Back in 2007 I had an exchange on my blog with Robert Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarians. I don’t feel free to post his parts of the exchange here, aside from brief quotes, so this will be my half of the argument; readers can see the whole thing by following the links in my final blog post on the subject, his responses in the comments sections of my two posts and my response in the comments section of my final post to his final response.
Altemeyer’s book starts off by defining "right wing authoritarian" (RWA) in a way which purports to be politically neutral. There follows the set of twenty questions (plus two that don't get scored) used to test subjects to see how RWA they are. On each question the responder is supposed to express a view from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The grading is simple; on some questions you count as more authoritarian the more strongly you agree, on the others you count as more authoritarian the more strongly you disagree. His conclusion:
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In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives
… the data make it quite clear that when you see a bunch of Republican lawmakers huddling, you’re probably looking at mainly high RWAs, whereas when (non-southern) Democrats cluster, they’re probably a pretty unauthoritarian lot overall.
What is obvious if you read the questions1 is that they are not testing for RWA as the author defines it but for a combination of that and right/left political views. When the question is of the form "people who campaigned for unpopular causes X, Y and Z were good," X, Y and Z just happen to be causes more popular on the left than on the right
13. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.
When the question is of the form "We should follow authority X," X just happens to be a source of authority, such as the church, more popular on the right than on the left.
16. God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.
No questions about people who campaigned for unpopular right wing causes or about deferring to sources of authority popular on the left. It follows that although his conclusion that conservatives are more authoritarian than liberals may for all I know be true, it is not supported by the evidence he offers for it.
Perhaps the worst question of all was:
6. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
Almost nobody taking the test — my guess is literally nobody — has the data needed to know whether atheists are less virtuous, more virtuous, or just as virtuous as churchgoers. The only reason I can see why someone would respond with "strongly agree" is that he is an authoritarian accepting the authority of his bubble’s orthodoxy. But that is supposed to be the extreme non-authoritarian answer to the question.
Along similar lines:
4. Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.
Whether they are just as moral depends on your moral views but gays, male homosexuals, are considerably less healthy than other people due to a much higher rate of venereal disease, not only HIV but syphilis as well.2 Perhaps as a result:
The four lines of evidence were consistent with previous findings suggesting that homosexual activity may be associated with a lifespan shortened by 20 to 30 years. (PubMed article)
The only reason I can think of why someone would strongly agree with the claim is unwillingness to say something negative about people who the authorities relevant to him say you shouldn’t say negative things about — even if they are true.
Here is a list of alternative questions that one could use to reverse the political bias:
23: When a union calls a strike, workers should decide for themselves whether it is justified and cross picket lines to go to work if they think it is not.
In responding to this one, Altemeyer wrote:
I don't think of [unions] as being established authorities however, as I have conceptualized the phrase. Unions do not, for example, have a legal right to keep their members from going to work, nor to keep nonmembers from doing so either. (They instead use social pressure, and other tactics instead.)
That is equally true of churches in modern society, which he does treat as established authorities.
24. Our country desperately needs a decisive leader who will overcome special interest politics and break the political power of big corporations in order to do what is good for the common people.
25. Fundamentalist Christians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.
26. It is always better to trust the consensus of the scientific community on issues such as global warming rather than to listen to the ignorant sceptics in our society who are trying to create doubt in people's minds.
27. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority's view by pushing for the abolition of affirmative action, for laws allowing ordinary citizens to carry firearms for self defense, for school voucher programs to let parents get their kids out of the trap of failing public schools.
The Interesting Implications
There are two interesting things about Altemeyer’s book and our exchange unrelated to the question of whether conservatives are more or less authoritarian than liberals/progressives, a question that I do not think can be answered from Robert Altemeyer’s work using the twenty question questionnaire. One is that it demonstrates a technique for biasing the result of research that it is worth watching out for. I came across another example later.
The other and perhaps more interesting thing is that Altemeyer’s work was wrong in a simple way easily demonstrated, a majority of the questions biased in one direction, none in the other. I demonstrated the problem to him and he could not see it. The evidence that he could not see it is not that he said he couldn’t — if he was being deliberately dishonest in his book he could have been deliberately dishonest in his comments on my blog. The evidence is that, after having seen my argument, he chose to engage with me on my blog. If he realized that he was wrong in the way I claimed the sensible thing to do would have been to ignore my post; not many people would read it and an unsuccessful rebuttal would make my argument more persuasive and attract more readers to the exchange. Altemeyer is obviously intelligent and, as best I can tell from the tone of our exchange, honest. Yet he cannot see the equivalent 2+2=4 when he has good reason to want not to.
An alternative interpretation of the evidence, of course, is that I am the one deceiving myself, that my argument is not really as solid as I believe. Having read my argument and, if you followed the links, Altemeyer’s responses, you can decide for yourselves how plausible that is.
If my interpretation of what the exchange implies is correct that has implications for other controversies I have been involved in. What I interpret as deliberate dishonesty may be simple error even if it is an error that seems to me impossible for an honest person to make.3
I am reminded of a long ago conversation with a libertarian friend about an article written by another libertarian. The article ignored an important point in the first half of its argument, where it undercut the conclusion the author was arguing for, then discovered the point in the second half, where it supported the argument. I interpreted that as deliberate dishonesty. My friend’s reply was that I was assuming that the relevance of the point to the first half of the argument was as obvious to the author as it was to me and it probably wasn’t. Having interacted with the author since in other contexts I concluded that my friend was probably right.
The full list of scored questions from The Authoritarians, Chapter 1, pp. 11-12. The first two questions are not scored so have been left out.
___ 3. Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.
___ 4. Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.
___ 5. It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds
___ 6. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
___ 7. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
___ 8. There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.
___ 9. Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.
___ 10. Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs.
___ 11. Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.
___ 12. The “old-fashioned ways” and the “old-fashioned values” still show the best way to live.
___ 13. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.
___ 14. What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.
___ 15. Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the “normal way things are supposed to be done.”
___ 16. God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.
___ 17. There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.
___ 18. A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.
___ 19. Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.
___ 20. There is no “ONE right way” to live life; everybody has to create their own way.
___ 21. Homosexuals and feminists should be praised for being brave enough to defy “traditional family values.
___ 22. This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society.
“In 2014, gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men accounted for 83% of primary and secondary syphilis cases where sex of sex partner was known in the United States.” (CDC)
Similar issues are raised by another extended exchange on my blog, this one with economist Robert Frank. See the first three posts at this link.
A Request for Help
In a recent comment thread someone suggested that it would be very useful if I had on my web page a search option that let someone search my posts here, my posts on my old blog and any of my past writing that existed online, using keywords to find what I had said on any topic. Do any of my readers know an easy way of doing that? The relevant material is all webbed either on substack, my old blog, or my web page.
I would like to let Robert Altemeyer know about this post so he can respond and, if he wishes, defend himself, but I have been unable to find any contact information for him. If any reader comes across any you can report it in the comment thread.
PPS A commenter points me at an article on recent work on left wing authoritarianism.