The Sciences

Academia and Conservatives, Redux

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 15, 2011 3:33 PM

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Jonathan Haidt, a prominent social psychologist at the University of Virginia who does great stuff about moral reasoning and the differences between left and right (see here), has made a plea for more conservatives in his field. This comes across my radar because one of his colleagues raised some complications--citing the "Republican War on Science":

It is not implausible that there are (probably quite subtle) pressures [in academia] that bias toward liberalism. These pressures might either tend to cause students to gradually become more liberal in their views (as a consequence of something like attitude polarization) or make those who are more conservative seek less unfriendly environments. Even without the imposition of illegitmate pressures, one would expect people to tend toward the political views of those they associate with and respect, due to our tendency toward social conformity. It is also likely, though, that attraction to a field to like social psychology is correlated with being liberal. Part of the reason is that conservatives tend to be higher in just world beliefs, and those who score higher on this scale are less likely to be interested in group membership and its characteristics. Given, however, that social psychology does not seem very different from other fields of academia in its political leanings, we should look for another explanation. Part of the reason is likely to lie in the fact that recently the Republicans have been an anti-intellectual party. Only 48% of Republicans accept that global warming is happening (compared with 87% of Democrats). This is not merely a phenomenon of the base: Chris Mooney has spoken, rightly, of a Republican War on Science. Given the pressures against intellectual activity on the right, the political bias of academia might be explained. Further, unlike members of the groups whose underrepresentation has triggered concern among social psychologists (Haidt mentioned efforts made by the organization to increase representation by “ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students”), conservatives are not in general a discriminated against group. They are wealthier and more powerful than average, not less. Given this fact, we ought to wait for (and to seek) better data on the causes of liberal political affiliation among academics, before becoming unduly worried.

I agree that academia tilts left, whatever the reason. But I find that there's something glaringly missing in this discussion. The fact is that conservatives (who are even more convinced of leftwing academic bias than I am) have already gone out and created their own counter-academia, which is also highly influential--the think tank circuit in DC and elsewhere. So why are we not hearing calls for more liberals at right wing think tanks? I think the question answers itself just by asking it: We know that academia, whatever its flaws, is much more rigorous and much less biased than these think tanks. Why? Because despite its many faults, it maintains quality control mechanisms and is still, at the end of the day, dedicated to truth, not a partisan goal. In creating their think tanks, by contrast, conservatives massively over-corrected for the problem of academic bias, such as it is. And now, while good liberals worry about academic balance, these think tanks are out there trouncing reality on a regular basis. Typical example: Here's the Heritage Foundation denying the scientific consensus on global warming. I found that link by Googling. I did not previously know it existed, but I knew I could find it within seconds. How did I know that? Why was my assumption right? And where is the Heritage Foundation worrying that it might be biased? Haidt is nevertheless probably correct that academia's liberal tilt leads to some important ideas being overlooked--at least for a time. And it may also be the case that his particular field is more lefty than most. However, generally speaking academia isn't just a fine place for liberals; it's also a fine place for moderates, centrists, libertarians, etc. It is not generally a good environment for religious conservatives, but even they exist there--sometimes, anyway. So I support Haidt's intentions, but I wonder whether academia will ever be much different--not because of its biases, but because of quality control.

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