The Magazine

BS in New Zealand

Social science run amok.

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Actually BS here stands for “benevolent sexism.” An article by two New Zealand psychologists has come my way that deserves to become a classic of social science. The title “Why are Benevolent Sexists Happier?” promised to warm my conservative heart, and it did​—​but not so much with approbation as with wonder at the whole enterprise of social science.

Scientists study the Sexes

Tim Foley

The two psychologists are Matthew Hammond and Chris Sibley, the latter being the professor and senior author. Together they bear witness to the fact that science is a collective enterprise, not about individual glory. Still, they have made an important discovery. They have found that precisely in the “egalitarian nation” of New Zealand, men and women who hold to benevolent sexism are happier than the nonsexist egalitarians who do not. Benevolent sexism is the belief that women are weaker than men but also warmer and more nurturing, and that men are stronger and more protective. This belief is opposed to hostile sexism (dubbed HS), which is aggressive blaming by men of women who are not so warm and who, forsaking their subordinate gender role, try to compete with men.

To prove this point, or even to state it, the article deals with perceptions. It’s not about whether women are or are not weaker than men but whether they are perceived to be. The article says nothing about whether women are in truth weaker than men, or what “weaker” means: less bodily strength or the ability to live longer, for example. Natural science would address the matter by asking whether the perception is true. After all, an untrue “perception” is not a perception but an illusion. But social science deals with perceptions whose truth is disputed, such as whether women are weaker than men in any relevant way. Its solution is to draw a distinction between fact and value, fact being subject to agreement, value not. Yet to be scientific, social science must claim to be truth. Since it defines truth to be what scientists agree upon, it has to find agreement where there is disagreement. We can agree that sexist men and women “perceive” that women are weaker and that this matters. The trouble is that “perceive” as used in social science really means “believe,” whether true or not.

Thus in the article the evidence cited is from a survey of what New Zealanders believe, and the fancy analysis using regression models never goes beyond what people there believe, or say they believe. Sexism is a belief in gender inequality, true or not. Happiness is what people say they have, truly or not. The paradox presented is that those who believe in gender equality can believe they are happy if, perhaps temporarily, they abandon the belief in equality and become benevolent to the weaker or stronger sex. To generalize from this article: Since every interesting “fact” is merely belief, every term or concept in social science is so fragile that it crumbles into dust once you try to grasp it. 

At one point the authors’ mask of senseless objectivity slips off, and instead of calling New Zealand “egalitarian,” they call it “supposedly egalitarian.” But is this a reproach, assuming that a consistently egalitarian society is possible, or is it resignation to the fact that it is not? The authors mustn’t say. They are social scientists; they confine themselves to reporting beliefs. But no! They don’t even know whether the beliefs are beliefs rather than facts. The fact-value distinction leads to the disappearance of fact as well as value.

Common sense would suppose that some questions of fact and of value are difficult to decide, and these are disputed; others are not difficult and ought not to be disputed. But it’s a fact that human beings are disputatious and sometimes resist the obvious. On these occasions they have to be recalled to “common sense.” An example would be the common-sense fact that men and women are different, much in dispute today. For science, however, common sense is the chief enemy. This is true for natural science, which effortlessly replaces the world we see with the naked eye by constructing a conceived world abstracted from human bias (or “common sense”) through reliance on the microscope and the telescope. 

This abstraction is not so easy for social science, which is forced to rely on the naked eye. Social science is often unjustly disdained by natural scientists for its clumsy inexactness, yet in fact it performs a necessary and valuable function. Social science guards natural science from the resistance and possible retaliation of human prejudice, which goes by the name of common sense. To do this social science cannot dismiss common sense but has to struggle with it. Its challenge is to replace disputable fact with indisputable concepts applicable to human life.

Our article on benevolent sexism illustrates the comedy of the struggle, as terms chosen to be indisputable turn out to be disputable. Benevolent sexists are “happier,” says the title​—​a common-sense word. But “happy” turns out to be “life satisfaction,” not a term you hear on the street. Life satisfaction is desired by both sexes, our authors say, but under sexism men get status and wealth, women get protection and “resources” (i.e., the wealth of men). More simply, men get access to power, women get security. Both goals are forms of “power”; so power is the universal goal of both sexes, providing life satisfaction and discerned by science. Yet the point of the article is that under BS men are satisfied to be strong, women to be weak. So our authors contrive a scientific “mechanism” or “Differential Process Model,” which shows that men benefit directly from sexism as individuals, while women get life satisfaction from a “system justification” telling them that they benefit as part of the system, despite the “cognitive dissonance” they must suffer as individuals who are weaker. Men don’t need to justify themselves because as the dominant group they get the subordinate group to internalize their “ideology.” (But what is an ideology if not a system justification?)

Research shows​—​“Glick et al. (2000)”​—​that women in 19 unequal nations endorse BS to protect themselves against HS. Then why on earth would women cheat themselves, in an egalitarian society where they can do better, with the belief that their weakness is “fair and equitable”? Is it because women are weak of mind or, on the contrary, because they are sensible? The trouble is that, for our authors, life satisfaction for human beings is defined by what men desire​—​power​—​just as it is for feminists today. Since men always desire power, they are ready with HS (remember, hostile sexism) should BS not do the trick. At the end of the article the authors bare their fangs and assert the “malevolent nature” of BS. Women should beware of the “tempting qualities” of BS that make them willing servants and victims of men. There’s no such thing as Benevolent Sexism. After all, our authors do mean to say that BS in social science is BS as said in the street. Women are wrong to cheat themselves by succumbing to it, and when doing so they are deluded to believe they are happy.

Social science does its best to explain, which means explain away, what common sense would call evil. That is its main purpose, because common sense, its chief enemy, has for its main purpose the task of distinguishing good from evil. But here we see social science cannot quite succeed in value-neutral description, and our authors​—​for all their scientific caution and with some relish​—​conclude by calling a spade a spade.

Our article declares itself to be a part of Ambivalent Sexism Theory, “extending the innovative work of Napier et al. (2010).” To answer the survey on which it is based, 6,100 New Zealanders​—​the real authors of the article​—​gave their time anonymously but with the incentive of a “$500 grocery voucher prize draw.” Just one piddling prize for the whole crowd? For deciding the question of sex differences that the “innovative work” of all the poets and philosophers in human civilization has addressed?

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

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