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The Left’s Bad Social Science

Principled liberal social scientists produce a study showing how anti-conservative bias corrupts their field
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Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and several of his colleagues have published results a blockbuster four-year study of liberal bias within their own field, and how it hurts the quality of its science. One particularly notable thing about this report is neither Haidt nor any of his co-authors are conservative. Haidt, in fact, is a secular liberal. Here’s the introduction to what Haidt calls the “Cliffs Notes” version of the paper:

In the last few years, social psychology has faced a series of challenges to the validity of its research, including a few high-profile replication failures, a handful of fraud cases, and several articles on questionable research practices and inflated effect sizes… In this article, we suggest that one largely overlooked cause of failure is a lack of political diversity. We review evidence suggesting that political diversity and dissent would improve the reliability and validity of social psychological science…

We focus on conservatives as an underrepresented group because the data on the prevalence in psychology of different ideological groups is best for the liberal-conservative contrast – and the departure from the proportion of liberals and conservatives in the U.S. population is so dramatic. However, we argue that the field needs more non-liberals however they specifically self-identify (e.g., libertarian, moderate)…

The lack of political diversity is not a threat to the validity of specific studies in many and perhaps most areas of research in social psychology. The lack of diversity causes problems for the scientific process primarily in areas related to the political concerns of the Left – areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality – as well as in areas where conservatives themselves are studied, such as in moral and political psychology.

Even in this shortened version, the details are fascinating. The study’s authors produce data showing that the social psychology field is overwhelmingly liberal. They offer analysis and examples on how that fact can and does skew research, e.g., social scientists unwittingly embed liberal assumptions into their research, they suffer from confirmation bias, they focus on topics that validate the liberal progress narrative, and look away from scientifically valid topics that challenge it. For example:

Some group stereotypes are indeed hopelessly crude and untestable. But some may rest on valid empiricism—and represent subjective estimates of population characteristics (e.g. the proportion of people who drop out of high school, are victims of crime, or endorse policies that support women at work, see Jussim, 2012a, Ryan, 2002 for reviews). In this context, it is not surprising that the rigorous empirical study of the accuracy of factual stereotypes was initiated by one of the very few self-avowed conservatives in social psychology—Clark McCauley (McCauley & Stitt, 1978). Since then, dozens of studies by independent researchers have yielded evidence that stereotype accuracy (of all sorts of stereotypes) is one of the most robust effects in all of social psychology (Jussim, 2012a). Here is a clear example of the value of political diversity: a conservative social psychologist asked a question nobody else thought (or dared) to ask, and found results that continue to make many social psychologists uncomfortable. McCauley’s willingness to put the assumption of stereotype inaccuracy to an empirical test led to the correction of one of social psychology’s most longstanding errors.

Why are there so few conservatives in the field? Haidt et al. have discerned several reasons from their studies. Among them, outright discrimination against conservatives:

The literature on political prejudice demonstrates that strongly identified partisans show little compunction about expressing their overt hostility toward the other side (e.g., Chambers et al., 2013; Crawford & Pilanski, 2013; Haidt, 2012). Partisans routinely believe that their hostility towards opposing groups is justified because of the threat posed to their values by dissimilar others (see Brandt et al., 2014, for a review). Social psychologists are unlikely to be immune to such psychological processes. Indeed, ample evidence using multiple methods demonstrates that social psychologists do in fact act in discriminatory ways toward non-liberal colleagues and their research.

[Here we review experimental field research: if you change a research proposal so that its hypotheses sound conservative, but you leave the methods the same, then the manuscript is deemed less publishable, and is less likely to get IRB approval]

Inbar and Lammers (2012) found that most social psychologists who responded to their survey were willing to explicitly state that they would discriminate against conservatives. Their survey posed the question: “If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?” Of the 237 liberals, only 42 (18%) chose the lowest scale point, “not at all.” In other words, 82% admitted that they would be at least a little bit prejudiced against a conservative candidate, and 43% chose the midpoint (“somewhat”) or above. In contrast, the majority of moderates (67%) and conservatives (83%) chose the lowest scale point (“not at all”)….

Conservative graduate students and assistant professors are behaving rationally when they keep their political identities hidden, and when they avoid voicing the dissenting opinions that could be of such great benefit to the field. Moderate and libertarian students may be suffering the same fate.

