University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt is still provoking his confreres in social psychology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in advance of the publication of his brilliant (I have had the pleasure of reading the galleys) new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, muses at his provocative notion of affirmative action for conservative scholars in academic psychology. The Chronicle cites the furor that Haidt's famous talk at last year's annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology created:
…Haidt argued that the field discourages conservatives from entering—and leaves those who do feeling like closeted homosexuals. He called for affirmative action to make the field 10 percent conservative by 2020.
In support of his ideas, Haidt pointed to "taboos and danger zones," subjects that turn on the moral "force field" and prevent researchers from exploring "the full range of alternative hypotheses." He offered as one example the controversy that engulfed Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard, after he speculated that innate differences might partially explain why men are overrepresented in mathematics and science departments at leading universities.
"We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage," Haidt said. "We should have defended his right to think freely."
Haidt also pointed to the extreme underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology. When he surveyed the 1,000 colleagues who attended his talk, 80 to 90 percent identified themselves as liberals. Only three [emphasis added] people said they were conservatives.
Of course, when accused of possible discrimination, open-minded social psychologists immediately ask themselves if it might be true. Well, actually not so much. As The Chronicle reports:
One criticism is that Haidt lacked the evidence to back some of his conclusions. Another is that his argument might arm those who are "eager to dismiss our findings," as John T. Jost, a psychologist at New York University, expresses it. "We've seen this with climate-change issues," he tellsThe Chronicle. "If you can just accuse the scientist of ideological bias, then you can ignore the research findings."
Jost adds that the personal beliefs of social scientists are "scientifically irrelevant" because of safeguards against bias that are built into the research system. "Any research program that is driven more by ideological ax-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity," he wrote in response to Haidt's talk, "because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers—all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them."
Personal beliefs are scientifically irrelevant? Hmmm. Not even a chance that personal ideological commitments could influence the questions that a researcher in social psychology might be motivated to ask? Perhaps not.
In any case, Haidt has put together a web page that addresses the fallout from his talk and cites a lot of relevant research on academic intellectual diversity. With regard to Haidt's call for affirmative action for conservatives as way to boost intellectual diversity, he makes the following points:
I am not concerned about the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, just as I am not concerned about the underrepresentation of women or minorities in any occupation. As I said in my talk, "there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate." I am concerned about two things: First: Discrimination. If conservatives, women, or minority group members are being discriminated against, it is wrong and it should stop. And that includes the creation of hostile climates, which discourage students from entering fields in the first place. Second, I'm concerned about the absence of valuable perspectives from occupations that need multiple perspectives. When a group with a unique perspective drops below some threshhold, members of the majority group begin to assume that everyone around them shares their pespective. They begin to espouse their moral values more openly (i.e., "locker room talk"), and the small number of minority-group members shrinks even further or retreats to the closet. This is what (I claim) has happened in social psychology (and in many academic fields). Most groups and institutions don't need moral diversity. Diversity disrupts group cohesion and effectiveness. But in science, our goal is not cohesion, it is finding the truth, and if moral diversity will help us to disrupt the forcefield and shut down groupthink, then it will help us to do better science. This is why I called for affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology. (I mentioned the figure of 10% in my talk not as a quota but as a target. If the day ever comes when 10% of social psychologists are conservative, or perhaps just non-liberal, then we can probably relax our efforts to diversify the field.)