Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 13, 2017

Freedom of thought as a perpetual revolution

Filed under: classical liberalism,Liberalism,Liberals,libertarianism — Razib Khan @ 1:15 am

I mentioned offhand on Twitter today that I am skeptical of the tendency to brand the classically liberal emphasis on freedom of thought and speech as “centrist.” The implicit idea is that those on the Right and Left for whom liberalism is conditional, and a means at best, are radical and outside the mainstream.

This misleads us in relation to the fact that classical liberalism is the aberration both historically and culturally. Liberty of thought and speech have existed for time immemorial, but they were the luxury goods of the elite salons. Frederick the Great of Prussia had no use for religion personally, and famously patronized heretical philosophers, but he did not disturb the conservative social order of the polity which he inherited. For the masses, the discourse was delimited and regulated to maintain order and reinforce social norms.

The attempt to position the liberal stance as a centrist one is clearly historically and culturally contingent. It reflects the ascendancy of a particular strand of Anglo-American elite culture worldwide. But it is not universal. In the Islamic world and South Asia free expression of skepticism of religious ideas in public are subject to limits explicitly to maintain public order. The Islamic punishments for apostasy have less to do with the sin of individual disbelief and more to do with disruption to public norms and sedition against the state. Similarly, both China and Russia tap deeply into cultural preferences for state and elite paternalism in regards to public freedom of thought.

In fact, the classical liberal perspective on prioritizing freedom of conscience and the ability to explore the full range of ideas is probably counter to the “lowest energy state” of human cognitive intuitions. It reflects only a slice of the “moral foundations” which Jonathan Haidt explores in The Righteous Mind.

To explore some of the demographic correlates of classical liberalism I utilized the General Social Survey. As instruments to assess liberal attitudes toward free speech and thought I focused on two variables, SPKMSLM and SPKLRAC. For the first variable respondents were asked:

Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

For the second:

Or consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

I assess the pro-free speech position by inspecting the subset who accept that both groups should be allowed to speak, and those who reject that either group should be allowed to speak. That is, these are people consistent in their attitudes when it comes to speech which conflicts with community norms.

For demographic variables, I looked at educational attainment (DEGREE), verbal intelligence (WORDSUM), and political ideology (POLVIEWS). For verbal intelligence scoring 0-4 out of 10 was below average, 5-7 was average, and 8-10 above average.

What is clear above is that those with more education and those who are more intelligent tend to support free speech more than those who lack education or are less intelligent. But it is also notable that moderates, in particular, are overrepresented among those who reject freedom of speech. Though the proportion of liberals goes up appreciably, the proportion of conservatives also goes up a bit!

I ran a quick logistic regression model which attempts to predict the odds of two outcomes (support or reject free speech here) across a range of variables simultaneously. Statistically significant B coefficients are bolded. You can see that the demographics which support speech across the two are consistent:

B – Allow Muslim B – Allow racist Who supports free speech?
AGE 0.01 0.006 Younger people
SEI -0.008 -0.007 Higher SES people
POLVIEWS 0.061 0.072 Liberals
WORDSUM -0.306 -0.145 Smart people
DEGREE -0.274 -0.153 More education
INCOME -0.026 -0.026 Richer
SEX 0.45 0.24 Men
GOD 0.151 0.159 Less religious

From looking at the GSS data moderates are the less interested in politics overall, and also less educated and intelligent. In general, when they respond to a political issue they’re going with their gut. Humans are social animals and tend to not look favorably upon public disruption. The rationales for why one should discourage offensive and taboo speech are rather coherent. The liberal instrumental argument for freedom of thought as a social good tends to take a longer view that the proliferation of ideas will lead to greater prosperity and moral advancement.

This is a very Whig model of history. Whether the model is correct or not, it captures a particular moment in the Zeitgeist of the early modern West. The reason that classical liberalism is classical is that it in minimal terms it has never gone beyond its roots in the late 18th and early 19th century in relation to its preoccupations. Within the West many conservatives and reactionaries have argued against the presuppositions of classical liberal thought, which have tacitly been ascendant for the past two centuries (the fascists being the inchoate apotheosis of these reactive strands). Marxists and other radicals have beyond the liberal fixation on liberty narrowly defined, while modern Left-liberals tend to put as much emphasis on economic liberty through redistribution as upon civil liberty.

