Social Science

Is Social Science Politically Biased?, Asks Michael Shermer in Scientific American

Surely as scientists, liberals are able to maintain their dispassionate objectivity



As the folks over at the Heterodox Academy point out, university faculty tilts left nowadays. Does this ideological conformity skew research, especially research in the social sciences? In the new issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptic magazine and author of The Moral Arc, takes up this question in his monthly column.

Shermer begins by citing 2014 survey data of undergraduate faculty that found that nearly 60 percent identified as far left or liberal whereas only about 14 percent confessed to leaning far right or conservative. As Heterodox Academy points out, most of the conservative faculty tends to cluster in the engineering and professional schools and estimate the percent conservative for the major humanities and social science departments is closer to 5 percent. But surely as scientists, liberals are able to maintain their dispassionate objectivity when investigating social, political, and economic phenomena, right?

Not so much. Shermer cogently argues that this political assymetry in the academy is corrupting social science. Shermer provides a nice contrast of how political perspectives might change how data is characterized:

It begins with what subjects are studied and the descriptive language employed. Consider a 2003 paper by social psychologist John Jost, now at New York University, and his colleagues, entitled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition." Conservatives are described as having "uncertainty avoidance," "needs for order, structure, and closure," as well as "dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity," as if these constitute a mental disease that leads to "resistance to change" and "endorsement of inequality." Yet one could just as easily characterize liberals as suffering from a host of equally malfunctioning cognitive states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one's lot in life.

He also cites a 2015 study, "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science," by University of Arizona psychologist (and Heterodox Academy contributor) Jose Duarte and his colleagues that examined, among many others, a study purporting to investigate the phenomenon of "right-wing authoritarianism." As Shermer reports Duarte's study …

…discusses a paper in which subjects scoring high in "right-wing authoritarianism" were found to be "more likely to go along with the unethical decisions of leaders." Example: "not formally taking a female colleague's side in her sexual harassment complaint against her subordinate (given little information about the case)." Maybe what this finding really means is that conservatives believe in examining evidence first, instead of prejudging by gender. Call it "left-wing authoritarianism."

The whole Shermer column is well worth your attention.

Would universities benefit from more faculty with a libertarian bent? As I have noted elsewhere, psychological researchers have …

…found that libertarians are as open to new experiences as liberals and outscore both liberals and conservatives when it comes to a need for cognition. The researchers explain that people who score high on need for cognition are more likely to form their attitudes by paying close attention to relevant arguments, whereas people with low need for cognition are more likely to rely on peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is. Libertarians certainly have biases and values, but they attend more closely to evidence and logical argument when issues arise. I translate this to mean that libertarians are just a bit more amenable than either liberals or conservatives to having their minds changed by new evidence.

You can take the right-wing authoritarian scale test here. FWIW, my score was: 0. Progressive heads explode.