No Conservatives, Please

Are the social sciences ‘too liberal’? At least one professor of psychology thinks so. Addressing those present at a conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt described what he identified to be the ‘liberal bias’ both within his own discipline of social psychology as well as within the social sciences and humanities in general. Haidt, who specialises in the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology, asked audience members to identify their political affiliation by show of hand. Of the thousand or so people present, an estimated 80% identified as liberals, while only three conservative hands were counted. Such data is hardly scientific, but Haidt points to formal studies that corroborate these numbers. One study, for example, suggested that democrats outnumber republicans 6 to 1 in elite American universities and 12 to 1 when both elite and non-elite institutions are considered together. Haidt then compares these numbers with statistical data suggesting that only 20% of the general American population identifies as liberal, with 40% of respondents calling themselves conservatives. This, Haidt argues, points to a huge disconnect between the academy and the American population.

To this group of researchers who take interest in all forms of unconscious bias – racial prejudice, sexism, homophobia, and the like – Haidt recommends that they take notice of their own anti-conservative bias as well. He goes so far as to describe social psychologists as a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that restrict the directions of their research and indirectly create hostile environments for non-liberals. Himself a liberal-turned-centrist, Haidt claims first-hand experience of this. He similarly cites anecdotal evidence from graduate students who identify as conservatives, who admit to opting out of political conversations and making anti-liberal jokes to fit in with tacitly liberal colleagues.

From this general demographic argument, however, Haidt points to a greater problem: the knowledge generated by such a biased group of researchers cannot be reliable. Scientists who carry such prejudices cannot be objective in their assessments. Here, Haidt would do well to remember his Foucault or, for a more balanced view, read Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? The notion of an objective observer is an outdated and unachievable position, one to which even many scientists have long since stopped aspiring. Forget the problems with political self-identification. Forget the facile dichotomy between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, reduced here to mean little more than ‘voting democrat’ or ‘voting republican’. Haidt may have a valid demographic point to make. Intuitively, at least, his argument will make sense to make who have spent time within university walls, though I suspect that considerable geographical variations will come into play. His epistemological point, however, that psychologists need to focus on shared science rather than shared moralities needs to be questioned further.

Related articles:

The New York Times: ‘Social scientists see bias within’

The Philosophy of Social Science: Metaphysical and Empirical, Francesco Guala (Abstract, PDF)

The Psychology of Scientific Explanation, J. D. Trout (Abstract, PDF)

Read Dr. Haidt’s complete paper here.

Author: Nicholas Dion

I'm a doctoral candidate in the study of religion at the University of Toronto, specialising in psychoanalysis, theories of space, and religion in the public sphere.

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