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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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3], 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, calling [4]Haidt’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.’ ”

More:

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. [1] 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 [5] 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 [6], 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.

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62 Comments To "When Liberal Bias Corrupts Science"

#1 Comment By Know-Nothing Millennial On November 3, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

Doesn’t this make sense, given the state of the social-psychological art? Modern studies of our cognitive flaws and emotional biases are not something I’d think you could believe in alongside libertarian conceptions of free will and rational conceptions of homo economicus, certain beliefs in structures of individualism or exceptionalism, and so on. Wouldn’t the assumptions behind the political position preclude a great deal of intellectually honest involvement or interest in the field (at least for most?)

To put in another way, would anyone be shocked if a study of evolutionary psychologists skewed massively liberal/secular libertarian?

#2 Comment By Dain On November 4, 2014 @ 12:01 am

“In other fields, most prominently economics, left wing views are outside the pale…”

Commenters here keep rehashing the bogus idea that the Economics department is where you find the ideological far-right. Wrong. Surveys of professional economists find that Democrats outnumber Republicans, the idea that regulation and taxation are good and necessary, and that the welfare state is necessary (and not an evil).

They want to preserve OSHA, and not abolish the Dept. of Education.

#3 Comment By Chris On November 4, 2014 @ 7:40 am

Modern studies of our cognitive flaws and emotional biases are not something I’d think you could believe in …”

Here here. This is so true. Ever talk to an Ayn Rand cultist? I have one in my family and every shred of data from the psychological sciences stands in opposition to the presuppositions of libertarianism. We are *not* rational and we do not perceive reality accurately. This disconnect is equally true for the relationship between the behavioral sciences and social traditionalists. THe scientific data we have does not support the proposition that “traditional” social values are any more adaptive than other values in different contexts. If you look at the same sex marriage debate for example, the anthropological and sociological data shows that marriages vary from one culture to the next. Some cultures don’t practice marriage. However, these same cultures have existed very sucessfully for hundres of not thousands of years with marriage and knship structures very diferent from ours. From a scientific perspective Rods worries about the collapse of civilization are utterly without basis. What the social scientist would say is “Show me the data” and social traditionalists and libertarians can’t produce data .. only ideology and because the social sciences are rooted in empiricism libertarian ideas and social traditionalist ideas can not be accepted as valid in and of themselves. But we also have a selection bias here. People entering the social and behavioral sciences tend to be (or become) skeptical of established power systems and social values to begin with. Part of studying sociocultural phenomina involved objectifying it and examinig it critically. A similar process occurs in seminary where students examine their faith traditions in a rational and critical manner. Hence seminary students inevitably leave school with their M.Div degrees more theologically liberal than when they entered. This is one of many reason why our working boy’s use of theology to understand culture is so bad as a methodology. Its self referential and it prevents soeone from engaging in a critical evaluation of the society that produced that theology. Critical thinking is part of education and that critical approach inevitably attracts persons with more liberal social values. So what we probably ahve here is a selection bias and a process in whch students use critical thinking to evaluate social processes and inevitably develop more liberal social attitudes.

#4 Comment By Turmarion On November 4, 2014 @ 8:06 am

Alex, Noah, what can I say? I am indeed an earthocentric bigot–but we prefer to call it “geofocal”…. 😉

#5 Comment By AnotherBeliever On November 4, 2014 @ 8:58 am

For every WEIRD social scientist with leftist views I raise you a GOP chaired House committee demanding that the science research budget be cut, though this really is cutting off one’s nose to spite oneself, exhibit A, Ebola.

Human beings have biases. We all do. Some are cultural. Some are psychological. Some are hard wired into us all on the neurologic level. We can’t get out from under them. All we can do is try to account for them, to question our own premises and conclusions, same as everyone else’s, look for gaps in data we don’t even know to look for, and constantly be on watch for alternatives and surprises. Be willing to learn, always.

