Empiricism, Ideology, and the Left: Returning to the Roots of Reason

Empiricism, Ideology, and the Left: Returning to the Roots of Reason

The modern Left seems to have abandoned empiricism in favour of ideology. What reforms could be undertaken to return to reason-based inquiry?

“In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.” – Margaret Atwood

Anyone who has ever had a political discussion can reflect on the fact that there are two primary ways to motivate an argument: with empirics or with ideology, where the latter is often based in religion. While there have certainly been other historical moments in which the Left has been marred by ideology — particularly within academia (e.g., Marxism during the Cold War) — growing up in the late 70s and 80s, the religious-based (Christianity-based) arguments made by the Right set them apart. Ideological claims of righteousness during that time appeared to be almost the exclusive territory of the Right, who drew upon the moral authority of the Bible to back up their positions. Leftist beliefs often seemed more open to question as they were based on (or at least more open to) a shifting foundation of rational inquiry.

“Leftist beliefs often seemed more open to question as they were based on (or at least more open to) a shifting foundation of rational inquiry.”

While no side ever admits to being unempirical and, indeed, this is a term lobbed by all parties, it’s clear that the Left’s relationship to empirical evidence has changed. It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint when that shift happened, but the pace seems to have accelerated since the 2000s. The graph below shows incidences by year in the New York Times of the use of three phrases commonly associated now with a leftist viewpoint: “white privilege”, “social construct”, and “microaggressions”. In spite of the drop for the latter two in 2017 (perhaps due to coverage of the new presidential administration), there is a clear overall upward trend since about 2010. (Initially, this graph also included “black lives matter”, but after its first mention in 2014, its high usage quickly alters the scale of the y-axis, even with a logarithmic scale.)

On the two graphs below, over the same period, we see a decline in the perception that black-white differences are due to discrimination and an increase in the per cent willing to vote for a black president. In other words, the rise in the use of ideological language — and with it a dominant narrative — does not appear to be a response to an increase in racism or a sense that discrimination is on the rise (with the recognition that these measures are subject to the usual limitations) — meaning the shift occurred independently of observable attitudinal changes.

The narrative that currently drives the Left could arguably be reduced to the pursuit of equality in all forms. More specifically, it is taken as given that society is a series of oppressive hierarchical structures that create vast gulfs of inequality. Within the context of the rise of this dominant narrative, two important changes have occurred. First, ideas central to the narrative have become unassailable — regardless of what contradictory evidence emerges. Second, a reasoned assessment of data is overshadowed by a need to stay true to the same narrative. These two changes are the root reasons why some of the former Left — many of whom long for the pre-revelation days — have moved towards the political centre. Consider the following example on an issue as controversial as interactions between black civilians and police officers — a May 2017 article in Vox states:

Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.

while a 2017 Channel 4 report states:

Over the last three years of data – 2011 to 2013 – 38.5 percent of people arrested for murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault were black.

The Vox article uses census data, and the Channel 4 article uses FBI data — both reliable sources — allowing both writers to claim empirical support for their position confidently. However, the first is consistent with the new Left ideology, while the second is not. For many of us who have moved from the Left to the Centre, it is because the latter is willing to consider both pieces of data and reason through them, while the Left is not. I offer here four brief suggestions for change or, perhaps, for reconciliation. While they may sound straightforward, each requires a willingness to return to the roots of reason. As a lifelong Democrat and as someone who grew up in one of the most liberal bastions in this country, I sincerely hope this transformation is possible.

1: Ignoring a Lack of Evidence

There are some policies that one can point to that are supported by the Left because they are consistent with its ideology, even though they have little support beyond that — diversity training is one of the clearest examples. Evidence suggests that many firms see adverse effects of diversity programs. The figure below is from the linked study — numbers that don’t look desirable from the perspective of increasing diversity. All of the percentages that one would like to see trending upward are indeed trending in the opposite direction.

As the authors write:

Strategies for controlling bias—which drive most diversity efforts—have failed spectacularly since they were introduced to promote equal opportunity. Black men have barely gained ground in corporate management since 1985. White women haven’t progressed since 2000. It isn’t that there aren’t enough educated women and minorities out there—both groups have made huge educational gains over the past two generations. The problem is that we can’t motivate people by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t.

