Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled “The Psychologists Take Power,” is no more scholarly than your average political attack ad, nor is it any more credible. (The article is available online, but I won’t lend it further visibility to search engines by linking to it here.) Two of the psychologists maligned in the essay, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, recently contributed a letter to the editors which effectively highlights Shaw’s faulty reasoning and myriad distortions, describing how she “prosecutes her case by citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes” (82).
Upon first reading Shaw’s piece, I dismissed it as a particularly unscrupulous bit of interdepartmental tribalism—a philosopher bemoaning the encroachment by pesky upstart scientists into what was formerly the bailiwick of philosophers. But then a line in Shaw’s attempted rebuttal of Haidt and Pinker’s letter sent me back to the original essay, and this time around I recognized it as a manifestation of a more widespread trend among scholars, and a rather unscholarly one at that.
Shaw begins her article by accusing a handful of psychologists of exceeding the bounds of their official remit. These researchers have risen to prominence in recent years through their studies into human morality. But now, instead of restricting themselves, as responsible scientists would, to describing how we make moral judgements and attempting to explain why we respond to moral dilemmas the way we do, these psychologists have begun arrogating moral authority to themselves. They’ve begun, in other words, trying to tell us how we
reason morally—according to Shaw anyway. Her article then progresses through shady innuendo and arguments based on what Haidt and Pinker call “guilt through imaginability” to connect this group of authors to the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation,” i.e. torture, which culminated in such atrocities as those committed in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Shaw’s sole piece of evidence comes from
that was commissioned by the American Psychological Association. David Hoffman and his fellow investigators did indeed find that two
played a critical role in developing the interrogation methods used by the CIA, and they had
. Neither of the two, however, and none of those officials authored any of the books on moral psychology that Shaw is supposedly reviewing. In the report’s conclusion, the investigators describe the responses of clinical psychologists who “feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques.” Shaw writes,
It is easy to imagine the psychologists who claim to be moral experts dismissing such a reaction as an unreliable “gut response” that must be overridden by more sophisticated reasoning. But a thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses might well leave human beings without a moral compass sufficiently strong to guide them through times of crisis, when our judgement is most severely challenged, or to compete with powerful nonmoral motivations. (39)
What she’s referring to here is the two-system model of moral reasoning which posits a rapid, intuitive system, programmed in large part by our genetic inheritance but with some cultural variation in its expression, matched against a more effort-based, cerebral system that requires the application of complex reasoning.
But it must be noted that nowhere does any of the authors she’s reviewing make a case for a “thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses.” Their positions are far more nuanced, and Haidt in fact argues in his book
The Righteous Mind
that liberals could benefit from paying
heed to some of their moral instincts—a case that Shaw herself summarizes in her essay when she’s trying to paint him as an overly “didactic” conservative.
Haidt and Pinker’s response to Shaw’s argument by imaginability was to simply ask the other five authors she insinuates support torture whether they indeed reacted the way she describes. They write, “The results: seven out of seven said ‘no’” (82). These authors’ further responses to the question offer a good opportunity to expose just how off-base Shaw’s simplistic characterizations are.
None of these psychologists believes that a reaction of physical revulsion
be overridden or should be
distrusted. But several pointed out that in the past, people have felt physically sick upon contemplating homosexuality, interracial marriage, vaccination, and other morally unexceptionable acts, so gut feelings alone cannot constitute a “moral compass.” Nor is the case against “enhanced interrogation” so fragile, as Shaw implies, that it has to rest on gut feelings: the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming. So while primitive physical revulsion may serve as an early warning signal indicating that some practice calls for moral scrutiny, it is “the more sophisticated reasoning” that should guide us through times of crisis. (82-emphasis in original)
One phrase that should stand out here is “the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming.” Shaw is supposedly writing about a takeover by psychologists who advocate torture—but
none of them actually advocates torture
. And, having read four of the six books she covers, I can aver that this response was entirely predictable based on what the authors had written. So why does Shaw attempt to mislead her readers?
The false implication that the authors she’s reviewing support torture isn’t the only central premise of Shaw’s essay that’s simply wrong; if these psychologists really are trying to take power, as she claims, that’s news to them. Haidt and Pinker begin their rebuttal by pointing out that “Shaw can cite no psychologist who claims special authority or ‘superior wisdom’ on moral matters” (82). Every one of them, with a single exception, in fact includes an explanation of what separates the two endeavors—describing human morality on the one hand, and prescribing values or behaviors on the other—in the very books Shaw professes to find so alarming. The lone exception, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of
Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
, wrote to Haidt and Pinker, “The fact that one cannot derive morality from psychological research is so screamingly obvious that I never thought to explicitly write it down” (82).
