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)


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.


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.

Dan Aris

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?


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


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.

Mike K.


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?


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.

Howard Brazee

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?

Andreas Moser

I wonder if you would see a similar distribution among academics of other similarly rich and educated countries like Canada, the UK and Germany. Having lived in the latter two, I would suspect not. So maybe the anti-intellectualism in not irrelevant parts of the Republican Party does play a role?

Mike K.

Self-selection is either a valid reason for under-representation of groups in certain disciplines, or it isn't. If you advance it to explain away the lack of conservatives in academia, then you can't complain when it's used to explain the lack of women in the hard sciences.


He's wrong, because women and minorities are vulnerable and are in fact being discriminated against and repressed in their day-to-day lives, in their abilities to, basically, live.
Furthermore, no one selects their 'race' or sex, you're effectively stuck with it from birth.
Unfortunately, the world of psychologists are self-selecting, and conservative authors may find their assumptions tested, even attacked, but never are their basic freedoms to live and work under attack.

This, of course, is part of a common republican-conservative tactic, that despite years, generations of structural advantage in the world, an over-representation of money and power in our world, to claim that they are in fact under attack.

sideshow bill

"Reality has a well-known liberal bias." - Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, 4/29/2006

When you have people who are trained to analyze data and tear it apart, I'm not surprised that you'd find people that disagree with the current narrative of GOP regarding anything scientific.

Roger Albin

Weak argument. A considerable majority of Americans accept creationism; the great majority of biologists do not. These differing distributions are also highly statistically unlikely. Does this reflect "bias" or superior knowledge? Does this reflect "bias" or a process of self-selection that has little to do with "bias" as defined conventionally.

Gregory Sadler

As a political centrist and as a specialist in Critical Thinking, I'm attuned to seeing this, and I call my students' attention to it every semester. The academy has for several generations been a left-leaning field of American society. These sorts of biases tend to be self-perpetuating, to become the "everyone knows", the ideology that does not see or acknowledge itself as ideological.

And of course, there's nothing intrinsically leftist or liberal about this dynamic -- it occurs just as easily in institutions dominated by conservatives. What is always so surprising to me is witnessing the gyrations my colleagues go through to maintain that there is no bias in the university.


Couldn't the age of the sample be an explanation?

As Winston Churchill put it, "If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain."


It's more than just economics and psychology. I'd venture that pretty much every non-science field has the same distribution in ideology. Heck, it's probably true of most fields, actually. I will bet you anything that climatologists are nearly uniformly liberal.

I would venture to guess that it has a lot to do with how tenure is awarded. If current holders of tenure determine whether to tenure a new professor, then I'm guessing new professors will be ideologically similar to the ones that evaluate them.

Ian Callum

They say that those who can't actually do anything should be teachers. By the same token, those who can't teach should teach teachers. And those who can't teach teachers should go into politics.

Mark S

I always find this a difficult issue:

A majority of "highly educated" people are liberal.

A majority of "highly educated" people believe that the earth travels around the sun.

Are both belief sets automatically suspect just because of strong support? Is liberalism the smarter option since, after all, smart people tend to believe it? And if "a bunch of really smart people believing something" isn't a reason to believe it too, what is? And why on earth would it be a good reason *not* to believe it?


Good grief... did someone just quote a comedian seriously????

How is it that most of the liberals (here and on the other article dedicated to this topic) can't see the bias?

My God... could it be that their own liberal affiliation is producing bias?

Therein lies the problem. People are terrible at knowing themselves and even worse at knowing when they're being biased. People who BELIEVE they are unbiased are worst of all, because they refuse to admit that as humans they are naturally biased.

How can you correct a problem if you refuse to believe it exists?

So... here we have a bunch of scientists whose job it is to determine bias in society. If they don't recognize that they too, are biased, flawed human beings (and not the enlightened intellectuals they'd like to think they are) how will they ever root out the bias that is inherent in their own community ?

Here the community skews to the left, so bias shuts down more "conservative" hypotheses that may accurately explain the world around them. If they refuse to believe that they are biased humans (like the rest of this), they will never be able to correct for their own bias.

Do we want a bunch of people who believe they're above humanity trying to explain how humans work? They don't even know themselves?!

Here bias skews to the left... in other areas it skews to the right... do you think we get a better world if people realize and try to compensate for the shortcomings of their own humanity.... or do you think the world is better off if the people who are supposed to give us the answers delude themselves into thinking they are above human flaw?


Ian Kemmish

Presumably those to whom the concept of subsidy is anathema pursue careers outside academia in the first place.

I imagine that there are plenty of psychologists, sociologists and the rest employed in think tanks around the world. Nominally outside academia, it might be fun to survey them. to see if you get a different result. Of course, even in the right wing think tanks, they're still subsidised, but at least they're able to pretend to themselves that they're not.....