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The New Phrenology

How liberal psychopundits understand the conservative brain.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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We are entering the age of the psychopundit (we can thank the science writer Will Saletan for this excellent word). Thomas Edsall, for example, is a veteran political reporter widely admired by people who admire political reporters. He has become very excited by social science, as so many widely admired people have. Studies show—as a psychopundit would say—that Edsall is excited because social science has lately become a tool of Democrats who want to reassure themselves that Republicans are heartless and stupid. In embracing Science, the psychopundit believes he is moving from the spongy world of mere opinion to the firmer footing of fact. It is pleasing to him to discover that the two—his opinion and scientific fact—are identical. 

Image of a phrenologist's skull

Earlier generations of leftists knew the power of Science to discredit their political opponents. Most famously, in the years following World War II, Theodor Adorno and his fellow sociologists developed the F scale—“F” for fascism—to identify the “authoritarian personality” that so often gave rise to political and cultural conservatism. They discovered that conservatives suffered (unconsciously!) from “prefascist tendencies” like “intolerance of ambiguity” and “moral rigidity.” They acquired this scientific knowledge by reading questionnaires filled out by 180 respondents during the last year of World War II. Among the respondents were Rotarians, patients at mental hospitals, San Quentin inmates, students at the University of California, and members of the Lion’s Club.

You don’t hear much about Adorno anymore. As a political figure he was too extreme, and as a social scientist he was too transparently political, to remain in good repute with scientists who have persuaded themselves that they have no ideology. In time it became clear that in pretending to plumb the authoritarian personality, Adorno and his “investigators had arrived at their conclusions in advance” through a “set of self-validating procedures,” as the great sociologist Christopher Lasch put it. 

Our generation of Democrats, in and out of the press, have now rediscovered Adorno’s methods, and put them to the same purpose. Edsall himself has become a booster of a series of “studies” that together form, in his words, “an extensive academic critique of the right.” The studies are boring, which is why the few people who bother to look them up rarely get beyond the one-paragraph summary. But they’re worth studying for an insight into the way Adorno’s heirs, our own psychopundits, continue his work. 

The studies rely on the principle that has informed the social sciences for more than a generation: If a researcher with a Ph.D. can corral enough undergraduates into a campus classroom and, by giving them a little bit of money or a class credit, get them to do something—fill out a questionnaire, let’s say, or pretend they’re in a specific real-world situation that the researcher has thought up—the young scholars will (unconsciously!) yield general truths about the human animal; scientific truths. The scientific truths revealed in Edsall’s “academic critique of the right” demonstrate that “the rich and powerful” lack compassion, underestimate the suffering of others, have little sympathy for the disadvantaged, and are far more willing to act unethically than the less rich and not so powerful. 

How do we know this? A paper called “Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others” describes a study put together by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, a few years ago. Graduate assistants managed to collect 118 undergraduates, most of them under the age of 21. The kids agreed to participate in the experiment because they were given $15 or class credit for a psychology requirement. A skeptic might point out that the sample of participants was thus skewed from the start, unnaturally weighted toward either kids who badly need $15 or psych majors. And all of them, by definition, were the kinds of kids who want to go to college at Berkeley. Almost half of the participants were Asian American; only 3.5 percent were African American. Caucasians made up less than 30 percent.

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