I spend more hours that I ought in front of my computer, and emails regularly arrive that suggest I should read this or that. Or I have subscribed to a newsletter, and something is published on it that makes me think. The first of these two papers fits that last description. A long time ago I subscribed to a newsletter called Skepticlawyer, which seemed to be about the law, from a sceptical perspective. The lawyers were women, and they had interesting things to say. Occasionally there would be an economics essay by someone called ‘Lorenzo’ that usually had a historical bent, which I liked. Eventually the ladies left for career or family reasons, and Lorenzo now seems to be Skepticlawyer, even though he doesn’t write about the law.
But he did write something the other day about inequality, which of course I read, as I had written pieces myself on that subject, and one of them quite recently, too. Lorenzo’s essay is a delight. It is entitled ‘So, you want to reduce inequality … (some modest, and some practical, proposals)’, and readers might recognise the allusion to Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal in 1729 that the impoverished Irish might sell their children as food for rich people. Lorenzo isn’t quite so Gothic, but nonetheless his is another piece of satire.
If reducing inequality is what you want to do, he says, don’t raise tax rates, for that will only reduce both productivity and government revenue. Instead, greatly reduce spending on higher education (which leads to people having higher incomes that they would have had, and leads therefore to greater inequality). Next, get women out of the workforce: high income men marrying high income women and low income men marrying low income women greatly increases household inequality. Next, massively cut back on immigration save for those with high levels of skill and money. After that, abolish residential zoning, eliminate occupational licensing, and get into more wars that involve mass conscription. He quotes somebody else who proposes, among other things, Replace income taxes with progressive consumption taxes and low wage subsidies. Eliminate cigarette taxes. Legalize drugs.
Lorenzo recognises that those most inclined to complain about income inequality would be those who would be outraged by any attempt to implement any of the above policy agenda(s). Yet their preferred agenda of increased tax-and-spend would be very unlikely to have any equivalent effect. And he explains why, at some length. Altogether, it’s a good read, and was picked up quickly on On Line Opinion, where you can read a shorter version. But above all, it’s fun, and so much that I have to read is anything but fun.
The second paper comes from a website called Quillette, to which I now subscribe. The essay is by Claire Lehmann, who is a freelance writer living in Sydney; she seems to be the editor and perhaps the founder of the website. Her essay is entitled ‘How a rebellious scientist uncovered the surprising truth about stereotypes’, and I am always on the lookout both for stereotypes and for debunking essays about science and social science.
This one had a great beginning. At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology. As it happens, I had a short discussion about the more general left-wing bias in social science at the recent meeting of my Academy with an old friend. We remembered how when we were young the bias in universities was exactly the other way. ‘Twas always thus, we agreed.
Lee Jussim is an American social psychologist. Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths. Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories. If I’d been there I would have been nodding. But what was his prize example? None other than Professor Lewandowsky, whose article about how those who believe that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The quality of his research has been ridiculed as ‘lew paper’, and Professor Jussim was merciless.
After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming. “But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.” His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.
Ms Lehmann can write, and the rest of the essay, which moves into Jussim’s work on stereotypes and the non-reproducibility of much research in social psychology, is a delight. I was not aware, but I am not surprised, that of one hundred psychological studies only a minority could be replicated at all. It all reminds me of the work of John Ioannidis in investigating the reproducibility of medical research. Professor Jussim does not get enthusiastic agreement from his colleagues, you may be surprised to hear. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:
“Social psychologists should be not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”
Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be. It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages.
I am afraid that there is a lot in this. From those who think that inequality is morally bad and we should somehow end it, to people who won’t study areas because the results mightn’t give the right message, to those who would prevent a contrary speaker from even being heard, the modern university seems from time to time to have been captured by those who think that the primary purpose of the university is to advance a cause.
I’m sure there will be a swing back the other way, but it may take a while. As Max Planck wrote, science advances one funeral at a time.