It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that those who have asserted the existence and importance of human nature have never experienced ideological bias. If that claim is true, then the Blank Slate debacle could never have happened. However, we know that it happened, based not only on the testimony of those who saw it for the ideologically motivated debasement of science that it was, such as Steven Pinker and Carl Degler, but of the ideological zealots responsible for it themselves, such as Hamilton Cravens, who portrayed it as The Triumph of Evolution. The idea that the Blank Slaters were “unbiased” is absurd on the face of it, and can be immediately debunked by simply counting the number of times they accused their opponents of being “racists,” “fascists,” etc., in books such as Richard Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes, and Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. More recently, the discipline of evolutionary psychology has experienced many similar attacks, as detailed, for example, by Robert Kurzban in an article entitled, Alas poor evolutionary psychology.
The reasons for this bias has never been a mystery, either to the Blank Slaters and their latter day leftist descendants, or to evolutionary psychologists and other proponents of the importance of human nature. Leftist ideology requires not only that human beings be equal before the law, but that the menagerie of human identity groups they have become obsessed with over the years actually be equal, in intelligence, creativity, degree of “civilization,” and every other conceivable measure of human achievement. On top of that, they must be “malleable,” and “plastic,” and therefore perfectly adaptable to whatever revolutionary rearrangement in society happened to be in fashion. The existence and importance of human nature has always been perceived as a threat to all these romantic mirages, as indeed it is. Hence the obvious and seemingly indisputable bias.
Enter Jeffrey Winking of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who assures us that it’s all a big mistake, and there’s really no bias at all! Not only that, but he “proves” it with a “study” in a paper entitled, Exploring the Great Schism in the Social Sciences, that recently appeared in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. We must assume that, in spite of his background in anthropology, Winking has never heard of a man named Napoleon Chagnon, or run across an article entitled Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association, by Alice Degler.
Winking begins his article by noting that “The nature-nurture debate is one that biologists often dismiss as a false dichotomy,” but adds, “However, such dismissiveness belies the long-standing debate that is unmistakable throughout the biological and social sciences concerning the role of biological influences in the development of psychological and behavioral traits in humans.” I agree entirely. One can’t simply hand-wave away the Blank Slate affair and a century of bitter ideological debate by turning up one’s nose and asserting the term isn’t helpful from a purely scientific point of view.
We also find that Winking isn’t completely oblivious to examples of bias on the “nature” side of the debate. He cites the Harvard study group which “evaluated the merits of sociobiology, and which included intellectual giants like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin.” I am content to let history judge whether Gould and Lewontin were really “intellectual giants.” Regardless, if Winking actually read these “evaluations,” he cannot have failed to notice that they contained vicious ad hominem attacks on E. O. Wilson and others that it is extremely difficult to construe as anything but biased. Winking goes on to note similar instances of bias by other authors in various disciplines, such as,
Many researchers use [evolutionary approaches to the study of international relations] to justify the status quo in the guise of science.
The totality [of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology] is a myth of origin that is compelling precisely because it resonates strongly with Euro American presuppositions about the nature of the world.
…in the social sciences (with the exception of primatology and psychology) sociobiology appeals most to right-wing social scientists.
These are certainly compelling examples of bias. Now, however, Winking attempts to demonstrate that those who point out the bias, and correctly interpret the reasons for it, are just as biased themselves. As he puts it,
Conversely, those who favor biological approaches have argued that those on the other side are rendered incapable of objective assessment by their ideological promotion of equality. They are alleged to erroneously reject evidence of biological influences because such evidence suggests that social outcomes are partially explained by biology, and this might inhibit the realization of equality. Their critiques of biological approaches are therefore often blithely dismissed as examples of the moralistic/naturalistic fallacy. This line of reason is exemplified in the quote by biologist Jerry Coyne
If you can read the [major Evolutionary Psychology review paper] and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.
