Tag: Is-ought distinction

Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism

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Eugenics in a ball gown

I had a little discussion with Richard Murphy yesterday, and I mentioned that the right-wing libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, (ASI) has endorsed* the controversial work of Adam Perkins – The Welfare Trait.” The ASI has been the impetus behind Conservative policy agendas and was the primary intellectual drive behind the privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a neoliberal approach towards public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare, and have advocated the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance schemes.

(*The ASI review, written by Andrew Sabisky, was removed following wide criticism of Perkins’ methodology and other major flaws in his work. Consequently, the original hyperlink leads nowhere, so I’ve added an archived capture, to update.) 

Professor Richard Murphy, a widely respected political economist and commentator, has written an excellent article: The Adam Smith Institute is now willing to argue that those on benefits are genetically different to the rest of us on the Tax Research UK site, which I urge you to read. 

He says “What you see in this is the deliberate construction of an argument that those on benefits are genetically different from other people. The consequences that follow are inevitable and were all too apparent in the 1930s. And this comes from a UK think tank much beloved for Tory politicians.”

The Adam Smith Institute say this in their review of Adam Perkins’s book:

“With praiseworthy boldness, Perkins gets off the fence and recommends concrete policy solutions for the problems that he identifies, arguing that governments should try to adjust the generosity of welfare payments to the point where habitual claimants do not have greater fertility than those customarily employed. The book no doubt went to press before the Chancellor announced plans to limit child tax credits to a household’s first two children, but such a measure is very much in the spirit of this bullet-biting book. The explicit targeting of fertility as a goal of welfare policy, however, goes beyond current government policy. Perkins perhaps should also have argued for measures to boost the fertility of those with pro-social personalities, such as deregulation of the childcare and housing markets to cut the costs of sustainable family formation.”

And: “Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered. This occurs through both genetic and environmental channels. Personality traits are substantially heritable (meaning that a decent percentage of the variation in these traits is due to naturally occurring genetic variation). Given this fact, habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities.”

Personality disorder or simply maintaining the social order?

Two things concern me immediately. Firstly, there is no causal link established between welfare provision and “personality disorder” or “traits”, bearing in mind that the “employment-resistant personality” is an entirely made-up category and does not feature as a clinical classification in either the ICD-10 section on mental and behavioural disorders, or in the DSM-5. Nor is employment status currently part of any clinical diagnostic criteria. Personality disorders are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are therefore culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

Drapetomania” for example, was a pseudoscientific definition of a mental illness that labelled slaves who fled captivity in the 1800s. Samuel A. Cartwright, who invented the category, also prescribed a remedy. He said: “with proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented. In the case of slaves “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” – apparently a warning sign of their imminent flight – Cartwright prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventative measure.” As a further “remedy” for this “disease”, doctors also made running a physical impossibility by prescribing the removal of both big toes. Such abusive application of psychiatry and the medicalisation of distress and rational responses to ethnic degradation and dehumanisation is part of the edifice of scientific racism.

The classification of homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, and was replaced by the subsequent categories of “sexual orientation disturbance” and then “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” the latter was not deleted from the manual until 1987. Medicalising and stigmatising the experiences, behaviours and beliefs of marginalised social groups, and attempting to discredit and invalidate those group’s collective experiences is a key feature of political and cultural oppression.

Personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

A diagnosis of personality disorder is potentially very damaging and creates further problems for individuals by undermining their sense of self, denying their identity, experience and locating the problems, regardless of their origin and who is responsible for them, in themselves. This is in addition to exposing people to stigma and discrimination, both within the mental health system, quite often, and more broadly within our society. Medicalising and stigmatising human distress permits society to look the other way, losing sight of an individual’s social needs, experiences and context. It also alienates the stigmatised individual, and enforces social conformity, compliance and cultural homogeneity.

