Raise your hand if you are a courageous, individualistic thinker

A couple of years ago, one of the stories in BioEdge was titled: “Conservatives more likely to be psychopaths, says Florida prof”. It was a terrific, popular and completely accurate headline. The academic’s message was that conservative political views were associated with Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. There was only a 1 in 100,000 chance that his findings are wrong, he said.

What about conservatives applying for positions in universities, then? If the interviewing panel regards them as psychopaths, they are unlikely to land a job. Universities have enough problems without filling desks with wannabe Hannibal Lecters.

While the Florida prof’s findings might seem absurdly exaggerated, it appears that his view of conservatives is widely shared by social psychologists. And this, says the famous liberal social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is a serious problem.

In the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences (pre-print PDF), Haidt and several colleagues, none of them conservatives, warn that lack of diverse opinions is undermining their discipline. Over the past few years, it has been plagued by scandals and failures, “including a few high-profile replication failures, a handful of fraud cases, and several articles on questionable research practices and inflated effect sizes”. One reason for this, they suggest, is lack of political diversity and openness to dissenting viewpoints.

Haidt relates that in 2011 he asked 1000 social psychologists at a conference how many identified as “liberal”. About 80% raised their hands. Only 20 people in the room admitted to being “moderate or centrist”, 12 to being “libertarian” and 3 to being “conservative or on the right”. That is a liberal-conservative ratio of 267:1. More serious surveys find that that the ratio is about 10:1 – but among American voters it is about 0.5: 1.

Ooops, say Haidt and his colleagues. “If left unchecked, an academic field can become a cohesive moral community, creating a shared reality that subsequently blinds its members to morally or ideologically undesirable hypotheses and unanswered but important scientific questions.”

They conclude that:

“1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of non- liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.”

Whether you are liberal or conservative, this very stimulating article is worth reading. Could it explain the “consensus” which is so often invoked in controversial issues? 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | limitations of science, politicization of science, social psychology

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