But I also want to suggest here that perhaps the classical liberal fixation on freedom of thought reflects the interests and preoccupations of a particular segment of society: those for whom ideas are fascinating and give sustenance and meaning to life. The Enlightenment can be thought of as the revolt of the middle class, broadly construed, from the mercantile high bourgeoisie down to the broad professional class. These are people for whom “post-materialist” considerations loom large because material considerations have faded into the background. For the poor and those in material want freedom of thought is less important by necessity. Similarly, the large segment of the population which is not interested in novel ideas may not care much about the importance of intellectual novelty. Finally, there are those with post-materialist values which may emphasize the importance of taboos and social conformity of the collective.

Though the majority of the population (at least in the West) seems inclined to go along with liberalism as part of the broader suite of post-Enlightenment Western culture, there is no guarantee that they will always hew to such a position. Classical liberalism understood to be fundamentally radical would be useful insofar as the elites for whom it is an ends, and not a means, would be less complacent and more motivated toward maintaining the primacy of the values which give meaning to their lives.

January 31, 2012

Secular liberals the tip of the Islamist spear

Filed under: Liberalism,Politics — Razib Khan @ 11:53 pm

I have long been on the record as a skeptic of the of the proposition that democratization in the Arab world will usher in liberalism. To a great extent I think that my skepticism has been vindicated, though these are early times yet. But looking at the events as they are playing out in Egypt and Tunisia reminds me of the rock-paper-scissors games.


Tunisia is arguably the best case for liberal democracy in the Arab world. It has a low fertility, a strong connection to the West via a Francophone elite, and has long banned practices such as polygyny. And unlike Egypt or Syria ethnic or religious conflict does not loom on the horizon. Tunisia is overwhelmingly Arab and overwhelming Sunni. Its Islamist party is genuinely more moderate than the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, and Salafists are not present in massive numbers in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it looks like Salafists have taken to beating up those whom they believe offend their sensibilities. In The New York Times article linked above there is the quote: “You lost your daddy, Ben Ali!” Ben Ali refers to the late authoritarian ruler of Tunisia. Islamists have been trying to dislodge these authoritarian rulers for decades; but it took the rising up of secular and affluent children of the middle and upper middle class to overthrow the regimes (with the collusion the military).

And yet once the authoritarian rulers are gone the Islamists seem to have the liberals by the throat. In Egypt they wiped the floor with them in democratic elections. In Tunisia the Salafists are not quite so powerful, and the more moderate Islamists have to take into the account the opinions of the large secular liberal urban population, but the latter are now subjected to violence by religious fundamentalists. Naturally the Islamists wish to legalize polygyny in Tunisia.

People will focus on Syria because of the violence. Egypt because of the size. But Tunisia is the really informative case. If Tunisia can’t make liberal democracy work, there’s little hope for other Arab nations. On the other hand, if hopes don’t unravel, then at least it’s a start.

January 28, 2012

Social conservatives have a lower I.Q.? (probably)

Filed under: conservative,Culture,I.Q.,Intelligence,Liberalism,Politics — Razib Khan @ 1:29 pm

In light of my previous posts on GRE scores and educational interests (by the way, Education Realist points out that the low GRE verbal scores are only marginally affected by international students) I was amused to see this write-up at LiveScience, Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice. Naturally over at Jezebel there is a respectful treatment of this research. This is rather like the fact that people who would otherwise be skeptical of the predictive power of I.Q. tests become convinced of their precision of measurement when it comes to assessing whether a criminal facing the death penalty is mentally retarded or not! (also see this thread over at DailyKos). You can see some of the conservative response too.

The paper itself is Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact:

Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.

I emphasized sections that I assume will answer some immediate questions, as not everyone has access to Psychological Science. Yes, they used different types of intelligence tests; verbal and spatial. Yes, they corrected for socioeconomic background. Their replication was in the UK and USA. Importantly, they focused on a few characteristics, attitudes toward homosexuals and race. It doesn’t seem like they explored an enormous range of opinions. And as noted in the paper they were looking at the social dimension of political ideology.

There is plenty of work on cognitive styles and political orientation. Recently it is moral foundations from Jon Haidt. Earlier you had George Lakoff’s models. Neither of these focused on general intelligence, the raw CPU power of the mind. Rather they surveyed moral intuition and personality profiles (for example, there is some evidence that those with a greater bias toward “openness” are more socially liberal).

Looking at the General Social Survey I too have found at a correlation between higher intelligence and social liberalism. On the other hand a good objection to this is that my estimator of intelligence, WORDSUM, was verbal, and liberals and conservatives may exhibit different cognitive profiles. This study takes that into account, adding spatial I.Q. tests to the mix.

