Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists?

Image Source

DR. STOCKMANN: It’s my own fault. I should have faced them down long agoshown my teethand bite back! Call me an enemy of society! So help me God, I’m not going to swallow that!

MRS. STOCKMANN: But Thomas dear, your brother does have the power

DR. STOCKMANN: Yes, but I’m in the right!

MRS. STOCKMANN: The right? Ah… what does it help to be in the right if you don’t have any power?

Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People (1882)

 On twitter, Jeffrey Sachs presents a puzzle:

Here’s a puzzle I think about a lot. If any academic field is associated with the contemporary debate surrounding free speech, it’s psychology. Haidt, Pinker, Peterson, Saad, Jussim, even Lehmann. All specialize or have backgrounds in academic psych. So what’s the puzzle?

If psychology has any core premise, it is that we do not observe or make sense of the world unmediated. Our brains “get in the way”, both for good and for ill. Our biases, habits, and biologies shape what we’re willing to do, say, or believe.

I don’t have an answer, just some very uncharitable guesses about psychologists as historically ignorant cognitive elitists who would blanche if forced to grapple with the actual existing nature of American political discourse. Like I said, uncharitable.[1]

For a fuller introduction to the folks mentioned in the post: Jonathan Haidt is on the short-list for “world’s most renowned social psychologist.” His research has focused on the psychology of happiness and the psychology of different moral systems. Steven Pinker‘s research originally focused on psycholinguistics, but he first became famous for several well written works of popular science that present the principle findings of cognitive and evolutionary psychology to a lay audience. Jordan Peterson is a personality psychologist whose academic articles typically explored  applications of the “Big-5” personality metric or investigated the physiological foundations of alcoholism. His favorite intellectual project (the subject of both his first book and a series of YouTube lectures) is leveraging advances in affective neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to rehabilitate Jungian theories of the mind. Gad Saad made his name investigating the evolutionary origins of and cognitive processes behind consumer behavior. His work marries marketing with evolutionary psychology. Lee Jusim is a social psychologist who specializes in the psychology of stereotypes. He was a pioneer in effectively incorporating field research into a laboratory-driven discipline. Finally, Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, a web magazine that regularly highlights the work of (and has been endorsed by more than a few of) all the other folks on this list. Before founding Quillette, Lehmann was studying psychology as a grad student, a pursuit she ended upon giving birth to her first child.

That is the academic background of the people on Sach’s list. What earns them a spot on that list, however, is the other side of their biographies. Each of these individuals has moved from academic research to political advocacy. Though their arguments differ in style and intensity, these men and women have thrust themselves into the public eye in defense of academic freedom, ideological diversity, free speech, and political moderation, while attacking critical theory, post-modernism, and the excesses of the social justice left. They are not the only people to do this. But Sack is correct: the ranks of the culture warriors are filled with an unusual number of behavioral scientists.


I attribute this all to three things.

1. The conclusions academics reach tend to rankle the right. There are exceptions. If your research draws on evolutionary psychology, focuses on innate behavioral differences, or touches any sort of psychometrics (e.g., IQ), the angry tide does not sweep in from the right. The wave these men and women fear crashes in from leftward side. Moreover, the sort of leftist opposition that the academic consensus on these topics face leaves little room for rational debate or compromise: controversies over psychometrics or evolutionary psychology are usually framed in terms of good and evil, not right and wrong. The scientists involved are to be conquered, not reasoned with.

So that is point one: the people who want to shut controversial psychologists up are overwhelmingly creatures of the left.

2. Psychology, especially social psychology, is itself an overwhelmingly leftist discipline. We actually have data on this, and it is pretty grim: a recent survey of American tenure-track professors reveals that there 17.4 registered Democrat psychologists for every single registered Republican.[2] If there is a field of people who ought to be sympathetic to social justice railroading, these people are it.

3. Despite this, behavioral scientists have not yet adopted the rhetorical techniques or method of inquiry of “critical theory.”  In contrast, see how these modes of inquiry have swallowed up the fields of anthropology and communications, and established creeping colonies in history, sociology, and area studies.  Given the left-leaning sympathies of almost all in the profession, the threat that the same might happen to the study of human behavior is real.

I use the word ‘threat’ consciously. That is how the people on this list perceive critical theory and the popular culture it supports. For men like Peterson or Haidt these ideas actually damage the psychological health of those ‘indoctrinated’ into them. Pinker and his type are less dramatic: they see critical theory and its attachments mostly as cruddy methodology. The threat it poses is to the scientific endeavor itself. Implicit in their view are two beliefs: first, that there is real ‘truth’ out there to be discovered; second, that if scientists are allowed to proceed in their debates without outside interference, they will eventually discover it.

This is key. Haidt et. al. do not just believe that critical theorists are wrongthey believe that the critical theorists can be proven wrong. If science does its thing, the bad theories and methods cannot last. That is the lesson they have taken from the replication crisis: behavioral science self corrects.   Uncomfortable data and uncomfortable arguments have the power to force change. Given enough time researchers will converge upon the truth. (Side note: social psychology’s largely successful attempt to improve itself over the last decade and fix the gross methodological problems it used to be saddled with is, IMHO, an important counter-point to Sach’s pessimism, and a big part of this story).

