Trading Social Science for Social Intimidation
Amid reports that a good deal of peer-reviewed research is wrong, progressives cross their arms and brook no dissent.
As Americans watch the nightly mayhem in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and other cities, their shock comes not just from watching a vicious segment of the population loot, destroy property, and even physically assault in the name of social justice. If history has taught us anything, it is that anarchist and criminal mentalities lie dormant in every country, just waiting for the opportunity to take control of legitimate protest—in today’s case, the peaceable demonstrations inspired by George Floyd’s tragic death.
What is far more distressing about the present chaos is the response of historically responsible liberals who now seem to condone not only street violence, but the aggressive “cancellation” of citizens with views well within the mainstream. Many institutions once at the vanguard of advancing free speech—including the ACLU, colleges and universities, newspapers like the New York Times, and several social media companies—now appear to be working overtime against it. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently chided the far left as “not interested in winning debates with better arguments [but preferring] to shut down debate altogether,” one could be forgiven for thinking he was referencing the entire Democratic Party.
To the extent that the right has an explanation for this anti-liberal liberalism, it is that the center-left is suffering from an advanced case of what many Republicans mockingly call “Trump Derangement Syndrome” (TDS). In other words, with the election so close, the president’s opponents will countenance anything that stokes dissatisfaction with his administration.
We know there is some truth to this, if for no other reason than that those Democrats still uncomfortable with cancel culture have been warning others in their party against getting too carried away with their dislike of Trump. “[They] should forget President Trump for a second,” writes long-time party activist Ted Van Dyk in a July 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Democrats are presenting a pro-chaos caricature of themselves, which will discredit them with the public if they maintain it.”
But to settle for TDS as the explanation for growing liberal intolerance is to miss a much deeper crisis on the left, one that has been building for decades and would exist even if President Trump had never been elected. To understand this crisis, we must remind ourselves of something so obvious that, like air, it is easily overlooked: namely, that the underlying rationale for any form of left-wing governance over the last two centuries has been the presumed ability of educated officials to use social science for the benefit of the larger society. From early 18th century Owenism and Saint-Simonianism to Soviet communism to today’s European social democracies, to be anywhere on the left has been to believe in some form of technocratic governance.
The American left is no exception. For more than a century, it has created or shaped a wide range of government programs based more on the wisdom of credentialed experts (or legislation shaped by experts) than on market forces. Sometimes referred to collectively as the administrative state, these include K-12 education, public universities, health and welfare bureaucracies, departments of urban planning, environmental agencies, and correctional facilities. The left has also promoted the interests of trial lawyers, industrial unions, and other groups whose activities, although outside of government, were still seen as compatible with technocratic governance.
The power of claiming to represent the wisdom of social science can be seen in the fact that whenever any liberal program or agenda has failed in some spectacular way, the left has always been able to fall back on comparisons to experimental research. In other words, just as well-intended mistakes are an unfortunate but necessary part of laboratory investigation, so technological governance will inevitably take unproductive detours from time to time. Even having to backtrack on its aggressive promotion of phrenology and blatantly segregationist policies in the early 20th century never fatally tarnished the left’s case for expert rule.
But as politically effective as assuming the mantle of social science has been for American liberals, three recent developments now threaten to end its usefulness.
The first is the growing evidence that much of the research used by the administrative state over the years has been intentionally falsified by its academic authors, either to advance their own ideological biases or to please their government funders. It has been well-documented since the mid-1990s that any academic study that contradicts left-wing beliefs has an especially difficult time getting the peer endorsements needed for publication. This is true even when the rejected paper appears just as comprehensively researched as the more liberal papers commonly accepted by prestigious journals.
But in 2005, Dr. John Ioannidis, co-director of Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, went one step further. In a now-famous report, he showed that even the social science research that does get published is not nearly as rigorous as it has been made to appear. Much of what has been taught for decades as “settled science” is, he showed, the product of unreliable statistical testing, the misleading use of small sample sizes, unwarranted credence given to small effects, unshared experimental data, and other scientifically dubious methods.
Ever since Ioannidis’ paper, it has become painfully clear that even many of the most influential experiments in sociology, political science, social psychology, economics, climate science, anthropology, education, and medicine cannot meet the first requirement of science: replication of results upon retesting. Widely cited studies supposedly confirming the liberal assertion that discriminatory behavior stems from unconscious stereotyping, for example, cannot be duplicated.
In 2015, Science tried to replicate the findings of 100 articles published in three prominent psychological journals during 2008 and got significant results for only 36, compared to the significance claimed by 97 of the originals. A similar study one year later in the Finance and Economics Discussion Series of the Federal Reserve could not reproduce the outcomes of a majority of prominent economics articles.
Ioannidis himself now believes that up to half the discoveries ever published in peer-reviewed social science and medical journals are probably wrong, an opinion he shares with The Lancet’s respected editor-in-chief, Richard Charles Horton. National Association of Scholars (NAS) president Peter Wood has similarly argued that many of the regulations, laws, and social programs routinely passed by Congress on the basis of supposedly solid research have no real scientific justification.
Even in the area of environmental science—where investigations tend to involve more physics and chemistry than social science—much of the research still cannot be replicated. Studies related to nuclear power turn out to be especially iffy. The dangers of accidents like Fukushima (where all the deaths were caused by the tsunami, not radiation) are grossly exaggerated while hazards posed by renewables like hydroelectric power are simply ignored. Completely overlooked are the successful development of fast neutron reactors, which eliminate the problem of radioactive waste, and of small modular reactors, whose simplicity of design makes them exceptionally safe.