It is important to emphasize that the authors do not posit an independent direct causal connection between low I.Q. and more reactionary attitudes towards race and homosexuality. Rather, they start out with a model where low cognitive ability people are drawn (or remain in) to conservative orientation, and this is further correlated with these specific racial and sexual attitudes. Like almost all psychology you can’t get the causation airtight (if you are a hardcore Humean you could probably say this for everything), but the correlation is suggestive in light of political and psychological models. The problem is the second. As Jonathan Haidth has articulated most recently most academic political scientists and psychologists have strongly social liberal views, and so they consciously or unconsciously tend to caricature and misrepresent the views of half their study population (notice that the authors assume that these socially conservative positions are ‘Dark Attitudes’; most people today would agree, but shouldn’t intellectuals avoid this sort of thing?). So though I have some confidence in the correlations, I’m a lot more skeptical of the explanatory models (though I don’t reject them out of had). There are so many models sitting around that how you chose models can be shaped by bias rather easily.

First, let’s hit the results.

The table above represents the results for the British cohorts and race, and the diagram to the left illustrates the outcome for the American sample and homosexuality. The primary point is that as per their hypothesis the effect of lower cognitive ability on prejudice toward other races and homosexuality is mediated more or less through ideology. Coarsely, stupid people aren’t racist, stupid people are more likely to be socially conservative, and more socially conservative people are more likely to be racist. How these join together though is something one can subject to more critical examination. The authors allude to this when they note that there is a finding that those who know people of other races tend to be less prejudiced, with the inference being that contact makes one less racist. But this is not an established causality. Rather, it could be that people with less prejudiced tendencies put themselves into situations where they are likely to meet other races. This tendency could be correlated with higher I.Q. through a mediation of a “cosmopolitanism index.” Who knows? There are many stories one could tell.

I do want to emphasize though that this is a coarse measure of ‘conservatism.’ In the early to mid aughts Paul Wolfowitz was a hated figure on the American political Left because of his critical role in buttressing the intellectual armamentarium favoring the invasion of Iraq. But it is well known that Wolfowitz was and is a social liberal, like a subset of neoconservatives who focus on foreign policy. On the above measure Wolfowitz, who has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and chemistry from Cornell and a graduate degree in political science from University of Chicago, would come out as a high I.Q. social liberal. Is that right? As far as it goes it is right, but on some level the results would be misleading in the more complex terrain of coalitional politics. A substantial number of Americans shake out as social conservatives and fiscal moderates/liberals. And yet this faction is totally unrepresented in modern politics. In contrast, their inverse, libertarians, do have some representation, albeit a marginalized one. Why? Because the latter position has modest high I.Q./elite support, while the former position has far less. If you changed the question to attitudes toward global free trade there would be a correlation between lower I.Q. and the ‘more liberal’ (at last in American politics) position.

This qualification also dovetails with the broader point about styles of cognitive thinking, and reliance on traditional norms as opposed to think a priori. Ironically it makes intuitive sense that higher I.Q. people would be less reliant on intuition, impulse, and collective wisdom. But there are limits to this. For example, see the reaction to the proposition of sex between consenting adults who happen to be siblings on an atheism forum (assume they use birth control). But some moral philosophers posit that this is not harmful or immoral, and should be socially accepted. It’s an interesting illustration of the boundary condition of the power of disgust and emotion, as only the hyper-rational feel comfortable even entertaining the moral legitimacy of this proposition. More relevantly, educated liberals also make use of ‘stereotypes’ constantly. It’s just that those stereotypes are of conservatives. I know this because almost all my friends are educated liberals, and they often forget that I’m a conservative. So I hear a lot about conservatives are this and that without qualification, to great merriment and laughter (also, conservatives are genuinely evil and malevolent apparently!). The tendency toward generalization doesn’t bother me in an of itself, rather, I’m focused on whether the proposition is true. But the hypocrisy gets tiresome sometimes, as people will fluidly switch from a cognitive style which accepts generalization to one which rejects it. A stereotype is often a generalization whose robustness you don’t want to accept. Negative generalities need context when they’re unpalatable, but no qualification is necessary when their truth is congenial. Sometimes this veers into moderately politically incorrect territory. I was once an observer on a conversation between liberal white academics who were mulling over the unfortunate reality that their Asian American students were far more likely to cheat to obtain better grades. I suspect that this is actually true for various reasons. But I also suspect that these academics forgot that I was privy to the conversation, and wouldn’t have aired this truth in a more racially diverse social context.

