Finding What You're Looking For

One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgements about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.

But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect.  The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day.  We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices.  We're still doing this kind of science today, as Keith Humphreys illustrates:

The best sense I can give of how influential Maslow was in psychology in the 1960s and 1970s is that the eminent George Albee ran against him in 1968 for American Psychological Association president and lost by a landslide, leading George to say "My wife and mother voted for Maslow". Maslow was influential because he was very smart, wrote well, and had many good ideas. But he was also influential because his theory told many of the cultural elites of the era that they were objectively more mental healthy and more psychologically developed than were their opponents. Flattering poppycock, and also dangerously undemocratic.

I worked with a Maslow student very early in my career, and so with trembling hands was able to read my mentor's copy of "Motivation and Personality", which was autographed by the great Maslow himself. It still reads very well today, but when it comes to discussing self-actualization, it's simply wrong. Maslow did what Kolhberg did in his theory of moral development and Rollo May and all the existentialist psychiatrists did in their theories: He asserted that the objectively highest state of human development was to be like him and like people he admired.

Maslow admired many people I admire, Abraham Lincoln for example. But he and I can't admire Lincoln through some objective lens as psychologists or scientists. We can only say we admire Lincoln with the same level of objectivity that someone else might admire Jefferson Davis. Maslow wanted to give an objective validation that, for example, the Viet Nam war protestor was objectively superior to the Viet Nam general, the environmentalist was objectively superior to the captain of industry etc. Many cultural elites ate it up, just as Soviet elites ate it up when their psychiatrists said that anyone who didn't love the government was mentally ill and needed electroshock treatment post-haste.

Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don't ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the "mentally healthy" person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied "organization man" in the 1950s. Psychologists valorized divorce as the "mentally healthy choice" for those who were not "growing" in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it's better to stick it out and stop complaining so much.

Chances are 100% that you hold some belief which will subsequently prove to be a case of mass confirmation bias--people unconsciously cherry picking evidence which validates what they expected to find.  Unfortunately, it will probably take several decades for us to realize this, at which point, we will replace it with some other socially convenient belief.