Should We Be Surprised at Political Bias in Academia?

Ruh-Roh. John Tierney in today’s Times:

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology … polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center [during the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology], starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility – and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

The lack of diversity isn’t actually “statistically impossible” in a self-selecting group. But that of course is the point. How can it be that an academic field is so politically homogeneous? What kind of biases does such homogeneity produce? What sort of ideas get crowded out? And how homogeneous are other disciplines?

I have to say that I was surprised at the overt political (leftward) bias exhibited by several prominent economists at the recent American Economics Association meetings, although my sample set was quite small.

It is interesting — and sobering — that two fields, psychology and economics, that we rely upon to describe and amend bias in the world are themselves so susceptible to bias within the ranks of their practitioners.

Addendum: here’s a link to Daniel Klein‘s ongoing survey about policy views within academia (HT: JBriggerman)

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  1. Mike says:

    It also depends on what you define as politically liberal. While America is theoretically one of the great liberal democracies, the current pejorative assassination of liberalism and move to the right in US poltiics means that even Ronald Reagan would be a leftie liberal nowadays.

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  2. JMM says:

    Umm… seriously? Just because someone might be a liberal doesn’t automatically mean there is a bias. I am not going to say that there isn’t a bias at all but come on.

    Also it’s not surprising that there aren’t many conservatives in most academic disciplines because of the continuing stigmatization and attacks from conservatives on education. Why would you as a conservative want to go into academics?

    I am personally left on most issues, but my best students tend to be people that are ideologically on the right. They do well because they work hard. The best teachers approach issues from different angles REGARDLESS of their personal beliefs.

    The quoted piece also assumes that even IF there is a bias that represents a minority group in the wider population that a minority is automatically wrong. Again, this is possible but not automatically true.

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  3. Dan Aris says:

    I can’t remember just what percentage of *all* highly-educated people are liberal, but I seem to recall it’s north of 50%, in a statistically significant manner…

    I bet if you removed from that sample the fabulously wealthy who are also highly educated, you’d be likely to see an even greater percentage of liberals.

    So…*should* it be surprising that among a self-selecting group of highly educated individuals, you get such a high percentage?

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  4. Diane says:

    As long as we consider conservatives to be stupid, academia will be filled with liberals, and only liberals.

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  5. Mark says:

    actually, the disparity in liberal and conservative psychologists (or economists for that matter) does not necessarily suggest that they are “susceptible to bias”.

    This is the conceptual equivalent of the argument in the talk by Haidt where he notes (quoted from the NYTimes piece), “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation”.

    Just to be clear as to what I am not saying. I am not saying that a severe political skew doesn’t impact the direction of the field. I am not saying that psychologists are immune to bias. I am not saying that economists are immune to bias. Etc.

    I am just saying that your post just did the exact same thing you are accusing psychologists of.

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  6. Mike K. says:

    @Mike–

    But of course that’s not true at all. Reagan was vilified during his presidency as a dangerous extremist. What self-respecting leftie liberal would refer to the Soviet Union as an evil empire, anyway?

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  7. Nosybear says:

    Uh, perhaps because, being social scientists, they’ve figured out the other political options just don’t work, at least not for their constituencies and their disciplines? It’s hard for me to imagine a Tea Partier funding a study into just about anything social. Or even believing the results of the research.

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  8. Howard Brazee says:

    There are always some biases – for instance academia also has a lot of people who value teaching and learning more than making money. (Compared to the same population in business).

    The issue is what the biases do to the teaching process. Are the lessons biased?

    On the other hand, when a political or religious process has its own strong bias (every single Republican in the U.S. Congress rejects global warming) – are scientists supposed to give equal time to something that they can’t find facts to support?

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