When Liberal Bias Corrupts Science
Here’s a fascinating short piece in The New Yorker (thanks to the reader who tipped me off) about how social science research in the field of social psychology is demonstrably corrupted by the liberal biases of social scientists.
It has to do with a point that the social psychologist Jon Haidt (himself a liberal and an atheist) made a few years back, regarding the overwhelming presence of liberals in his field, and how that lack of diversity potentially harms the field. Haidt got lots of pushback from within the social psychology community, but there have been studies showing that he was right. Excerpt:
The critique started with data. True, there was little doubt that conservatives in the world of psychology are few. A 2012 survey of social psychologists throughout the country found a fourteen-to-one ratio of Democrats to Republicans. But where were the hard numbers that pointed to bias, be it in the selection of professionals or the publication process, skeptics asked? Anecdotal evidence, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert pointed out, proved nothing. Maybe it was the case that liberals simply wanted to become professors more often than conservatives. “Liberals may be more interested in new ideas, more willing to work for peanuts, or just more intelligent,” he wrote. The N.Y.U. political psychologist John Jost made the point even more strongly, callingHaidt’s remarks “armchair demography.” Jost wrote, “Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on.”
The views on the other side are equally strong. When I asked Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale who edits the journal where Haidt’s paper will appear, what he thought of the research, he pointed out what he believed to be a major inconsistency in the field’s responses. “There’s often a lot of irony in this area,” he said. “The same people who are exquisitely sensitive to discrimination in other areas are often violently antagonistic when it comes to political ideology, bringing up clichéd arguments that they wouldn’t accept in other domains: ‘They aren’t smart enough.’ ‘They don’t want to be in the field.’ ”
When Inbar and Lammers contacted S.P.S.P. members a second time, six months later, they found that the second element of Haidt’s assertion—that the climate in social psychology was harsh for conservative thinkers—was on point. This time, after revealing their general political leanings, the participants were asked about the environment in the field: How hostile did they think it was? Did they feel free to express their political ideas? As the degree of conservatism rose, so, too, did the hostility that people experienced. Conservatives really were significantly more afraid to speak out. Meanwhile, the liberals thought that tolerance was high for everyone. The more liberal they were, the less they thought discrimination of any sort would take place.
As a final step, the team asked each person a series of questions to see how willing she would personally be to do something that could be considered discrimination against a conservative. Here, an interesting disconnect emerged between self-perception—does my field discriminate?—and theoretical responses about behaviors. Over all, close to nineteen per cent reported that they would have a bias against a conservative-leaning paper; twenty-four per cent, against a conservative-leaning grant application; fourteen per cent, against inviting a conservative to a symposium; and thirty-seven and a half per cent, against choosing a conservative as a future colleague. They persisted in saying that no discrimination existed, yet their theoretical behaviors belied that idealized reality.
Read the whole thing. There’s even more data backing up Haidt’s initial thesis. Haidt points out — again, with data to back him up — that the bias occurs in part with the topics that social scientists choose to study. The science itself becomes unreliable, because the questions scientists choose to investigate are conditioned by their liberal biases, and so too, Haidt demonstrates, is the interpretation of the data they gather. Worse, their confirmation bias is strongly reinforced by the fact that almost everybody else in the profession agrees with them. They don’t know what they don’t know, and don’t want to find out.
Maria Konnikova, the piece’s author, writes:
The lack of political diversity in social psychology in no way means the resulting research is bad or flawed. What it does mean is that it’s limited. Certain areas aren’t being explored, certain questions aren’t being asked, certain ideas aren’t being challenged—and, in some cases, certain people aren’t being given a chance to speak up.
But that’s not entirely true. The piece she wrote does indicated that the resulting research is sometimes bad or flawed because of confirmation bias.
Jose Duarte, a social psychology graduate student who holds libertarian beliefs, and who co-authored Haidt’s forthcoming paper furthering research on the topic, has written of his belief that bias within his field earned him rejection from one grad program at a school he does not name (he was accepted by three others). Excerpt:
At another program, the faculty had apparently seen my blog (an old blog that I canned later that year). Among posts about my recent marathon experience, I had posted about the mass resignation of all fourteen Jewish members of the board of advisors of the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter’s nonprofit. They resigned because Carter’s new book seemed to suggest that Palestinian terrorist bombings of Israeli civilian targets were justified until a Palestinian state was established, or a particular type of peace accord was accepted by Israel.
In my post, I supported the board members and criticized Carter’s apparent tolerance of terrorism. On a phone interview, a faculty member from the social psychology program directly asked me about this blog post (and no others.) She also asked if I “really” felt that way about Jimmy Carter. She also openly stated that all of the faculty in the program had a problem with my post, except for her (it would’ve been 4 – 6 other professors), and that they all opposed my entry into the program. From her questions, I got the impression that my politics needed to clarified and vetted before final decisions were made. They subsequently denied me admission, with no further interaction or visits. (If it matters, this program was somewhat less selective and prestigious than the programs that accepted me.)
That was an extremely awkward phone call. I was blindsided, was not at all prepared to talk about politics or my precise feelings toward Jimmy Carter. It’s the kind of thing that could not happen in a normal professional environment, and would give HR people nightmares if it did. Nothing like this ever happened before my entry into academia. That she was willing to openly discuss the fact that the faculty opposed me because of my apparent political views, and was willing to actively probe my political views, speaks volumes. The academic climate with respect to political/intellectual diversity is much like the Mad Men universe with respect to women – blind, clueless.
During the call, I got the impression that they thought / were worried that I was a conservative. The horror. I’m a secular libertarian, but many academic ideologues don’t make such distinctions. They’re not very aware of the intellectual landscape², know little of the enormous volume of space in that landscape outside of the modern leftist framework, and they collapse it into binary us/them boxes. You’re either with them, or you’re with Sarah Palin / Glenn Beck. (FYI, I know very little about Glenn Beck and his intellectual crimes – I just know they hate him.) Note that it was siding with a bunch of liberals who served on the board of the Carter Center that got me in trouble, along with direct criticism of Carter. Remarkably narrow straits…
Everything that Haidt and the others say about social psychology I have been saying about mainstream journalism for years. It’s a field heavily dominated by liberals, many of whom will twist themselves into knots that would confound an Eagle Scout trying to find new ways to embrace what they consider to be “diversity,” but ideological diversity, which has a lot to do with the accuracy and relevance of their journalistic mission, is not something they care about. And they are so deep in their own bubble that they don’t know what they don’t know — and they aren’t interested in finding out.
In my experience, journalists, like social psychologists, are far less interested in objectivity than they think they are. Look, we all suffer from confirmation bias to a certain extent (look at my willingness late last night to put the worst spin on the president’s remarks about stay-at-home moms, when in context, what he said was much more defensible). There’s no way to avoid it, but there is a way to minimize it. The problem is that when you have decided those who oppose you are not just wrong, but wicked, you have given yourself a moral incentive not to take them or their point of view seriously.