It may be argued that the concept of personality disorder obscures wider social issues of neglect, poverty, inequality, power relationships, oppression and abuse by focusing on the labelling of the individual. Rather than being concerned with the impact and prevalence of these issues, public outrage is focussed on containing and controlling people who challenge normative consensus and who are perceived to be dangerous. Because there is no objective test to make a diagnosis, this makes the basis of such diagnosis very questionable and highlights the propensity for its political and punitive usage. The “diagnosis” of many political dissidents in the Soviet Union with “sluggish schizophrenia” who were subsequently subjected to inhumane “treatments” led to questions about such diagnoses and punitive regimes through stigma, labeling, dehumanisation, coercion and oppression, for example.

Secondly, to recommend such specific policies on the basis of this essentially eugenic argument betrays Perkins’s intention to provide a pseudoscientific prop for the libertarian paternalist (with the emphasis being on behaviourism) brand of neoliberalism and New Right antiwelfarism.

The taken-for-granted assumption that the work ethic and paid labor (regardless of its quality) may define a person’s worth is also very problematic, as it objectifies human subjects, reducing people to being little more than neoliberal commodities. Or a disposable reserve army of labor, at the mercy of “free market” requirements, if you prefer.

The government is currently at the centre of a United Nations inquiry into abuses of the human rights of ill and disabled people, and is also in breach of the rights of women and children, because of their anti-humanist, draconian welfare “reforms”. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy. The fact that some social groups are experiencing political discrimination and the failure of a government in a wealthy first-world liberal democracy to observe what are meant to be universal human rights ought to be cause for concern.

The rise of neoeugenics

Holocaust documentation has highlighted that the medicalisation of social problems and systematic euthanasia of people in German mental institutions in the 1930s provided the institutional, procedural, and doctrinal origins of the genocide of the 1940s. Eugenics in Germany was founded on notions of “scientific progress,” and was about ensuring mental, racial and genetic “hygiene” and “improving” the German race, which ultimately led to eliminativist attitudes towards politically defined “impure” others.

Eugenics is a theory of the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a particular population. It encourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “desirable genetic qualities” and discourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “undesirable genetic qualities.” Taken to its most extreme form, eugenics supports the extermination of some groups who some others consider to be “undesirable” population.

One example of eugenic policy is the recent limiting of tax credit support for children in poorer families to two children only. Iain Duncan Smith said that this is to encourage “behavioural change” to prevent poorer families having “too many” children.

Eugenics is widely considered as a movement that endorses human rights violations of some social groups. At the very least, eugenic policy entails violations of privacy, the right to found a family, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to socioeconomic security and social protection, and at worst, violations of the right to life.

I have frequently referred to Gordon Allport in my writing. He was a social psychologist who studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. Allport’s important work reminds us of the lessons learned from politically-directed human atrocities and the parts of our collective history it seems we would prefer to forget.

In his research of how the Holocaust happened, Allport describes sociopolitical processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, all of which advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as “undesirable” and as the Other: an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted.

Othering is recognised in social psychology as part of an outgrouping process that demarcates those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, most often using stigmatising to generate public moral outrage. It tends to reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination. Othering historically draws on essentialising explanations, culturalist explanations, behavioural explanations, genetic explanations and racialising explanations.

Hate crime, eugenics and Allport’s ladder

In the UK, much of the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. We are bombarded with anti-muslim rhetoric, “poverty porn”, headlines that condemn people needing social security as “workshy” and “scroungers.” The political scapegoating narrative directed at ill and disabled people has resulted in a steep rise in hate crimes directed at that group. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to record levels, and has continued to climb ever since, rising by a further 41% last year alone. We are certainly climbing Allport’s ladder of prejudice.

A freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discloses that between 2010 and 2015 the government closed 1,041,219 alleged cases of benefit fraud put forward by the public. Insufficient or no evidence of fraud was discovered in 887,468 of these. In 2015 alone, of the 153,038 cases closed by the DWP’s Fraud and Error Service, 132,772 led to no action. People can use an online form on the DWP website to anonymously report “suspects,” listing their eye colour, piercings, scars, tattoos and other details they deem relevant. Suspicions can also be logged through the DWP benefit fraud hotline.

