic.

Many people -- Roman Catholics in particular -- are nonetheless very attracted to the view that some moral statements just ARE right, regardless of time and place. They say that killing babies is ALWAYS wrong for instance. If one objects that killing babies was perfectly normal and perceived as "right" in the most brilliant civilization of ancient times -- Greece -- they are quite unmoved and just say that the Greeks were wrong. But how do they KNOW? What is their authority or source of information about the "wrongness" concerned? Basically, they cannot tell you. Their only authority is a "gut reaction" and different people in different times and in different places have many different "gut reactions", of course. Pro-abortionists, for instance, seem to have the gut reaction that killing babies is OK as long as the baby is young enough. So "gut reactions" simply reduce to "in my opinion". What starts out looking like a very authoritative statement turns out to have no authoritativeness at all.

Leftists make great hay out of that. They popularly refer to such views as "moral absolutism" (a philosopher would say "ethical non-naturalism") and assert a version of ethical naturalism which is popularly referred to as "moral relativism". They reject what I have called meaning 4 above and say that only meaning 5 is possible for "ought" statements. In other words, they say that right and wrong is only what is accepted behaviour in a given society at a given time. And I in part agree with them. I too believe that there is no timeless and forever fixed right and wrong and that what is right and wrong varies from society to society. That does NOT mean, however, that all ways to live are equally wise -- which is the extension of moral relativism that Leftists usually glide into without people noticing. Leftists normally seem to ignore totally what I have called above meaning 2 for "ought" statements: that some ways of living lead to generally desired outcomes and some do not. Such claims are simple empirical propositions for which there is much evidence. Most people, for instance, desire material prosperity but only some ways of living lead to that. Laziness, for instance generally does not lead to prosperity so laziness is generally unwise, or, in shorthand, "bad" or "wrong". So there is no need for anybody to be embarrassed into abandoning talk of "right" and "wrong". Such terms do have real and important meanings -- even if you are an ethical naturalist.

And at least from Edmund Burke onwards, conservatives have taken the matter one step further. That some value is merely the custom of a given society is taken by Leftists to imply that the value concerned is NOT worthy of respect or continuation. Conservatives draw precisely the opposite conclusion. That some custom has evolved through trial and error over a long period of time is seen by conservatives as indicating that it is probably a wise and valuable custom that should not be abandoned except for very strong reasons. The custom may not be "right" in any absolute, immutable or unimprovable sense but it may still be very wise and valuable in enabling a civil and healthy society to function and give its members what they desire -- such as peace, security and prosperity. In that sense, courage, honesty, democracy and the rule of law are "right". Countries where such values are widespread generally have more peace, security, freedom and prosperity than countries where such values are not widespread. Values and standards of behaviour are very important matters indeed.

Amusingly, however, Leftists are very prone to using the language of right and wrong (which they claim not to believe in) when it suits them. They will claim that things like Apartheid or "racism" are WRONG without batting an eyelid. The moral relativists suddenly become moralists. They will happily say things that they do not remotely believe in if it suits their ends of gaining power and influence. I did some research into the dishonest Leftist use of moral language which is reported here. And when Leftists do use moralistic language, it is rather fun to use the arguments of moral relativism to show how shallow their arguments are -- as here.


It may be that some see a contradiction between my statement above that gut instincts are not authoritative and my statement elsewhere that most morality is instinctive.

There is however a large distinction to be made between the truth of a statement and a person's motivation for making it. What I said above was about truth claims, not about why that claim is made. One hopes that there is usually some connection between the truth of a statement and why people make the statement concerned but that there is no obvious or necessary connection is all too obvious.


Some 2007 research by Haidt would seem to be of considerable interest in connection with the above. Haidt argues that the basis of morality is instinctive but that conservatives display greater cognitive complexity in dealing with moral questions. Given the frequent Leftist assertion that "there is no such thing as right and wrong", that is not inherently surprising. Although they often use moral talk in an attempt to influence others, Leftists would seem, on their own admission, to have no serious interest in or committment to morality of any kind. That does make the invariable brutalities of Communist regimes rather understandable.