In this example, what’s ignored is that forcing people to comply with a diversity program can result in more hostility than there was prior to the training — where the most benign scenario is that it simply carries no measurable or discernable benefit. To my broader point, nothing is gained by not talking directly about the unintended consequences of such programs — even if the result doesn’t lead to its abandonment.

2: Insisting on Overly Simplistic Solutions to Complex Problems

reason, rationality, empiricism, ideology, leftism, centrism

The ideological position of the Left holds that all observed group differences are attributed to racism or discrimination — a gross oversimplification of complicated problems. A simple example can be seen in a recent op-ed published in the Washington Post in which the author cites a newly released report on pay and raises that demonstrates stark differences across racial groups and between men and women — and attributes them explicitly and entirely to discrimination. The op-ed author cites the conclusion of the report, where the authors write:

There are many ways to state it or phrase it, but that is discrimination…That’s clearly what’s going on, and this is a reality of the American labor market.

Most centrists, myself included, harbour no misguided view that the labour market is devoid of sex or race discrimination. However, to give but one example of how this depiction is unacceptably simple, there are systematic differences in the baseline probability of a raise based on the industry of employment; the non-profit or service sector is more likely to have fewer resources available for pay raises than the for-profit sector. To the extent that men and women of various racial backgrounds are not evenly distributed across sectors (a separate issue worthy of discussion), this ceases to be a valid comparison. This study, and those like it, that attribute all group differences to, in this instance, sexism, do an injustice to the real discrimination that still exists — indeed, making a hyperbolic case to stay true to the ideology may well be worse than making no case at all.

3: Claiming the Science is Conclusive When It’s Not

reason, rationality, empiricism, ideology, leftism, centrism

The fallacy of conclusive evidence is the claim that science is “done” on a subject and that consensus has been reached. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the claim that biology is unrelated to gender and, relatedly, that gender is entirely a social construct. However, neither assertion has the support it’s claimed to have. As Steven Pinker notes in The Blank Slate, this emerged from a noble desire to achieve equality between the sexes. However, one does not need to believe that men and women are biologically indistinguishable to see the value of equality as a moral, ethical, and legal principle. Still more problematic with this third trap (but worth noting) is, because of the fact that researchers in many social sciences follow leftist ideology in their academic work, there are actually now peer-reviewed sources one can cite that will support those claims — in spite of the fact that ideologically-driven scholarship is regarded as suspect by non-believers.

“One does not need to believe that men and women are biologically indistinguishable to see the value of equality as a moral, ethical, and legal principle.”

As one author described these assertions:

The doctrine of non-binaryism holds that biological sex has nothing to do with gender, that gender exists along a continuum, and that the differences between the sexes are socially constructed. Babies are born as blank slates, and the extent to which they identify as male or female depends on their environment….but the science is settled. The two biological sexes (and there are only two) are broadly (though by no means perfectly) coterminous with gender….You can say your eyes are brown. But if your eyes are blue, that doesn’t make it so.

Nothing about this observation suggests that the LGBT community should be denied rights or privileges. It is simply not necessary to follow the claims of biological equality in order to support equity — but the claims are consistent with the ideological underpinnings.

4: Excessive Invocation of ‘Racism’ and ‘Racist’

Racism is clearly a social ill we would like less of —  indeed the previous denial of its prevalence is one of the realities that the centre-right has had to grapple with in the post-Trump world, per the words of lifelong Republican David Frum. However, the attribution of events or interactions to racism and sexism when in some cases a more charitable interpretation is merited devalues the places where those accusations actually have meaning.

“The attribution of events or interactions to racism and sexism when in some cases a more charitable interpretation is merited devalues the places where those accusations actually have meaning.”

These uncharitable interpretations stem from the unassailability of certain ideas. This phenomenon was seen recently in the case that arose at the Portland, Oregon bakery where the workers came under fire for turning a patron away after the establishment had closed. A recent article laid out this practice clearly in describing a real scenario where one of the authors was stopped on the way to a bathroom at Costco. The authors write:

Last year, one of the authors (Anthony) took a trip to Costco. He had to use the restroom and tried to enter via the exit (the bathrooms are located near the exit). As faithful Costco members know, for some locations, entering via the exit is a cardinal sin. He had just watched an older white man enter through the exit and thought he would try his luck. He was quickly stopped. Anthony is of Middle Eastern decent (sic) and had an unruly beard at the time, and he asked if he’d been stopped “because I’m not white?”

