Haidt’s Final Response to Pigliucci

February 17th, 2011 by Jonathan Haidt

Dear Prof. Pigliucci:

When I challenged you to either 1) retract and apologize or 2) affirm your original post, I expected you to invent your own option 3, retracting or qualifying a few claims but not apologizing. Thank you for choosing option 2 so decisively!

I have three points to make in response, and then I will be done with our exchange.

1) When Bill Clinton said “there is no improper relationship” with Lewinsky, he spoke truthfully but deceptively. What the interviewer wanted to know was whether there HAD BEEN a relationship. You tell us that I was wrong to assume that you had not watched my talk before dismissing my argument. You say that in fact “I have indeed looked at it.” Did you mean to say “have” or “had?” If you meant “had,” then readers can better judge the quality of the reasoning in your initial post. Even though you knew my full argument, you dismissed it by focusing on one claim — that underrepresentation is not evidence of bias – which is a claim that I myself made in the talk. But if you really meant “have,” as in “I have now watched the talk, after writing my initial post but before writing this response,” then please explain how your statement differs from Clinton’s.

2) You take issue with my use of Google, and I thank your reader for pointing out to us the difference between the number of hits Google says it found vs. the number of pages it actually delivers. But my basic point still stands: Google finds many cases of “liberal social psychologist” which refer to actual psychologists, but just three hits for “conservative social psychologist,” none of which point to an actual psychologist. You say you found 10 cases of the latter phrase, but did you notice that seven of them referred to my talk?

Your more revealing error is your claim about the role that the Google example played in my argument. You said that my conclusion from it was “Voilà, case closed, bias demonstrated!” Yet anyone who watched the talk knows that this was just my opening example, intended to be humorous, but also intended as one of three demonstrations that it’s very hard to identify any conservative social psychologists, and that point itself was just one of three arguments that my field has become a tribal moral community. I’m no philosopher, but I’m pretty sure that “case opened” is not the same thing as “case closed.”

3) You deny that you have accused me of academic misconduct, and you warn me that I myself may have done something ethically wrong in “throwing those words around.” You say you were just raising a theoretical possibility of motivated cognition. I repeat your original words here:

I suspect that Haidt is either an incompetent psychologist (not likely) or is disingenuously saying the sort of things controversial enough to get him in the New York Times (more likely).

You also called me “silly” and you called my talk “garbage.” Readers will judge for themselves which of us writes recklessly and unprofessionally.

* * *

I have greatly enjoyed our debate. You assert that I “got upset” by your initial post, and you refer to my “outrage” at your accusations. But in fact I was delighted by them. I am an intuitionist. I am building an extended argument that reasoning, when not informed by broad understanding and cultivated intuitions, is an unreliable tool for finding truth. There is mounting evidence in psychology that the evolved function of reasoning is not discovery but social justification and manipulation. We humans use reasoning skillfully to find arguments in support of our intuitively held positions, but we are hobbled by the confirmation bias; we are unable to find evidence or arguments that contradict our favored positions. I believe this is the most serious defect in the writings of the “new atheists” and many other self-proclaimed rationalists: because they are so good at finding reasons to support their views about science and religion, they develop an extraordinary confidence that they are right, which makes them prone to arrogant dismissals of all who disagree with them.

When I issued my challenge to you, I knew that I would soon obtain either an apology or a classroom-worthy demonstration of rationalism in action.

Jonathan Haidt


p.s., If readers would like to see experimental evidence of bias against non-liberals in the academy, or studies of the relative intelligence of liberals and conservatives, they are posted here.


Update: Pigliucci’s response is this comment, posted on his last blog entry:

Hmm, I really don’t think I’m being Clintonesque here. And the slides in the talk make it clear that the google example was central to the argument, especially as data are concerned. But this exchange has gone on long enough, considering that it’s not even about a peer reviewed paper.

In other words: he still won’t say whether he HAD watched my talk before writing his initial post.

Posted in Uncategorized14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Haidt’s Final Response to Pigliucci”

  1. Justin says:

    So what exactly in regards to the defect of the “new atheists” would you suppose they do? Be more open to religious evidence on certain claims? They are making objective claims based on evidence and dismissing a majority of the claims because they have either been addressed or add nothing to the conversation because of the lack of evidence in support of the claim. I’d be more than interested in reading Jonathan’s suggestion on what to do with these situations.

  2. BenSix says:

    Professor Haidt,

    Towards the end of your discussion you – rightly – encouraged people to seek out “the other side” to their point of view. Might it be, however, that the notion of distinct “liberal” and “conservative” factions is itself tribal and moralistic? (One might look, for example, at the intolerance of anything too leftist in the U.S., er – Left. Or the Young Americans For Freedom’s histrionic disavowal of Ron Paul.)

  3. Josh Wittner says:

    So, I know it’s only a small section of what this post is about, but I have to get some clarity on what Social Intuitionism is. I read the Wikipedia page and on the surface it makes sense, but it seems lacking in some fundamental ways.

