'Thinker' via Frank Kovalchek/Creative Commons
This weekend is the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, which means the release of a minor deluge of highly headline-friendly social science research. (In fairness, most social science research is headline-friendly.) Said conference delivers new studies revealing that people have more empathy for battered dog victims than human adult victims; that having half-siblings means one is more likely to use drugs or have sex at an early age (be “bad”); and a study connecting perceived popularity to the likelihood of being a bully. There’s plenty more and opportunities for spectators to infer super-dubious “in/then” relationships are nearly endless—correlation implying causation, etc.
I don’t actually hate this stuff, but seeing a bunch of sociology in one place kinda points to just how much this sort of research can feel like pulling relationships from noise. I think we’re always passively looking for deep truths and profound meanings about people and how they interact and headlines like those above scratch that itch a bit too much. So maybe we don’t see the caveats and nuances quite like we should. After all, we don’t see the caveats and nuances of our own personal conceptions of the social world quite like we should either. Look, for example, at the comments on this piece I wrote about empathy a while back; it’s much easier to see something as cleanly bad than as a vast constituency of different things. People and relationships aren’t noise either, but nor are they limited sets of general rules, which are often too easy to take away from social research headlines.
One thing I’m a pretty big fan of is when a sociology study delivers some data suggesting the opposite of our intuition, revealing perhaps a not-too-pleasant prejudice. I like it when data challenges the overly broad rules we set up for the world to make it easier to deal with. One study presented at the Meeting this weekend fills that role pretty well, delivering evidence that there is no tie between intelligence and racism. That is, “dumb” people aren’t any more likely to be more racist if we look at objective or natural intelligence among humans (to the extent that we can). Enlightenment and intelligence are, perhaps, not uniquely related.
From a press release, here’s the money quote, from the University of Michigan’s Geoffrey Wodtke: “High-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes and more likely to say they support racial integration in principle. But they are no more likely than lower-ability whites to support open housing laws and are less likely to support school busing and affirmative action programs." So, in the study, white people of “high ability” were more likely to talk a good talk, but the likelihood of them actually supporting programs designed to promote equality was about the same as in people of lower mental abilities.
There’s a name for this disconnect between words and action, the principle-policy paradox. In politics, it’s a vexing problem, obviously. It’s at the heart of the grand human conflict between self-interest and “the right thing,” how we can demonstrate that right thing (through words, say) in such a way to be socially beneficial without actually practicing it.
"More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimizing and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members," Wodtke says. "In modern America, where blacks are mobilized to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say—and may in fact truly believe—all the right things about racial equality in principle, but they just don't actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed. In many cases, they have become so accustomed to these privileges that they become 'invisible,' and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice."
That sounds about to right to me, but I’m not sure indignation is the best vehicle to present science research. After all, the data used here comes from the General Social Survey, a vast survey conducted every other year and used for a variety of different research, collected by the National Opinion Research Center. That is, it comes through highly impersonal means. Which sort of gets at the problem with sociology headlines—it’s always personal.
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