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)


Joe

I think it's true of most fields, but not for any nefarious reason. People who are wired to think like a conservative just don't like the academic workplace.

I got sick of having the government take someones earnings and give them to me for inefficient projects of dubious merit (grants and contracts). It's sickening to see the overhead skimmed by administrators (50% in some cases) and the wasteful spending at the end of a contract period just so you don't have any money left over.

I left 1 day after earning a PhD, despite having a few academic job offers. I realized that job I had a a PhD student was better than the job of everyone I was working for. They spent all their time chasing money (writing grants) and arguing over credit.

Eric M. Jones

I hold that the 50% balance point has been shifted by scrofulous propagandizing by the right wing, (add ~666 perjoratives here...) demons.

It is also true that smart people generally tend to see the world from a liberal perspective.

Reality has a liberal slant.

Casey

For those skeptical of bias - see Alan Sokal's "Beyond the Hoax" - he writes a paper (completely made up) connecting physics with current trends in cultural studies - he was able to fool the editors by using language that was incomprehensible to non-technical physics readers and by pandering to the editors' biases (in this case, very liberal).

I think it is very concerning that social sciences have a political bias in the academic ranks - it is hard enough to get credible and testable research out of social science without worrying about political biases. The goal may be objectivity, but we may just be too flawed to get there.

Traciatim

I wonder then if the bias leans the other way to such a drastic extent in other fields?

Jon

Conservative politics generally reflect the interests and values of for-profit business. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it should not be surprising that academics, who usually work at schools or hospitals and thus are usually not of the for-profit business world, do not share those interests and values. Commerce is important to a healthy society and so are other sources of authority.

Ezzie

Wow. I'm appalled at the comments here. @4 (Diane) seems to have nailed it, based on the other comments.

The basic summary of the comments so far is:
- smart people are liberal
- conservatives would never be involved in a field which helps people
- people who analyze data are liberal, conservatives can't/won't do this
- highly educated people are liberal, unless they're only highly educated because they are rich
- conservatives hate education

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

Colleen

I think this is a clear cut representation of how educated people are more likely to be liberal. The more you know, the more you see all the problems with conservative thinking. It is not a question of under-representation and more a question of under-education. Once educated it is hard to think conservatively, you focus less on yourself and money and power and more on what needs to be fixed in the world. *cough* HEALTHCARE *cough*
-struggling college graduate

Mike B

The whole point of science is that the results are repeatable and testable. Barring outright fraud the work of scientists should be verifiable and their theories tested. If their ideas do not hold water they will be proven so. There might be some bias as to which ideas get tested first, but systematic bias will be rooted out over time through sheer force of evidence. For those subjects that are not testable or religiously "scientific" the bigger issue would be making public policy based on such a soft foundation.

I believe that much of what is considered to be "Liberal" is being open to new ideas and having a drive to seek the truth. Isn't the entire definition of Conservative to Conserve the status quo? It simply follows that those who are not content with the status quo would seek out ways to change it. Remember that conservative thinkers are the ones who have defended such gems as intelligent design or an Earth centric universe.

I think much of what can be described as "Liberal Bias" is mostly a reaction to the centuries of Armchair Science that promoted racial stereotypes and eugenics. The Bias is one against falling for the easy answer and while this might crowd out instances where the easy answer is correct, experience showed the scientific community that more often than not the victims are not to blame and external hypotheses should be sought first.

To put things another way consider the old joke about White History Month being "every other month". The default assumption about minorities is that they are somehow to blame for their own situation. You don't need a social scientist to come out and say that because that is the default assumption that individuals make every day and it effects decisions and actions both large and small. Maybe its true that they are to blame, but we don't need to research it because that is the policy model we have already embraced. A "Liberal" bias doesn't mean that society is being pushed down path L instead of path C because we are already on path C. The "Liberal" slant of social scientists is nothing more than their desire to re-evaluate the choice that has already been made.

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DD

Fascinating. I offer no opinion about the content of the article. My comment is about the respondents. Each of them represents a justification of a position held by the writer before ever reading the article, rather than a response generated by thoughtful, objective consideration of the contents.

north

Perhaps the definition of "liberal" is changing, and articles like this contribute.

Perhaps "politics" should be separated from "humanity" and "social science", thus strictly focusing on the operation of government and operational policy.

Leave humanity and social science to the humanitarians and social scientist communities.

