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Political bias in the academy

Joseph Nawrocki | Monday, February 21, 2011

At last month’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt began his lecture on bias in academia by polling the audience. He first asked the 1,000 some-odd members of the audience to indicate, by a show of hands, who would self-identify as a political liberal. According to him, about 80 percent of the audience responded in the affirmative. He then asked who would self-identify as a centrist or libertarian, to which he received a few dozen responses. When Haidt finally arrived at the question of who would self-identify as a political conservative, he saw a grand total of three hands, or 0.3 percent of those in attendance.

Reminding the audience that 40 percent of all Americans self-identify as conservative, he observed that this outcome of his audience poll represents “a statistically impossible lack of diversity.” In his subsequent talk Haidt, himself a moderate liberal, proceeded to argue that scholars in the field of social psychology belong to a “tribal-moral community” that holds certain liberal political values as “sacred.” By “sacred values,” Haidt is referring to those values that “a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance.” As such, these values “preclude tradeoffs,” and consequently, when we inquire into issues surrounding these values, “we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.” This is a problem, says Haidt, because, “when conservatives are entirely absent (as opposed to simply underrepresented), then there is nobody to speak up, nobody to challenge predominant ideas, and our science suffers.”

Haidt reports that among those in attendance at his talk, the response was overwhelmingly positive. One should not find this surprising. From their own research social psychologists are well aware of the risks of group think and the power of perceptual screens. Nevertheless, it is a testament to their academic integrity.

In the last two weeks, Haidt’s thesis has reverberated far beyond the walls of the San Antonio auditorium in which it was first presented. It has received coverage in many of the most prominent media outlets, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, NPR and the Wall Street Journal. Those in the media have been a good deal less sympathetic than the scholars in attendance. Many, such as Paul Krugman, seem to miss the point of Haidt’s argument entirely, and attack Haidt for equating ideology with race and wanting diversity for diversity’s sake.

Yet Haidt is not arguing that the social sciences should be more receptive to conservatives simply because conservatives are under-represented, nor because political differences are analogous to racial differences, but because the presence of more conservatives in social science circles would enhance the quality of research. Social scientists, unlike hard scientists, study people and society. In order to perform their science well, social scientists must actually understand the subjects of their research. But if one lives in a “tribal-moral community” that never questions its “sacred values” and ostracizes those who hold opinions that would threaten such values, then one rarely has the opportunity to dialogue with or understand those whom one has deemed to be “outsiders.” This becomes particularly problematic when one considers that social scientists spill much ink on the outgroup in question here: conservatives.

For instance, scan any syllabus for Introduction to Political Psychology and you will find weeks dedicated to questions such as: what kind of temperament leads one to become a conservative?; and what constitutes the “Authoritarian (read: Conservative) Personality.” If the social scientists who conduct such research view conservatives as some sort of exotic hold-over from Neolithic times, or, worse yet, the enemy within that must be uprooted in order to make civilization safe for future generations, then one ought to have serious concerns about the objectivity of their research. A second type of response typical of liberal columnists such as Eric Alterman comes in the form of variations on the theme: But conservatives are less open to honest inquiry! This argument, however, contradicts itself. In order to be a valid sociological explanation for the absence of conservatives in Academia, it would have to be the case that those who enter academia with liberal opinions never change their opinions during the course of their careers, which would itself suggest the same aversion to inquiry that is being attributed to conservatives.

While statistically speaking many individuals do inherit their political opinions from their families and communities, this ought not to be the case for academics. Rather, academics ought constantly to be evaluating and re-evaluating their opinions in light of new information and differing perspectives. Of course, many do not do this. It is far easier simply to accept the received wisdom of one’s peers, whether that wisdom comes in the form of historical narratives, methodological assumptions or, yes, political opinions. After all, it takes a lot more work to challenge a received historical narrative or methodological assumption and offer an alternative than it does just to parrot what others say. For this reason, those who deviate from “orthodox” political opinions (whatever they may be) in the academy often hold more sophisticated political opinions than those who merely adopt the positions of their peers, and in this regard better represent the ideals of the academy.

Haidt has undoubtedly identified a problem in the academy. Because practically all fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences touch upon the political — even in my field of Medieval History there are a number of important monographs explicitly inspired by political convictions — the absence of some political perspectives leaves us all the poorer. To rectify this, we need first to dispel the notion that conservatives are close-minded. Further, when scholars of any political bent encounter prejudice (and I think it is much rarer than some would claim), we need to respond with the same shock and horror that we would respond to bigotry against other minority groups.

Finally, conservatives for their part need to be more vocal in the academy. As Haidt found in the response to his paper, prejudice against conservatives in the academy really isn’t as bad as many make it out to be.

Joseph Nawrocki is a graduate student studying history.. He can be reached at nawrocki.4@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.