BS in New Zealand: Social Science Run Amok

“BS in New Zealand: Social Science Run Amok,” Weekly Standard, 18 June 2012.


Actually BS here stands for “benevolent sexism.” An article by two New Zealand psychologists has come my way that deserves to become a classic of social science. The title “Why are Benevolent Sexists Happier?” promised to warm my conservative heart, and it did—but not so much with approbation as with wonder at the whole enterprise of social science.

The two psychologists are Matthew Hammond and Chris Sibley, the latter being the professor and senior author. Together they bear witness to the fact that science is a collective enterprise, not about individual glory. Still, they have made an important discovery. They have found that precisely in the “egalitarian nation” of New Zealand, men and women who hold to benevolent sexism are happier than the nonsexist egalitarians who do not. Benevolent sexism is the belief that women are weaker than men but also warmer and more nurturing, and that men are stronger and more protective. This belief is opposed to hostile sexism (dubbed HS), which is aggressive blaming by men of women who are not so warm and who, forsaking their subordinate gender role, try to compete with men.

To prove this point, or even to state it, the article deals with perceptions. It’s not about whether women are or are not weaker than men but whether they are perceived to be. The article says nothing about whether women are in truth weaker than men, or what “weaker” means: less bodily strength or the ability to live longer, for example. Natural science would address the matter by asking whether the perception is true. After all, an untrue “perception” is not a perception but an illusion. But social science deals with perceptions whose truth is disputed, such as whether women are weaker than men in any relevant way. Its solution is to draw a distinction between fact and value, fact being subject to agreement, value not. Yet to be scientific, social science must claim to be truth. Since it defines truth to be what scientists agree upon, it has to find agreement where there is disagreement. We can agree that sexist men and women “perceive” that women are weaker and that this matters. The trouble is that “perceive” as used in social science really means “believe,” whether true or not.

Thus in the article the evidence cited is from a survey of what New Zealanders believe, and the fancy analysis using regression models never goes beyond what people there believe, or say they believe. Sexism is a belief in gender inequality, true or not. Happiness is what people say they have, truly or not. The paradox presented is that those who believe in gender equality can believe they are happy if, perhaps temporarily, they abandon the belief in equality and become benevolent to the weaker or stronger sex. To generalize from this article: Since every interesting “fact” is merely belief, every term or concept in social science is so fragile that it crumbles into dust once you try to grasp it.

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