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.
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.