A liberal dose of controversy

The New York Times covers an important and provocative speech made at a recent big name social psychology conference where the keynote speaker Jonathan Haidt questioned whether social psychologists are blind ‘to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals’.

It’s a brave move and he brings up some important points about the narrow perspective the field has cultivated and its impact on our ways of understanding the world.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”…

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) told the audience that he had been corresponding with a couple of non-liberal graduate students in social psychology whose experiences reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s. He quoted — anonymously — from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal.

Haidt highlights an interesting taboo about criticising the victims of discrimination, where even voicing these ideas – regardless of their accuracy – are enough to have someone cast out from the ‘tribal moral community’.

Even if you don’t agree with all his points, the lack of political diversity in social psychology is an important issue that has been glossed (glazed?) over for too long.

Link to NYT piece ‘Social Scientist Sees Bias Within’ (via @jonmsutton)

20 thoughts on “A liberal dose of controversy”

  1. I think that it’s as ridiculous to pander to the philosophical groups as it is the theological ones. Should the emphasis be placed on being more inclusive or more realistic? Realism, I say.

    Instead of being more inclusive politically, how about just not being political at all? Is this just too radical for people at this point in history?

    Whether your stupid decisions were caused by being too conservative or too liberal, the problem was the same. Emotionalism. Ideology. A lack of evidence-based reasoning.

    We all know that the main reason liberals dominate in science is that the democrats use science more often in their decisions. If we want to move forward, why are we not moving towards using science to prove our positions are the most advantageous?

    The brighter among us learn to call ourselves centrists or something less ideological. “Socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is the new cool thing to be apparently. I call shenanigans.

    We can use science and reason to guide our policy decisions. We can transcend the fears and misunderstandings preventing this kind of reasoning. (Thanks Sam Harris and his vocal supporters)

    The idea that your political philosophy is akin to your sexual identity or race is just untenable. That might be how people feel, but the essence of political beliefs is that they are scientific theories about how our current society would benefit given their implementation.

    So while I can’t disagree with him at all, I just want to focus on the future where such discussions are recognized for being polarizing and self-serving despite their noble intentions.

  2. liberal |ˈlɪb(ə)r(ə)l|
    1 open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values : they have more liberal views toward marriage and divorce than some people.
    • favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms : liberal citizenship laws.
    • (in a political context) favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform : a liberal democratic state.

    Haidt’s observations match my experience as a lecturer of social psychology, although I think it is misleading to describe the majority view as liberal in the above sense. In this sense most social psychologists are quite illiberal and certainly not unique within psychology in that respect.

  3. it seems a bit weird to complain about how there aren’t enough conservatives in an academic field. it’s a bit like saying there aren’t enough numerologists in mathematics, or enough young earth creationists in biology. if the point of social psychology is to describe victims of discrimination, it only makes sense that a liberal would be attracted to the field. you’d think if non-liberals really felt this way it would give them a keen insight into the field they are studying… and maybe not blame the victims so much.

  4. We’re going to now blame liberals because so-called conservatives avoid working in a field requiring empathy?

    I’m not at all surprised to learn conservatives are exploring new avenues to identify themselves as victims.

    Perhaps they should find a good therapist and talk about that.

  5. As Paul Krugman pointed out in a column on the same story today, ideas are not the same as race. You can choose your ideology, not your race or gender.


    Another difference: there are well-documented historical patterns of discrimination against people on the grounds of their race and gender, but not their adherence to conservative politics. Conservatives didn’t have to struggle to get the vote a hundred years ago, or drink from the same water fountains or go to the same schools as liberals fifty years ago.

    The correlation between liberal politics and academia may not reflect causation, at least not in the implied direction. Perhaps conservatives are less likely to seek out jobs in academia, in the same way that liberals are less likely to seek out careers in the military. You don’t hear us complaining about that.

    Even if the causative arrow points in the other direction, it may be for the best. Conservative politics may objectively damage a scientist’s ability to do the work. Again per Krugman, imagine a biologist who denied the primacy of evolution, or a chemist who denied environmental harms from an oil spill or the basic science behind global warming. In the context of this post, I would add, imagine a social psychologist who believed homosexuality was a mental disorder, or that drug addiction should be criminalized rather than treated.

    Finally: While Haidt is hardly a doctrinaire conservative, it is ironic to hear people who would blanch at the thought of affirmative action clamoring for more seats at the table solely on the basis that they’re underrepresented. Shouldn’t academia be a meritocracy?

    1. What about religion- that is as much a choice as political orientation; still we take care of that in inclusion/diversity/ nondiscrimination. We miss the important point raised by Haidt of discrimination against airing conservative views or trying to devise social psychology experiments around conservative viewpoints by juts cherry picking on comparison with gay students. . Haidt’s ground breaking work on Morality has shown how conservative values like Loyalty, Respect and Sanctity have been pushed under the carpet and are frowned at in neo liberal social psychology circles. As long as we continue being driven by one ideology , it would be difficult to see alternative realities and the real human nature. This thread itself by igniting such viscous counter response hints the true state of affairs.

      1. Religion is irrelevant, as should be political opinions and values. We don’t go complaining about the lack of Jainists in academia, because it doesn’t matter.

  6. closeted gay students? Really? THAT’S the comparison? Weren’t conservatives the problem in that case? Oh wait – they still are.