    The Wikipedia article uses the example of an ultimately harmless and actually beneficial sexual interaction between a brother and sister and while I’ll agree that my intuitive reaction was to be against such a thing the application of reason was necessary to achieve what I believe is my actual moral preference – it appears as though pragmatism requires the application of reason.

    It seems that the application of reason can change what moral stance one takes on any given topic, especially if the particulars of a situation are what reason can use to move us away from what would be our intuitive response.

    Does Social Intuitionism just suggest that our first stance is intuitive and then reason is applied only to reinforce that intuitive stance or does it leave room for the application of reason to lead to different moral stances? Is it just the belief that the the former process happens more often than the latter?

  4. Sean says:

    “We humans use reasoning skillfully to find arguments in support of our intuitively held positions, but we are hobbled by the confirmation bias; we are unable to find evidence or arguments that contradict our favored positions. I believe this is the most serious defect in the writings of the “new atheists” and many other self-proclaimed rationalists: because they are so good at finding reasons to support their views about science and religion, they develop an extraordinary confidence that they are right, which makes them prone to arrogant dismissals of all who disagree with them.”

    I’m a bit baffled when I see confirmation bias being leveraged directly from one position against another. Confirmation bias is ubiquitous, even among those who are aware of it (which certainly includes every major “rationalist” among the new atheists); are you suggesting that you don’t also suffer from it when you claim that atheist activists are being arrogantly dismissive?

    In my experience it’s quite common; Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens have very little to do with one another, in both preferred subject matter and style of communication, yet they both were lumped together in the “Four Horsemen”, because it provides this nice (never mind that it’s misleading) narrative of an unyielding (dogmatic, merciless, worthy-of-the-Mongol-hordes) polemical assault of atheist authors.

    It does not do to take a fault suffered by every person on earth, and level it in a vague, scattershot way at one’s opponents. Of course there are examples of confirmation bias; that’s a statement with a prior probability of nearly 1, before you even bother reading what anyone with any position has to say. The only way that such an accusation can be at all interesting is if it is used to discuss the specifics of how something has gone wrong.

    Or is it the case that you think that you and people with your stance are generally “informed by broad understanding and cultivated intuitions”, whereas people of a more “rationalist” persuasion are generally not? You are certainly entitled to that opinion, but it seems more self-serving than anything.

  5. Sean says:

    Maybe I could have put that more succinctly. Scientists at a scientific conference and creationists at a religious convention both make assumptions about whether or not evolution is true. Within those groups, those assumptions are unchallenged, and all reasoning at each gathering is done within the assumed framework.

    This has no bearing on whether evolution or creationism is actually true. To point at biologists and note that their internal tribal dialogue all assumes the validity of evolution is a meaningless criticism in a world where belief in evolution is fully justified.

  6. […] a different note, Professor Haidt has been debating with Prof. Massimo Pigliucci here and here. Speaking of Pigliucci, could one argue that skeptics have formed a tribal-moral community? Haidt […]

  7. As I tweeted you, Prof. Haidt, I think your “research” had some severe limitations, starting with not addressing the issues if **conservative** bias in academia, through religious and other conservatives founding peer groups deliberately separated from their mainstream parallels, through conservatives refusing to attend mainstream universities in many degree programs, etc.

    For instance, the Federalist Society, started as a deliberate counterpoint to the ABA. Since then, with explicitly conservative places like Liberty starting their own law schools, that drive has been augmented.

    A religious conservative who thinks homosexuality is a sin is NOT going to join the APA, and is not going to go to a mainstream school for psychology study.

    Much more here:

    Since I put up that post, I heard you on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. I Tweeted the program that it should give someone like Pigliucci equal time in response.

  8. This was a fascinating back and forth. So satisfying that Pigliucci stepped forward to illustrate Haidt’s key point that those who challenge sacred beliefs of the in-group will be blindly attacked. Reading Pigliucci’s first post there is no possibility that he had actually listened to the Haidt’s orginal address.

  9. rafael vivas says:

    Underepresentation may not be conclusive evidence of bias , it may however constitute a sign that a venomed bias has likely developed in those in the mayority against those in the minority whatever the casues of the latters underrepresentation . This relates to the often made observation that people in an ingroup , moreover that people wielding the power that forming part of an overwhelming mayority carries , will as a matter of natural inclination often abuse that power to discriminate or persecute the views of the minority . Why so ?? because by sharing with many others a bias , a disdain for the minority, they feel superior to those they disparage , which makes them feel fatuously good about themselves. It all goes back to what is expressed by Lord Acton’s famed dictum about how absolute power corrupts absolutely .

  10. Sujay says:

    While I can see the point of view that both are making, I am inclined to agree with Haidt more on this one. Pigluicci is used to attacking people who are irrational, and he does not give much consideration to the arguments made by these people (and he shouldn’t!). I think when he encountered Haidt’s statement, he just dealt with it with a broad stroke, without understanding the finer nuances of Haidt’s points.

  11. DNW says:

    “In other words: he still won’t say whether he HAD watched my talk before writing his initial post.”