The inaccurate reports throws into question multiple government advertising campaigns, claiming that the public has a “role” in identifying “benefit cheats”. Television adverts, social media posts, letters and radio campaigns have been used to warn claimants about fraudulently claiming benefits. Government statistics show fraudulent claims accounted for 0.7% – or £1.2bn – of total benefit expenditure in the financial year 2012-2013. Some of that figure may also contain a proportion of DWP errors. An estimated £1.6bn was underpaid to claimants by the DWP. Yet people’s neighbours are being encouraged to engage in a McCarthy-style reporting of suspected benefit fraud. And a significant proportion of the public are reporting innocent citizens.

There is considerable incongruence between cases of genuine fraud and public perception: an Ipsos Mori survey in 2013 found the public believed 24% of benefits were fraudulently claimed – 34 times greater than the level seen in official statistics.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing folk devils: establishing stigmatised, deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple narratives of the workshy scrounger as Delingpole claims, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanising labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)

The Conservatives have strongly authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Conservative policies are entirely ideologically driven. It is a government that is manipulating public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies which are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the wealthiest “libertarian” principles. We have a government that frequently uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups.

Conservative narrative and eugenics

This is a government intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. A few years ago, a Tory councillor said that “the best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.” More recently, another Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory (for example, Lord Freud, Philip Davies) have called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people, claiming that we are not worth a minimum wage to employers.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the poorest and the vulnerable – those with the “least broad shoulders” – to understand that these comments reflect how many Conservatives think.

Occasionally such narrative is misjudged, pushing a little too far against the boundaries of an established idiom of moral outrage, and so meets with public resistance. When this happens, it tends to expose the fault lines of political ideology and psychosocial manipulation, revealing the intentional political creation of folk devils and an extending climate of prejudice.

In EdgbastonKeith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

In 2013, Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the UK Secretary of State for Education, provoked a flurry of complaints about his eugenicist approach, claiming that “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education.”

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Biology, offered a more detailed analysis in New Scientist, concluding:

“Whatever intelligence is, these failures show that to hunt for it in the genes is an endeavour driven more by ideological commitment than either biological or social scientific judgement. To suggest that identifying such genes will enable schools to develop personalised educational programmes to match them, as Cummings does, is sheer fantasy, perhaps masking a desire to return to the old days of the 11 plus. Heritability neither defines nor limits educability.”

Pseudoscience has long been used to attempt to define and explain social problems. Lysenkoism is an excellent example. (The term Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, most often related to political objectives. This criticism may apply equally to either ideologically-driven “nature” and “nurture” arguments.)

Eugenics uses the cover and credibility of science to blame the casualities of socioeconomic systems for their own problems and justify an existing social power and wealth hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that eugenicists and their wealthy supporters also share a mutual antipathy for political progressivism, trade unionism, collectivism, notions of altruism and of co-operation and class struggle.

It isn’t what it ought to be

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic language habits, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself across distinct spheres of meaning simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neuroliberal antiwelfarist destination. He seems to have missed the critical domain and central controversies of each discipline throughout his journey.

Perhaps he had a theory-laden spirit guide.

Einstein once famously said: “The theory tells you what you may observe.”

On reading Perkins’s central thesis, the is/ought distinction immediately came to mind: moral conclusions – statements of what “ought” to be – cannot be deduced from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are – and how mice are, for that matter, since Perkins shows a tendency to conflate mice behaviour with human behaviour – (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the unsupported claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”, and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

While Perkins’s book conveniently fits with Conservative small state ideology, behaviourist narratives, and “culture of dependency” rhetoric, there has never been evidence to support any of the claims that the welfare state creates social problems or psychological pathologies. Historically, such claims tend to reflect partisan interests and establish dominant moral agendas aimed at culturally isolating social groups, discrediting and spoiling their identities, micromanaging dissent, and then such discourses are used in simply justifying crass inequalities and hierarchies of human worth that have been politically defined and established.