#6 Comment By Barto On November 4, 2014 @ 9:55 am

No one pays any attention to Social Psychology. Social Psychology experiments and studies are not debated in Congress. Political bias matters only in the sciences that matter, such as ecology, economics, meteorology, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Even if 99 out of 100 Social Psychologists are flaming liberals, it has no effect on the real world at all.

#7 Comment By Adam Kolasinski On November 4, 2014 @ 10:25 am

I see various leftist commentators above assert (without proof) that business school faculty are ideologically right-wing. The data show they are wrong. From the Washington Post story about a study of faculty political views:

“But liberals outnumbered conservatives even among …business faculty (49 percent to 39 percent).”

[7]

The cited study does not examine ideology by department, but my own experience suggests there are differences.

I’ve been affiliated with 4 different Finance departments in my career (3 as a faculty, 1 as a Ph.D. student), and I’d say that on economic issues, Finance departments are pretty balanced with roughly equal numbers of center-left (e.g., Larry Summers) and center-right people (e.g., Glen Hubbard). You won’t find any on the far left, but you will find a few radical libertarians, such as Chicago’s John Cochrane. It obviously varies by department (e.g., Texas A&M is mostly conservative and Ohio State leans left), but on the whole the profession is roughly balanced.

Other departments within B-schools, in my limited experience, tend to lean to the left, though I’ve never seen anyone get persecuted for his political views.

All of the above relates to maters related to economic policy. On social issues, business school faculty are quite liberal. I don’t know of any formally conducted scientific poll on these issues, but I would be willing to bet a large sum that if one was conducted, large majorities would favor gay marriage and abortion on demand.

I’d also say, though, that business school faculty generally don’t care about social issues very much, so it is unlikely that they would hold conservative views on them against a candidate. I only know of one case where someone voted against extending an offer to a candidate because of an essay he wrote against gay marriage, but the person got the job anyway.

On the whole, business school faculty, regardless of their political views, do a pretty good job of ignoring electoral politics when they attempt to evaluate the scholarly merits of candidates.

#8 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 4, 2014 @ 11:41 am

Surveys of professional economists find that Democrats outnumber Republicans, the idea that regulation and taxation are good and necessary, and that the welfare state is necessary (and not an evil).

Yes, well, Democrats aren’t that left-wing on economic issues, certainly not by the standards of most of the world, or by the overall spectrum of conceivable opinion. So, that’s a pretty low bar.

#9 Comment By Altair IV On November 4, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

Click bait.
As others have noted, the headline could have read “social science” as opposed to simply “science”. But then, those of us who were expecting a conservative critique of the hard sciences probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it.
I would suspect most exploratory social sciences will have a progressive or liberal bias. After all, if you accept that all social and behavioral issues were settled during the Bronze age, there would be little reason to do research about them. More critically, what would a conservative social scientist do if the evidence of a particular experiment contravened accepted theology?

#10 Comment By Reinhold On November 4, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

Yes, economics is certainly right-wing when compared to something like sociology––mainstream economic departments don’t often assign Marx, like mainstream sociology departments do.
And just because they are ‘for’ the welfare state, taxation, and regulation does not mean they aren’t right-wing, since many right-wing parties in Europe, say, accept the same things, as do most capitalists, who take them grudgingly as necessities––see the London Economist, very laissez-faire in most cases but certainly not generally opposed to public spending.

#11 Comment By Reinhold On November 4, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

Re: the Stanford Prison Experiment, if I remember right, it was the one which made some group of people into prisoners and another group into prison guards and examined the power dynamics which resulted. I’m not sure what the official conclusions were, but didn’t they find that people abused power to the degree that they, you know, had power? I’d like to know from conservatives if that seems like evidence of liberal bias….

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 4, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

Social research is inherently subjective, and therefore should be taken with a large grain of salt, whether the investigators are liberal, conservative, or other.

But I doubt that the presence of a large proportion of liberals in physics, chemistry, astronomy, or even biology makes the the research any less data-driven.