Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pseudoscience in NY Times

The NYTimes pseduo-science bureau reports that "Taller people are Happier, Especially if they're Male". The article ends on this note: "I’ll let the sociobiologists among you out there theorize about why."

Two things.

First, the article makes a typical, ideological mistake common among neoclassical economists regarding "happiness" and "well being". Though such charlatans rarely explain what they mean by "happiness" in newspaper pieces like this, economics as a discipline is far more blunt about its assumptions, and they're not pretty. Since money is easily measured and quantified, economists typically let it act as a kind of stand-in for happiness as such. The more sophisticated way of explaining their view is to speak in the bogus language of "revealed preferences". The basic gist of their view is this: whether or not you are flourishing, whether or not your life is going well, is just a matter of whether your present consumer preferences are being satisfied. That is to say, your life is going well if only if you have money to purchase things to satisfy your preferences. But this is just to restate the (typical pro-capitalist) myth that you are what you buy. It makes it sound as though you should be fully satisfied if you have a TV and car and refrigerator (never mind whether you're exploited, alienated, oppressed, etc.) It elides the structural imperative within capitalism to continually generate new markets, manufacture new wants, and make people feel constantly unsatisfied so that they feel pushed to continue working and consuming in such a way that the system can reproduce itself. Now, to be sure, material resources (and, in capitalist societies, money in particular) are necessary in order to flourish. I don't want to make it sound as though an oppressed person living in dire poverty could be flourishing/well-off/happy in the fullest sense. But material resources that give one the capability to exercise her talents and natural powers are not the same as satisfied consumer preferences. There's much more to genuine happiness and human flourishing than that.

At the end of the day, economists work with an utterly anemic, implausible conception of human flourishing/happiness/well-being/etc. Any plausible conception of well-being would have to account for much, much more, e.g. meaningful relationships, non-alienation, fulfilling projects, the exercising of one's talents and natural powers, freedom to move about as one pleases, not being exploited or dominated by others, having free time to oneself, being healthy and working in a safe environment, etc. But it's clear why neoclassical economists can't accept this more robust conception of well-being: they are fundamentally committed to capitalism and capitalism simply cannot deliver if this more plausible conception of happiness is used. It would be too obvious that the working majority is denied the opportunity to flourish in the fullest sense. After all, if your basic goal is to continue to propagate the myth that capitalism is the best of all possible systems... then clearly you want a minimalist, money-based consumerist model of well-being so that you can make it seem as though most people are satisfied with things as they are.

Of course, it may be that the "data" in this "study" is nothing but an answer to a "yes" or "no" (or 1-10 scale) phone questionnaire in which respondents were asked whether they were happy. But what do such data actually show? "Happiness" without further specification is a highly vague concept- and there are deep problems with dominant ideas re: happiness in capitalist societies. Ruling class versions of what happiness is should not be confused with happiness itself. Also, isn't there strong pressure in our society not to admit when one's life isn't going well? Aren't we taught to blame ourselves for economic misery caused from without according to the mantra of "personal responsibility"? If that's so, we should expect the self-reporting of happiness levels to be distorted based on respondent's unwillingness to admit to the interviewer that things aren't going as well for them as they would have liked. Finally, we have to account for adaptive preferences. Clearly any scientific study of well-being must have more concrete, objective criteria than a simple yes/no response that elides people's reasons for saying whatever it is that they say.

Second, suppose that tall men really are happier in contemporary societies. Why on earth should the explanation for this be found in biology, as the article suggests? Why not talk to economists, sociologists, or political theorists? Why assume that differential levels of well being are in the first instance natural rather than social phenomena? This is pseudoscientific bullshit. It's a bit like thinking that physicists or meteorologists are the people we should go to first if we want to understand why women in the U.S. got the vote in 1920. This is bass ackwards.

If tall men are in fact happier, it is far more likely that it has to do with the ways in which our current (sexist) society rewards men in certain ways that reflect unequal relations of power among the sexes. Given the dominant norms that specify how women and men are to behave, interact, divide up domestic labor, and so forth, it is not hard to see how we should arrive at such a conclusion. The idea that our explanation must be based in immutable facts of our biological constitution is both unwarranted here and floating on thin air. This kind of determinism is at odds with all of the available evidence: if true, how on earth could it explain the vast changes in gender relations that have been brought about throughout the 20th century as the result of political struggles? Plus, deterministic move has a long and unsavory history. Everyone from slave-owners, to kings and lords, to colonial elites, to capitalists, to sexist corporate leaders have used this argument to claim that their dominance was justified by unchanging facts about our constitution. Every single one of them have been shown to be dead wrong by history. Once we've actually overturned all of the contingent, human-constructed forms of exploitation and oppression in the world... perhaps then I'll entertain such discussions about how talent and natural abilities might be unequally distributed. But until we reach such a state of affairs- there is no scientific way to know what we're truly capable of. To say otherwise is to manipulate natural science into apologetics for the status quo. That is not science but pure ideological distortion.

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