Read the whole summary. I have long said that “diversity” as it is practiced by many is not real diversity, and that in certain fields, like journalism, this really matters. The Haidt study is about how the lack of viewpoint diversity makes a big and meaningful difference in an entire scientific field. The same is true in journalism, of course. But in my experience, you will find very few leaders in the journalism field who see viewpoint diversity as important, and who care enough to make the effort to improve the newsroom numbers — even though viewpoint diversity would improve journalism for largely the same reasons Haidt et al. say it would improve social psychology.

Why the resistance? My theory is that many journalists, especially the Baby Boomers, got into the field because they believe its mission is, as the old chestnut says, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Well, no; the mission should be to tell the truth about the world as thoroughly as you can, but anyway, you can imagine how corrupting that principle can be when you consider how people define “the afflicted” and “the comfortable.” I suspect that the social psychology field is the same way: those within it see their work as missional.

I’ve often heard journalists in the past say quite sincerely that the pro-traditional marriage side in the gay marriage debate did not deserve to be treated fairly in news coverage, because they (we) are nothing but bigots. The issue was so clear to them that they didn’t think it was even up for debate — this, at a time when gay marriage was still only a minority cause. As I’ve said many times before, I have long believed that SSM was inevitable, but I have no doubt that its coming was accelerated by the propagandistic approach that the media took towards the issue.

Which is fine, I guess, if that’s how they want to roll. But let’s not pretend that objectivity is a meaningful value in the conduct of journalism. Similarly, from the Haidt report, it sounds like social science at times amounts to political activism of special pleading masquerading as objective science, and benefiting from the respect society gives to science, precisely because science is believed to be unbiased. If journalism had a few smart, principled liberals like Jon Haidt and his colleagues on the Heterodox Academy project, men and women who were willing to speak out against the biases in the field and how it damages the field, we would be much better off.

You know who esteems the Haidt et al. paper? This guy, who is not a conservative:

UPDATE: Reader “Charles” writes:

I am a social psychologist who is politically conservative. Worse, I am that creature that is most feared and despised in academia, a conservative Evangelical. In graduate school, in the eyes of my colleagues and professors I might as well have been a visitor from another planet, and I have long since resigned myself to the fact that, unless something truly bizarre happens, my academic career is restricted to teaching at Christian colleges. It has been made clear to me by my secular liberal colleagues, in ways that are both subtle and not so subtle, that I am unwelcome at “their” schools, simply because I am a member of Team Evil. At a Christian college I am paid half (if that) what I would be making elsewhere, in exchange for the ability to pursue my studies and publish scholarly works in which I try to develop my understanding of the human condition from a perspective that is informed by multiple disciplines, including theology. Given the current state of the academic job market, I consider myself blessed to be in any kind of faculty position, but the injustice of the situation is not lost on me.

The liberal bias in social psychology is entirely about the people themselves, though, not about the field. The more that I learn as a psychologist, the firmer my conservative convictions have become. I find that the the things that conservatives value and advocate are more than amply supported by psychological research. People flourish when they have robust and mature faith, strong families, active engagement in cohesive groups, freedom balanced with restraint and responsibility, the support and encouragement to cultivate the virtues, and a mindset that there are far more meaningful things in life than one’s own subjective gratifications. I am surprised that more psychologists are not conservatives. When Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson (both liberals) were writing Character Strengths and Virtues, a major reference volume in the positive psychology movement, they expressed concern that publishing what we know so far about the psychology of human flourishing was going to make them sound like evangelists or moralizers. But they struggled mightily and managed to maintain their liberalism even in the face of the empirical research literature. Jonathan Haidt (whom you correctly identified as a secular liberal) has faced fierce and vitriolic opposition for publicly telling people that his research shows conservatives (even religious conservatives) to not be stupid, crazy, or evil.

You are correct that many social psychologists see their jobs as “missional.” This is an attitude with deep roots, going back at least to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association, in which he called social scientists to take a prophetic stance, carrying out studies on racial and social issues and speaking out in the name of positive social change. I got into social psychology because I am fascinated by the study of human nature, and my ideas about “changing the world” have mostly focused on forming and informing my students, making a difference one on one instead of being a public voice.



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