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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

The Authoritarians

The Authoritarians - Bob Altemeyer
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
In this unassuming little book, Bob Altemeyer, a 60-something Canadian professor of social sciences, presents a straightforward theory explaining how authoritarian leaders arise, and what people compose their power base. He starts with the followers. What kind of person wants to support a leader like Hitler or Stalin? Altemeyer started investigating this question during the Nixon era. He developed a simple questionnaire, which he scores to produce what he calls "the Right Wing Authoritarian scale" (RWA scale). Typical questions are things like the following, where in each case the subject is asked to give a response ranging from -4 (strongly disagree) to +4 (strongly agree):
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.

Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.

The "old-fashioned ways" and the "old-fashioned values" still show the best way to live.
The questions seem laughably transparent, and I am indeed a little surprised when Altemeyer says that the RWA score has a great deal of predictive value. It correlates well with other ways of testing submission to established authority and also with tendency to xenophobia and bigotry. If you want to compute your own RWA score, you can find an online version here. It takes a few minutes to complete.

Most interestingly, the RWA score correlates very well with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Altemeyer has developed a second scale to measure this, based on a similar type of questionnaire. Typical questions on the Religious Fundamentalism scale look like the following:
The basic cause of evil in this world is Satan, who is still constantly and ferociously fighting against God.

When you get right down to it, there are basically only two kinds of people in the world: the Righteous, who will be rewarded by God, and the rest, who will not.

Whenever science and sacred scripture conflict, science is probably right.
You can find an online version of the Religious Fundamentalism test here.

Altemeyer's rather shocking conclusion is that the core type of person susceptible to unquestioning belief in right-wing authority is the believer in a fundamentalist faith, which in modern North American society overlaps strongly with the religious right.He presents evidence supporting his claim that these people have, on average, substantially impaired abilities to follow logical or fact-based reasoning. I liked his methodology here. Clearly, a refusal to belive in evolution or other scientific theories may be contentious, as are various political beliefs (a surprising number of members of the religious right apparently think that WMDs actually were found in Iraq).

Much more interestingly, Altemeyer shows how hard the religious right find it to reason about the Bible, which logically ought to be their home territory. The experiment I found most convincing had him showing subjects the passages from the four Gospels describing the events of Easter Morning. As is well known, the four accounts differ in many particulars, some of them quite important. Altemeyer asks students what they consider the best explanation for these internal contradictions and inconsistencies. Astonishingly, to me at least, the most common response from people with high Fundamentalist scores was that there were no inconsistencies; even after subjects were given a week to discuss the issue with other members of their community, very few changed their minds. Incidentally, I should mention that Altemeyer is focussing on the American religious right mainly because they are the group he finds easiest to study. He quotes studies carried out by Russian researchers which show very similar belief patterns among old hardline followers of Marxist-Leninism.

Altemeyer then goes on to examine the other side of the question: if religious fundamentalists make up the docile mass who can propel authoritarian leaders into power, what type of person becomes a leader? Here, he uses a third score, which he calls Social Dominance. Typical questions look like these:
It's a mistake to interfere with the "law of the jungle". Some people were meant to dominate others.

It would bother me if I intimidated people, and they worried about what I might do next.

One of the most useful skills a person should develop is how to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly.
Although one's first impression is that the personality types associated with high RWA and high Social Dominance are completely dissimilar, Altermeyer was surprised to discover that the intersection of the two groups does contain a small group, whom he calls Double Highs. They are, by definition, people who both believe that the citizens around them are in need of a strong leader, and want to become that leader; they are, moreover, willing to lie and dissemble to whatever extent is needed. There are obvious difficulties associated with collecting data about Double Highs, but Altemeyer has been creative. He describes some nice experiments with multi-player role playing games, where Double Highs do indeed rush to seize power in exactly the way his theory predicts, often using underhand methods.

The overall picture Altemeyer paints is disturbing. My first reaction was that his analysis was surely too simplistic: there had to be more to it than this. On the other hand, he's been doing this work for a long time and published an impressive number of books and scholarly articles. He says that only two people have made a serious attempt to prove him wrong, and that their counterarguments were not convincing. (I will try to check the papers he refers to). On the positive side, he claims many other researchers have adopted his methods. A quick search on Google Scholar shows he's widely cited; this guy is not a crank. If you're at all worried by the American religious right, you might want to download his book and check him out.