When I went to college, a pretty clear distinction existed between what was often called “the humanities” and the hard sciences, e.g. biology, physics, chemestry, etc. Since then, liberalism has cast itself as the ideology of science. Perhaps that is why liberals in the humanities or what has also been called the social sciences—the political ideology that dominates these fields—so often seek to recast their work as scientific, too.
I bring this up because of an article I read on the American political divides, and what appears to be an attempt to define what the authors clearly think ails us in scientific terms. From “Rising Rancor: One Nation, Divisible by Politics,” in Live Science:
Still, the gaps between liberals and conservatives can run deep. That’s because political ideology is rooted in morality, Haidt said, and conservatives and liberals have very different understandings of what “moral” is. Across cultures, there seem to be five foundations of morality, Haidt said. Liberals care about the first two, harm and fairness. Conservatives care about harm and fairness too, but they also worry about the other three foundations: in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity or sanctity, which ties into religious views. (Haidt’s study website, yourmorals.org, allows you to test where you fall on the spectrum.)
People’s moral foundations are partially influenced by heritable traits, like a tendency toward disgust (which has been associated with conservatism) or empathy (reflected in the “liberal bleeding heart” stereotype). A study published this month in the Journal of Politics finds that a gene related to a love for novelty may be associated with a liberal outlook. People with the gene who had many friends as teenagers were more likely to be liberal as adults, revealing a gene-environment interaction, the researchers reported.
Oh, good grief. An article in a science journal quoting a political science journal, that seeks to explain political viewpoints in terms of genetic determinism, or at least, predisposition? If that were true, it would be very hard for people to change their political views. But they do all the time. And as for conservatives supposedly loving being part of the “in-crowd:” I say come to San Francisco to see that liberals are the ones, are they ever! Recall also the effective outreach to youth by the Obama campaign that used rock and movie stars to draw young voters into the idea that “We are the people we have been waiting for.” Indeed, given the liberalism that dominates the media and popular culture, it is harder to be conservative if you care about being considered hep and popular. Even religion isn’t really the province of conservativism. Think Barack Obama, Jim Wallis, liberation theology, Unitarians, Episcopalians, social gospel, Buddhism, etc.
The article then heads into typical elite thinking that people really aren’t sophisticated enough to grapple with opposing views.
Once someone’s emotions predispose them toward a political philosophy, they tend to pay more attention to information that reinforces their position, said Peter Ditto, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has collaborated with Haidt. Ignoring contradictory information is easier than ever, given the proliferation of partisan news sources and blogs. This fundamental gap is why liberals and conservatives often hit a wall while arguing issues with one another, Ditto said. “I’ve never won a political argument,” Ditto said. “You can never pin people down ... These emotions organize our factual understanding of the world, and then you get stuck.”
If that were true, men never would have granted women the right to vote.
The article concludes:
On a personal level, people can often overcome political differences, because they like one another and give each other credit for good intentions, Ditto said. But he worries about a media environment where both sides treat each other with suspicion. “There’s no more sort of ‘noble opponent,’ where we differ on things, but we all have the same goals,” he said. So given our differences and our psychological impulses to divide and conquer, is there hope for a return to national political cooperation and goodwill? Can political parties and the media ratchet down the drama to better reflect the electorate? “It’s hard to see how this just spontaneously heals itself,” Ditto said. “Not without a major crisis,” Haidt said. “No,” Poole said. “I’m not real hopeful,” Fiorina said.
People are not really so divided but we are polarized? Besides, we had a major crisis. It took about three months to get over the unity brought about by 911. In any event, and the point is that true or false, none of this is science.
I think the humanities would be far better off and do a better job if they quit trying to fit the fields’ square pegs into science’s round holes. People’s political choices aren’t subject to the scientific method in the same way as scientists study the workings of atoms, gravitational pull, or biological processes. Certainly trying to figure out what moves people politically is a fascinating area of study. But unlike the physical rules that govern the material world, humans are profoundly subjective beings. We shift. We change. We emote. We think. We proact. We react. We choose. We obey. We speculate. We conflate. We conspire. We worry about being conspired against. We stand on principle. We equivocate. We lie. We abhor lying. We sell out. We die for ideas. In other words, we are exceptional and unquantifiable.
The humanities are therefore, by necessity, juicy. This isn’t to say that political science, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and the like are not academic or learned fields. Of course, they are. But they are not science, which means there are no ultimate answers or objective truths in studying our politics. Indeed, I think it would be worth examining why so many in the humanities seem so desirous of pretending to be what they are not, and why some in the sciences seem to welcome their blatant conflating.