Gross hypocrisy and Leftist bias in Wikipedia: Altemeyer

Revised and updated

I put up some information on the Wikipedia page for Bob Altemeyer.  Altemeyer is a particularly witless Leftist psychologist who made large and derogatory claims  about conservatives that he later had to retract.  But there was nothing on his Wikipedia page about that retraction.  So I put up a brief account of that.  What I put up was wholly scholarly and fully referenced -- just what Wikipedia says it wants.  But criticism of Leftists is not allowed of course, so my contribution was deleted after only a few days.

I imagine that they will find some quibble to justify their deletion of my entry but I am pretty sure that the outcome would have been different had I praised brainless Bob. Anyway, after a couple of run-ins with them, I have no confidence in being able to navigate my way onto Wikipedia again -- so I am putting up below what I originally submitted to Wikipedia. Altemeyer is an unusual name so a Google search on that name should still find my comments, whether the Wikipedians like it or not:

The centerpiece of Altemeyer's research is a questionnaire he designed called the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale. If you get a high score on it you are allegedly revealed as a Right-Wing Authoritarian. A major problem with the RWA scale is revealed, however, when we find that it identifies the Communists of the old Soviet Union as right-wing.  But if they are right-wing who is left wing?

His confusion arises from his apparent  definition of conservatism as "opposed to change".  That definition is however politically naive.  Conservatives from Burke onward have never been opposed to change as such but rather opposed to changes desired and enacted by Leftists.  Is Donald Trump opposed to change? The current Left/Right polarity is between conservatives who want less government control and Leftists who want more of that.  Altemeyer seems to be unaware of that so his work has no current political relevance.

In detail: The decline and fall of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enabled use of his RWA ("Right Wing Authoritarianism") scale there. Studies in the East such as those by Altemeyer & Kamenshikov (1991), McFarland, Ageyev and Abalakina-Paap (1992) and Hamilton, Sanders & McKearney (1995) showed that high RWA scores were associated with support for Communism!! So an alleged "Rightist" scale went from being Rightist to being a predictor of Leftism! If you took it at face-value, it showed Communists were Rightists!

After that, Altemeyer more or less gave up his original claim and engaged in a bit of historical revisionism. He said (Altemeyer, 1996, p. 218) that when he "began talking about right-wing authoritarianism, I was (brazenly) inventing a new sense, a social psychological sense that denotes submission to the perceived established authorities in one's life". It is true that he did originally define what he was measuring in something like that way (in detail, he defined it as a combination of three elements: submissiveness to established authority, adherence to social conventions and general aggressiveness) but what was new, unusual or "brazen" about such a conceptualization defies imagination. The concept of submission to established authority was, for instance, part of the old Adorno et al (1950) work. What WAS brazen was Altemeyer's claim that what he was measuring was characteristic of the political Right. But it is precisely the "Right-wing" claim that he now seems to have dropped and the RWA scale is now said to measure simply submission to authority. See:

    Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

    Altemeyer, R. (1996). The Authoritarian Specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Altemeyer, R. & Kamenshikov, A. (1991) Impressions of American and Soviet behaviour: RWA changes in a mirror. South African J. Psychology 21, 255-260.

    Hamilton, V. L., Sanders, J., & McKearney, S. J. (1995). Orientations toward authority in an authoritarian state: Moscow in 1990. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 356-365

    McFarland, S. G., Ageyev, V. S., & Abalakina-Paap, M. A. (1992). Authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 1004-1010


What I said above was designed to be acceptable encyclopedic writing but I can go further than that.  I can offer a more extended critique of Altemeyer's work.  And continued critique would seem to be needed.  The RWA scale is still widely used in psychological research and generally seems to be used without any awareness of the invalidity of the instrument.  It is still commonly paraded as a measure of something right-wing, which it clearly is not.  So I think a more extended consideration of what it measures is called-for.

In the beginning

In one sense, what it measures is perfectly clear;  It measures the old 1950 Adorno  conception of authoritarianism -- in which Marxist theoretician Theodor  Adorno and his friends claimed to have discovered a "new anthropological type": The authoritarian.  Authoritarians were conservative, racist, both dominant and submissive, rigid in their thinking, "intolerant of ambiguity",  and a product of bad relationships with their father. The authoritarian was just a maladjusted psychological mess generally. Adorno did not claim that all conservatives were authoritarian but it became generally assumed that they were. Leftists just loved the idea.