    Maybe the conservatives should allow more “diversity” – stop making jokes/movies/tv-shows/articles/”scholarly writing” assuming everyone is straight/gender conformist/pro-neoliberal capitalism/pro-life/pro-consumerism/pro-apoliticization/pro-lets-make-the-immigrants-clean-our-bathrooms-and-pillage-their-countries-while-they’re-busy/able-ist/racist and sexist. Perhaps that should happen. Or maybe we should continue teaching “intelligent design” and evacuating the public sphere so that conservatives don’t feel left out. Boohoo.

  7. I can’t help but see Haidt’s current controversial position in light of his position on ethics – or is it morality? He has said that the “culture war” might best be explained by the “limited” liberal emphasis on fairness (reciprocity) and harm as underlying moral foundations while conservatives espouse a more comprehensive set of principles that additionally include ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While these assertions require further confirmation, let’s assume them for the moment. There are different ways to define and use the words ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’, but, for this comment: morals = behavioral rules – and ethics = guiding principles for behavioral rules. Haidt’s 5 component moral foundation theory is generated from what I’m calling morals (he looked at behavioral rules around the world and found the 5 above listed underlying components). He then implies that this 5 component comprehensive morality can function as a legitimate ethical foundation.

    His argument is flawed. Certainly, it implies the is-ought problem. Simply because people have behavioral rules (morals) that favor ingroups and established hierarchies in no way requires that these moral foundations be basic, universal, and over-arching underlying ethical principles. To make this argument brief: in a conflict of behavioral rules, fairness and harm have to trump ingroup and hierarchy as universal principles (I’m not a philosopher, but, this almost seems like an unavoidable conclusion).

    So, using Haidt’s own framing of the culture wars, is it more likely that covert social discrimination keeps those with a conservative underlying ethical philosophy out of academic social psychology or is it more likely that moral arguments that were found wanting over 200 years ago might be found wanting among academics for similar reasons today?

  8. This all gets down to a central problem in psychology, and social psychology in particular: Is it really science?

    If it is, then those with PhDs in the field approach the critics and say, “You’re wrong, and here’s the empirical evidence to show how and why you’re wrong.”

    This also means that if you’re a ‘conservative social psychologist’ (for lack of a better term), then either you’re right or wrong. So make some assertions that are falsifiable and let’s discuss them, rather than just pointing fingers.

    Conservatives have had this gripe with science in general for quite a while. That is, that they’re somehow underrepresented because they disagree with the science. The problem for them, however, is not being underrepresented. The problem is that they are simply wrong.

  9. “We all know that the main reason liberals dominate in science is that the democrats use science more often in their decisions.”

    Andrew, you come off as a snobbish jerk.

    1. Well, I am a snobbish jerk. But I’m still right. The book “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Republican_War_on_Science” details exquisitely why.

  10. The Scientific Community is an organism that lives to propagate itself – it does not seek science. Science is what happens in spite of the Community. If you think that it seeks absolute truth you are just kidding yourself. The punishment doled out for violating the orthodoxy of science exceeds the punishment of heretics in the church today.

    The comments from the all-knowing ‘superior’ liberals that responded to this article prove the point.

    1. Nonsensical drivel! Certain people happen to value evidence over ideology. We think that’s a provably superior method of governing ourselves. You can attack us because we think we’re better than you, but honestly, how intelligent is it to treat everyone as if their philosophy is equally valid? And your attack on the scientific community is just anti-science propaganda you read at Age of Autism. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be called science. There is discussion and talk about this kind of thing all the time in mainstream science, it’s what keeps the entire thing alive.

    2. Science and the Scientific Community have never sought some “absolute truth” and thinking that they ever did shows a lack of understanding or appreciation of what science is.

      So I am a bit puzzled by your post, Sylvester. Do you believe that people shouldn’t be held to support their hypotheses with confirming evidence or are you advocating that we return to burning people at the stake?

  11. Dr. Haidt’s criticisms are useful in examining what unfair practices exist on both sides of that fence. As a retired scientist I welcome anything that allows us to re-examine why the any sector of in our society finds it necessary to be anti-democratic, anti-science, anti-women, anti-education, anti-minority, and anti-pretty-much-everything that requires anything beyond a third grade education.

    I’m open to listening to why some feel a need to build militias and an arsenal of weapons that serve no productive purpose beyond intimidation, engage in conspiracy theories to unhinge the general population, and advocate a return to supremacy of state’s rights even though that issue was settled forever by the Civil War. My impression is that many are being left behind in the dust of an increasingly complex society and they don’t like it that their simplistic, cut and run policies that would have worked poorly even in the 1800s are not being praised as supposed solutions to the complex problems that our modern society faces. Well, a part of solution to our ills is to stop tolerating faith based ignorance.

    If those who manage the public voice called off their dogs of racism, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial fear, and hate mongering, it definitely would improve the intellectual, scientific, and political climate. Since we have too many in our society who are aggressive and advocate violence, it is important that their excesses be curbed. This is the first time in my life that I’ve heard people advocating the assassination of our President. Perhaps Dr. Haidt can help. Pretending it is somehow solely the fault of the liberals is absurd and harmful as it rewards those who work only for their private gain and punishes those who patiently work for the good of humanity. We need more balance. Is Dr. Haidt simply looking for funding from some conservative faith based group or what?

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