A lot of weblogs are talking lately about a study originating out of Berkeley whose results are summed up by this ridiculous quote,
Hitler, Mussolini, and former President Ronald Reagan were individuals, but all were right-wing conservatives because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form.
A lot of people have commented on the validity (or lack thereof) of the study and some of its obvious failings (Stalin, et al are also counted as conservatives), but no one to my knowledge has noted the connections between this study and the other nutty theory put forth by one of its co-authors, Frank Sulloway.
Pseudo-scientific theories about conservatism are nothing new for Sulloway who is a prominent advocate of the mother of all psycho-babble historical claims. In his book Born to Rebel, Sulloway argued that birth order is the single most important force in history.
I’m not making this up or even exaggerating Sulloway’s claims. As Scott Rosenberg summed up the book in a review for Salon.Com,
Sulloway declares that “the primary engine of historical change” is sibling conflict, rooted in a Darwinian struggle within the family based on birth order: “Compared with firstborns, laterborns are more likely to identify with the underdog and to challenge the established order. Because they identify with parents and authority, firstborns are more likely to defend the status quo. The effects of birth order transcend gender, social class, race, nationality, and Â— for the last five centuries Â— time.”
Sulloway goes so far as to argue that a historical event such as the French Revolution is best explained not by class or ideology or historical context, but rather by the number of first-borns vs. later-borns in the various groups that came to power during the French Revolution.
And, as with the “Stalin was a conservative” line, sometimes in Sulloway’s “data”, a first-born can be a later-born. Galileo, for example, was a first-born and under Sulloways’ theory should have been a conservative supporter of the dominant worldview. But because Galileo was nine years older than his next sibling, Sulloway insists that he was “functionally an only child.” Similarly, as Paul Elovitz notes, Sulloway is also forced to dismiss first-born innovators such as Einstein,
For example, such first born innovators of new theories as Newton, Lavoisier, Freud, and Einstein are dismissed by quickly noting that “the supporters of innovation are still predominantly laterborn.” Of course they are; most people are later born, especially prior to the current low birth rate in Western culture.
As the Skeptic’s Dictionary points out, Born to Rebel is little more than a book-length case of confirmation bias,
Many social scientists also are guilty of confirmation bias, especially those who seek to establish correlations between ambiguous variables, such as birth order and ‘radical ideas’, during arbitrarily defined historical periods. If you define the beginning and end points of data collection regarding the idea of evolution in the way Frank Sulloway did in Born to Rebel, you arrive at significant correlations between functional birth order and tendency to accept or reject the theory of evolution. However, if you start with Anaximander and stop with St. Augustine, you will get quite different results, since the idea was universally rejected during that period.