It was clear early on -- even to Altemeyer -- that the F scale which the Adorno team devised to measure their conception of authoritarianism was fatally flawed.  But that did not dent the great appeal that the Adorno theory had for Leftists.  And Altemeyer was one who drank the Kool-Aid.  He swallowed the Adorno theory hook, line and sinker.  His project was to devise a better measure of the concept rather than to question the concept.  The RWA scale was his replacement for the old F scale

But it was very much like the F scale.  Its items consisted of aggressively worded versions of popular sayings from the past.  Pflaum (1964) had shown that you could create a parallel form of the F scale by gathering together sayings that had been popular during the pre-war "Progressive" era.  Progressive ideas dominated American life throughout the first half of the 20th century so ideas that were popular at that time were also progressive or at least compatible with progressivism.

The Progressive era

But what were progressive ideas?  The ideas do not sound progressive now.  The great hero of the progressive era was Teddy Roosevelt.  He even founded his own "progressive" party (often referred to as the "Bull Moose" party).

So what did TR believe in? He believed in battleships (he built lots of them) and that war is a purifying force for a nation.  He had many ideas that sound "Right wing" these days, largely because modern-day progressives tend to reject them. See here and here for a fuller account of the American "Progressive" era.

And Adorno, Pflaum and Altemeyer all created collections of the old Progressive ideas and proudly presented them as being both authoritarian and "Right-wing".  That conservatives had been in opposition throughout almost the whole of the Progressive era was ignored.  The wars of conquest (Cuba, the Philippines etc) waged under the aegis of TR were met with conservative isolationism.  And the big government ideas of FDR were solidly opposed by conservatives of the day.

After WWII

So in the immediate post-war era we had the strange spectacle of pre-war Leftist ideas being presented as conservative. And most Leftists bit the bullet.  Pre-war Progressive ideas had been shared by another prominent socialist of the pre-war period, Adolf Hitler, so it was urgent to distance post-war Leftists from his ideas.  And what better way to do that than to try to pin such ideas onto conservatives?  In 1950 all Leftists would have been be aware that Hitlers ideas had also largely been their own until recently  but Leftists can pivot on a dime when it suits them so Leftist psychologists did just that.

So it is true that the RWA scale statements do reflect authoritarianism -- but it is the authoritarianism of the pre-war Left.  Leftism is intrinsically authoritarian.  In Mr Obama's famous words, Leftists aim to "fundamentally transform" their society.  And it was not the geography or topography of America that  Obama was talking about.  It was the American people.  He wanted to make them do things that they would not normally do (like pay more in taxes) and to stop them from doing things that they would normally do (like mock homosexuals).  Whether or not you agree with the desirability of his program, the point is that it was inescapably authoritarian.  It aimed to dictate behavior.  Conservatives do have some authoritarian impulses at times (restricting abortion etc) but Leftism is authoritarian root and branch.  Telling other people what to do and making them do it is the whole of their program.

Looking inside the black box

So what do conservatives do when confronted with RWA statements?  Because of the old fashioned content of the items they may agree with some of them.  Conservatives tend to have some respect for things of the past.  But that agreement will not be politically relevant. That they can see something in the old ideas will not tell you anything about their likely choices on the current political scene. The old ideas are not at issue so will not influence current choices.

Leftists, on the other hand, will tend to reject most of the statements as something they now disagree with -- but  will rightly see them as not of current political relevance now so will not relate them to current political choices. Their attitude to the old items will not influence their currtent choices.  So neither their agreement nor disagreement with the statements will predict their current political choices. And it doesn't.  The scale is an exercise in political irrelevance.

So from both sides of politics you will have agreement with the statements that is not of current relevance -- and that shows in the fact that conservatives and Leftists are not demarcated by agreement with the scale items.  It  explains why big scorers on the RWA scale are just as likely to be on the Left as on the Right.  It is just not a scale of current political relevance.   Some of the items may touch on what are still current issues but the aggressive way they are expressed will not be supported by either conservatives or Leftists -- e.g. items supporting oppression of homosexuals would be generally rejected by both sides.

So the RWA scale measures an old-fashioned form of LEFTISM but not anything of current political relevance. Which is why the scale does not correlate with current political preferences in (for example) American Presidential elections.  A lot of high scorers would have voted for Mr. Obama.

And it also explains why high RWA scorers in Russia today tend to be members or former members of the Communist party.  In Russia today, Communism IS old-fashioned Leftism


Pflaum, J. (1964) Development and evaluation of equivalent forms of the F scale. "Psychol. Reports" 15, 663-669. 

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