    The failure of Massimo Pigliucci to forthrightly produce the past perfect tense when he purported to rebut your assumption regarding his initial (non) viewing of your talk, might be assigned to his foreign birth, were it not for the fact that he has standing in the U.S. as a professional philosopher.

    And for the fact that he has used it himself, e.g.: “The New York Times’ John Tierney — who is usually a bit more discriminating in his columns than this — reports of a talk that Haidt had given.”

    Apparently then, Pigliucci is capable of clearly distinguishing tenses when he wishes to avoid any chance of a misconstrual.

    In the case of his reply to your request for a retraction , wherein you wrote,

    “Let me be certain that I have understood you. You did not watch my talk, even though a link to it was embedded …”

    … he apparently didn’t; as it would have undercut his attempt at a rhetorical flourish. Instead he tried to wave away a nebulous admission with the remark that the actual talk “simply doesn’t add much “.

    “Doesn’t”, not didn’t.

    Rationally speaking, rather puerile.

    Professor Haidt, I can’t say that I am sympathetic toward your ultimate goal of promoting greater social cohesion as an end in itself through greater, and probably more empathetic understanding. The whole social “complementarity” predicate seems to elude me. Thus, to paraphrase someone well-known: ‘Understanding (of the types of human moral psychology) good , collectivism (solidarity pimping on behalf of the annoying) bad’. [Joke]

    But despite all that, it is clear even to this bigoted right-winger anarchist that you are by far and away the more ethically scrupulous one here, while Massimo Pigliucci comes off as, well, disingenuous.

    Ah well, consider yourself fortunate that Richard Carrier has not as yet shown an interest in your work.

  12. Fjr says:

    This simply is not true. I would ask you to dfneed it without making “leaps”, but I know you won’t… because you can’t. Silence is always the best tact when asked to dfneed the indefensible. What part exactly do you find to be erroneous? There are three points: 1) criminals are generally less intelligent 2) sociopaths are generally borderline retarded 3) the leap to the idea that there exists a form of moral intelligence.I hope you aren’t objecting to the second point, because if you are then there’s simply no need for further discussion. Assuming you aren’t, comparing rates of crime among populations to the intelligence of those populations indicates that lower intelligence populations have higher rates of crime. To give just one specific statistic, Asian Americans commit crimes at one quarter the rate of White Americans, while African Americans and Latinos commit crimes in the range of 5 10 times that of White Americans.As for the leap, you’re going to have to be more specific for me to answer that. This is not true either, furthermore, it’s scary.Here’s another question you won’t answer: why? Why does it matter? What will be the purpose of this superman society you envision? What will they set about to do with their near perfection having conquered those not intelligent enough to bow down to to the gullible aristocratic intelligentsia? Whether or not it’s scary’ is irrelevant, quite frankly. I don’t think it should be necessary for me to innumerate all of the reasons why I would think a more intelligent society would be better than a less intelligent society. If you really aren’t sure, stop and think about it from my perspective for a minute. You’re trying to put a square peg into a round hole. You might as well wonder how you can make a more moral car. This may be the case, but you haven’t convinced me.

  13. Chris Lynch says:

    I just finished “The Righteous Mind”, and found much food for thought, there. In particular, I found Haidt’s terms “blind spot” and “sacralized areas” to be particularly useful metaphors for the unquestioned assumptions that lie at the heart of any school, any study, or any argument.

    For example, as someone who received a classical philosophical education, I can confirm from experience his claim that conservatives can understand liberal values but not vice versa. I cannot tell you how many well-educated liberals I know who cannot name any consequences of The Enlightenment which might be considered undesirable, who think any idea more than 300 years old (or even 200 or 100 years old) must be wrong, or who assume that any idea for which they cannot find hard evidence is therefore false.

    Professor Haidt has committed the unforgiveable sin in academia: of suggesting that limits on rationality and objectivity may also apply to working scientists. Prof. Pigliucci’s defensiveness, evasiveness, condescension and refusal to take Haidt seriously are but the latest confirmation of the correctness of Haidt’s insight about the “sacred truths” which must not be questioned.

  14. Mack says:

    Prof Haidt – do you think that moral propositions can be true or false? If yes, could it not be the case that the moral propositions that underpin some conservative claims are false? Could this not be a partial explanation for the lack of conservatives in a field which studies human behaviour? Wouldn’t artificially increasing the number of conservatives in psychology amount to discarding the possibility that psychologists are liberal because liberal politics is truer than conservative politics, and psychologists may have a greater body of evidence to believe that liberal political views are more true than conservative political views, given the nature of their work? I actually think that there is a lot of merit in the idea of recognising and trying to limit the effects of the whole ‘tribal-moral community’ (though I hate the terminology, frickin psychology, always trying to reduce socially conditioned behaviour to ‘ah yes now I understand how the human brain works’), and I think that there may be some power dynamics in social science academia which is restrictive. I just don’t understand how you can reconcile being a moral realist and interfering in a scientific process which may just be filtering out good from bad politics.

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