Part of a summary of Haidt's research:

"Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of -- and constrained by -- a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity."

There is a longer account of Haidt's research here

Click here for a list of all John Ray's comments on moral philosophy


Monday, March 26, 2007


By John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

It is sad to see a voice of reason fall silent but exactly that seems to have happened over at "The Skeptical Inquirer". They quite rightly say that limitless skepticism leads nowhere. To be precise it leads to solipsism -- doubting everything but your own existence -- but the means they propose to limit skepticism are astounding.

They seem to want to decide scientific truth not on the facts or on the balance of the probabilities but by majority vote! If you had taken a majority vote among the learned men of Galileo's day you would have "discovered" that the sun rotated around the earth. And you would be WRONG!

The example they give is instructive. They say that because 2500 "scientists" signed a document saying that mankind is causing global warming therefore it must be true. No weighting to the degree of expertise of the "scientists" involved is given nor is any account taken of how many of them stand to lose their research grants if the theory is disproven. But above all, no weighting is given to the many discordant FACTS -- such as evidence that global warming is occurring on Mars too. Did mankind cause THAT? Or did solar variability do it? Many people might therefore want at this stage to rename them "The Credulous Inquirer".

And if majorities win, what about the many scientists who reject the claim of man-made global warming? There is a 19,200 name long petition here -- signed by "17,100 basic and applied American scientists, two-thirds with advanced degrees... Signers of this petition so far include 2,660 physicists, geophysicists, climatologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, and environmental scientists..who are especially well qualified to evaluate the effects of carbon dioxide on the Earth's atmosphere and climate. ..(and) ..5,017 scientists whose fields of specialization in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and other life sciences". The petitioners are a much more numerous group than the group favoured by the magazine and they REJECT the view espoused by the magazine.

There have of course been attempts by environmentalist true believers to sabotage the petition drive. However the organisers have, to their credit, made efforts to ensure its validity. "Of the 19,700 signatures that the project has received in total so far, 17,800 have been independently verified and the other 1,900 have not yet been independently verified. Of those signers holding the degree of PhD, 95% have now been independently verified. One name that was sent in by enviro pranksters, Geri Halliwell, PhD, has been eliminated. Several names, such as Perry Mason and Robert Byrd are still on the list even though enviro press reports have ridiculed their identity with the names of famous personalities. They are actual signers. Perry Mason, for example, is a PhD Chemist. "

So even by their own ridiculous "majority rule" criterion, "The Skeptical Inquirer" was showing no skepticism at all.

But it gets worse again: It really looks like they were not credulous but straight-out dishonest in their support for the global warming theory. They depicted their favoured report on global warming as the outcome of a standard scientific peer-review process. As this report from notes, it was nothing of the sort. What was published was a totally distorted version of what the scientists had said:

Frederick Seitz, former president of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, claimed that he had "never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer review process than the event that led to this IPCC report." Seitz went on to charge that nearly all of the editorial changes made by the report's lead author, Benjamin Santer, "worked to remove hints of the skepticism with which many scientists regard claims that human activities are having a major impact on climate in general or global warming in particular." Others, including the independent but industry-backed Global Climate Coalition (GCC) went so far as to claim that the report had been "scientifically cleansed" in a political effort to emphasize alarm about global warming while deleting references to uncertainty.

And the second report that the Skeptics quoted also said nothing like what they claim:

"Last week the National Academy of Sciences released a report on climate change, prepared in response to a request from the White House, that was depicted in the press as an implicit endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol... As one of 11 scientists who prepared the report, I can state that this is simply untrue. For starters, the NAS never asks that all participants agree to all elements of a report, but rather that the report represent the span of views. This the full report did, making clear that there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them."

Clearly, the Skeptics have been taken over by Greenie propagandists, with their characteristic disregard for the truth. Sad indeed. I think a lot of people might now want to rename them as "The Dishonest Inquirer".


The above words were written in 2003 and resulted in a short correspondence with the magazine. By 2007 the credulity had deepened -- as we see here. The Skeptics had become evangelists in fact! An average temperature rise of a fraction of one degree across the entire 20th century got them panicked! NO skepticism there whatsoever.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007


By John J. Ray (M.A.;Ph.D.)

