Some time back, I had a post
taking issue with research on "right wing authoritarianism" by Robert Altemeyer contained in a webbed book
of his. Eventually someone called Professor Altemeyer's attention to the post and he responded in a comment
. Since people are unlikely to notice an exchange in the comment section of an old post, I'm shifting the discussion to a new one.
My central complaint was that he had first defined RWA in a fashion that purported to be politically neutral, with "right wing" having to do with attitude to established authority not with whether one voted for Republicans or Democrats, and then biased his test in a way that would consistently make individuals on the political right look more authoritarian than they were and individuals on the left look less. I don't think his response adequately deals with that complaint, but perhaps if I explain why he can show me that I am mistaken.
To quote from my previous post, describing the 20 questions on whose answers Professor Altemeyer based his measure of how right wing authoritarian the responder was:What is almost immediately obvious if you read the questions is that they aren't 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. 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. No questions about people who campaigned for unpopular right wing causes or about deferring to sources of authority popular on the left.
Professor Altemeyer responds:
"When one is measuring submission to established authority in a society, one has to mention those authorities, their views, etc. in the items."
That, of course, is true. But it doesn't answer my objection, which is about the particular authorities you selected. As I pointed out in the longer discussion in the Usenet thread, one could easily enough replace your questions with others in which the authority was one popular with the left and unpopular on the right, or the unpopular cause one popular on the right and not the left.
Suppose, for instance, that one of the questions asked whether a worker should be willing to cross a picket line and go to work if he disagreed with the decision to call a strike. Labor unions are established authorities, so someone who disagrees is demonstrating RWA as the book defines it. But I predict that that question would have shown people on the left more RWA and people on the right less than the corresponding question you used.
Similarly, if instead of asking how the responder felt about "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" you asked about those who challenged the law and the majority view by picketing abortion clinics--abortion is, after all, legal, and has been for decades--or about those who challenged the majority view by home schooling their children in order to give them a proper religious education, you would have gotten a rather different pattern of responses.
My complaint isn't that you are not measuring authoritarianism--I'm a libertarian, and I indeed came out with a fairly low score on the test. It is that you are measuring a combination of authoritarianism and right wing political beliefs. Given the bias built into your test, if a right winger and a left winger are equally authoritarian, the right winger will get a higher score. That is a fatal fault in a test which you use to justify the claim:
"In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives,"
You can't justify such a claim using a test which is in part testing for political conservatism.
Professor Altemeyer in his response points me at footnote 7, which deals with ambiguity and bias in the questions. So far as I can tell, it is irrelevant to my point. If his test produces a score which is, say, .6 a measure of authoritarianism and .4 a measure of political belief, the results could be internally consistent and still produce a biased result. That would be less true if my criticism applied to only a few questions, since answers on them would correlate poorly with answers on the rest of the test. But in fact, as I point out in the Usenet thread, a majority of the twenty questions are politically biased, measure political beliefs as well as authoritarianism. He has come up with an internally consistent set of questions, all right, but they are measuring the wrong thing. Indeed, given that he was discarding questions that didn't correlate well with the rest of the test, if he had put in one of mine (see below) where the political bias was reversed, he would have concluded that it was a bad question and discarded it.
Let me try to put a series of questions to Professor Altemeyer, to see if we can identify what we disagree about:
1. Is it true that, in defining "right wing authoritarianism," you claim that you are not using "right wing" in a political sense?
2. Is it true that, in your list of questions, the authorities you choose to test submission to are consistently authorities more popular with the right than the left and the anti-authoritarian causes you test approval of are consistently ones more popular with the left than the right–so consistently that there is not a single question that goes the other way?
3. Do you agree that such a set of questions will consistently show a higher level of RWA for people on the right than for people on the left, actual degree of authoritarianism held constant?
4. Do you agree that if all the above points are correct, your results cannot justify your conclusion that people on the right are more authoritarian than people on the left?
For your entertainment, here is a list of alternative questions that one would use to replace some of yours if one wished to reverse the political bias; it's from one of my usenet posts in the thread
on this subject.
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.
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.
(Incidentally, the original of that, with "gays and lesbians," is another question where someone who actually thinks about it clearly will give just the opposite of the pattern the author assumes. Gays are not just as healthy as the rest of us--they have a much higher rate of AIDS. So "strongly agree" on that question means "say the politically correct thing even when I know perfectly well it is false." Which sounds like authoritarianism.)
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.
A secondary objection that I offered to the list of 20 questions was that on two of them, one mentioned in my initial post, another in the Usenet discussion, the answer of a thoughtful respondent would go the wrong way–the non-authoritarian would give what is supposed to be the authoritarian answer. In each case, the reason is that the "non-authoritarian" answer is wrong. We have no reason to believe that atheists are "every bit as" virtuous as church goers–they might be more virtuous, they might be less. We have very good reasons to believe that gays are not as healthy as non-gays, given the existence of AIDS.
Professor Altemeyer responds:
Is someone who strongly agrees with Item 6 showing authoritarian submission to a sub-group of skeptics? Possibly. But I doubt it. Atheists and agnostics have a pretty strong streak of individualism running through them--which is one of the reasons they are non-believers in a believing society."
The question isn't whether atheists are authoritarians. The question is whether some version of the idea "you aren't supposed to say that some groups of people are better than others" is common in our society. The answer is that it is, and it is the only reason I can see why someone who actually thought about those two questions would give what is supposed to be the "non-authoritarian" answers to them. Would you agree that someone who gives an answer he knows is wrong in conformity to that sort of social pressure is demonstrating what you call "right wing authoritarianism?"
Finally, let me thank Professor Altemeyer for his courteous response to my post. He didn't even complain that I should have told him I was criticizing him online–although if he had I would have responded that I have so far been unable to locate an email address for him, and snailmail and the telephone are so 20th century. My email address, in case he wants to shift part of the discussion to email, is email@example.com. But I hope he will also respond here.