It’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who have suddenly seemingly developed a considerable range of personal “ineptitudes” and character “flaws.” Under the Thatcher administration, we witnessed Charles Murray’s discredited pseudoscientific account of “bad” and “good” folk-types taking shape in discriminatory policy and prejudiced political rhetoric.

Social Darwinism has always placed different classes and races in hierarchies and arrayed them in terms of socially constructed notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” Charles Murray’s controversial work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life presents another example of a discredited right-wing ideological architect, funded by the right-wing, who was then used to prop up an authoritarian Conservative antiwelfarist dogma that was also paraded as “science.” Murray had considerable influence on the New Right Thatcher and Reagan governments. Critics were often dismissed, on the basis that they were identified with “censorious political correctness,” which of course was simply a right-wing attempt to close down genuine debate and stifle criticism. The Bell Curve was part of a wider campaign to justify inequality, racism, sexism, and provided a key theme in Conservative arguments for antiwelfarism and anti-immigration policies.

A recent comprehensive international study of social safety nets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” was designed to intentionally divert attention from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens. It is used to justify inequality.

Adam Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. I beg to differ. Empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set much too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully. Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity is profoundly psychologically harmful as much as it is physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

If people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will either have the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to find work and meet increasingly Kafkaesque welfare conditionality requirements.

However, people claiming social security support have worked and contributed to society. Most, according to research, are desperate to find work. Most do. It is not the same people year in year out that claim support. There is no discrete class of economic freeriders and “tax payers.” The new and harsh welfare conditionality regime tends to push people into insecure, low paid employment, which establishes a revolving door of work and welfare through no fault of those caught up in it.

There is a clear relationship between human needs, human rights, and social justice. Needs are an important concept that guide empowerment based practices and the concept is intrinsic to social justice. Furthermore, the meeting of physiological and safety needs of citizens ought to be the very foundation of economic justice as well as the development of a democratic society.

The Conservatives (and Perkins) claim that the social security system, which supports the casualties of neoliberal free markets, have somehow created those casualties. But we know that the competitive, market choice-driven Tory policies create a few haves and many have-nots.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, such political rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. But if Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for others.

Inequality is a fundamental element of the same meritocracy script that neoliberals so often pull from the top pockets of their bespoke suits. It’s the big contradiction in the smug meritocrat’s competitive individualism narrative. This is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, there are always winners and losers. Inequality is a central feature of neoliberalism and social Conservatism, and its cause therefore cannot be located within individuals.

It’s hardly “fair”, therefore, to leave the casualties of competition facing destitution and starvation, with a hefty, cruel and patronising barrage of calculated psychopolicical scapegoating, politically-directed cultural blamestorming, and a coercive, punitive behaviourist approach to the casualities of inbuilt, systemic, inevitable and pre-designated sentences of economic exclusion and poverty.

That would be regressive, uncivilised, profoundly antidemocratic and tyrannical.

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This work was cited and referenced in Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving’ children and why, by Val Gillies and Rosalind Edwards, here.

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A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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The goverment’s archaic positivist approach to social research shows that they need a team of sociologists and social psychologists, rather than the group of “libertarian paternalists” – behavioural economists – at the heart of the cabinet office, who simply nudge the public to behave how they deem appropriate, according to a rigid, deterministic, reductive neoliberal agenda and traditional, class-contingent Conservative prejudices.

 

Glossary

Epistemology – The study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology). For example, in sociology, some theorists held that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is important.

Interpretivism – In sociology, interpretivists assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships.

Libertarian paternalism – The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

MethodologyA system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity to collect data. In the social sciences there has been disagreement as to whether validity or reliability ought to take priority, which reflected ontological and epistemological differences amongst researchers, with positivism, broadly speaking, being historically linked with structural theories of society – Emile Durkheim’s structural-functionalism, for example – and quantitative methods, usually involving response-limiting surveys, closed-ended questionaires and statistical data collection, whereas interpretive perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, tend to be associated with qualitative methods, favoring open-ended questionaires, interviews and participant observation.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many sociologists recognising the value of both means of data collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism. Qualitative methods tend to be more inclusive, lending participants a dialogic, democratic voice regarding their experiences.

