By Andrew Ferguson
From “The Imprudence of the New Science;” http://www.commentarymagazine.com
Let’s consider some findings of the New Science — all of them breathlessly reported by a gullible media with lots of airtime and massive editorial holes to fill. No phrase in modern journalism is so overused as “studies show,” unless it’s “research reveals” or “experts say.” As a general rule, the findings of the New Science fall into one of two categories: They are trivial when true, and untrue when not trivial.
We should be careful to distinguish the New Science from the physical sciences, which it resembles only in pantomime. The astonishing success of the physical sciences, from molecular biology to astrophysics, is what gives the New Scientists the confidence to pretend they’re doing the same thing the big boys are doing. The confidence, as we’ll see, is badly misplaced. Experiments that furnish the data for the New Science lack the test tubes, the microscopes, the particle accelerators that so impress us laymen about traditional science. Because the New Science takes as its subject such hard-to-pin-down phenomena as thoughts, motives, mental impressions, emotional reactions, and so on, its data are rather more elusive, too.
One would have thought that Aristotle, for instance, had pretty much nailed the subject of happiness. He spent a whole book in his Ethics thinking about it! But now the old Greek egghead has been outdone. In Berkeley, California, the university’s Greater Good Science Center employs researchers in, yes, happiness studies. Specialists have engaged undergraduates in countless role-playing experiments. (At Berkeley, samples of undergraduates are disproportionately white or Asian, female, and unusually brainy, but they are taken as representative of humanity in general.) Through role-playing, the happy scientists have discovered that delaying gratification may lead to higher levels of oxytocin than simply satisfying desires as they arise.
Oxytocin is a little reward cooked up through natural selection to make us happy. The ever-ready MRI machines have discovered that performing acts of kindness “lights up the left prefrontal cortex.” Other surveys of undergraduates tell us that a group performing various tasks skillfully provokes more favorable chemical reactions in their frontal lobes than a group that performs the same tasks poorly.
Well, down the ages, lots of people knew this—and they discovered it without access to psych majors or MRIs. But to the ear tuned to 21st-century buzz-buzz, the truisms of common sense and tradition sound much more authoritative if they’re preceded by the magic words “Studies show…”
A pile of studies in the New Science has been rising on my desk over the past few months. All of them are certified by scientists at top universities. Here we go:
- An online survey of 334 subjects shows that parents accidentally confuse children’s names more often when the names of the children sound alike.
- MRIs from Western University in Ontario show that students well trained in arithmetic are “better equipped to score higher on PSAT math.”
- Economic researchers “applied a Two Stage Least Squares methodology” to a set of real-estate listings and discovered that “unattractive real-estate agents achieve quicker sales.”
- A pair of evolutionary psychologists at Bristol University studied the “beer goggle effect”—the reputed tendency of men to find less attractive women more appealing after a few drinks—and discovered it had evolutionary roots. (In the New Science everything must have evolutionary roots.) It seems that our earliest ancestors learned to value symmetry in facial composition because it is a signal of a healthy reproductive capacity; in time we humans took to calling this “beautiful.” Alcohol blurs our genetically controlled ability to judge symmetry, hence the beer goggle effect. Katy, bar the door!
It’s tough to choose a favorite from my stack, but I’ll do it anyway: It relates to the evolutionary-psychology dogma that men prefer a woman who has a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of 0.7. According to standard New Science method, this preference has been taken to be a universal impulse bred into our prehistoric ancestors and survives today as an evolutionary adaptation. Now, as it happens, the preference is not universal; men in China seem to favor a WHR of 0.8, for instance. Such an inconvenient fact does not deter the march of evolutionary psychology, however, because its practitioners have already come up with a theory to account for the universally preferred ratio. So what’s behind the WHR? Women with a 0.7 ratio very often have higher levels of estrogen, indicating fertility and general good health. Evolution thus favored men who favored these women, and a universal fact of human nature, a conception of beauty, was bred into our genes.
This is an excellent example of New Science reasoning. Strained logic arises from a shaky factual basis to reach a conclusion that is simply an extension of the premise: Evolutionary psychology assumes that all basic human behavioral traits are adaptive, and therefore the WHR preference must have been adaptive.
But there’s more! To confirm the theory about WHR, two evolutionary psychologists at Maryhurst College came up with another experiment: If the WHR theory is true, then stressful circumstances, which make men less inclined to reproduce, should alter their preference to a less estrogen-friendly ratio. On went the lab coats, out came the spreadsheets, and the two researchers gathered up every cover of Playboy magazine from 1960 to 2000. Yes, they really did. And they discovered that in periods of economic recession, the WHR of the Bunnies on the cover rose from the standard 0.7. In times of stress, men liked heavier women, according to the Bunnies. QED, as the Romans used to say; “research reveals,” as we say.
Such reasoning brings us the “fat gene,” “the morality molecule,” “the infidelity neuron,” and all of the other discoveries that parade across the pages of Time and Psychology Today and the stage sets of Today and Good Morning America. A neurosurgeon at UCLA has even discovered the “Jennifer Aniston neuron,” which controls a man’s reaction to the aging starlet. Jealous colleagues are now in pursuit of the Julia Roberts neuron and the Halle Berry neuron.
You think I’m kidding? The New Science would indeed be merely comical—the credulity of smart people is endlessly amusing—but for two considerations.
