John Tierney at the NYT continues to be a buffoon of science reporting. While the NYT has suffered some unfortunate editorial decisions over the last decade, as most journalistic endeavors eventually do, it is still the world’s newspaper. What he writes from his prominent soapbox gets read. Today this column is the most read at the on-line edition of the paper, Social Scientist Sees Bias Within
Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”
It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, 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.
Show of hands at a gathering and case closed. We can all go home and rest peacefully knowing the issue has been settled in one of the most rigorous polls or surveys ever done. Not only has the issue been settled as to the political demography of social scientists, but Haidt and Tierney agree on the indisputable deduction made by this show of hands these social scientist’s research is compromised, research has been hindered and non-liberal social scientist work in a hostile environment. I’m guessing it would be too much to ask to see the statistics on how much research/which studies have been compromised due to the political leanings of social scientists regardless of political affiliation. As it would also be asking too much to see the case studies of social scientists whose research has been shut down, not allowed to begin or some how “hindered” according to liberal, conservative and libertarian labels. And since lawyers in Title VII cases have to prove what a hostile environment is and that one existed to make their cases, would not the truth be better served if Tierney and Haidt would also provide evidence for that case also in the case of liberal, conservative and libertarian researchers.
Let’s assume for now that there are more liberals in the social sciences of sociology and psychology – I’ll get to economics in a minute. All these people were hired without filling out their political affiliations. That means statistically there is a high probability the majority of the applicants were liberals. With conservatives and libertarians making up the rest. This does not constitute some kind of discrimination. Applicants were neither rejected or hired based on biologically determined factors such as race, gender or sexual orientation. If more qualified conservatives applied, there being no proof provided by Tierney or Haidt otherwise, there is no reason to think there would not be a larger percentage of non-liberals.
Economics is also a large problem with Tierney or Haidt’s assumptions. Most economists lean Right. In a study done by the federal Reserve of New York called, Is Economics Coursework, or Majoring in Economics, Associated with Different Civic Behaviors?(pdf)
To briefly preview our results, those who took more economics classes or who majored in economics or business were more likely to be members of the Republican party and less likely to join the Democratic party. Those findings hold even after controlling for the higher salary,2 Walstad (1987), Soper and Walstad (1988), Walstad and Soper (1989), and Beron (1990) offer evidence of a recursive relationship between students’ levels of economic understanding and their attitudes on economic issues, with changes in understanding leading to changes in attitudes but changes in attitudes not leading to changes in levels of understanding.
Without controlling for salary, the value of real estate holdings, and graduate degrees earned, we found that with a higher number of economics classes taken increased the likelihood that a person had donated money to a political party or campaign.
It is known that most natural scientists – biologists, chemists, mathematicians and physicists are moderate to liberal Democrats. And we’re assuming for the day that most sociologists and psychologists lean liberal that does not mean there is discrimination in hiring as mentioned above – if Republicans wanted to switch from business and economic majors there is nothing stopping them. It does mean America’s brightest individuals are using their above average cognitive skills to figure out the best of the available political philosophies and are choosing liberalism. One hopes that liberals would in no way make apologies for this phenomenon. There is no perfect political philosophy and few people agree with the majority in their respective allegiances on every issue. Nor is there is a group of people who get everything perfectly. Liberals simply get most things right most of the time. This is an especially convenient time in modern human history to see where the extreme Right and the extreme Left have failed – often times horrendously and tragically. With this perspective, liberalism is not a hard choice to make, especially for some of the brightest people in the country.
Finally let me address Haidt and his proxy Tierney’s assertion that liberals in certain areas of academia form some kind of clique that has formed mental walls that shut out critical debate, criticisms or new knowledge. I’m sure that much like the anecdotal stories about the abuse of food stamps, there are a few cases where that is true. Ironically under current circumstances – it was sociologists who first recognized the perils of ivory tower syndrome, but that is not a circumstance exclusive to academia. All close cohort groups suffer from some degree of group think – construction crews, lawyers, nurses, politicians of every stripe, factory workers, police etc. Since science is more rigorous in its peer review process, scientists – whether natural or social – tend to be better at self policing. Science hoaxes such as the Tasady Tribe, Piltdown Man and the recent bogus study which erroneously linked vaccines with autism were all uncovered by other scientists.
Paul Krugman, one of the rare liberal economists also noted the lack of logic in Tierney’s column, Ideas Are Not The Same As Race
Every once in a while you get stories like this one, about the underrepresentation of conservatives in academics, that treat ideological divides as being somehow equivalent to racial differences. This is a really, really bad analogy.
And it’s not just the fact that you can choose your ideology, but not your race. Ideologies have a real effect on overall life outlook, which has a direct impact on job choices. Military officers are much more conservative than the population at large; so? (And funny how you don’t see opinion pieces screaming “bias” and demanding an effort to redress the imbalance.)
It’s particularly troubling to apply some test of equal representation when you’re looking at academics who do research on the very subjects that define the political divide. Biologists, physicists, and chemists are all predominantly liberal; does this reflect discrimination, or the tendency of people who actually know science to reject a political tendency that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?