Naturally, then, politicians will speak only of governmental operation and NOT proposals of social policies that would best be done by those most qualified.

"Liberal" politics vs "conservative" politics would then be not based on social mores and social policies and social positions, but manifestations of how government is operated.

I suppose I am suggesting that politicians and government get out of the business of social policies. Does that make me a libertarian ?

Ha !

Hitek

It should be pointed out that it is possible, since most people would agree that liberals tend to be more social and community endearing type people, that liberal intellectuals might gravitate more rapidly to the diverse community environment of the university than would their conservative counterparts. Not to stereotype, or anything.

Brett

JMM so would you agree with...

"Umm... seriously? Just because someone might be a white guy 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 blacks in most academic disciplines because of the continuing stigmatization and attacks from blacks on education. Why would you as a black want to go into academics?

I agree with whites on most issues, but I once had a friend who was black. 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."?

Brett

- Mark S

I think your rationality that highly educated=smart is flawed...

The smartest people in America are building things, whether it be hedge funds, web companies, or search algorithms. You can't just count the letters after someone last name to know their intellectual capacity.

Shane

A sceptic might point to the fact that many academics rely on public funding to survive so - consciously or otherwise - it is in their interests to promote higher taxation and higher spending. (I don't know how much US education is public or private however so this may not be relevant.)

My own university lecturers in Ireland were mostly left wing, even radically left wing. The picture we got of the right was of war-mongering religious zealots, sexist, racist, low brow bigots who served the capitalist super-rich. All that was needed to create a socialist society was the will to do it.

I had my doubts at the time but it was only after I left college that I was exposed to various kinds of right-wing thought: libertarian, neo-conservative, paleoconservative and so on. This was a great experience for me, and shifted my own views dramatically.

I'm not sure why the left so dominated the university, but part of it may be cultural: like-minded academics hanging out together conforming to one another's views.

I suspect that many young people identify with the left because of their social liberalism. Perhaps if socially liberal libertarians were more prominent, some of these young people would move right.

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addicted

This is quite silly.

The whole premise of "conservatism" is everything is good as is. It almost completely defeats the purpose of research.

Its like asking why there aren't more Christians amongst the ranks of Jihadists in the middle east...

David

Maybe liberals feel more obligated to attend annual meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, or maybe conservatives think it is a waist of scares resources to attend such meetings. Maybe the centrists are in the bar and the libertarians are on the nearest golf course.

dave

I will point to the maxim 'Management promotes in its own image'
If academics look at whose careers they assist (how they grade, who they mentor or recommend) they will find a liberal bias.
It might also be fun to look at the careers of those few conservative academics and see what sets them apart.

Ed M.

Your claim of bias as the reason for a disproportion of liberals among social scientists is unsupported and, I believe, gets the cause of the disproportion terribly wrong.

As a recovered libertarian conservative and as a scientist, I suggest that the disproportion is due to the willingness of scientists to challenge preconceived dogma. The essence of much so-called conservatism in this country, especially in its present intellectually execrable forms, is unquestioning acceptance of dogmatic beliefs that often have little factual or historical support. Those who simply wish to accept dogma do not typically choose to become scientists.

In my field of biological science, the incompatibility of conservative dogma with reality is exposed by the rejection of evolution that is prevalent among American conservatives. Evolution provides the practical and intellectual underpinning of almost all that biological scientists do. A conservative biologist could choose to believe that God created the universe and Earth 6000 years ago. But to make sense of reality that conservative biologist would have to say that God made it look like the universe has been around for over 13 billion years and the Earth for over 4 billion, and that He made it look like life has been evolving for about 3 billion years. To be an effective biological scientist you have to accept the usefulness of the "theory" of evolution, however anti-conservative that "theory" might be.

I suspect that a similar incompatibility of present-day conservative dogma with the scientific study of the real world underlies the observed disproportion of liberals among social scientists.

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Amy

On the other hand, most business, engineering and nursing faculty are conservative.

I see a different kind of bias at work in these sorts of studies: a bias that says that only the political attitudes of professors in the Arts and Science colleges are worth discussing.

Maltheos

The real question this make me want to look into is this: Does this indicate bias produced due to pruning (i.e. the climate in a profession is hostile to people of a political ethos, due to the type of people who pursue an education in the field, or is this a result of observational data shifting politics(i.e. based upon what the people in the field see/ experience on the job their positions on issues shift?) My guess is that its a combination of the three, but I am curious how influential each of those factors are.