For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand

Beginning in the late 18th century, post-secondary education was restructured across Europe—in part under the auspices of accelerating the transition to an envisioned rational and secular age.[1] In order to enroll the broadest swath of the public in this enterprise, institutions and curricula were rendered more accessible, inclusive, and professionally-oriented. At the time, Nietzsche condemned[2] the “ubiquitous encouragement of everyone’s so-called ‘individual personality’” and the growing trend to curb “serious and unrelenting critical habits and opinions” at universities—discerning as astutely in his own time as Jonathan Haidt today that the use of educational institutions for promoting a particular social vision is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.[3]

Yet across Western societies, and especially in elite circles, the 18th Century faith persists that a proliferation of education, science, and technology will help usher in a more rational and secular age[4]—one governed by expertise, and defined by worldwide peace and prosperity.[5]  Among adherents of this vision, universities are held in particularly high regard, as incubators of that better tomorrow—where our best and brightest hone the character, skills and knowledge to solve the world’s ills in an environment that promotes reasoned and civil debate, the free exchange of ideas, and an unflinching commitment to truth. However, contemporary research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests a much bleaker picture:[6]

For instance, rather than serving as an objective base upon which agreements can be built, evoking scientific studies or statistics in the context of socio-political arguments tends to further polarize interlocutors.[7] Both conservatives and progressives politicize science and evaluate its findings on an ideological basis: exaggerating conclusions when convenient while findings ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research which seems to threaten one’s identity or perceived interests.[8] Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”—thereby exacerbating people’s natural inclinations towards motivated reasoning.[9]

That is, if one wanted to create an environment which actually promoted closed-mindedness, dogmatism and polarization, contemporary research suggests the following prescription: consolidate societies’ most intelligent, knowledgeable and charismatic people, at a time in their lives when their identities are just taking shape (which increases the perceived urgency of protecting and validating said identities[10]), and place them in a competitive environment focused largely (and increasingly) on the sciences. [11] In a word: universities.[12]

Perhaps then, it should not be surprising that the long leftward trajectory of U.S. institutions of higher learning seems to have culminated with conservative faculty, students and perspectives almost completely absent from many fields,[13] while dissent from progressive ideology is met with increasing sanctions and scandal[14]—from which even historical figures are not immune.[15]

However one may feel about these developments from a moral or political point of view, they are harmful for the practice and profession of science–especially for the social and behavioral sciences.

Continue reading “For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand”

The Big Debate About Microaggressions

The concept of microaggressions gained prominence with the publication of Sue et al.’s 2007, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” which defined microaggressions as communicative, somatic, environmental or relational cues that demean and/or disempower members of minority groups in virtue of their minority status. Microaggressions, they asserted, are typically subtle and ambiguous. Often, they are inadvertent or altogether unconscious. For these reasons, they are also far more pervasive than other, more overt, forms of bigotry (which are less-tolerated in contemporary America).

The authors propose a tripartite taxonomy of microaggressions:

  • Microassaults involve explicit and intentional racial derogation;
  • Microinsults involve rudeness or insensitivity towards another’s heritage or identity;
  • Microinvalidations occur when the thoughts and feelings of a minority group member seem to be excluded, negated or nullified as a result of their minority status.

The authors then present anecdotal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to microaggressions is detrimental to the well-being of minorities. Moreover, they assert, a lack of awareness about the prevalence and impact of microaggressions among mental health professionals could undermine the practice of clinical psychology—reducing the quality and accessibility of care for those who may need it most.

Towards the conclusion, however, the authors acknowledge the “nascent” state of research on microaggressions and call for further investigation. They emphasize that future studies should focus first and foremost on empirically substantiating the harm caused by microaggressions, and documenting how people cope (or fail to cope) with experiencing them. They suggest further research should also probe whether or not there is systematic variation as to who incurs microaggressions, which type or types of microaggressions particular populations tend to endure, how harmful microaggressions are to different groups, and in which contexts microaggressions tend to be more (or less) prevalent or harmful. Finally, the authors recommend expanding microaggression research to include incidents against gender and sexual minorities, and those with disabilities.

 

The State of Microaggression Research Today

In the decade following Sue et al.’s landmark paper, there have been extensive discussions about microaggressions—among practitioners, in the academic literature, and increasingly, in popular media outlets and public forums. But unfortunately, very little empirical research has been conducted to actually substantiate the ubiquity of microaggressions, to catalog the harm they cause, or to refine the authors’ initial taxonomy.

In “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, HxA member Scott Lilienfeld highlights five core premises undergirding the microaggression research program (MRP):

  1. Microaggressions are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation.
  2. Microaggressions are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.
  3. Microaggressions reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives.
  4. Microaggressions can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports.
  5. Microaggression exert an adverse impact on recipient’s mental health.

His comprehensive meta-analysis suggests that there is “negligible” support for these axioms—individually or (especially) collectively.

Continue reading “The Big Debate About Microaggressions”

Creating Visionaries

Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:

Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience.

Moreover, innovators are often not formally trained in the fields they ultimately revolutionize. In fact, most entrepreneurial visionaries avoided technical fields (such as STEM) and vocational fields (JDs, MBAs, or MDs)—opting instead to pursue the social sciences and humanities. Why? These disciplines can impart skills like data analysis, logic and critical thinking just as well as STEM courses (or better)—but in the process, they also cultivate the ability to look at phenomena through different frames of reference. This enables one to see overlooked opportunities and underexplored possibilities in order to address societal problems.

Conversely, absorbing the dogma of a given discipline can dramatically inhibit one’s ability to challenge its internal logic and upend its status quo. This is why a surprising number of the most successful entrepreneurs are high-school and college drop outs. And it is also why, among those who do not hail from wealthy families, the most successful entrepreneurs tend to be first-generation immigrants–the education process that most of us go through is actually toxic to creativity and boldness.

Consider the current obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): These programs are great at teaching people how to be logical, practical, and solutions-oriented—albeit narrowly-focused on the task at hand.  In other words, how to become productive, competent employees of someone else. While these programs are among the most-likely to help students get stable and well-paying jobs (for now), they don’t do much to impart an entrepreneurial mindset or skillset. For instance, STEM specialists are typically unable to shed technical jargon or explain to laymen the value, implications or applications of their work. This makes it very difficult to sell an idea.

In fact, for virtually any field or institution, the people who advance farthest and fastest are not the most skilled, the most knowledgeable, or the hardest working—but those who are best at establishing rapport, building and leveraging relationships, or generating interest and excitement. This is why even among STEM graduates, the most competitive candidates also have  training in the liberal arts.

In short, transformative ideas are more likely to be realized by those with flexible, adaptive, and open minds, ambitious and resilient personalities, a suite of generalized skills and knowledge which are useful across contexts. Put another way: if our societal goal is cultivating successful and dynamic entrepreneurs (as opposed to useful specialized employees), then the educational priorities in the United States are completely misplaced.