Paul W on the social psychology of conformity

Guest post by Paul W.

Mooney claims that he’s done a lot of research and that his position is based on a lot of knowledge, and it’s all psychology, but IMO he seems almost entirely ignorant of the most relevant kind of psychology—social psychology of conformity going back to Solomon Asch’s very famous experiments in the 1950’s.

(Asch was Stanley Milgram’s advisor—Milgram being the guy who did the even more famous experiments on obedience to authority, where people thought they were shocking other people with dangerously high voltages because a scientist said to.)

Here are some topics worth looking up on Wikipedia—Mooney should demonstrate his familiarity with this stuff if he wants to be taken at all seriously, and his critics would do well to know about the six decades of relevant research he persistently ignores:

Conformity, Asch Conformity Experiments, Normative Social Influence, Social Proof, Information Cascade, and especially Minority Influence and Spiral of Silence.

Scientists and philosophers especially are in a position to exert minority influence, ending a spiral of silence by providing social proof, and undermining the information cascade that supports religion.

But that is exactly what Mooney is most opposed to—he is against the experts voicing the kind of expert opinion that has the greatest potential for minority influence, and he actively tries to undermine the appearance of expertise and minority solidarity that makes minority influence work best.  He is firmly on the side of the normative conformity that keeps the masses ignorant of the kind of minority but expert view that could actually change a substantial number of minds.

He constantly misrepresents his politically convenient stances—e.g., that science can’t address supernaturalist claims that are “unfalsifiable”— as the majority view among experts, when in fact they are clearly not.  (Even  his favorite go-to philosopher of science, Barbara Forrest, says that the success of methodological naturalism is good evidence that supernaturalism is false.  Science conflicts with almost all religion at a very basic level, and most philosophers and top scientists do know that.)

And he constantly misrepresents the science of communication, making it sound like all the evidence is on his side.  That is very far from the truth.

If he’s really done his psychology homework, I have to suspect that he knows that.  He knows that the bulk of social psychology is actually quite friendly to Overton-type strategies.

But of course he never even mentions Overton-type strategies, or any of the social science that undermines his simplistic framing of framing.  He ignores six decades of absolutely mainstream social psychology that’s fairly directly relevant to his theses, and even scoffs at anybody who even suggests things are not as simple and obvious as he makes them out to be.  He’s the expert, and he has lots of knowledge.

It just happens that his “lots of knowledge” conveniently doesn’t seem to include most of the utterly basic things you learn in the first half of a first course on social psychology.

38 Responses to “Paul W on the social psychology of conformity”