Describing the entire domain of political attitudes in terms of a single Right/Left dimension does have its problems. Libertarians in particular are always promoting a two dimensional description of political attitudes. The political compass and the "World's Smallest Political Quiz" are popular applications of such theories. Below are two examples of such a description:

Unfortunately, though I am a libertarian, I am also an academic who has specialized in surveys of political attitudes and I regret to report that we seem to be pretty stuck with the old Left/Right schema. So let me give you a quick tour of the academic literature:

Academics have been talking about this for a long time. Various authors (e.g. Eysenck, 1954; Rokeach, 1960; Kerlinger, 1967) have proposed that an adequate description of world politics really needs two dimensions. They propose, for example, that the Left-Right dimension be supplemented by an Authoritarian/Permissive dimension. So that democratic Leftists and Rightists are Permissive Leftists and Rightists whereas Communists and Fascists are Authoritarian Leftists and Rightists.

Although such proposals have considerable intuitive appeal, they do not, unfortunately, seem to coincide with how people's attitudes are in fact organized when we do surveys of public opinion. It is very easy to find people's attitudes polarizing on a Left/Right dimension but nobody has yet managed to show in a satisfactory way any polarization of attitudes on the postulated second dimension (Ray, 1980 & 1982 -- online here and here).

The summary from my 1982 paper published in The Journal of Social Psychology reads as follows:

The Eysenck/Rokeach/Kerlinger theory that social attitudes are two dimensional suffers from disagreement about what the second dimension should be called and how it should be measured. The present work tests the proposal that there is a dimension of libertarian/authoritarian attitudes orthogonal to radicalism/conservatism. A set of items designed to maximize the likelihood of such dimensions appearing was administered to a random postal sample of Californians. No real evidence of the proposed second dimension appeared. It was concluded that authoritarianism is a personality variable only.

"Orthogonal" is statistician-speak for "unrelated" or "at right-angles to". The correlations observed in the data showed that people who agreed with one conservatism statement, no matter how it was conceived, tended to agree with all other conservatism statements. Similarly for expresions of Leftist views. But "authoritarian" or "libertarian" statements did not cluster together at all. Your being a libertarian on one issue did not mean that you would tend to be libertarian on other issues. So it is solely the Left/Right dimension on which people in fact polarize.

The account of Left/Right attitudes given in my monograph suggests why this is so. For a start, the assumption that Fascists or Nazis are Right-wing is false. Hitler himself energetically claimed to be a socialist and Mussolini (the founder of Fascism) was a lifelong Marxist. The evidence for this has been summarized at great length elsewhere so will not be elaborated here.

Historically, the core of conservatism has always been a suspicion of government power and intervention and conservatives therefore accept only the minimum amount of government that seems needed for a civil society to function. So it is no wonder that there is no authoritarian version of conservative ideology. If it were authoritarian it could not be conservative.

Leftism, on the other hand, IS intrinsically authoritarian and power-loving and will always therefore tend in the direction of government domination. It is only non-authoritarian to the extent that is thwarted by external influences (such as democracy) from achieving its aims. Leftists in democratic societies do of course commonly deny authoritarian motivations but that is just part of their "cover". Deeds speak louder than words.

It may be worth noting that one researcher (Goertzel (1987) did manage to derive two personality measures that seem to correspond fairly closely with the usual proposals for what underlies political orientation. He called his two measures "tendermindedness-toughness" and "intuitiveness-consistency" and the latter was certainly very reminiscent of conservatism. So how did these two personality measures correlate with a range of political beliefs? Negligibly in all cases -- see his Table 4. Once again we see that a two-dimensional account of what underlies political orientation just does not work out empirically.


Eysenck, H.J. (1954) The psychology of politics. London: Routledge
Goertzel, T. G. (1987) Authoritarianism of personality and political attitudes. J. Social Psychology, 127 (1), 7-18.
Kerlinger, F. N. (1967). Social attitudes and their criterial referents: A structural theory. Psychological Review, 74, 110-122.
Rokeach, M. (1960) The open and closed mind. N.Y.: Basic Books.


