I’ve written a couple of posts recently (here and here) about how the AGW scare has been picked up as a variant of religion, and defended by scientists who refuse to make their data and code available to others. In this post I want to look at a common intellectual game in which someone who has a hypothesis protects it against attack by developing another hypothesis that purports to dispose of the first attack, so that no concession has to be made about the original hypothesis.
You can see a lot of this in the AGW issue, such as the hypotheses that have been brought in to explain why there is an apparent cessation in warming, despite the steady increase in carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere. But I thought we might give AGW a bit of a rest, and look at something else that was very much part of my life thirty and more years ago: the relationship between class and party. You will see that there is a strong resemblance in my story to AGW.
In the 1960s and 1970s the consensus was that Australian politics was really the politics of some kind of class struggle, in which the workers fought the bosses through the Labor-versus-Liberal electoral battle. Indeed, some writers saw no difference at all, and cited opinion poll data in support. I had puzzled over this equation as a young man, because it didn’t fit with my own experience, or that of my family back into the 19th century. And in fact, if ‘working class’ and ‘Labor’ were truly equivalent, then all working class people would have voted Labor.
But they didn’t. In the rigorous survey work I did from the late 1960s to the late 1970s the ratio was about 1:2 — that is, about a third of the workers voted for the Liberal-Country Party coalition of that time, and two-thirds for Labor. Much the same proportion was true on the other side — about a third of middle-class people voted Labor.* The more I investigated, the less powerful the thing called ‘class’ seemed to be as an explanatory variable in Australian politics. People knew what ‘class’ meant, and could locate themselves in class terms, but the term had no real emotional force .
At the time I was writing, another Australian political scientist, David Kemp, was coming to the same conclusion from his own detailed study of Australian public opinion data. While I was a country chap with no connections in politics, David Kemp was the son of Charles Kemp, who was the first Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs. The two of us had at that time had little connection (he was in Melbourne and I in Canberra and then Sydney), but before long we seemed to be cast as the image-breakers of what had been settled science in Australian politics and history. David Kemp went on to be Malcolm Fraser’s chief of staff, then a Liberal MP and Minister in the Howard Government.
Two books re-asserting the importance of class came out in the late 1970s, not exactly in response, since they had been in preparation for some time. They were the work of two most able political scientists, R. W. Connell and T. H. Irving. Neither engaged with survey data at all, since ‘class analysis’ starts with theory and ends with theory (or for some, with ‘praxis’). But at conferences and seminars in the mid to late 1970s the class/party issue was discussed again and again, theorists against the empiricists.
For Connell and Irving, and those who agreed with them, the survey data were irrelevant, but since the survey data were, at least on face value, discordant with the notion that there was a ‘ruling class’ with a ‘ruling culture’, the theorists agreed that the people we interviewed must have had ‘false consciousness’, a term coined by Engels and revived after the Second World War by Herbert Marcuse. People who had this particular disability did not recognise their real situation in the class war, and that seemed to mean that most of the random sample of 2054 Australians we had interviewed in 1967 were disabled in this way. Maybe all Australians, all people everywhere, had a false consciousness about who they were and what they were doing, and not just with respect to’ class’.
A proposition of this kind is a debate-stopper. If people could display false consciousness, then empirical data about what they themselves thought and felt about things were beside the point. The Theorist alone could see what was happening, because he or she understood the Reality. Understandably, I felt rather peeved about being told that my years of work and study were pointless but, as it happened, ‘class analysis’ had a brief moment of glory in Australia and then faded, while survey research keeps on going, and for my part I was soon to leave that field of work for policy and administration.
Since then I have seen the same kind of intellectual coup d’état used in other debates from time to time, and find myself on the side, always, of those who want to inspect the data, rather than just listen to the Theorist. It’s not that I am opposed to theory, not at all — we advance when new theories are put forward. But we advance fastest when the new theory is put to the test.[None of my work of that time is online, but some of the story and data can be found in my Stability and Change in Australian Politics (second edition 1982)]