Ontology – A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of reality and being. It’s important because each perspective within the social sciences is founded on a distinct ontological view.

Positivism – In sociology particularly, the view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified. However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than in-depth and explanatory accounts of social phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

Critical realism – Whilst positivists and empiricists more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy, for example.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions. Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example?

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The increasing conditionality and politicisation of “truths”

The goverment often claim that any research revealing negative social consequences arising from their draconian policies, which they don’t like to be made public “doesn’t establish a causal link.”  Recently there has been a persistent, aggressive and flat denial that there is any “causal link” between the increased use of food banks and increasing poverty, between benefit sanctions and extreme hardship and harm, between the work capability assessment and an increase in numbers of deaths and suicides, for example.

The government are referring to a scientific maxim: “Correlation doesn’t imply causality.” 

It’s true that correlation is not the same as causation.

It’s certainly true that no conclusion may be drawn regarding the existence or the direction of a cause and effect relationship only from the fact that event A and event B are correlated. Determining whether there is an actual cause and effect relationship requires further investigation. The relationship is more likely to be causal if the correlation coefficient is large and statistically significant, as a general rule of thumb. (For anyone interested in finding out more about quantitative research methods, inferential testing and statistics, this is a good starting point – Inferential Statistics.)

Here are some minimal conditions to consider in order to establish causality, taken from Hills criteria:

  • Strength: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.
  • Coherence: A relationship is more likely to be causal if it is compatible with related facts and theories.
  • Analogy: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there are proven relationships between similar causes and effects.
  • Specificity: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is no other likely explanation.
  • Temporality: A relationship is more likely to be causal if the effect always occurs after the cause.
  • Gradient: A relationship is more likely to be causal if a greater exposure to the suspected cause leads to a greater effect.
  • Plausibility: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.

Hill’s criteria can be thought of as elements within a broader process of critical thinking in research, as careful considerations in the scientific method or model for deciding if a relationship involves causation. The criteria don’t all have to be met to suggest causality and it may not even be possible to meet them in every case. The important point is that we can consider the criteria as part of a careful and relatively unbiased research process. We can also take other precautionary steps, such as ensuring that there are no outliers or excessive uncontrolled variance, ensuring the populations sampled are representative and generally taking care in our research design, for example.

However, it is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does.

Furthermore, the government are implying that social research is valid only if it conforms to strict and archaic positivist criteria, and they attempt to regularly dismiss the propositions and research findings of social scientists as being “value-laden” or by implying that they are, at least. However, it may also be said that values enter into social inquiry at every level, including decisions to research a social issue or not, decisions to accept established correlations and investigate further, or not, which transforms research into a political act. (One only need examine who is potentially empowered or disempowered through any inquiry and note the government response to see this very clearly).

It’s noteworthy that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than valid research and empirical evidence. For example, it is widely held by the Conservatives that work is the “only route out of poverty”. Yet since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards. Many people in work, as a consequence, are now in poverty, empirically contradicting government claims.

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So what is positivism?

Positivism was a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide currency in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was extensively discredited during the twentieth century.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term “positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the loudest generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting.  “Fact, fact, fact!” cried Mr Thomas Gradgrind. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayek’s, namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal Tory government of self-described “libertarian paternalists” embrace positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversy.

However, positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It’s is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run and how people should behave. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

Science, correlation and causality

Much scientific evidence is based on established correlation of variables – they are observed to occur together. For example, correlation is used in Bell’s theorem to disprove local causality. The combination of limited available methodologies has been used together with the dismissing “correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy on occasion to counter important scientific findings. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer, especially in the earliest stages of the research, but there was a clearly and strongly indicated association. 

Science is manifestly progressive, insofar as over time its theories tend to increase in depth, range and predictive power.

