Shalizi on Altemeyer

Altogether, the fact that a non-trivial fraction of the North American population is willing to say, in so many words, that it’d be happy to collaborate in persecution and oppression is one of the most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time.

So says Cosma Shalizi about Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (2007). Unsurprisingly, I agree.

If you haven’t done so already, kick back for an afternoon and read through Altemeyer’s book. It’s very much worth the investment. After that, we can join together in debating the details — every day, I become more convinced that a significant chunk of my species just likes to argue.

In his summary, Shalizi airs a few points which are, I expect, fairly uncontroversial. First, we should note that it’s hard to tell how well any scale like Altemeyer’s “RWA” metric will predict a person’s behavior in non-testing situations. This is an obstacle which any psychological investigation of personality will slam into, sooner or later, and we have to do the best with the evidence we can gather. Investigation becomes particularly, ahem, interesting when the sort of experiments you’d need to do to plumb the depths are along the lines of the Milgram experiment.

Altemeyer has the scientific integrity not to elide or downplay these difficulties, which is a damn good thing.

Leaving aside the question of how one might more rigorously test a subject’s “right-wing authoritarianism” and “social dominance orientation” outside the lecture hall, a few points should be discussed regarding the academic’s favorite fetish, the footnotes:

(1) Like many psychologists, Altemeyer is naive in believing that correlations between twins indicate a strong genetic component to mental traits. (2) He should have cut the long footnote about Lakoff’s speculations.

I’d like to disagree, respectfully, with Shalizi on point (2). It’s nice to see a critique of Lakoff, or more precisely an indication of how experimental data indicate that Lakoff’s conclusions may be oversimplifications, which is grounded in thoroughly scientific terms. I mean, we’re all tired of hearing about Lakoff and the mutant offspring of his particular memes, but this particular footnote shows the way to a more interesting discussion nearby in idea-space (to steal an Aaronsonian notion). Altemeyer’s remarks feed into an idea I’ve been kicking around, namely that Lakoff’s hypotheses, or at least the way they have been commonly applied, are a mean-field model of human behavior, in which each individual feels only an “averaged” input of information which is received identically by all members of the population. Hierarchies of trusted authority and variations in the degree to which people uncritically accept authority break the symmetry assumptions which underlie the mean-field description — but hey, this is probably a topic for a different post.

Having disagreed with one quibble, I should add a quibble of my own, one which naturally concerns a footnote. On p. 155, Altemeyer characterizes Francis Collins’ conversion to Catholicism as an event “brought about by intellectual reasons.” I think plenty of evidence exists that we should file his dramatic experience in the “emotional” category, not the “intellectual.” A waterfall, tripartite or otherwise, is not an intellectual argument. Furthermore, the “intellectual” arguments Collins does offer are so painfully inadequate that I’d wager they could only be accepted by those who have already made an emotional investment in the desired conclusion. Once you peel off the patina of science jargon, the tale recounted by Collins sounds much like the other stories Altemeyer had collected:

Speaking of fear, Bruce Hunsberger and I also interviewed university students who had come from nonreligious backgrounds but were now “amazing believers.” They had, it seemed, usually become religious for emotional reasons as a way of dealing with fear of death, despair, and personal failure, and been “brought to Christ” by religious friends and youth groups. These conversions seldom happened for intellectual reasons. Frequently, in fact, the amazing believers were given the Bible after making their commitment to Jesus so they could “find out what you now believe.” See Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion, 1997, Amherst, N.Y., Prometheus Books.

I have no desire to quarrel with the sincerity of Collins’ feelings, only to dispute Altemeyer’s classification of the story Collins has told.

6 thoughts on “Shalizi on Altemeyer”

  1. Thanks for pointing me to this. Very interesting. But I have to quibble with a question on that test:

    Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.

    So…what do I put down if I think it’s more likely for atheists and other rebels to be moral than people who “attend church regularly”? My confusion made me score a 21 instead of a 20.

    The average is 90? I’m suddenly much more worried about the world than I was half an hour ago.

  2. Cosma:

    That’s one of my many half-baked ideas. When I haven’t even devoted a full blag post to it, you know it needs more time in the oven. Roughly speaking, my thinking goes like this:

    I’ve often found myself exasperated by people who, when talking about public policy or the spread of ideas, seem to use very simplistic models of human behavior. So, I’m always looking around for ways to explain exactly how I’m irritated, and to see if the ways people oversimplify have any rhyme or reason to them.

    Hypotheses of human behavior and interaction seem so hard to test experimentally that I figure the first requirement for any such proposal be that it make pretty pictures on a computer screen. If we want to talk about a meme spreading through a population, we can cast that idea as a CA and watch red dots displacing green dots. (If I can’t understand my species, I’ll be content with a cool screensaver.)

    Now, however right or wrong George Lakoff has been, people (including the man himself) seem to have had a hard time making effective rhetoric based on his ideas. So, maybe something important is being left out — if not by the academics, but by the people who absorb and then try to apply “Lakoff-lite.”

    Then the people in the office next door started talking lots and lots about what happens when population dynamics can no longer be described by a mean-field theory. You’ve got your CA with red dots eating green dots; if each cell feels the same average interaction due to all the other cells, then certain results hold. Selfish predators always out-compete the cooperative ones, for example. But, if that well-mixedness assumption breaks down, then new effects can occur. Whether or not those effects matter in biology, they might be significant in “psychohistory.”

    The impression I get from watching some of these arguments go by is that people who like to apply Cognitive Psychology Lite(TM) to public policy questions, even if they allow for some variation among individuals, don’t appreciate the full extent of that variation and don’t consider the way individuals perceive their neighbors and receive information to be part of that variation. In other words, they treat each person as receiving the same flow of data.

    Like I said, it’s a half-baked idea, which will probably never progress past the screensaver stage.


    Good point. I might’ve written that question with “no less good and virtuous” instead of “every bit as good and virtuous.”

  3. I don’t think “every bit as good and virtuous” is the only problem with that question. I also have problems with the phrasing “rebelled against the established religions.” I consider those who have given any consideration to ethics and hence have rejected the horrors of religion to be more ethical than the religious. Those who are merely acting out childish rebellion against the establishment are not necessarily skeptics or athiests or humanists and I don’t have any particular opinion as to their ethics.

  4. “Rebelled” might be a loaded word: does it necessarily carry connotations of childish (or, perhaps, adolescent) behavior? A rebellion in the sense of a political revolution might be very well planned and grounded in highly developed political theory.

  5. OK, I’ll bite and disagree on the first quibble. “(1) Like many psychologists, Altemeyer is naive in believing that correlations between twins indicate a strong genetic component to mental traits.”

    What does it indicate, then? Are mental traits somehow different from any other trait where twin studies may be used to look for possible genetic components? Altemeyer does not say that twin correlations must be due to genetics.

    “If we line up the usual suspects for explaining anything we do, viz., our genes and our experiences, we have to wonder, “Do some people get born authoritarian followers?” Maybe they do. (…) studies of identical and fraternal twins have produced some evidence that authoritarianism has hereditary roots. The more obvious expectation that our level of authoritarianism is shaped by our experiences and environment has more support…” (emphasis mine)

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