As conservatives characteristically know and as Leftists characteristically deny, reality tends to be peskily complex -- and the present subject is no exception. I wish therefore to point out now some of the complexities not mentioned above.

The dimensionality of political attitudes was a topic of great interest to me throughout my research career and many of my published papers bear on it. I attempted an answer to the dimensionality question in the second paper I ever wrote, in fact -- written in 1968 and published in 1973. So I hope I can be forgiven if I lapse somewhat into technicalities in what follows:

The summary of what I want to say is this: While two robust orthogonal dimensions cannot be extracted from normal political discourse, two strong oblique dimensions can routinely be extracted.

To elaborate: There is a way to divide up normal political discourse into two dimensions but those two dimensions tend to be correlated. They are not independent. Knowing a person's position on one dimension will give you a weak prediction of his/her position on the second dimension. Ferguson in fact published such a solution in the 1940s, though he forced orthogonality (independence) on his solution.

And the dimensions identified by Ferguson can always be found and they are in fact rather familiar. They are the religious/moral dimension and the economic dimension. In other words, it is perfectly possible for people to be conservative on religious and moral matters but at the same time to be socialistically inclined on economic matters. For an extended discussion of just that combination, see here. There IS a religious Left who favour all sorts of government intervention in economic matters. As Waldman says: "Actually, in 2000, at least 10 million white "evangelical Christians" voted for Gore".

Some attitude combinations are more common than others, however, and it will be no news to anybody to hear that the PREPONDERANCE of religious conservatives also support conservative (non-interventionist) economic policies.

What is surprising, in fact, is how weakly the two attitude clusters are associated. In one of my 1973 papers, I found, for instance, a correlation of only .24 between economic conservatism and social conservatism. It was this weakness of association that enabled Ferguson to force an orthogonal solution (i.e. a picture of independence) on his data.

It would appear, however, that this weakness of association stems from areas of discourse that are less central to overall political orientation -- as, in a 1984 paper, I found that moral issues lay at the centre of all conservatism/Leftism issues. See the second Appendix in the paper. It is no wonder, then, that religious conservatives figure so prominently in America's Grand Old Party at the beginning of the 21st century. It shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the most personal issues are also the most important in politics.

In summary, then, religious/moral conservatism and economic conservatism are distinct but related -- and the more important the issue is the more highly they become related. It is perhaps encouraging that psychological research from many years previously in Australia predicted so well what was happening in American politics in the early 21st century.


Ferguson, L. (1941) The stability of the primary social attitudes. J. Psychology, 12, 283-288.


Saturday, January 20, 2007


By John J. Ray | August 27, 2003

Like most college and university teachers in the social sciences and humanities, academic psychologists are overwhelmingly Leftist in their orientation. So it will be no surprise to hear that at least since the 1950's psychologists have been doing their best to find psychological maladjustment in conservatives. To anyone with a knowledge of history the results have been quite absurd (See here) but psychologists rarely seem to know much about history so that has not disturbed them.

I spent 20 years from 1970 to 1990 getting over 200 articles published in the academic journals of the social sciences which subjected the various politically relevant theories of psychologists to empirical test. The only test that psychologists normally give to their theories is to seek the opinions of their students on a variety of issues and present THAT as evidence about how the world works. My consistent strategy was to do the same sort of test among random samples of people in the community at large. I found that people in the community at large are not nearly as accommodating to the theories of psychologists as psychology students are!

My non-conformist behaviour in actually doing a serious test of these theories won me no kudos, however. I appear to have had far more articles on political psychology published in the academic journals than anyone else and so would therefore -- by conventional academic criteria -- normally be considered the No. 1 world expert on the subject but in fact my writings have always been comprehensively ignored. My findings did not produce the RIGHT CONCLUSIONS, you see. In fact my findings showed the theories concerned to be wrong in almost every respect.

