Settled Science: Liberals Are Ruining the Social Sciences

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

A forthcoming article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (yeah, it’s not on my regular reading pile either, but it’s a Cambridge University Press journal) is attracting a lot of pre-publication buzz, because it argues that the field of social psychology—but really extending to social science generally—is badly hobbled by its liberal monoculture. (You can download a PDF of the paper “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.”)

It’s a long paper, but as usual the abstract gets right down to it:

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity—particularly diversity of viewpoints—for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: 1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of non- liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

One of the co-authors of the paper is Jonathan Haidt, whose infamous challenge to an academic gathering a few years back is recalled:

At the 2011 meeting in San Antonio, Texas, Jonathan Haidt asked the roughly 1,000 attendees to identify themselves politically with a show of hands. He counted the exact number of hands raised for the options “conservative or on the right” (3 hands), “moderate or centrist” (20 hands), and “libertarian” (12 hands). For the option “liberal or on the left,” it was not possible to count, but he estimated that approximately 80% of the audience raised a hand (i.e., roughly 800 liberals). The corresponding liberal-conservative ratio of 267:1 is surely an overestimate; in this non- anonymous survey, many conservatives may have been reluctant to raise their hands. But if conservatives were disproportionately reluctant to self-identify, it illustrates the problem we are raising.

If you have time, and the fortitude to suffer the stiff writing style required by academic journals (seriously: send in a paper in plain English and journal editors will ask you to make it more jargon-laden and less accessible), there’s a lot of rich material, including a thorough knocking down of the liberal excuses and rationales for why there are so few conservatives in academic social science. Concerning which, in covering this study for The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry offers a fabulous vignette that I must keep for future use:

I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are underrepresented in academia is because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it. I say: “That’s interesting. For which other underrepresented groups do you think that’s true?” An uncomfortable silence follows.