The Politicization of Social Science

Notes on Rousseau, brain chemistry, and the ubiquity of bad academic “data.”

Science is not supposed to be filtered through a belief system. It’s supposed to go wherever the facts lead. But the human brain doesn’t work that way. Our brains zoom in on details that fit our preconceptions and skim over details that conflict with them. We don’t do this consciously, so we believe we’re objective. And we trust the objectivity of researchers because they have high status in today’s world. As a result, we don’t notice the belief system used to filter their facts.

The belief system I’m talking about is Rousseau’s idea that nature is good and civilization is the cause of all that’s bad. Social-science researchers may not say this openly, but their findings almost always fit the belief that peace and love are the default state of nature, and problems are due to “our society.” They claim that cooperation and harmony are the natural state by producing “studies” that profess to show cooperation and harmony among animals, children, and hunter-gatherers. When there’s conflict among these groups, they overlook it (or, again, blame “society”).

Social-science findings almost always fit the belief that peace and love are the default state of nature.In the past, people would not have believed such “studies” because animals were easily observed in the wild. People saw animals attack each other, so they’d laugh at you if you said animals lived in harmony. In the past, people were attacked by neighboring tribes and surrounded by squabbling children, so they’d question the assertion that humans are naturally cooperative. Today, we tend to believe these presumptions because we’re told that “The Science” proves it, and you’re dismissed as an anti-science nut if you disagree.

This is not just a philosophical debate because public policy is rooted in the Rousseauian paradigm. It tells us that problems are caused by society, so we can solve problems by removing social constraints. It tells us that children are born good, so if we leave children to do whatever comes naturally, they will grow into happy, responsible adults. The Rousseauian paradigm tells us that society has caused our unhappiness, so tearing down society will make us happy. If Rousseau was wrong, these policies will go wrong.

I accepted the Rousseauian template when I was young because I respected my teachers, and what young person doesn’t like the idea that tearing down society will make her happy? But as the decades went by, I kept having experiences that didn’t fit the narrative. Here’s a simple example.

I trained to be a docent at my local zoo in order to learn more about the animal brain. One day, I was asked to donate money to a mountain lion sanctuary. The project was explained as a way to rescue wildcats who wandered into the suburbs of San Francisco. I asked why they couldn’t just bring the animals back to nature. They didn’t answer, so I repeated the question a few times. Finally, I was told that a mountain lion would be killed instantly by the animal whose territory it was placed in.

I knew that this was true because I’d read about territoriality in old biology books. I’d learned that animals kill their own kind for a long list of reasons. In fact, they attack whenever they think they’ll win. They rarely fight because one critter usually realizes it will lose and backs down. So you could say they “live in peace” most of the time, but that’s a profoundly dishonest representation of the facts.

This story has an interesting twist because zookeepers have to manage the reality of animal aggression, even as they hate to acknowledge it. Zookeepers are eager to protect their animals, which puts them in the awkward position of taking precautions but not wanting to say why. They’ll build a fence for an animal without saying that its neighbor would kill it without the fence. I heard a lot of euphemisms in my five years at the zoo, as explained in my book Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop.

Researchers are highly rewarded if they create “evidence” that advances the Rousseauian agenda.You may not like what I’m saying. You may think that academics couldn’t all be filtering facts to fit a belief system. You may call me a conspiracy theorist. I would have agreed with you when I was young, but, after decades as a college professor, I’ve seen the research process up close. I’m like the person who visits a sausage factory and then refuses to eat sausage.

Researchers, especially in the social sciences, insist that they only care about the greater good and not about selfish rewards. But they are highly rewarded if they create “evidence” that advances the Rousseauian agenda. Any graduate student can see which findings get respect and which do not. The grad student who conforms ends up with the credentials necessary to be included in “The Science.” If students don’t conform, they’re ignored, and if they keep it up, they’re discredited, personally or professionally.

A researcher can get conforming results more easily than you might expect. They just re-run a study over and over with slight changes until they get “data” that fit the paradigm. Results that advance the agenda get media attention, and the rest are forgotten. Studies are rarely replicated, so research cited as “The Science” for years may rest on the flimsiest of foundations. For example, we often hear that our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked four hours a day and spent the rest of the time making art and making love. It feels true because it fits the belief that life was easy before “our society” ruined things. So we don’t inspect the mountain of assumptions and extrapolations that studies like this one rest on.

In my decades as a college professor, I kept stumbling on facts that didn’t fit the paradigm. I kept finding evidence of conflict among animals, children, and hunter-gatherers. So I asked myself who this Rousseau guy was and why I should believe him? I did some research and was shocked by what I found about the 18th-century Swiss writer. Jean-Jacques Rousseau fathered four children with his housemaid and brought each newborn to an orphanage because he didn’t want it to be raised by a housemaid. This is the man who literally wrote the book on raising children— the book Emile, or On Education that’s so widely revered in education circles. You were likely raised on Rousseau’s theory because teachers have to embrace it to get their credentials.

Scientists are good at finding evidence that fits their models and ignoring evidence that doesn’t.I was frustrated by life in the sausage factory, so I accepted the offer of early retirement that came my way. I kept up my spirits by remembering Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn said that scientists are good at finding evidence that fits their models and good at ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit. Even when a huge pile of conflicting evidence accumulates, the model endures. Scientists find ways to discredit what Kuhn called “discrepant data.” It’s not until they die that a new model is spread by a new generation that has grown up with the discrepancies. Then the cycle starts over, as the new orthodoxy is vehemently defended from conflicting evidence.

Kuhn wrote this in 1962. He reminds us that Galileo was jailed for violating the paradigm of his day and was lucky he wasn’t burned at the stake. Copernicus didn’t dare publish until he was on his deathbed. Today’s brand of enforced conformity is mild by comparison. Yet it’s enough to bury discrepant data from public awareness. You don’t question the Rousseauian mindset because you’ve heard it so much that it just seems true.

After my early retirement, I had the chance to study social science with an open mind. I learned that our brains evolved to keep our genes alive, not to make us happy. The brain releases happy chemicals when we do things that help our genes survive. It doesn’t decide this with conscious logic. It decides with a limbic system that’s the same in all mammals, and with neural pathways built from our own early experiences. This is why we seek happiness in quirky ways. I was grateful to have a second chance at an open mind and hope today’s college students will find that chance someday.

Loretta G. Breuning is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and professor emerita of management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal growth books, including Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin Levels