More on the missing conservative psychology researchers

Will Wilkinson adds to the discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s remarks regarding the overwhelming prevalance of liberal or left-wing attitudes among psychology professors. I pretty much agree with Wilkinson’s overview:

Folks who constantly agree with one another grow insular, self-congratulatory, and not a little lazy. The very possibility of disagreement starts to seem weird or crazy. When you’re trying to do science about human beings, this attitude’s not so great.

Wilkinson also reviewed the work of John Jost in this area. Jost is a psychology researcher with the expected liberal/left political leanings, but his relevance here is that he has actually done research on political attitudes and personality types. In Wilkinson’s words:

Jost has done plenty of great work that helps explain not only why the best minds in science are liberal, but why most scientists-most academics, even-are liberal. Individuals with the personality trait that most strongly predicts an inclination toward liberal politics also predict an attraction to academic careers. That’s why, as Haidt well notes, it’s silly to expect the distribution of political opinion in academia to mirror the distribution of opinion in society at large. . . . one of the most interesting parts of Jost’s work shows how personality, which is largely hereditary, predicts political affinity. Of the “Big Five” personality traits, “openness to experience” and “conscientiousness” stand out for their effects on political inclination. . . . the content of conservatism and liberalism changes over time. We live in a liberal and liberalizing culture, so today’s conservatives, for example, are very liberal compared to conservatives of their grandparents’ generation. But there is a good chance they inherited some of their tendency toward conservatism from grandparents.

University professors and military officers

The cleanest analogy, I think, is between college professors (who are disproportionately liberal Democrats) and military officers (mostly conservative Republicans; see this research by Jason Dempsey). In both cases there seems to be a strong connection between the environment and the ideology. Universities have (with some notable exceptions) been centers of political radicalism for centuries, just as the military has long been a conservative institution in most places (again, with some exceptions).

And this is true even though many university professors are well-paid, live well, and send their kids to private schools, and even though the U.S. military has been described as the one of the few remaining bastions of socialism remaining in the 21st century.

Politics and research in statistics and political science

I don’t actually have any systematic data to add to the discussion, so, like Haidt, I’ll share my personal experiences. Unlike Haidt, I’m presenting this on a blog and not at a major address at a psychology conference, so I don’t expect the same level of NYT coverage, but I’ll give my thoughts nonetheless.

I’ve done most of my research in two fields, statistics and political science.

Debates in the statistics community have been extremely political, in a way. When I started out after getting my Ph.D., there was a lot of anti-Bayesian hostility out there (and some correspondingly foolish cheerleading on the other side). Nowadays the anti-Bayesians are on the defensive and are typically charmingly clueless, but back then they could really do some damage. The Bayes/non-Bayes fissure had a bit of a political dimension–with anti-Bayesians being the old-line conservatives (for example, Ronald Fisher) and Bayesians having a more of a left-wing flavor (for example, Dennis Lindley). Lots of counterexamples at an individual level, but my impression is that on average the old curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn types were (with some notable exceptions) more likely to be anti-Bayesian.

The other time I’ve found a political-feeling tinge to discussions of statistics research was about 20 years ago, when I gave a conference presentation on my methods for monitoring convergence of iterative simulations. Most people there loved what I was doing, but one guy really hated it. Years later, I figured out that what was happening was that we were working on different sorts of applications, and the methods that worked for his problems weren’t so useful for mine (and vice-versa). But at the time neither he nor I had this sort of perspective. Anyway, this dude was pretty mean–he really seemed to think I was a complete idiot and he didn’t seem to have any sense of what my statistical goals were. And I’m sure I didn’t help matters any by responding with a mix of seriousness and mockery. There was no left-right “politics” involved but the whole aspect felt very political to me, with people taking sides. The whole scene upset me a lot at the time and still bothers me. I’ve tried to learn from this episode in the following way: when I criticize a statistical method, I always try to give every benefit of the doubt to the approach I’m criticizing, to try to understand where it’s coming from and to understand what problem it’s solving.

