Political Bias and Academic Research

I recently enjoyed a short dialogue with @JacobBe5 on Twitter about the merits of research into political bias in psychology and social psychology.

The two articles referenced in this conversation maintained that people in these fields admit to having an open bias toward those they deem politically conservative, and that those who self-identify as politically conservative feel the need to maintain a discrete amount of anonymity when it comes to their political views.

The first article, which is to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences through Cambridge University Press, was titled “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.” It was referenced by Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) in a Twitter post. I replied that the article was too anecdotal and it did not address a real issue: namely, whether the actual research is biased and whether good scholarship produced by conservatives is actually being rejected.

Let’s forget for a moment that this article does not actually prove what it posits.

I had two problems with this initial article. First, the article lampoons several examples of so-called liberal research, clearly biased by an anti-conservative moral judgment; however, they do not present a single example of viable conservative research—whatever that is. Are they talking about the kind of research done by people like Charles Murray or Thomas Sowell? What problems in psychology or social psychology emerge from the mind of a conservative psychologist or social psychologist? When I asked this question of @JacobBe5 I was told the question was irrelevant.

How can this question be irrelevant? It strikes at the heart of whether there is real bias or only perceived bias when it comes to the actual research being done. I also asked whether the under-representation of women in the sciences and engineering means that these endeavors are also biased in ways they shouldn’t be. @JacobBe5 responded that they might be. Maybe we should let the guys at CERN know about this? Maybe it’s the lack of gender equality that has prevented us from arriving at a unified theory?

The second article was just more of the same, although it attempted to quantify what the first article only intimated. It was titled “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology.” Again, that 800 people were asked questions about their political bias does not address what I consider a more fundamental question: does that political bias translate into the actual scholarly bias? The writers seem to want us to assume as much.

The reason this whole line of research is problematic is because it assumes a causal link between the lack of so-called conservative research and so-called liberal research. This is not stated outright in either paper, but it is implied because both articles ultimately argue that if conservative voices were more prominent in these fields of research it would change the nature and tenor of the research on the whole. Yet, the fundamental question of what would constitute viable scholarship done by a political conservative is dismissed.

One cannot argue that there is bias and a lack of diversity in a certain research community, and that this is bad, without arguing that the research itself is ultimately suspect. The authors of the first article devote a whole paragraph to denying this is the case. If so, then does it really matter? If 80% of the doctors in a hospital are politically liberal would we be arguing that more politically conservative doctors would produce better medical outcomes?

So, whether you are politically conservative or liberal should not make a difference in these lines of research. These fields are ultimately “systems research” and should be approached as such. When it comes to hot button political issues these individuals should approach their task from an optimization perspective. In other words, psychology and social psychology are ultimately concerned with how things work, not how they should work.

From an evolutionary standpoint (provided this is an acceptable conservative standpoint) psychology and social psychology could be just figuring out how the brain copes with the environment and how we build social structures to extend those coping mechanisms. Some systems may appear more effective than others but often when we dig down we find underlying problems with any view that might be too simplistic.

In short, the hard sciences—and all the fields that emulate it—are ultimately concerned with mechanisms or systems. So, psychology and social psychology researchers should be less concerned with scoring political points and more concerned with pulling things apart to figure out how they work. Leave prescriptions for those who actually make the decisions: the politicians and bankers?

My own view is that for the most part this is already being done—with the exception of a few flights of fancy, possibly influenced by both liberal and conservative politics.  For example, Charles Murray’s research is clearly politically motivated and, therefore, suspect. However, we must also remember that even if psychologists and social psychologists discovered human mechanisms that went fundamentally against our convictions as liberals or conservatives, this would not necessarily be a reason to abandon either conviction.

The way things are does not determine for humans the way they ought to be. Humans play a larger role than any other animal in determining their own moral order. Nothing the psychologist or social psychologist discovers will ever be a smack down argument for or against any politically conservative or liberal idea, which is why they should stick to just figuring out how things work, rather than talking about how they should work.

Muddying the waters of “soft science” research likely exemplifies our present concern with the narrative of a liberal press and academic bias in general. It is unclear to me whether this bias actually exists or is just the result of a sustained and very effective anti-liberal political campaign waged since the early 1970s.

We should always be skeptical when any group is portrayed as the boogeyman or is cast in the role of a scapegoat. This research, on its face, seems to do both.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s