Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Dr. Sven van de Wetering on Psychology, Policy, and Fatherhood

Photo by Ivars Krutainis on Unsplash

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Sven van de Wetering was the head of psychology at the University of the Fraser Valley and is a now an associate professor in the same department. He is on the Advisory Board of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

Dr. van de Wetering earned his BSc in Biology at The University of British Columbia, and Bachelors of Arts in Psychology at Concordia University, Master of Arts, and Ph.D. in Psychology from Simon Fraser University.

His research interest lies in “conservation psychology, lay conceptions of evil, relationships between personality variables and political attitudes.” We have been conducting an ongoing series on the epistemological and philosophical foundations of psychology with the current sessions here, here, here, and here.

Here we explore blind spots of everyone, epistemologies of psychology, public policy, and social science.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What tends to be the blind spot of the academic world? Why is this the case?

Professor Sven van de Wetering: We all have blind spots. Many of which get us into fairly big trouble, but I would have to say the biggest one is that we are so enamoured of logic and evidence.

Where we tend to ignore the criteria by which people outside academia judge the truth of propositions, criteria like emotional resonance, I believe logic and evidence are usually much more useful criteria for truth than emotional resonance (though there are exceptions, and we are not vigilant about those).

However, the fact of the matter: we try to use those criteria and much of the rest of the world does not leads to some fairly spectacular breakdowns in communication. A lot of us seem to think that coming across as condescending assholes is an acceptable price to pay for improving our odds of being right.

The political consequences of that misunderstanding are now playing out in the United States. I do not think they are at all trivial. Another blind spot adversely affecting not only our communication but also our odds of getting things right is our assumption that universal or nearly universal generalizations are useful epistemological devices in almost all domains.

This is probably more of an issue for the sciences and social sciences than it is for the humanities. In psychology, this often manifests itself in researchers doing studies on first-year undergraduate students in some Western country (often the United States), then writing about the results as if they were universally applicable to all human beings.

In those rare cases in which such generalizations have been tested cross-culturally, it has usually been found that these populations are less typical of humanity as a whole than any other population that has ever been studied.

People from this population have been described as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) to highlight the inappropriateness of generalizing from studies done on this population.

Jacobsen: What does learning the implicit epistemologies of psychology, e.g., statistics and methodology, teach a university-educated person compared to someone without this education?

van de Wetering: It teaches them how to join that inner circle of WEIRD people, for good or for ill. On the positive side, it does give them some valuable tools for assessing the validity of evidence, especially evidence for generalizations; on the negative side, it also puts them on the wrong side of the communications barrier I was talking about earlier.

If they absorb these lessons well, I hope it also gives them a certain amount of intellectual humility, but I am not sure how often that part of the lesson takes.

Jacobsen: How can the public policy be better informed by the science?

van de Wetering: Bismarck once famously commented that laws are like sausages; it is better not to watch them being made. In the case of public policy where some scientific knowledge is an input (which is a step in the right direction), the best public policy from a purely scientific point of view gets gradually distorted by political horse trading.

So, by the time it becomes law, it may be almost useless. Radically changing the political process is not easy to do and, therefore, the best that is achievable is to hope for science to exert some influence over policies at every stage of their development, not at the beginning.

Given that politicians do listen to their constituents, probably the best thing we could do is improve the quality of public science education, so that the politicians’ constituents do not quietly accept policy modifications that go against what is thought to be best on a purely scientific basis.

This is probably a pipe dream. Science is hard. Our culture does not seem to be good at motivating people to do hard things that do not have immediate payoffs.

Jacobsen: As a social scientist, what are some areas in which public policy, provincially or federally, does not reflect the best psychological science?

van de Wetering: Speaking not as a social scientist but a father of a child on the autism spectrum with an intellectual disability, I am horrified to discover that the level of support for such children drops very dramatically after they turn 19.

This is not totally contrary to science, which does say that getting it right in childhood does greatly reduce problems in adulthood. But the degree of decline in support needs is much less than the policy seems to imply.

I do not think this massive drop off in funding is due to a misunderstanding of the science. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that little kids with intellectual disabilities are often cute, and, therefore, funding for them is a relatively easy sell, politically; whereas adults with intellectual disabilities are often substantially less cute, and, therefore, easier to ignore, politically.

The other provincial policy that drives me crazy is the relative degree of funding for education and for health. Education has been underfunded in this province for so long that we do not even know what normal funding looks like.

And yet, failure to invest in education is going to have far more adverse effects on our future than failure to invest in health, which is, as far as I can tell, not happening to nearly the same degree.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Sven.

Photo by Ivars Krutainis on Unsplash

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen supports science and human rights.