More broadly what is the takeaway from this sort of research? Should we conclude that because the more intelligent tend to be socially liberal that socially liberal propositions are true? I think one should be skeptical of this position. There are two immediate rejoinders. First, politics is a matter of values. The reliance of reason vs. emotion, individual ratiocination vs. historical or social wisdom, may vary. But that does not speak to the truth of any given value judgement, as those judgments are embedded in a system of norms, as well as individual self-interest (e.g., the higher I.Q. tendency to favorable attitudes toward free trade may have less to do with an understanding of comparative advantage, than an implicit understanding that globalization favors them as opposed to less intelligent lower classes). Second, the moral arc of history is not always unidirectional. The ‘progressive’ position is sometimes reversed. In Better for All the World there is a broad history of the rise of a consensus among economic and intellectual elites about the wisdom of coercive eugenics as an instrument of progressive social engineering in the late 19th century. Religious conservatives, whether evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic, were two of the greatest bulwarks against this force for progress. Arguably these two elements were more efficacious in resisting the spread of eugenics legislation than the Left critics, judging by the outcomes Southern Europe and the American South, as opposed to the more ‘forward thinking’ nation-states of Northern Europe and the American North. This fact is unknown to most of my friends and acquaintances, judging by repeated assumptions that any utilization of personal genomics for eugenic purposes will occur first in politically conservative jurisdictions.

With all these qualifications, I believe this sort of research is essential and insightful. We need to understand the patterns of cognitive variation, whether it be intelligence or personality, which may result in differences of opinion. At the end of the day no opinions may change, but one may be able to construct a crisper argument when taking into account the genuine roots of one’s political opponents viewpoints, rather than your own ill-informed caricature.

Addendum: I did not address the issue of revealed vs. avowed preferences and attitudes. But I think that this difference will not change the sign of correlation. For example, for various reasons I assume that the gap between white liberals and white conservatives when it comes to race is smaller in terms of the preference revealed in their choices, rather than the survey responses they give, but I don’t think it reverses the rank order of the correlation.

Citation: Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact, Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan 5.

January 18, 2011

The necessity of religious liberalism

Filed under: Liberalism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:16 pm

I am obviously an atheist. I am also an atheist who finds supernatural belief personally baffling, though like Quantum Mechanical dynamics I now can perceive an internal logic in the phenomenon. Unlike some atheists I am highly skeptical that the majority of the human race can ever truly be atheists. The herd needs gods. So with that assumption in mind, I have been thinking that a robust religious liberalism is of the essence for a civilized society (from my own subjective perspective of course). One of the current problems within Israeli society that I perceive is that religious liberalism has never really taken hold. Rather, Israelis are ‘secular,’ or they are ‘religious,’ with the latter taking the form of what we in the states would probably term “modern orthodox” all the way to varieties of haredi practce. When there is no liberal religious voice in the debate then the discussion becomes polarized. I thought of this when reading this portion of a Chris Hitchens piece:

During my stay, I visited the University of Tunis, attached to the “Zitouna” or “olive tree” mosque, to talk to a female professor of theology named Mongia Souahi. She is the author of a serious scholarly work explaining why the veil has no authority in the Quran. One response had come from an exiled Tunisian Islamist named Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who declared her to be a kuffar, or unbeliever. This, as everybody knows, is the prelude to declaring her life to be forfeit as an apostate. I was slightly alarmed to see Ghannouchi and his organization, Hizb al-Nahda, described in Sunday’s New York Times as “progressive,” and to learn that he is on his way home from London. The revolt until now has been noticeably free of theocratic tinges, but when I was talking to Edward Said, the name of “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” was still unknown, and atrocities like the attack on Djerba were still in the future. We should fervently hope that the Tunisian revolution turns out to transcend and improve upon the legacy of Bourguiba, not to negate it.

The fundamental problem in the world of Islam, and with Muslim relations with the Western world, is that genuine Muslim religious liberalism seems a rather toothless phenomenon. I don’t personally care, or even have sympathy, with religious liberals who claim that their own opinions are the “true Islam.” Such superstitious idols are all false delusions to me. But, the existence of liberals would be an important counter-force to the Utopian quasi-reactionary bent among Islamists the world over.

From what I can tell religious liberals do have some power in American Islam. But the question is: can a majority Islamic society which is not authoritarian give succor to a religious liberal pillar of society? It is all well and fine for American Muslims living a majority Christian society to prattle on about the true Islam which does not countenance the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims do not live in the United States. Even in the West it seems some Muslim communities, such as that of Great Britain, have liberal elements which are marginal at best.

Remember, the key here is not a group of people who identify as Muslim but are not particularly religious. Rather, it is a segment of the Muslim community which espouses a liberal world view grounded in religious passion. The equivalent to Reform Judaism, liberal Protestantism, and Catholicism.

Powered by WordPress