Thursday, April 13, 2017

Theory, Theory, Who's Got The Theory?

   I used to think this was obviously true:
   Conservatives are in the grip of a bunch of theories about people, many (most?) of them bad. To take a well-known example, they're in the grip of a theory according to which men are typically more suited to work outside the home, whereas women are typically more suited to work inside the home. Liberals, however, have seen through this. Liberalism urges us to penetrate the distorting fog of tradition, and see people for who and what they really are. (Unsurprising, really, given liberalism's long association with empiricism.)
   I now suspect that that view isn't as true as I once thought. Currently, I'm more drawn toward this view:

   In large part--though, of course, not entirely--conservatives are more empiricists about people and society than liberals are. Sure, conservatism has theories, largely religious ones, that entail dumb things about, e.g., the impermissibility of homosexuality. But liberals have their theories, too. In large part, liberal egalitarianism wants us to ignore the evidence provided by our experience, and substitute theory-based conclusions. It might seem that men are typically more suited to work outside the home and women typically more suited to work inside it--but it just isn't true. (Who you gonna believe? Liberalism or your lyin' eyes?) Casual observation leads one to believe that there are a whole array of differences among races, and between the sexes. These are all misleading. The theory entails that they're illusory (or, of course, imposed by culture).
   It's not that I don't have sympathy for liberal theory-mongering in many cases...oh, I do, I do. I really, really do. But more and more I see it as theory-mongering. There's this typical liberal reaction when disagreements arise with's a kind of angry, bemused exasperation. How can you be such a bad person? How can you ignore the plain fact that everyone is equal in every way? How can you not see that you are a bigoted idiot? More and more I see a certain kind of conservative--not all of them, of course--as basically someone who just goes on the evidence of his experience. He's got stuff to do, man. He's got a business to run. He's got a living to make. He's got a family to support. He has lots of experience with human beings. He doesn't have the time or the inclination or the luxury of  accepting some happy-talk theory that could prevent him from, say, hiring the person he judges to be most suited to a job. You can maybe do that in academia, where it doesn't really matter--there you're largely insulated from the effects of bad performance. There, there's basically no bottom line. The conservative might even admit that the liberal theories of pervasive equality are morally attractive...he just doesn't think that they accurately represent the way things actually least right now. But, in short: he doesn't have the reality-distorting theory--the liberal does. It might be a comforting theory. It might even ultimately turn out to be true. But it is the theory--which is to say, in this case: it's the view that deviates from the most straightforward interpretation of the evidence available to the ordinary person. And one might excuse the conservative for getting exasperated at being repeatedly accused of bigotry for not accepting a theory that his experience tells him isn't true--especially about matters of vital interest. And especially mostly by people who don't have to worry very much about actual, consequential success and failure in the real world of actual facts.
   One [relevant point here] seems to be: failing to accept a theory is less blameworthy than accepting one--if  it's blameworthy at all. That's badly put, but I'm tired of typing.
   These are extremely politically incorrect thoughts...thoughts I'd probably never voice in academia. There are a lot of thoughts one can't voice in academia these days... But there they are. I'm not convinced of them, and such thoughts are rarely more than partially right anyway. It's nothing more than a hypothesis...or maybe it doesn't rise about the level of mere speculation. I realize that. But the thoughts go against the vengeful religion that currently prevails in much of academia, so even speculating in this way out loud could get you in big trouble. So I'll just float the idea here and move on.


Anonymous Old Gringo said...

I think this is an important line of thought. It goes to the heart of one of the main disagreements between the average conservative and the more aggressive liberal activist who holds negative stereotypes of conservatives. The idea that liberalism is based on a theory whereas conservatism is based more on ordinary, everyday intuitions about the way things are seems plausible to me. That doesn't mean conservatism is more empirical, of course. Liberalism could be more theoretical, but it could also be based on a more rigorous empiricism (if that makes sense). I think it's fair to say that there's more of an anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-theory culture in conservatism that is not really good for getting at the facts. The busy businessman and Joe six pack don't have time for a more rigorous inquiry, and they generally distrust (and often despise) the "elites" who are interested in science and theory. So there's maybe more of an "everyday empiricism" employed by conservatives, but they are not necessarily more interested in facts.

In any case, I do think you're right that this "everyday empiricism" is sometimes what leads people to accept conservative and/or politically incorrect views on some things. And I agree that it's a mistake for liberals to conclude that accepting these views automatically makes someone a bad person. On the other hand, it's undeniably true that conservatives have stereotypes of liberals that make them rage against what they view as the "bad people" on the other side. More often than not this is just their own caricature of liberals. Both stereotypes are based more on anger and fear in our polarized political culture than reality.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would add that in the stuff of human life, everyday experience and received wisdom seem to massively outperform the "theoretical" approach common among liberals. Clear example: the replication crisis in social psychology. More amusing example: stereotype accuracy is in fact far more reliable than virtually every other social psychological finding (see Lee Jussim).

Theory is really great where the object of study is trivially mathematizable. Human interaction is way more weird (for instance, a theory about human behavior can actually change human behavior), and your approach to it needs to be way more ad hoc as a result.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"I would add that in the stuff of human life, everyday experience and received wisdom seem to massively outperform the "theoretical" approach common among liberals."

This was the point I planning to add in a follow-up.

1:51 PM  

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