You Can’t Tell a Conservative Without a Score Card.--

I have written a draft op-ed analyzing Jack and Jeanne Block’s study of the correlation between the political orientation of young adults and evaluations of them made by their nursery school teachers about 20 years earlier. I have two copies of the study itself, one downloaded from the journal’s website and an earlier draft kindly sent me by Jack Block. But I didn’t ask Block’s permission to put up a copy here, so if you want a copy, you may get one from Michelle Malkin’s website. Until I figure out where to place my op-ed (or whether I even have the time to do more than a cursory job of shopping it around), I will post here only some of my observations.

Do whiny, deviant, insecure nursery school kids grow up to be conservatives? And do fluent, resourceful, self-reliant pre-schoolers grow up to be liberals? The answer to both questions would appear to be “Yes” according to a new study to appear in the Journal of Research in Personality. Its authors are the eminent psychologist Jack Block, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and his deceased wife and colleague, Jeanne Block.

The study claims that those who were relatively conservative at age 23 were originally evaluated by their nursery school teachers as uncertain, guilty, and rigid. The supposedly conservative boys “were especially viewed as deviant from their peers and sensitive to being different.” As youngsters, the conservative girls “tended toward indecisiveness, were easy butts of peers, and were quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful.” On the other hand, the kids who later became relatively liberal were viewed by their teachers mostly in positive terms, such as “resourceful, autonomous, expressive, and self-reliant.”

So far, public responses to the Block study have been mixed.

The Toronto Star, which broke the story in the press, gave the study respectful coverage, but also included the derogative comments of Arizona State psychologist Jeff Greenberg: “I found it to be biased, shoddy work, poor science at best.” But the only criticism attributed to Greenberg and mentioned in the story is less than compelling: “He thinks insecure, defensive, rigid people can as easily gravitate to left-wing ideologies as right-wing ones. He suspects that in Communist China, those kinds of people would likely become fervid party members.”

Yet assessing conservatism and liberalism in Communist countries is not terribly meaningful because Communist dictatorships are usually considered left-wing by those on the right, and right-wing by those on the left. Even if the Blocks’ results were not generalizable to countries like China, that would mostly affect the domain over which their results would apply, not their validity in the United States. So Greenberg’s criticism does not go to the heart of the Blocks’ thesis.

Responses from bloggers to the Block study have ranged from generally accepting on liberal sites to skeptical or dismissive on most libertarian or conservative sites. Some insightfully mentioned that the new Block nursery school study reminded them of the May, 2003 article in the Psychological Bulletin by a group headed by Professor John T. Jost that reviewed and analyzed data on conservatism. The Jost study also found conservatives to be rigid, fearful, and lacking in intellectual complexity.

Just from what is in the Blocks' article, there is scant reason to think that those whom Block calls "conservatives" are really conservatives, rather than Democrats or political moderates. Those whom the Blocks think of as relatively “conservative” on many of their measures of conservatism are expressing views that would mark them as Democrats or political moderates (not conservatives) in the general public. The study itself acknowledges that the most conservative third or half of their 95 subjects from Berkeley and Oakland were not really conservatives, admitting that there were “relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism.”

That the new Berkeley study has severely mismeasured conservatives and liberals is shown by several odd findings, including the strong relationship they claim between their liberal-conservative scale and their subjects’ IQs. The Blocks report a correlation between IQ and their conservatism-liberalism scores of .36 for males and .24 for girls. Just for comparison, in the 1996-2004 General Social Surveys the correlation between political party identification (as a Republican, Independent, or Democrat on a 7-point scale) and political orientation (as a conservative, moderate, or liberal on a 7- point scale) is only about .30. And the correlation between a man or woman being a conservative and opposing abortion is only about .17-.25. So if the Blocks’ measure of conservatism were to be generalizable to the general public, then a low IQ would have to be a generally better predictor of whether a man is a conservative than whether he was a Republican or whether he opposes abortion—which is highly implausible.

What the Block study really shows is that kids who grow up to have low IQs struggled even in nursery school, while kids who grow up to have high IQs did well even as youngsters. Since in the general public (as shown by General Social Surveys and American National Election Studies), adult conservatives are consistently better educated than the average citizen and (as shown in the GSS) do better on IQ-style vocabulary and reasoning tests, the results of the Block study are generally inapplicable to typical political conservatives, liberals, and moderates in the United States.

With the thousands of studies that have been done on conservatives using representative samples of the general public over the last five decades, we actually know quite a bit about them. It is time for researchers and the editors of scholarly journals to use a little common sense and ordinary skepticism when looking at statistical relationships that are so farfetched that they are almost certainly wrong. And when they encounter such a relationship, they should take the next step and try to determine where the study went awry.

Sadly, of course, many of the questions that the Blocks used to mismeasure political orientation have been widely used by other researchers in social and political psychology—despite the tendency of self-identified conservatives in the general public to be more likely than nonconservatives to give supposedly “liberal,” tolerant answers to many of these sorts of questions. Researchers often admit that some of the most widely used indices and scales were developed by first writing down sets of (mostly negative) stereotypes of conservatives. The last prominent study of conservatives that had similar measurement problems was a 2003 Psychological Bulletin article by a group of academics led by Professor John T. Jost (now of NYU). Andrea Irvin, a student at Berkeley, offered an amusing, if somewhat unfair assessment of the Jost study: it was “about as scientific as phrenology.”

UPDATE: I updated this post in a new one.