Established correlations in both the social and natural sciences may be regarded, then, as a starting point for further in-depth and rigorous research, with the coherence, comprehensiveness and verisimilitude of theoretical propositions increasing over time. This is basically a critical realist position, which is different from the philosophical positivism that dominated science and the social sciences two centuries ago, with an emphasis on strictly reductive empirical evidence and the verification principle (which is itself unverifiable).

Positivist epistemology has been extensively critiqued for its various limitations in studying the complexities of  human experiences. One critique focuses on the positivist tendency to carry out studies from a “value-free” outsider perspective in an effort to maintain objectivity, whilst the insider or subjective perspective is ignored. There is no mind-independent, objective vantage point from which social scientists may escape the insider. A second critique is that positivism is reductionist and deterministic. It emphasises quantification and ignores and removes context, meanings, autonomy, intention and purpose from research questions by ignoring unquantifiable variables.

It therefore doesn’t extend explanations and understanding of how we make sense of the world. A third critique is that positivism entails generalisation of data which renders results inapplicable to individual cases; data are used to describe a population without accounting for significant micro-level or individual variation. Because of these and other problems, positivism lost much favour amongst sociologists and psychologists in particular. 

Verification was never the sole criterion of scientific inquiry. Positivism probably lost much more methodological and epistemological currency in the social sciences than the natural sciences, because humans cannot be investigated in the same way as inert matter. We have the added complication of consciousness and [debatable] degrees of intentionality, so people’s behaviour is much more difficult to measure, observe and predict. There’s a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings. But it does seem that prediction curiously becomes easier at macro-levels when we examine broader social phenomena, mechanisms and processes. (It’s a bit like quantum events: quite difficult to predict at subatomic level, but clarifying, with events apparently becoming more predictable at the level we inhabit and observe every day.)

Now, whilst correlation isn’t quite the same as “cause and effect”, it often strongly indicates a causal link, and what usually follows once we have established a correlation is further rigorous research, eliminating “confounding” variables and bias systematically (we do use rigorous inference testing in the social sciences). Correlation is used when inferring causation; the important point is that such inferences are made after correlations are confirmed as real and all causational relationships are systematically explored using large enough data sets.

The standard process of research and enquiry, scientific or otherwise, doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve withholding data and a refusal to investigate further.

Positivism and psychology

Positivism was most closely associated with a doctrine known as behaviourism during the mid-20th century in psychology. Behaviourists confined their research to behaviours that could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe beliefs, thoughts, intentions, emotions and so forth,  these were not deemed to be legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. One of the assumptions of behaviourists is that free-will is illusory, and that all behaviour is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behaviour in order to predict how people will behave, and  everything else in between (like what a person is thinking, or their attitude) is irrelevant because it can’t be measured.

So, to summarise, behaviourism is basically the theory that human (and animal) behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to wider socioeconomic contexts, consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s dystopian novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. Quite properly so. All totalitarians, bullies  and authoritarians are behaviourists. Skinner has been extensively criticised for his sociopolitical pronouncements, which many perceive to be based on serious philosophical errors. His recommendations are not based on “science”, but on his own covert biases and preferences.

Behaviourism also influenced a positivist school of politics that developed in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Although the term “behavouralism” was applied to this movement, the call for political analysis to be modeled upon the natural sciences, the preoccupation with researching social regularities, a commitment to verificationism, an experimental approach to methodology, an emphasis on quantification and the prioritisation of a fact-value distinction: keeping moral and ethical assessment and empirical explanations distinct, indicate clear parallels with the school of behaviourism and positivism within psychology.

The political behaviouralists proposed, ludicrously, that normative concepts such as “democracy,” “equality,” “justice” and “liberty” should be rejected as they are not scientific – not verifiable or falsifiable and so are beyond the scope of “legitimate” inquiry. 

Behaviourism has been criticised within politics as it threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures. An emphasis on  the observation of data deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints – it isn’t a pluralist or democratic approach at all – it turns political discourses into monologues and also conflates the fact-value distinction.

Every theory is built upon an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently, the study of  “observable facts” is intentional, selective and purposeful. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.”