Yet Shaw insists all of these authors commit the fallacy of moving from is to ought; you have to wonder if she even read the books she’s supposed to be reviewing—beyond mining them for damning quotes anyway. And didn’t any of the editors at
The New York Review
think to check some of her basic claims? Or were they simply hoping to bank on the publication of what amounts to controversy porn? (Think of the dilemma faced by the authors: do you respond and draw more attention to the piece, or do you ignore it and let some portion of the readership come away with a wildly mistaken impression?)
Haidt and Pinker do a fine job of calling out most of Shaw’s biggest mistakes and mischaracterizations. But I want to draw attention to two more instances of her falling short of any reasonable standard of scholarship, because each one reveals something important about the beliefs Shaw uses as her own moral compass. The authors under review situate their findings on human morality in a larger framework of theories about human evolution. Shaw characterizes this framework as “an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology” (38). Shaw has evidently attended the
of evolutionary biology, which preaches that science can only concern itself with phenomena occurring right before our eyes in a lab. The reality is that, while testing adaptationist theories is a complicated endeavor, there are usually at least two ways to falsify them. You can show that the trait or behavior in question is absent in
, or you can show that it emerges late in life after some sort of deliberate training. One of the books Shaw is supposedly reviewing, Bloom’s
, focuses specifically on research demonstrating that many of our common moral intuitions
, in our first year of life, with no deliberate training whatsoever.
Bloom comes in for some more targeted, if off-hand, criticism near the conclusion of Shaw’s essay for an article he wrote to challenge the increasingly popular sentiment that we can solve our problems as a society by encouraging everyone to be more empathetic. Empathy, Bloom points out, is a finite resource; we’re simply not capable of feeling for every single one of the millions of individuals in need of care throughout the world. So we need to offer that care based on principle, not feeling. Shaw avoids any discussion of her own beliefs about morality in her essay, but from the nature of her mischaracterization of Bloom’s argument we can start to get a sense of the ideology informing her prejudices. She insists that
when Paul Bloom, in his own
,” warns us that empathy for people who are seen as victims may be associated with violent, punitive tendencies toward those in authority, we should be wary of extrapolating from his psychological claims a prescription for what should and should not be valued, or inferring that we need a moral corrective to a culture suffering from a supposed excess of empathic feelings. (40-1)
The “supposed excess of empathic feelings” isn’t the only laughable distortion people who actually read Bloom’s essay will catch out; the actual examples he cites of when empathy for victims leads to “violent, punitive tendencies” include Donald Trump and Ann Coulter stoking outrage against undocumented immigrants by telling stories of the crimes a few of them commit. This misrepresentation raises an important question: why would Shaw want to mislead her readers into believing Bloom’s intention is to protect those in authority? This brings us to the McCathyesque part of Shaw’s attack ad.
The sections of the essay drawing a web of guilt connecting the two psychologists who helped develop torture methods for the CIA to all the authors she’d have us believe are complicit focus mainly on Martin Seligman, whose theory of learned helplessness formed the basis of the CIA’s approach to harsh interrogation. Seligman is the founder of a subfield called Positive Psychology, which he developed as a counterbalance to what he perceived as an almost exclusive focus on all that can go wrong with human thinking, feeling, and behaving. His Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has received $31 million in recent years from the Department of Defense—a smoking gun by Shaw’s lights. And Seligman even admits that on several occasions he met with those two psychologists who participated in the torture program. The other authors Shaw writes about have in turn worked with Seligman on a variety of projects. Haidt even wrote a book on Positive Psychology called
The Happiness Hypothesis
In Shaw’s view, learned helplessness theory is a potentially dangerous tool being wielded by a bunch of mad scientists and government officials corrupted by financial incentives and a lust for military dominance. To her mind, the notion that Seligman could simply want to help soldiers cope with the stresses of combat is all but impossible to even entertain. In this and every other instance when Shaw attempts to mislead her readers, it’s to put the same sort of negative spin on the psychologists’ explicitly stated positions. If Bloom says empathy has a dark side, then all the authors in question are against empathy. If Haidt
—the flipside of learned helplessness—is needed to counteract a
, then all of these authors are against efforts to combat sexism and racism on college campuses. And, as we’ve seen, if these authors say we should question our moral intuitions, it’s because they want to be able to get away with crimes like torture. “Expertise in teaching people to override their moral intuitions is only a moral good if it serves good ends,” Shaw herself writes. “Those ends,” she goes on, “should be determined by rigorous moral deliberation” (40). Since this is precisely what the authors she’s criticizing say in their books, we’re left wondering what her real problem with them might be.