First, our infatuation with a reductionist, materialist conception of life has real-world effects, in marketing, business organization, even public policy. Some of the effects are more serious than others. A few years ago, interior decorators across Europe and America began painting corporate headquarters and work spaces green after researchers “discovered” that green was the color most conducive to creativity. (The evolutionary explanation: On the prehistoric savannah, our ancestors learned to associate green with water, nutrition, plant life, and, of course, fertility.) The painters had to be called in again after a year or two, when other researchers (working on a different group of undergraduates, no doubt) found that exposure to the color blue “can double your creative output.” (The new evolutionary explanation: Our cleverest ancestors were stimulated by the cerulean sky, the azure sea…)
But more ominously, the New Science is invading government, too. “Behavioral economics,” whose practitioners swallow the findings of social psychology without a second thought, is now the guiding principle of much economic policymaking. There is no reason why this should be so. Behavioral economists were as clueless as old-fashioned economists, for example, in failing to foresee the financial collapse of 2008, the single most calamitous economic event of the past 80 years. Nevertheless, President Obama called in the behaviorists when it came time to design his “middle-class tax cut” in 2009. It was supposed to goose consumer spending, and hence economic growth.
The (Obama) tax cut was an exercise in “framing.” New Scientists are mad for “framing.” They believe (studies show) that how an object, idea, or event is presented, described, or packaged determines how people will react to it. With the tax cut, the question was how the money should be placed in taxpayers’ hands. A lump-sum “tax rebate” in 2001 had failed to stimulate the economy (research revealed). But if the tax cut were made slowly — by changing the rate of withholding in workers’ paychecks — then people would be more likely to spend the money.
How did our behavioralists “know” this? Well, once upon a time, graduate students at Texas A&M assembled 141 undergraduates and asked them to pretend they were going to be given sums of money in either monthly or annual increments. Two-thirds of those in the study were women, all were young, some had business experience, others didn’t. Not exactly a cross section of America, much less of humanity — but so what? This is science. So the kids filled out a questionnaire. And what do you know? The ones who had been told they would be paid annually said they thought they wouldn’t spend the money as readily as the kids who were told they’d get their money monthly.
And so a tax cut created by the government of the almighty United States of America was “framed.” Taxpayers saw small increases in every paycheck, just as the data had dictated. And then…nothing happened. The economy remained stuck. Per capita spending didn’t increase. The incremental framing was no more successful than the lump-sum “bonus” had been.
What went wrong? Well, the behavioralists had failed to consider other truths that the data didn’t show — commonsense truths, human truths that lay beyond the grasp of their questionnaires. For example, 200 million taxpayers in the grip of a recession react differently from college kids doing a thought experiment in a classroom at Texas A&M. Perhaps in hard times, citizens are more likely to save an increase in their resources than spend it, no matter how the matter is “framed.” Or maybe this whole “framing” thing is simple-minded.
Every now and then, as the New Science continues to roll through every area of American life, from baseball to fashion design, we see signs of intellectual prudence resurfacing, evidence here and there of a restraining modesty — the caution and second thoughts that true prudence requires of thinking people.
Critics of evolutionary psychology are publicly making the case that our knowledge of prehistoric life is inevitably too sketchy to use as a basis for psychological speculation about contemporary life. A small but noisy number of social psychologists have begun to point out the shoddy experimental practices common to their field: small sample sizes, a failure to replicate findings, a misuse of statistical protocols. People are increasingly aware that some of the field’s most cherished findings — which have subsequently been built into countless other studies as operating assumptions — cannot be confirmed.
These admirable science cops have even deployed humor and parody to make their point. One impish researcher, for instance, undertook to prove that time travel is real, and succeeded. His experiment demonstrated, through the application of an accepted but impenetrable methodology, that listening to a certain Beatles song could reduce an undergraduate’s age by one year. Now we have to change the song’s title to “When I’m Sixty-Three.”
Yet the heedless march continues. I said a while back that there were two considerations (you forgot already?) that made it hard to dismiss the imprudence of the New Science as merely comical. The first is the practical influence it has over intellectually unarmed laymen like management consultants, television producers, science reporters, marketing professors, and the writers and readers of pop-science books.
The second consideration cuts deeper.
We live in a post-Christian age. Or so we’re told. The metaphysical assumptions that once served human beings in understanding themselves and their relationship to the world are no longer accepted, certainly not by our most educated and admired thinkers. So now is as good a time as any to quote G.K. Chesterton’s great aphorism: When a man ceases to believe in God, the danger isn’t that he will believe in nothing, but that he will believe in anything. Into the vacuum left by the traditional view of a man — a unique being created by God, endowed with a soul, infinitely precious — comes the thin and desiccated conception that is both the premise and conclusion of the New Science: A human being is a member of a not-so-special species, tugged and pulled by unconscious impulses, the random consequence of a blind and pointless process stretching back to the beginning of time.
No one actually believes this, of course; a person who truly lived by the New Science metaphysics of humans as soulless robots wouldn’t be a skeptic, he’d be a psychotic, unconstrained by the most elemental assumptions that make us civilized. Virtues can be cultivated, said the ancients, but they are also innate. Maybe they’re an evolutionary adaptation.
It turns out that prudence is harder to shake than we might have thought. In our daily lives, as we struggle to get along with one another, some form of prudence retains its hold over us; it is there to tame the wild thought, stay the impulsive hand. It is a mystery beyond the reach of science, old or new. Lucky for us, we still live in a world where prudence, as often as not, remains enthroned as the queen of the virtues.
About the Author
Andrew Ferguson, who wrote the “Press Man” column in Commentary for three years, is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. This essay appears in The Seven Deadly Virtues, a collection edited by Jonathan V. Last and published by Templeton Press.
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