Feb 9, 2011

Haidt on bias in the academy

After mentioning Haidt's controversial talk yesterday, and reading some very negative responses on some other blogs, I sat down and read the transcript. Haidt's a good psychologist-- his work on social intuitionist models of moral judgment is interesting and important-- and it's worth reading what he has to say about the discipline.

Haidt's central claim is that since the 1960s social psychology has treated certain  values--values Haidt labels liberal-- as sacred. A sacred value, according to Phil Tetlock, is one that "a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance." When the community perceives a threat to a sacred value, it protects the value by rationalizing away apparent threats. For Haidt, social psychology's sacred values involve what he considers liberal commitments to certain position regarding race and gender. When these values were seen to be threatened-- by Larry Summers and Patrick Moynihan-- social psychology responded by treating them as out of bounds rather than by considering the hypotheses offered by the violators for their scientific merit. Haidt sees those episodes as evidence that the values in question are sacred.

He goes on to cite two further pieces of evidence. The first is the statistical rarity of conservatives within social psychology. He mentions several informal sampling techniques he's used, and estimates that conservatives are outnumbered two or three hundred to one. The final piece of evidence is anecdotal testimony from "closeted" conservatives in the field.

While Haidt think this evidence shows that social psychology treats certain liberal values as sacred, he also thinks it shows something stronger: that the community, united by those values, "actively discourages conservatives from entering." This isn't just discrimination, Haidt argues, but bad science. Just as the influx of female academics to social psychology fostered new and fruitful research, so too would an increase in political diversity yield scientific fruit.

Haidt closes with three suggestions for improving the political climate in psychology:
(1) "be careful about locker room talk"
(2) "expose yourself to other perspectives"
(3) "advocate for moral diversity"

What should we make of Haidt's argument? I think it's fair to say that the evidence for a comparative lack of conservatives in social psychology is pretty convincing. No one seriously doubts that Republicans are vastly outweighed by Democrats in academia and psychology in particular. (A recent study by Harvard's Neil Gross and George Mason's Solon Simmons found that only about 9% of American professors identify as conservative, and only 14% identify as Republican. In psychology, 77.8% identify as Democrats, 15.6% as Independent, and 6.7% as Republicans.) The real debate is over why the numbers are like that, and whether it's indicative of a problem.

The decision to pursue an academic career is obviously complex, so any number of factors will be in play in explaining the data. Surely, though, we need to consider the hypothesis that  "locker room talk" with any kind of political bias is potentially one cause among others. Is there hostility toward or open suspicion of certain political viewpoints in psychology departments, or philosophy departments for that matter? And, if so, does that climate make it less likely for students with conservative leanings to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in those fields? These are important empirical questions that merit careful consideration. Philosophers of all political stripes should care about not alienating students with reasonable political viewpoints, not just because it's the decent thing to do, but because it makes for a more successful discipline.

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