I can’t imagine what Winking finds “blithe” about that statement! Is it really “blithe” to so much as suggest that people who dismiss entire fields of science as worthless may be ideologically motivated? I note in passing that Coyne must have thought long and hard about that statement, because his Ph.D. advisor was none other than Richard Lewontin, whom he still honors and admires! Add to that the fact that Coyne is about as far as you can imagine from “right wing,” as anyone can see by simply visiting his Why Evolution is True website, and the notion that he is being “blithe” here is ludicrous. Winking’s other examples of “blithness” are similarly dubious, including,
For critics, the heart of the intellectual problem remains an ideological adherence to the increasingly implausible view that human behavior is strictly determined by socialization… Should [social]hierarchies result strictly from culture, then the possibilities for an egalitarian future were seen to be as open and boundless as our ever-malleable brains might imagine.
Like the Church, a number of contemporary thinkers have also grounded their moral and political views in scientific assumptions about… human nature, specifically that there isn’t one.
Unlike the “comparable” statements by the Blank Slaters, these statements neither accuse those who deny the existence of human nature of being Nazis, nor is evidence lacking to back them up. On the contrary, one could cite a mountain of evidence to back them up supplied by the Blank Slaters themselves. Winking soon supplies us with the reason for this strained attempt to establish “moral equivalence” between “nature” and “nurture.” It appears in his “hypothesis,” as follows:
It is entirely possible that confirmation bias plays no role in driving disagreement and that the overarching debate in academia is driven by sincere disagreements concerning the inferential value of the research designs informing the debate.
Wait a minute! Don’t roll your eyes like that! Winking has a “study” to back up this hypothesis. Let me explain it to you. He invented some “mock results” of studies which purported to establish, for example, the increased prevalence of an allele associated with “appetitive aggression” in populations with African ancestry. Subtle, no? Then he used Mechanical Turk and social media to come up with a sample of 365 people with Masters degrees or Ph.D.’s for a survey on what they thought of the “inferential power” of the fake data. Another sample of 71 were scraped together for another survey on “research design.” In the larger sample, 307 described themselves as either only “somewhat” on the “nature” side, or “somewhat” on the “nurture” side. Only 57 claimed they leaned strongly one way or the other. The triumphant results of the study included, for example, that,
Participants perceptions of inferential value did not vary by the degree to which results supported a particular ideology, suggesting that ideological confirmation bias is not affecting participant perceptions of inferential value.
Seriously? Even the author admits that the statistical power of his “study” is low because of the small sample sizes. However statistical power only applies where the samples are truly random, meaning, in this case, where the participants are either unequivocably on the “nature” or “nurture” side. That is hardly the case. Mechanical Turk samples, for example are biased towards a younger and more liberal demographic. Most of the participants were on the fence between nature and nurture. In other words, there’s no telling what their true opinions were even if they were honest about them. Even the most extreme Blank Slaters admitted that nature plays a significant role in such bodily functions as urinating, defecating, and breathing, and so could have easily described themselves as “somewhat bioist.” Perhaps most importantly, any high school student could have easily seen what this “study” was about. There is no doubt whatsoever that holders of Masters and Doctors degrees in related disciplines had no trouble a) inferring what the study was about, and b) had an interest in making sure that the results demonstrated that they were “unbiased.” In other words, were not exactly talking “double blind” here.
I think the author was well aware that most readers would have no trouble detecting the blatant shortcomings of his “study.” Apparently to ward off ridicule he wrote,
Regardless of one’s position, it is important to remind scholars that if they believe a group of intelligent and informed academics could be so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribe to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research, then they must acknowledge they themselves are equally as capable of being so misguided.
Kind of reminds you of the curse over King Tut’s tomb, doesn’t it? “May those who question my study be damned to dwell among the misguided forever!” Sorry, my dear Winking, but “a group of intelligent and informed academics” not only could, but were “so unknowingly blinded by ideology that they wholeheartedly subscribed to an unquestionably erroneous interpretation of an entire body of research.” It was called the Blank Slate, and it derailed the behavioral sciences for more than half a century. That’s what Pinker’s book was about. That’s what Degler’s book was about, and yes, that’s even what Cravens’ book was about. They all did an excellent job of documenting the debacle. I suggest you read them.
Or not. You could decide to believe your study instead. I have to admit, it would have its advantages. History would be “fixed,” the lions would lie down with the lambs, and the evolutionary psychologists would live happily ever after.