So it was no surprise to me at all to read the latest effort in the long line of attempts by psychologists to discredit conservatives. The article "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" was published recently by John Jost and his collaborators at Berkeley in The Psychological Bulletin -- one of the premier journals of academic psychology. The "powers that be" at Berkeley were so pleased with this article that they put out a press release that was designed to publicize the findings of the article as widely as possible.

The result was great derision from conservative political commentators. The study was so obviously one-eyed that it was very easy to deride. Their claim that Stalin was Right-wing, for instance must be some high-point of twisting the evidence. If the most prominent Communist of the 20th century was Right-wing, who on earth would be Left-wing? Black might as well be white. Here is what Jost and his crew actually said:

"There are also cases of left-wing ideologues who, once they are in power, steadfastly resist change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism, such as Stalin or Khrushchev or Castro (see J. Martin, Scully, & Levitt, 1990). It is reasonable to suggest that some of these historical figures may be considered politically conservative"

It is hard to know where to start in commenting on this breathtaking statement. To say that the instigator of huge (and disastrous) changes in almost everything in Russian life resisted change is incomprehensible. And to call Communists of that era conservatives is equally perverse. One has to say that "conservative" obviously has a pretty strange meaning in the ivory towers of Berkeley. In their world even Stalin can be blamed on conservatism.

Apparently as an attempted explanation of their perverse definitions, they go on to say that the worldwide legion of Communist tyrants that they allude to are not typical of Leftists. The fact that Communists at their height controlled nearly half the world is not apparently enough to get them counted as typical Leftists.

The reason they get themselves into this awful muddle is that they have no idea what conservatism actually is. To define what it is, they consulted dictionaries and social science encyclopaedias and their fellow Leftist writers but they do not appear to have consulted a single conservative! And they have certainly studied no political history. They have fallen into the simplistic trap of equating conservatism with rejection of change. It is of course true that conservatives DO reject some changes -- the foolish changes advocated by Leftists in particular -- but it is also true that conservatives WANT change -- change that will get the government off their backs in particular. If Jost and his colleagues had talked to almost any conservative they would have found out very rapidly that there are a HEAP of things about our present society that conservatives would like to change. It is only Leftists talking to one another who think that conservatives are motivated only by a rejection of change.

If anybody would like to look at what has historically defined conservatives, a summary of the history concerned can be found here. Briefly, however, conservatives have always resisted attempts to curtail their rights and liberties -- particularly from the incursions of tyrannical governments. THAT is what has often made them resist change -- as governments do have a habit of trying to curtail the rights and liberties of the individual. But to say that conservatives resist change for its own sake is something that only a Leftist would believe. Conservatives believe in liberty. Leftists believe in the State.

So the Jost group in effect fell at the first hurdle. If they could not get straight what conservatism is, the chances of their saying anything reasonable about it were pretty slim. But let us look a little further at what they did say anyway:

The first thing to note is that the article concerned is not in any sense new evidence about anything. It is just a summary of what other Leftist psychologists have said on the subject over the years. And as computer people have always warned: GIGO (Garbage in, garbage out). And it is a very strange summary at that. Although the authors express some pride that they "cast a wide net" in looking for articles to include in their summary, they in fact leave out practically everything that does not suit them. They look only at articles that they like. It is NOT in any way a comprehensive, objective survey of the literature on the subject. For instance, how many of my articles did they cite? Just two. So just in ignoring the great bulk of my articles on the subject they ignored half the relevant literature. But Leftists always have been good at ignoring evidence.

So they say that their Leftist approach to the study of politics "has withstood the relentless tests of time and empirical scrutiny" and go on to cite 13 articles that support their approach as evidence for that assertion. If they had been fair and objective, they could also have quoted 100 articles of mine that upset that assertion. But in good Leftist fashion it is only people who support their views that they cite. No tolerance of ambiguity there!

Their ignorance of what conservatism is also shows in the means they use to measure it. Psychologists measure traits by use of "scales" (sets of interrelated questions). The more "conservative" statements you agree with, for instance, the more conservative you are said to be. The big hitch, of course, is in deciding what is a "conservative" statement. And psychologists have arrived at some strange conclusions in deciding that. Two of the most popular scales that psychologists use in studying conservative politics are the 'F' scale -- put together in the late 1940s by the (Marxist) Adorno and his group -- and the RWA scale put together by Altemeyer. Yet in general population samples Leftist voters are just about as likely to get high scores on both scales as Rightist voters are! (See e.g. here) So once again we have psychologists seriously telling us that a lot of Rightists are Leftists. Apparently Stalin is not so atypical after all!