Oddly enough, my research in political science has not been particularly politically contested. My collaborator Gary King once made the comment that nobody could tell our political attitudes by looking at our research. This may be a good thing or maybe not–a lot of good research is politically committed and unavoidably so–it’s just how things seem to have worked out for me. I never would’ve done the Red State Blue State research had I not cared deeply about politics, but I don’t see the results as having any political slant (beyond the generic U.S.-style centrism under which we think that voting and representation are worth studying in the first place). Again, I’m not trying to claim any kind of nonpartisan virtue on my part, just remarking on how things have turned out.

It probably is true, though, that the general political climate affects my work, at least in the sense of how I feel I need to defend it. For example, if I were working and living in a left-wing environment, I’d probably have to apologize a lot more for my focus on public opinion and voting and my relative lack of attention to campaign funds, backroom deals, the personal interests of congressmembers, and so forth.

9 thoughts on “More on the missing conservative psychology researchers

  1. Social sciences of course should start from some fundamental biases, because we are human beings. We don't need statistical significant evidence to support that there is a fundamental difference between human and animals.

    Can you challenge IRB policy with your statical arguments? No. Can you use your statistical technique to demonstrate a psychology study which ruin ten persons' life can benefit the whole society so it is worthful? No.

    By the way, the opposite of liberal doesn't have to be conservative. When you disagree with liberal, maybe you can make it clear that you disagree with their opinion on personal issues or economic issues. It's no that simple as just left or right. check this chart.

  2. "U.S. military has been described as the one of the few remaining bastions of socialism remaining in the 21st century"

    How is it socialist?

    My feeling would be that if you look at who die and who don't in the military then I would expect their to be a large association with socio-economic status.

  3. "When I started out after getting my Ph.D., there was a lot of anti-Bayesian hostility out there. [snip] back then they could really do some damage. [snip]-with anti-Bayesians being the old-line conservatives (for example, Ronald Fisher)"

    Wikipedia says that Fisher died in 1962 and that you got your Ph.D. in 1990, so I don't see how "back then" aligns with when you started out. Was Fisher still wielding influence from the other side three decades later?

  4. Haidt's counting is confined to the subfield of social psychology.

    In more rigorous areas of psychology, such as psychometrics, the big names often wind up being considered on the right, although probably mostly from being ostracized by for their discoveries by leftist academics than by their inherent political bias: Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Hans Eysenck, Linda Gottfredson, etc.

    Similarly, there are the big names in evolutionary psychology, like John Tooby and Steven Pinker.

    In general, social psychology sounds like it is being left behind in a sleepy backwater, and an infusion of fresh ideas could help it compete better in the marketplace of ideas.

  5. "My feeling would be that if you look at who die and who don't in the military then I would expect their to be a large association with socio-economic status."

    Young whites tend to die in combat at a much higher rate relative to their share of the population than young minorities: 86% higher death rate in Iraq and 147% higher in Afghanistan.

  6. While I know there are some young men you have gone into the army instead of going to college as anticipated, I suspect these young white men who died don't negate my assertion that death in the millitary and socioeconomic status are associated.

    But anyway, my real question is, how is the army socialist?

  7. Megan (and others) the "bastions of socialism" observation is based on the facts that the U.S. military is entirely government-supported, including government-subsidized housing and health care, and the government decides who gets promotions, and what jobs they get, and what the salary is. Basically the whole thing is government-run. If all employment in the country worked the same way, this would be an entirely socialist country. It's usually said with tongue in cheek a bit, but there is some truth to the observation.

  8. "Young whites tend to die in combat at a much higher rate relative to their share of the population than young minorities: 86% higher death rate in Iraq and 147% higher in Afghanistan."

    And those young white men are from a nice neighborhood, or from one in which the military was one of the few ways out? (my father joked that he was in the Army for three years before he learned that one didn't have to be from Appalachia to become a sergeant).

    And I remember reading an article studying branch choices in the (pre-9/11) Army. The white males tended to go into the combat arms more; the minorities tended to have a much more vocational attitude, and were paying attention to post-Army uses of their training when enlisting.

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