In her reply to Haidt and Pinker’s letter, Shaw suggests her aim for the essay was to encourage people to more closely scrutinize the “doctrines of Positive Psychology” and the central principles underlying psychological theories about human morality. I was curious to see how she’d respond to being called out for mistakenly stating that the psychologists were claiming moral authority and that they were given to using their research to defend the use of torture. Her main response is to repeat the central aspects of her rather flimsy case against Seligman. But then she does something truly remarkable; she doesn’t deny using guilt by imaginability—she defends it.
Pinker and Haidt say they prefer reality to imagination, but imagination is the capacity that allows us to take responsibility, insofar as it is ever possible, for the ends for which our work will be used and the consequences that it will have in the world. Such imagination is a moral and intellectual virtue that clearly needs to be cultivated. (85)
So, regardless of what the individual psychologists themselves explicitly say about torture, for instance, as long as they’re equipping other people with the conceptual tools to justify torture, they’re still at least somewhat complicit. This was the line that first made me realize Shaw’s essay was something other than a philosopher munching on sour grapes.
Shaw’s approach to connecting each of the individual authors to Seligman and then through him to the torture program is about as sophisticated, and about as credible, as any narrative concocted by your average online conspiracy theorist. But she believes that these connections are important and meaningful, a belief, I suspect, that derives from her own philosophy. Advocates of this philosophy, commonly referred to as
or poststructuralism, posit that our culture is governed by a dominant ideology that serves to protect and perpetuate the societal status quo, especially with regard to what are referred to as
—men over women, whites over other ethnicities, heterosexuals over homosexuals. This dominant ideology finds expression in, while at the same time propagating itself through, cultural practices ranging from linguistic expressions to the creation of art to the conducting of scientific experiments.
Inspired by figures like
, postmodern scholars reject many of the central principles of
, including its emphasis on the role of rational discourse in driving societal progress. This is because the processes of reasoning and research that go into producing knowledge can never be fully disentangled from the exercise of power, or so it is argued. We experience the world through the medium of culture, and our culture distorts reality in a way that makes hierarchies seem both natural and inevitable. So, according to postmodernists, not only does science fail to create true knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants, but the ideas it generates must also be scrutinized to identify their hidden political implications.
What such postmodern textual analyses look like in practice is described in sociologist Ullica Segerstrale’s book,
. Segerstrale observed that postmodern critics of evolutionary psychology (which was more commonly called sociobiology in the late 90s), were outraged by what they presumed were the political implications of the theories, not by what evolutionary psychologists actually wrote. She explains,
In their analysis of their targets’ texts, the critics used a method I call moral reading. The basic idea behind moral reading was to imagine the worst possible political consequences of a scientific claim. In this way, maximum guilt might be attributed to the perpetrator of this claim. (206)
This is similar to the type of imagination Shaw faults psychologists today for insufficiently exercising. For the postmodernists, the sum total of our cultural knowledge is what sustains all the varieties of oppression and injustice that exist in our society, so unless an author explicitly decries oppression or injustice he’ll likely be held under suspicion. Five of the six books Shaw subjects to her moral reading were written by white males. The sixth was written by a male and a female, both white. The people the CIA tortured were not white. So you might imagine white psychologists telling everyone not to listen to their conscience to make it easier for them reap the benefits of a history of colonization. Of course, I could be completely wrong here; maybe this scenario isn’t what was playing out in Shaw’s imagination at all. But that’s the problem—there are few limits to what any of us can imagine, especially when it comes to people we disagree with on hot-button issues.
Postmodernism began in English departments back in the ‘60s where it was originally developed as an approach to analyzing literature. From there, it spread to several other branches of the humanities and is now making inroads into the social sciences. Cultural
was the first field to be mostly overtaken. You can see precursors to Shaw’s rhetorical approach in attacks leveled against sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon by postmodern anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins. In
in 2001, also in
The New York Review of Books
, Sahlins writes,
The ‘60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to “deconstruct” it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining control over people.
Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of Chagnon’s fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation.
The first thing to note is that Sahlin’s characterization of Chagnon’s books as narratives of “gaining control over people” is just plain silly; Chagnon was more often than not at the mercy of the Yanomamö. The second is that, just as anyone who’s actually read the books by Haidt, Pinker, Greene, and Bloom will be shocked by Shaw’s claim that their writing somehow bolsters the case for torture, anyone familiar with Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomamö will likely wonder what the hell they have to do with Vietnam, a war that to my knowledge he never expressed an opinion of in writing.