That their measures of "conservatism" do not correlate with anything of current political relevance was even acknowledged by one of the authors of the scales concerned -- the RWA (Right-wing Authoritarianism) scale. Altemeyer, on p. 239 of his 1988 book Enemies of Freedom makes the bald statement that "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for any political party". So in what sense are the statements in the scale "right-wing" if right-wingers are no more likely to endorse them than Leftists are? Leftist psychologists are like something out of Alice in Wonderland where words can mean anything that they say they mean. I myself do think that the F and RWA scales measure some sort of conservatism (though what sort would be hard to say) but it is certainly not political conservatism. My best shot so far at guessing what they measure is an old-fashioned outlook -- but note that both Leftist and Rightist voters are equally likely to be old-fashioned in the sense concerned.

But you would never guess from what the Jost group say that their scales are so hopelessly invalid ("invalid" = "does not measure what it is supposed to measure"). Of the RWA scale, for instance, they say "Scores on the RWA Scale have been found to predict a broad range of attitudes and behaviors related to social, economic, and political conservatism as defined in the general culture at the time. For instance, the scale has correlated reliably with political party affiliation" Weasel words! They do not even seem to have read Altemeyer himself. The shred of justification they have for that statement is that among SOME people (e.g. politicians) those identified as conservative are slightly more likely to get higher scores on the RWA scale. But it still remains true that in the community at large Leftist and Rightist voters are roughly equally likely to get high scores on the thing.

The central weasel word above is of course "reliably". Psychologists have the strange habit of taking a correlation seriously as long as it is "statistically significant". But ANY correlation will be statistically significant if the sample size is large enough! So we have the weird phenomenon of correlations as low as .15 (meaning that there is only a 2% overlap between two groups of people) being taken as proof of something ( See e.g. here). What this means in practice is that if 51% of voters for the conservatives get a high score on the RWA scale and 49% of voters for the Leftists get a high score on it (which is roughly what happens), psychologists say: "Aha! We told you so! This scale measures conservatism!"). And if that happens often we get statements such as the one that the RWA scale "reliably" measures conservatism. That roughly half of their "conservatives" vote Leftist does not seem to bother anyone at all!

Leftist beliefs are obviously so rigidly held to among psychologists that any evidence at all will do to support them.

I could go on to point out many, many more holes in this caricature of serious research (e.g. by pointing out that Hitler was a socialist, that Mussolini was a Marxist, that scores on the Dogmatism scale are meaningless and that intolerance of ambiguity is a "unicorn" concept) but I think that it would be flogging a dead horse to do so. I have written a fair bit more about it on my blog for those who want to look a little further and if anyone wants to look at the academic issues involved in detail there are all my published academic journal articles on the subject to refer to. They are all now online.

One of my academic colleagues -- Prof. James Lindgren -- has also been looking closely at the Jost work. He has gone to the trouble of finding out what the public opinion polls reveal about conservative voters. A sample of his findings is here. He does however have in preparation a point-by-point refutation of the Jost claims. Practically everything the Jost group claims about conservatives on the basis of what students say turns out to be the reverse of the truth according to the public opinion poll data. When Prof. Lindgren has his work ready I will of course publicize the link on my blog.

Post publication addenda

I understand that Prof. Lindgren has decided to report his research in the form of a book but that it has not yet been published.

There have been lots of subsequent uncritical mentions of the Jost et al. pseudo-meta-analysis but a widely read one appeared in "Psychology Today". A brief comment on the article concerned is therefore offered below. Below that is offered a brief comment on another article much relied upon in the "Psychology Today" article -- a quite ludicrous article by that old warhorse of the field, Jack Block.


Psychology Today has put out a big article on the psychology of politics. It purports to explain why people hew to the Left or the Right.

