Social Psychology Faces Its Bias

As you might guess, discrimination is high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, at which psychologists discuss racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, etc.  Yet remarkably, the most controversial speech at this year’s meeting was by Prof. Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia.

After polling his audience on political views, Haidt found that almost all were politically liberal.  He counted a grand total of three conservatives.  “This,” he noted, “is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” after pointing out that 40% of Americans describe themselves as conservatives.  To the consternation of those in attendance, Haidt concluded that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder genuine research and damage the credibility of the discipline.  Furthermore, this insularity blinds researchers to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

When women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of two or three in social psychology research, discrimination is invariably used as an explanation, but when conservatives are underrepresented by a factor of more than 100, alternate explanations are sought.  Almost all the research on academia points out the overwhelming liberal bias that prevails among the professoriat.  In so many instances I am familiar with, young conservative scholars are fearful of expressing their political views because this could be used against them in tenure and promotion decisions.

Haidt argues that disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became exclusive after the 1960s when the fight for civil rights against racism became a “sacred cause.”  According to him, if a group circles around sacred values, it will evolve into a tribal-moral community in which science will be embraced when it supports the cause and dismissed when it doesn’t.

All one has to do to affirm this conclusion is recall how Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, was ostracized for wondering whether the preponderance of male professors in math and science might be due partly to the variance in IQ scores among men and women.  This was simply not a permissible hypothesis for many academics.

Haidt has urged his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values.  And to the surprise of many, the society did vote to put a statement on the group’s home page welcoming psychologists with “diverse perspectives.”  In some quarters this is a notable victory.

While I applaud Haidt’s efforts, and note that he is a former liberal turned centrist who did not deliver his remarks out of some political bias, there is still much to be done and spoken about in institutions of higher learning.  Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 12 to one in American universities is not on its face a cause for concern.  It is the translation of political views into specific curriculum orientations that poses the great challenge.

After all, if education is to be open and predicated on rational exchange, sacred causes should not influence the character of instruction.  Those students recruited into the circle of moral doctrine are in fact detached from the essential elements of scholarship.

Haidt has revealed a foundational truth about his discipline.  But this is merely the thin edge of the wedge, because many disciplines are facing the same provincial locution.  The question that remains is the extent to which higher education has been compromised by the intrusion of sacred values over scientific dispassion and the extent to which recovery is possible.