The second development to undermine people’s faith in technocratic governance is their own experience of it. In 1964, polls showed that three of every four Americans trusted the competence of public officials. Today, only one third of respondents feel the same way. Recent surveys reported by City Journal show that those states that boast the most comprehensive menu of public services rank lowest for the efficient delivery of any of them. Indeed, there is a direct connection between how much a state spends on programs to improve the quality of its citizen’s lives and the percentage of those same citizens eager to migrate elsewhere.
Especially striking is the declining status of what decades ago was one of America’s most admired institutions, public education. In the latest annual poll by Harvard’s Education Next magazine, 75 percent of respondents graded the performance of the nation’s schools with a C or less.
Republicans may not be precisely on target when they attribute the decline of America’s big cities to the failure of Democratic mayors. But they are close enough to what the public perceives as the real problem—that government has wasted hundreds of billions over the last half-century to “engineer” an urban revival. That accusation has become one of the GOP’s most effective talking points.
The third and most recent threat to public support for technocratic governance is the dawning awareness that there must soon be a radical restructuring of state and federal finances. Had politicians listened to the advice of knowledgeable commentators and used the economic recovery of the last decade to prudently build a financial cushion, the need might never have arisen. But from 2010 to 2020, the federal government averaged deficits of more than $1 trillion per year, more than doubling its liabilities to $22 trillion. During that same period, the net debt owed by many states ballooned as well: New Jersey to $199 billion, Illinois to $248 billion, and California to $288 billion.
Then came the coronavirus, which almost overnight added 5.9 trillion to the U.S. deficit while starving the states of sales tax revenue. Even before the recently aborted negotiation on a second stimulus, it was already clear that the country’s cumulative debt would soon be greater than its annual economic output (GDP), the point where any nation’s creditworthiness is automatically called into question.
As voters contemplate the mix of tax increases and spending cuts that will eventually be required to balance government books, they know that many public programs are going to have to be trimmed, combined, or even eliminated. So large is America’s sovereign debt, as International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists Fabien Gonguet and Klaus-Peter Hellwig make clear in their recent working paper on “Public Wealth in the United States,” that no state or federal department will be spared.
Taken together, these three developments—the discrediting of the research underpinning current social services, the mushrooming mistrust of institutional elites, and the looming need to significantly downsize government—have created a crisis for modern liberals that is far more personal than generally recognized. Once, perhaps as students, they admired the administrative state from a purely intellectual perspective, as outsiders. But today, as working adults, liberals are the administrative state.
Among public school teachers and administrators, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 87 to 13. Among social workers, it is 93 to 7; for those involved in environmental regulation, 91 to 9; and for public defenders it is 19 to 1. Among college professors and administrators—many of whom work at private institutions but still benefit from government grants and federal student loans—it is 17 to 2.
When it comes to federal employees, a good indicator of party affiliation is campaign contributions. In 2016, according to The Hill, 95 percent of the donations from workers in 14 agencies went to Clinton. At the Department of Justice, 99 percent of the money went to Clinton; at the State Department, it was also 99 percent. Of the political contributions from Internal Revenue Service workers, 94 percent went to Clinton.
What does the modern liberal do when the old appeal to credentialed expertise is no longer enough to protect his or her job from being restructured, downsized, made more accountable, subject to greater competition, or even abolished? They do what privileged bureaucrats have always done when the rationale for their status no longer holds sway: they find a purpose whose ideology combines “right thinking” with a puritanical intolerance of any criticism of that thinking.
The K-12 public schools that fail miserably in international comparisons, the universities increasingly blamed for selfishly putting so many American students into debt, the court systems and social agencies which have presided over the collapse of America’s inner cities – all resist the reform they fear by uniting behind a substitute for social science which leaves their institutions and authority intact. The goal, as Center of the American Experiment senior policy analyst Katherine Kersten recently observed, is to go from being “the expert” to being “the elect.”
That liberals would gravitate to wokeness is hardly a surprise. With its unrelenting racial interpretation of every social encounter, it preserves the left’s claim to represent all minority and disadvantaged groups while simultaneously inventing endless reasons for institutional remedy. Once more, any criticism is easily dismissed as the result of the critic’s own unconscious privilege—the same way psychoanalysts used to deflect any challenge to their professional opinion as “a psychological resistance.”
Wokeness also comes with an especially powerful language for social intimidation, honed over decades through its evolution from deconstructionism to political correctness to identity politics to today’s cancel culture. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it can now intimidate the heads of major corporations. Wokeness even appeals to many clergy who, having failed to stem the declining number of church-affiliated believers, seek relevance in a biblically forbidden compromise with those preaching earthly utopia.
What all this means is that liberal intolerance will be with us long after the election, no matter who wins. At a time when sociological support for its institutions is no longer a given, when average Americans are increasingly skeptical of governing elites, and when public debt is about to force some serious budget adjustments, the last thing anyone on the left wants is a friendly, rational conversation.
There is no better glimpse into the future than what happened last February, when the Oakland, California-based Independence Institute decided to sponsor a conference on improving the accuracy of social science research. Not only were the organizers labeled everything from misogynistic white supremacists to climate change deniers, but two graduate students set to speak at the gathering were forced to withdraw after threats of career sabotage. Even the event’s most commonsense recommendations—to do more replication studies, to prioritize grants to researchers who pre-register their protocols, and to require experimenters to make their data and research protocols publicly available—were viciously attacked on social media as right-wing propaganda.
Whatever far-left lunacy today’s liberals are willing to tolerate in the name of upending white male privilege is really a measure of what they are prepared to inflict to preserve their own.
Dr. Lewis Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy at Trinity College from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).