It bases its conclusions, however, on research that has no scholarly worth whatsoever. The two main pieces of research it relies on to support the differentiations it proposes are by Jost et al and Block et al. Both pieces of research are within my area of academic specialization so the gaping flaws in both are more evident to me than they might be to others. I have some time ago pointed out how intellectually discreditable both studies are -- reproduced above and below. I was actually one of the authors whose research the Jost et al. article purported to summarize!

Jost et al. showed vividly the usual Leftist talent for ignoring large bodies of evidence that did not suit their preconceptions. Their article must in fact rate as one of the most dishonest meta-analyses ever reported. They were very clearly guilty of "motivated cognition" -- exactly what they accused conservatives of. Leftist projection and leftist denial do usually go hand in hand.

Michelle Malkin and Jim Lindgren note the absurd "sampling" in the Block study. It seems unlikely that there were any actual conservatives among the individuals studied! That is not the first time Leftist psychologists have perpetrated such an absurdity in their mendacious claims to "explain" conservatism, however. See, for instance, here.

Given the very dubious basis of the generalizations offered in the Psychology Today article, the generalizations offered by the article should detain no-one. Whether any of the statements made are true is simply unknown.

Sadly, many in the blogosphere have assumed that there is some respectable evidential basis for the article. Cinnamon Stillwell and Fausta sum up some of the blogospheric reactions. Iron Shrink also has a detailed debunking of the Jost et al. study.

For an account of the psychology of conservatism based on the actual history of conservatism, see here.


Starting in 1950, psychologists have been trying to prove that conservatives are psychologically maladjusted --an effort that was summarized by Jost et al. and demolished above. They never give up trying, however, and the study of 95 children from Berkeley, California by Jack Block and his wife is the latest episode. It's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to demolish the "research" concerned so I will just mention a few basics.

What the authors found was that Berkeley children who were rated as unhappy in their kindergarten years turned out as adults to be conservatives. So what do we conclude from that? Do we conclude that conservatives are intrinsically unhappy people? Hardly. The opinion polls repeatedly show conservatives to be the happiest (e.g. here). So what DO we conclude? How about saying that conservatives in ultra-Leftist Berkeley feel uncomfortable in that environment and pass on some of that discomfort to their children? But the children (as most children do) grow up to share their parents' politics so they turn out conservative in later life too. So conservative parents who were SITUATIONALLY unhappy have conservative children -- big deal!

But that is actually putting the best face on the study. It is not nearly as good as that:

1). The children concerned were not a representative sample of any known population. They may not even have been representative of Berkeley, let alone anywhere else. And if you don't sample, you can't generalize.

2). The correlation between personality and ideology was often very weak (e.g. .27 or 7% shared variance for the rating "Is self-reliant, confident") so there were nearly as many confident children who turned out Rightist as Leftist. The reported correlation could in fact have turned on the responses of just one child. That certainly weakens ALL causal inferences from the study. And many of the stronger correlations involve obvious value judgments. For instance "Is visibly deviant from peers" is said to characterize conservatives but why not turn the value judgment around and conclude that conservatives tend to be independent?

3). The measure of conservative ideology is suspect. Block does not list the actual attitude statements he used but, as I have shown above, Leftist psychologists in general don't have a blind clue what conservatism is -- and what they regard as a measure of conservatism is usually a caricature of the real thing -- generally a collection of ignorant and aggressive statements that very few real-world conservatives would assent to. That it was a caricature in this case is suggested by the fact that it showed conservatives as less intelligent. In the general population it is Leftists who are less intelligent.

I could go on to mention the Rosenthal effect etc. but what's the point?


Conservative commentators sometimes return the sort of compliment offered above by writing swingeing analyses of Leftist psychology. You can find one example here by forensic psychiatrist Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr, MD.

What a contrast! The article above about Leftists is based on what actual Leftists actually do — a vast difference from the Leftist psychologists who failed to interview any actual conservatives — and who certainly did not base their observations on what conservatives actually do, as distinct from what they say. And no psychologist should need to be told that attitudes are a poor guide to behaviour and it is behaviour that counts.