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“Social Psychologists Detect Liberal Bias Within”

Mark Palko asks what I think of this news article by John Tierney. The article’s webpage is given the strange incomplete title above.

My first comment is that the headline appears false. I didn’t see any evidence presented of liberal bias. (If the headline says “Social psychologists detect,” I expect to see some detection, not just anecdotes.) What I did see was a discussion of the fact that most academic psychologists consider themselves politically liberal (a pattern that holds for academic researchers in general), along with some anecdotes of moderates over the years who have felt their political views disrespected by the liberal majority.

I’m interested in the topic, and I’m open to the possibility that there are all sorts of biases in academic research–but I don’t see the evidence from this article that social psychologists have detected any bias yet. Phrases such as “a statistically impossible lack of diversity” are just silly.

What I really wonder is what John Jost thinks of all this. Jost is a psychology researcher who’s argued that, in recent decades, a sort of political correctness has inhibited researchers from studying correlations between personality and political attitude. But Jost isn’t talking about the political correctness that you hear about all the time, which stops people from saying bold but offensive things about women and ethnic minorities. Rather, Jost describes how studies of personality characteristics, political orientation, and authoritarianism were popular in the 1950s but had fallen into disfavor for several decades after. One claim that Jost makes is that much of the opposition to this research has been, implicitly or explicitly, political: findings such as, “conservatives have more authoritarian personalities, and liberals have more openness” are not value-neutral and do not fit into the mainstream of modern political science.

So, on one hand, moderate and conservative scholars don’t like to talk about their politics (with the exception of various well-known denizens of the op-ed page and the blogosphere, I suppose), and, as Steven Pinker has noted, various ideas related to sociobiology are kept under wraps because of a fear that they might offend some groups. On the other hand, Jost argues that the interaction of personality and politics is under-researched because it doesn’t fit the nonpartisan image of modern science.

As I suggested a few years ago when this topic most recently arose here, I’m hoping that these two strands of research can provide political cover for each other. The people who study personality types can connect their work to genetics (or “human nature,” for the nonbelievers in evolution) to placate the conservatives, and the people who study genetics can discuss the personality research to keep the liberals at bay.

5 Comments

  1. Mark Palko says:

    I later read some of some of Dr. Haidt's comments which turned out to be quite a bit more thoughtful than I expected given Tierney's article.

    http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/postpartisan.ht

    As others have observed, John Tierney does not enhance the NYT's reputation.

    Please bring back Olivia Judson

  2. Name Witheld says:

    Jost's reaction is actually kind of sad and telling. He complains that studies about the "authoritarian" tendencies of conservatives and "open" nature of liberals have fallen out of favor simply because of political discomfort with them. Now here's Haidt offering a contradictory example *in their own field* of liberals who are authoritarian and not open to the views of conservatives – and how does Jost respond?

    With the argument from authority:

    "…when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased."

    "…nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark…"

    And an appeal to the values of the tribe against the outsider:

    "…raising cognitive dissonance is part of our professional mission."

    Is he joking?

  3. Andrew Gelman says:

    Name:

    I didn't see Haidt offering any evidence of liberals who are authoritarian and not open to the views of conservatives. At the individual level there are all sorts of people, including authoritarian liberals, authoritarian conservatives, and so forth. But I didn't see any evidence offered that liberals in psychology research are particularly authoritarian or closed-minded. What I saw was a discussion of the fact that most academic psychologists consider themselves politically liberal (a pattern that holds for academic researchers in general), along with some anecdotes of moderates over the years who have felt their political views disrespected by the liberal majority.

  4. Will Wilkinson says:

    Hi Andrew, I wrote Jost's response to Haidt here:

    http://blogs.forbes.com/willwilkinson/2011/03/03/