They then talk through three possible explanations.

(1) The Costco employee who stopped the non-white male is biased against non-whites.

(2) The Costco employee aims to stop all customers from entering though (sic) the exit, but did not observe the white male.

(3) The Costco employee aims to stop all customers from entering though (sic) the exit, but the white male is an employee.

They conclude with the argument (to which I can’t do full justice here) that:

“We should not be irrationally uncharitable. In the absence of evidence, we need to resist the temptation to interpret every negative interaction between a white person and non-white person as a case of racism.”

However, allowing for alternative explanations contradicts the singular message of the Left’s ideology.


I have outlined here four changes that the Left could make to start the shift back to a reason-based platform. Each point is supported by a single example, although many more could be provided. If the Left can return to its roots in reason, the gap between it and the Centre will invariably shrink. I’ll note that, while I advocate here for open and evidence-based political discussions, one should be mindful of the fact that growing scientific knowledge is a process, not a final answer — at least not in the short to medium term. However, being intellectually and morally honest about what goes into that process has to be the place to start — and grounding political goals in an ideological foundation will continue to keep that honesty out of reach. As a friend recently said “I used to think there were two kinds of people: those who liked answers (religious and political conservatives) and those who liked questions (religious and political liberals.) This doesn’t apply any more. Everyone is a fundamentalist now — except for us struggling centrists.”

Ilana R. Akresh is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She obtained her Ph.D in Demography and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include gifted education, viewpoint diversity, and the adaptation of permanent immigrants. You can follow her on twitter @irakresh

Article Discussion

  • Posted by B W

    24 June, 2018 at 8:39 am

    I support Akresh's main argument about the importance of empiricism. However, we must remember that religions too use empirical arguments, but they SELECT certain empirical facts for emphasis, which means that, for instance, in Catholic natural law theory, they may seem to use natural facts as the basis of their arguments, but they have actually pushed a particular theological interpretation of "nature". So the key is to be aware of when facts are being used ideologically (or theologically). For instance, it is true that women are the only sex that that can give birth. But does this exclude the fact that women are also fully human and therefore also possess intellect and will? If so, then shouldn't they have self-determination and choice in whether, when and with whom they wish to reproduce? Or, shall we say (along with the dominant theologians) that all women must, because nature dictates it, make their lives revolve around motherhood and child care, while men are "naturally" incapable of sexual self-control (yet another theological myth)? The problem with theology is that it is highly selective about emphasis and excludes many empirical facts, while obsessing on a select few.

  • Posted by Peter Newprot

    22 June, 2018 at 4:59 am

    The battle here is between empiricism and pragmatism, two different concepts of experience; not between empiricism and "ideology." Empiricism is an ideology: a manner of thinking, nothing more, arising out of selected data sets that are assumed to be commensurable. Whether they are or not is a topic of endless conjecture. Where empiricism is more concerned with telling us "about the world only insofar as we add nothing to it" pragmatism, as Dewey puts it, concerns "ways of doing and being done to". Unfortunately, the world more likely impinges on individuals, not as independent rational actors, or worse, data points; but as emotional beings and members of communities, which for better or worse, form the experiential landscape in which one grows and develops. So the left reasonably focuses on the effects of being "done to" where the so-called center focuses on what? Variably conditioned data pressed into service to support whatever attitudes or inferences "the center" wants to promote at the moment. The "ways of doing and being done to" are not irrational, however. They include rationality, but they also admit habit and culture and emotion and as such engulf the center. That is the problem with the model you present. It is too small. It can't hold the truth.

    • Posted by J Kwo

      23 June, 2018 at 10:57 pm

      Short version of Peter's comment: 'My emotions and desires + data are better policy drivers than data alone. Let's also throw in the emotions and desires of certain groups/individuals of my choosing. Any data collected and processed outside of this paradigm should be considered suspect. I support these statements through my emotions and desires. No data, but that was always secondary.' Wonderful, dear leader. When does your reign begin?

  • I am politically left (I am in Momentum and support Jeremy Corbyn). Most folks I know are left. None of them are remotely like what's described here (i.e. highly censorious SJW types who say 'all observed group differences are attributed to racism or discrimination'). I consider this piece Centrist propaganda.

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