The Authoritarians is one of those books that tries to answer the question, "What the hell is wrong with people?" The Bush administration, the religious right, the Creationist movements... Personally, I'm a moderate, an independent, but I won't touch the Republican party because it has gone to hell. Bob Altemeyer, I suspect is in the same position. But while I might advance few pet theories as to why this is, all I have to defend them is my super-humble rhetoric. Altemeyer's claims are not pet theories, but scientific findings. They could easily have been falsified, but instead they are strongly supported by a variety of surveys and studies.
His explanation? There is a certain kind of personality that is well-correlated with all these problems. Altemeyer calls it Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). First, I should clarify a few things. Authoritarianism does not refer to the authorities themselves, but the people who would obey those authorities. Also, "right-wing" is used in the sense of being lawful or proper, not in the sense of being political conservative. RWAs in the US tend to be very politically conservative, but those in soviet Russia would probably be socialists. (There is also such a thing as Left-Wing Authoritarianism but that is not covered by the book.) Right-Wing Authoritarians exhibit the following qualities: submission to the established authorities in society, aggression in the name of these authorities, and wanting to enforce conventionalism on the rest of society.
The study of authoritarianism famously traces back to the Milgram experiments. In these experiments, the subject is told to shock another person with increasing voltage as part of a learning and punishment study. Soon the other person (an actor) starts screaming, going unconscious, etc. Of course, the study isn't really about learning and punishment, but about how far people will go if an authority asks them to. Amazingly, ~60% would go through the entire experiment (though they certainly don't enjoy it). This shows how even the small amounts of authoritarianism in all of us can make us do crazy things.
RWA is measured through a 22 question survey that scores people from 20 to 180. People who score higher, the "high RWAs", are correlated with the following:
- Being soft on the crimes of the authorities themselves.
- Religious fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which, incidentally, are very well-correlated with each other)
- Ethnocentrism (which is in turn correlated with prejudice)
- Fear of a dangerous world.
- Illogical thinking and compartmentalization
Now, if you're like me, you're skeptical of the efficacy of any such survey. But it turns out that there is a very rigorous way to create a valid survey that involves testing many possible questions and measuring their correlations. He briefly mentioned a similar survey developed in the 1940s that was discredited because of its poor design. The new one is scientifically tested. You might ask, "How do we know that this is all related to authoritarianism as opposed to religious fundamentalism?" We know because the RWA scale correlates with the above qualities better than any fundamentalist scale does. Altemeyer deserves lots of skeptical points for carefully explaining all this.
The most interesting part might be where Altemeyer suggests solutions to the problem. According to him, it would probably be ineffective to argue with these people directly. Instead, we should work with high RWAs them towards common goals, since lets them see outside of their community--high RWAs tend to feel a lot of pressure to be "normal", so we just need to show them. We should increase the visibility minorities. And we should promote higher education, which tends to decrease people's RWA scores. He also says it would help if we reduced fear-mongering, or if we taught kids to question authorities, but he doesn't think either of these things will realistically happen.
Aside from critical thinking, one of the major topics of skepticism is understanding why people think the way they do. By that standard, this is a great book for skeptics. It gives plenty of insight into RWAs and what makes them tick.