But all of this is true if and only if scientists are allowed to debate and investigate freely.

Haidt et. al. are confident they can win the debate if they are allowed to debate. For the heterodox anthropologist or sociologist the game is already over: their discipline has already been conquered. For the economist, the threat is too remote to take seriously. Behavioral science exists in that rare in-between: methodologically, it has the tools to fight back against the excesses of the activist. Socially, it provides a compelling reason for its practitioners to use them.


[1] Jeffrey Sachs, twitter comments (12:35 PM, 2 Nov 2018)

[2] That number is taken from Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein, “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” Econ Journal Watch, vol 13, iss 3, 422-451. See also Duarte et. al, “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2014), 1–54; Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 7, 496-503.

Leave a Comment


How might sociology be reclaimed? As far as I can tell the critical theory &c. people really have taken over cultural anthropology but physical anthropology, linguistics and archaeology have been passed by. Physical anthropology is entirely too concerned with measuring things for Baudrillard or Derrida to have much appeal, linguistics has enough data that their biggest problem is lack of funding and archaeology seems to have gone backwards in terms of interpretation for decades but the influx of genetic data is forcing revision of cherished myths like pots not peoples.

"The conclusions academics reach tend to rankle the right."

Shouldn't this be:
"The conclusions academics reach tend to rankle the left."

It should be noted that the Sokal 2.0 hoaxers were consistently rejected by sociology journals. Sociology has a very lefty reputation, but it's also more empirical than most of the "studies" and less affected by post-modernism. At the same time, some sociologists do grumble that the field is so focused on pet topics like inequality that there's a neglect of basic descriptive work on how various institutions function.

Another possibility is that psychologists are hyper-sensitive to the fact that a lot of our individual reasoning is completely biased and often useless. They therefore understand the need for systems which correct for this. Free speech is one of those systems. Anyone needs to be able to challenge and correct someone who claims authority.

I don't think that psychologist "lead" the fight for FoS. "Leading" supposes a form of influence and power, but half the people mentioned in the post are not known outside their narrow academic scope. Avant garde, luminary, pioneer? Maybe, but not leaders. True leaders with actual impact on society sit in confinement, eg. Assange and Snowden, both with IT background.

I find your 3 reasons very weird.

The findings of psych over the last 30 years have actually pretty much refuted every right-leaning ideology we had about people 30 years ago.

Personality traits and IQ both seem to be highly context-dependent, and more heavily influenced by early childhood environment rather than innate genes. The rationality of talking about individual choice/responsibility is probably still valid, but anyone who wants to argue for that honestly now has to jump through a lot of very complex hoops.

The rational market hypothesis is basically dead. Behavioral econ/psych has shown that humans do have systematic biases and that these biases do not average out in large groups. The best this right-leaning ideology has is something akin to 'worst system except all of the others'.

On gov regulation, econ has shown that many behaviors and efficiency of a system are consequences of market structure and laissez-faire will not automatically lead to more efficient or fair outcomes.

In findings on gender differences, the modest effects seem to suggest that women should by default be in charge of everything, as they are slightly more likely to have the qualities associated with successful leadership.

On criminal justice, psychology has shown that punitive-based justice ends up hurting the entire society and that drugs especially are a biological process, not a character flaw.

What right-leaning ideology do you think there has been a wealth of new evidence for from psychology?

The alternative hypothesis here seems to be that the anger is generated because right-leaning social scientists tend to ignore more evidence that they bring. That right-leaning faculty are disappearing because a rational look at the evidence leads to one have a more left-leaning ideology.

On the individuals who get flack, it seems to me that their most controversial statements are those most disconnected from their actual research. Jordan Peterson doesn't get in trouble because of his stance on Jungian theories of the mind, he gets in trouble for making ad-hominem attacks on feminists or trying to pretend that the left-leaning argument here is to get rid of all hierarchies.

I'm sure there are some aspects of dogma and certainly high emotions in the field, but really that comes from the fact that we now have pretty much incontrovertible evidence that even in the world where we claim to value freedom, justice, and equality, the past century has seen the systematic and intentional oppression of millions of people. The most controversy is generated by the very reasonable supposition that those systems are still alive if getting weaker. If the right starts with that basic reality and focuses and the least disruptive and most effective means of dismantling those systems, it could easily find a home in modern social science.

It is always convenient when you can deceive yourself into thinking that all the findings of the last seventy years of social science perfectly confirm the paorchial contours of your particular ideology.

I think there is a big difference between the findings that the commenter above is talking about, and the absurd extremes that some of the current "identity politics" and the "critical theory" school of academia are reaching, especially in the English-speaking world. It goes well beyond saying that free markets don't necessarily lead to the best outcomes, or that drug addiction is a biological process. It is quite possible to consider oneself left-wing, and still see that some of their rhetoric is laughable.

I agree about Jordan Peterson though, he is a polemicist who basically wants to attract outrage, and he gets what he deserves.