The superficial dichotomisation of facts and values also purposefully separates political statements of what is from what ought to be. Whilst behavouralism is itself premised on prescriptive ideology, any idea that politics should include progressive or responsive prescriptions – moral judgements and actions related to what ought to be – are summarily dismissed.

Most researchers would agree that we ought to attempt to remain as objective as possible, perhaps aiming for a relative value-neutrality, rather than value-freedom, when conducting research. It isn’t possible to be completely objective, because we inhabit the world that we are studying, we share cultural norms and values, we are humans that coexist within an intersubjective realm, after all. We can’t escape the world we are observing, or the mind that is part of the perceptual circuit.

But we can aim for integrity, accountability and transparency. We can be honest, we can critically explore and declare our own interests and values, for example. My own inclination is towards value-frankness, rather than value-freedom – we can make the values which have been incorporated in the choice of the topic of research, and of the formulation of hypotheses clear and explicit at the very outset. The standardised data collection process itself is uncoloured by personal feelings (that is, we can attempt to collect data reliably and systematically.) However, the debate about values and the principle of objectivity is a complex one, and it’s important to note that symbolic interactionists and post modernists, amongst others, have contended that all knowledge is culturally constructed. (That’s a lengthy and important discussion for another time.)

Nudge: from meeting public needs to prioritising political needs

The idea of “nudging” citizens to do the “right thing” for themselves and for society heralds the return of behaviourist psychopolitical theory. Whilst some theorists claim that nudge is premised on notions of cognition, and so isn’t the same as the flat, externalised stimulus-response approach of behaviourism, my observation is that the starting point of nudge theory is that our cognitions are fundamentally biased and faulty, and so the emphasis of nudge intervention is on behaviour modification, rather than on engaging with citizen’s cognitive or deliberative capacities.

In other words, our tendency towards cognitive bias(es) render us incapable of rational decision-making, so the state is bypassing democratic engagement and prescribing involuntary and experimental behavioural change to “remedy” our perceived cognitive deficits.

Behaviourists basically stated that only public events (behaviours of an individual) can be objectively observed, and that therefore private events (intentions, thoughts and feelings) should be ignored. The paternal libertarians are stating that our cognitive processes are broken, and should be ignored. What matters is how people behave. It’s effectively another reductionist, instrumental stimulus-response approach based on the same principles as operant conditioning.

Nudge is very controversial. It’s experimental use on an unconsenting population has some profound implications for democracy,  which is traditionally based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about instructing us how to be.

The context-dependency and determination of value-laden nudge theory

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour; as a mechanism of explanation and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are isolated from the broader structural political, economic and sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a deeply problematic duality between context and cognition.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory in claiming that their “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual, ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” But “responsible” is defined only within the confines of a neoliberal economic model. (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policyDavid Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

In other words, there is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and a person’s perceptions, intentions and actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about the negative impacts of neoliberalism on citizens rests is fundamentally flawed, holding individuals responsible for circumstances that arise because of market conditions, the labor market, political decision-making, socioeconomic constraints and the consequences of increasing “liberalisation”, privatisation and marketisation.

Market-based economies both highly value and extend competitive individualism and “efficiency”,  which manifests a highly hierarchical social structure, and entails the adoption of economic Darwinism. By placing a mathematical quality on social life (Bourdieu, 1999), neoliberalism has encouraged formerly autonomous states to regress into penal states that value production, competition and profit above all else, including attendance to social needs and addressing arising adverse structural level constraints, the consequences of political decision-making and wider socioeconomic issues, such as inequality and poverty.

As a doxa, neoliberalism has become a largely unchallenged reality. It now seems almost rational that markets should be the allocators of resources; that competition should be the primary driver of social problem-solving, innovation and behaviour, and that societies should be composed of individuals primarily motivated by economic conditions and their own economic productivity. Despite the Conservative’s pseudo-positivist claims of value-neutrality, the economic system is being increasingly justified by authoritarian moral arguments about how citizens ought to act.

The rise of a new political behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

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Image courtesy of Tiago Hoisel