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The NYT, the Soft Sciences, and the Slow, Stupid Return to Reason

Lefty sociologists finally look past “oppression,” and accept that a culture’s commitment to prosperity affects that culture’s … prosperity.

by
David Steinberg

Bio

October 21, 2010 - 12:00 am

A rather astonishing piece appeared in the New York Times this week, offering some degree of hope that the pursuit of scientific truth has a chance of once again becoming the dominant theme in university science.

I know, it felt just as foolish typing it. But the article itself — in a pigs-fly moment of self-reflection at the NYT — expressed the same concern regarding what multiculturalism has done to the sciences: truth has been subjugated in favor of answers that either a) do not make the scientist uncomfortable, or b) per the leftist’s fevered imagination, will not cause a broke, greedy, elitist, Appalachia-trash teabagger to lynch someone.

I have many wonderful friends and family members, intelligent and successful people who truly believe there is nothing worse than putting an idea out in the wild that might be misconstrued by a white guy as an excuse to believe in racial purity. And I absolutely have had the following conversation with some (paraphrasing for my amusement):

Friend: All cultures and religions are equally valid points of view and ways of living a good life.

Me: Really?

F: Really.

M: What about the culture that spawns dogfighting vs. the culture that spawns the Humane Society?

F: … Ok. Some cultures behave abominably, but this only occurs as a response to a second culture that is oppressing them.

M: But if the second culture is behaving abominably, isn’t the second culture off the hook since a third culture must have forced the second to behave that way? And so on?

F: … Free Mumia!

It is within this intellectual environment that we receive this stunning article from the NYT’s Patricia Cohen:

For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

Moynihan’s analysis never lost its appeal to conservative thinkers, whose arguments ultimately succeeded when President Bill Clinton signed a bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.”

A quick aside: Moynihan’s analysis never lost its appeal to conservative thinkers because conservatives are interested in facts and reason — not because conservatives grin like orangutans and throw deer jerky when given an irrational excuse to think whitey is genetically superior.

Moving on:

But in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word “culture” became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.

Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.

“We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.

The old debate has shaped the new. Last month Princeton and the Brookings Institution released a collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report. At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

“Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” the introduction declares, acknowledging that it should never have been removed.

The topic has generated interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates. Views of the cultural roots of poverty “play important roles in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues,” Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, noted at the briefing.

All of this is wonderful news, a sign that the Marxist stranglehold on higher education may be unraveling.

Unfortunately, there is a catch, a kink in the unraveling which may slow university culture’s return to reason, and which does not inspire confidence in the development of a full-blown post-Moron movement. The kink is that the concept is being investigated via soft-sciencey methods, by which I mean that an experiment used to study the issue was performed by a Harvard professor and was very stupid.

From the Times article:

As part of a large research project in Chicago, Professor Sampson walked through different neighborhoods this summer, dropping stamped, addressed envelopes to see how many people would pick up an apparently lost letter and mail it, a sign that looking out for others is part of the community’s culture.

In some neighborhoods, like Grand Boulevard, where the notorious Robert Taylor public housing projects once stood, almost no envelopes were mailed; in others researchers received more than half of the letters back. Income levels did not necessarily explain the difference, Professor Sampson said, but rather the community’s cultural norms, the levels of moral cynicism and disorder.

I can think of several ways to better measure a community’s or culture’s tendency to “look out for others,” and all of them involve statistical analysis, and none of them could be thwarted by a stiff wind or dog poo.

I have not read Professor Sampson’s study, but my hope — stemming from my altruistic interest in the advancement of science — is that he was aware of the experiment’s potential pitfalls, and thus recruited a Harvard AGW expert to write some “smoothing” software:

Accounting for the neighborhood’s Sidewalk Powerwashing Frequency Score of 3, plus the Rabies Incidence of 1.2 infections per million residents, we could have expected 3.4 more oppressed minority members per block willing to touch the envelope. Weezer rocks!

There is fine news here, though, for which we should be thrilled, and not just for the wonderful mocking opportunities: the university is jettisoning multiculturalism. And as fast as they can, though this is tremendously slow. More tuition dollars will be wasted, more science fair-level experiments will be funded, and more weekend forums featuring moderator Ira Glass will be held.

But we are on the correct path again: leftism can’t prove it’s case for remaining in the university, it is not sustainable, and so the market has begun to filter it out.

A commitment to Reason — an actual oppressed culture — is returning.

David Steinberg is the New York City Editor of PJ Media. Follow his tweets at @DavidSPJM.
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