However, according to postmodern logic—or we might say postmodern morality—Chagnon’s observation that the Yanomamö were often violent, along with his espousal of a theory that holds such violence to have been common among preindustrial societies, leads inexorably to the conclusion that he wants us all to believe violence is part of our fixed nature as humans. Through the lens of postmodernism, Chagnon’s work is complicit in making people believe working for peace is futile because violence is inevitable. Chagnon may counter that he believes violence is likely to occur only in certain circumstances, and that by learning more about what conditions lead to conflict we can better equip ourselves to prevent it. But that doesn’t change the fact that society needs high-profile figures to bring before our modern academic version of the inquisition, so that all the other
the rest of the world will see what happens to anyone who deviates from right (actually far-left) thinking.
Ideas really do have consequences of course, some of which will be unforeseen. The place where an idea ends up may even be repugnant to its originator. But the notion that we can settle foreign policy disputes, eradicate racism, end gender inequality, and bring about world peace simply by demonizing artists and scholars whose work goes against our favored party line, scholars and artists who maybe can’t be shown to support these evils and injustices directly but can certainly be imagined to be doing so in some abstract and indirect way—well, that strikes me as far-fetched. It also strikes me as dangerously misguided, since it’s not like scholars, or anyone else, ever needed any extra encouragement to imagine people who disagree with them being guilty of some grave moral offense. We’re naturally tempted to do that as it is.
Part of becoming a good scholar—part of becoming a grownup—is learning to live with people whose beliefs are different from yours, and to treat them fairly. Unless a particular scholar is openly and explicitly advocating torture, ascribing such an agenda to her is either irresponsible, if we’re unwittingly misrepresenting her, or dishonest, if we’re doing so knowingly. Arguments from imagined adverse consequences can go both ways. We could, for instance, easily write articles suggesting that Shaw is a Stalinist, or that she advocates prosecuting perpetrators of what members of the far left deem to be thought crimes. What about the consequences of encouraging
in an age of widespread denial of climate change? Postmodern identity politics is this moment posing a
on college campuses. And the tactics of postmodern activists begin and end with the stoking of moral outrage, so we could easily make a case that the activists are deliberately trying to
. With each baseless accusation and counter-accusation, though, we’re getting farther and farther away from any meaningful inquiry, forestalling any substantive debate, and hamstringing any real moral or political progress.
Many people try to square the circle, arguing that postmodernism isn’t inherently antithetical to science, and that the supposed insights derived from postmodern scholarship ought to be assimilated somehow into science. When Thomas Huxley, the physician and biologist known as Darwin’s bulldog, said that science “
when it adopts a creed,” he was pointing out that by adhering to an ideology you’re taking its tenets for granted. Science, despite many critics’ desperate proclamations to the contrary, is not itself an ideology; science is an epistemology, a set of principles and methods for investigating nature and arriving at truths about the world. Even the most well-established of these truths, however, is considered provisional, open to potential revision or outright rejection as the methods, technologies, and theories that form the foundation of this collective endeavor advance over the generations.
In her essay, Shaw cites the results of a project attempting to
of several seminal experiments in social psychology, counting the surprisingly low success rate as further cause for skepticism of the field. What she fails to appreciate here is that the replication project is being done by a group of scientists who are psychologists themselves, because they’re committed to honing their techniques for studying the human mind. I would imagine if Shaw’s postmodernist precursors had shared a similar commitment to assessing the reliability of their research methods, such as they are, and weighing the validity of their core tenets, then the ideology would have long since fallen out of fashion by the time she was taking up a pen to write about how scary psychologists are.
The point Shaw's missing here is that it’s precisely this constant quest to check and recheck the evidence, refine and further refine the methods, test and retest the theories, that makes science, if not a source of superior wisdom, then still the most reliable approach to answering questions about who we are, what our place is in the universe, and what habits and policies will give us, as individuals and as citizens, the best chance to thrive and flourish. As Saul Perlmutter, one of the discoverers of dark energy, has said, “Science is an ongoing race between our
, and our inventing ways to avoid fooling ourselves.” Shaw may be right that no experimental result could ever fully settle a moral controversy, but experimental results are often not just relevant to our philosophical deliberations but critical to keeping those deliberations firmly grounded in reality.
Popular relevant posts:
(My essay on Greene’s book)
(My essay on Pinker’s book)
(My essay on Haidt’s book)