Among those prizing truth, modern social science does not enjoy an especially good reputation. As a political scientist myself, I’ve long encountered conservatives who often complain that much contemporary social science does little more than demonize conservative views. Unfortunately, such grumbling is often correct but that said, complainers rarely grasp how this bias is imposed and, more important, why bias passes professional scrutiny. The answers are simple, the rules for conducting research themselves permit social scientists to create “reality” and with that power, run-of-the mill dishonesty is unnecessary.
To illustrate how research can be weaponized for ideological purposes, all the while honoring the conventions of modern social science, consider a paper presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association’s annual national meeting castigating the Tea Party movement as “racist.” It was written by a well-respected academic who heeded all the accepted (and scientific) disciplinary conventions. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the ideologically-driven Tea Party bashing was scarcely noticed by peers who initially screened the paper or were in the Seattle audience when it was presented. This is the point: bias is so deeply ingrained, so professionally acceptable, that it escapes notice.
According to Professor Gary Jacobson at the University of California, San Diego, in “The President, the Tea Party, and Voting Behavior in 2010” Tea Party folk are less sympathetic to blacks than other Americans, confirming an oft-made charge that behind the calls for less government and cutting debt lurks the demon of all modern demons, racism.
How does Professor Jacobson arrive at the seemingly scientific “racist” condemnation? Before turning to the mechanics, it is worth noting that all the considerable scientific bric-a-brac aside, the professor cannot resist some cheap shots. To quote,
Along with the colorful fringe of bizarre conspiracy devotees taking cues from cranks such as Glenn Beck, a considerably larger proportion of ordinary conservative Americans became convinced that Obama’s domestic agenda—about as radical as Richard Nixon’s—was a leading to European-style socialism or worse and were thus open to the Tea Party message. (Italics added)
A little later he opines,
They are also more likely to express factual beliefs that are consistent with conservative ideological priors but are either false or exceedingly dubious: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded, that climate change is not a problem (or not even happening), and that the economy had grown worse over the past year.
Note well, nothing here is documented but it is, nevertheless, offered with absolute certainty. Is the Obama agenda ideologically comparable to Nixon’s domestic agenda? For the life of me, I just cannot recall the Nixon health care plan. Are those believing that the economy has soured just hallucinating? If there was ever a case for promoting ideological diversity on campus, here it is—no conservative colleague would permit such cockeyed assertions to pass unnoticed.
Back to the serious charge of Tea Party racism. How is this determined? It rests entirely on responses to three questions asked in a 2010 survey. One concerns affirmative action: Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and college admissions in order to correct for discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action? The second and third questions measure what is labeled “racial resentment:” Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
The Irish, Italians, Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors (strongly agree/somewhat agree/somewhat disagree/strongly disagree).
Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class. (strongly agree/somewhat agree/somewhat disagree/strongly disagree).
That’s it—the horrifically complicated topic of “racism” is reduced to three simple-minded questions about beliefs (not behaviors). To be blunt, Professor Jacobson has exercised god-like power to decide that those who oppose racial preferences, believe that blacks should make a greater effort to work their way up without special treatment and are not hurt by generations of slavery and discrimination are “unsympathetic” to blacks and therefore “racists.” Let me stress that this reality by stipulation is absolutely acceptable social science (technically called operationalism). Not even Torquemada of Spanish Inquisition fame could exercise such unchecked power to certify heresies.
The possibility that one could be sympathetic to African American and still hold “racist” views (as defined here) seems inconceivable in this analysis. Jacobson’s is imposing his definition of “racism” as some Platonic reality. What about the premises underlying these questions? Does affirmative action broadly “correct” past discrimination? The Supreme Court has ruled remedies for past discrimination to be legal must narrowly target past discrimination so there is no such thing as collective guilt. One can only imagine reactions if Tea Partiers were immediately given the “racist” verdict after “wrongly” answering these questions. Outrage, I suspect, but such is the advantage of professors totally controlling analysis—no backtalk from disrespectful respondents. Reasoned rejoinders, including citing current legal doctrines, will be swept aside under the questionnaire response category of “other.” When it comes to Tea Partiers, Professor Jacobson is a hanging judge.
Let me stress that this analysis meets all the requirements of professional political science. The author is not lying with statistics or falsifying the data. The survey questions may be crude and ill-informed, but they have passed repeated past professional inspections. If anything, this paper will only add to Professor Jacobson’s already stellar professional reputation. But, what it does illustrate is that no conflict exists between pushing an ideological agenda and doing respectable social science. The trick is to control the data (i.e., reality) at the onset of research, to pick and choose the meaning given to the data (e.g., “racial resentment”) and then cover everything with the gloss of science—statistics, technical jargon, graphs and charts, innumerable scholarly citations and arcane technical discussions. This research is no more dishonest that the casino’s perfectly legal built-in advantage. Again, it is the power to decide reality, not dishonesty that creates bias.