10 February 2011

Ideological Diversity in Academia

Jonathan Haidt's talk (above) at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology was written up last week in a column by John Tierney in the NY Times.  This was soon followed by a dismissal of the work by Paul Krugman.  The entire sequence is interesting, but for me the best part, and the one that gets to the nub of the issue, is Haight's response to Krugman:
My research, like so much research in social psychology, demonstrates that we humans are experts at using reasoning to find evidence for whatever conclusions we want to reach. We are terrible at searching for contradictory evidence. Science works because our peers are so darn good at finding that contradictory evidence for us. Social science — at least my corner of it — is broken because there is nobody to look for contradictory evidence regarding sacralized issues, particularly those related to race, gender, and class. I urged my colleagues to increase our ideological diversity not for any moral reason, but because it will make us better scientists. You do not have that problem in economics where the majority is liberal but there is a substantial and vocal minority of libertarians and conservatives. Your field is healthy, mine is not.
Do you think I was wrong to call for my professional organization to seek out a modicum of ideological diversity?
On a related note, the IMF review of why the institution failed to warn of the global financial crisis identified a lack of intellectual diversity as being among the factors responsible (PDF):
Several cognitive biases seem to have played an important role. Groupthink refers to the tendency among homogeneous, cohesive groups to consider issues only within a certain paradigm and not challenge its basic premises (Janis, 1982). The prevailing view among IMF staff—a cohesive group of macroeconomists—was that market discipline and self-regulation would be sufficient to stave off serious problems in financial institutions. They also believed that crises were unlikely to happen in advanced economies, where “sophisticated” financial markets could thrive safely with minimal regulation of a large and growing portion of the financial system.
Everyyone in academia has seen similar dynamics at work.


  1. " Groupthink refers to the tendency among homogeneous, cohesive groups to consider issues only within a certain paradigm and not challenge its basic premises (Janis, 1982). "

    "Everyyone in academia has seen similar dynamics at work."

    Yes! But how many "get it?" Maybe relatively few!

    Anyway, great post.

  2. #3 Daughter is 4th year at brown studying cognitive science.

    Her first paper involved a tic-tac-toe board with varying line widths and slightly varying widths between the lines. She was trying to determine at what perception occurred as to whether the blocks were more vertical or horizontal.

    Males and Females answered opposite to each other.

    Krugman's thesis that you can choose your ideology is on rocky ground.

    Our ideologies are shaped by our perceptions. If we perceive differently(we do) then we can't 'choose' our ideology.

  3. Theres truth in what both writers said, yet they both overstate their cases. A headcount is a poor way to assess bias in academia. For example, I was politically right-of-center when I started studying science. After years of studying science and seeing Republicans deny many of its realities, I have drifted to center-left. I agree however that academia could benefit from increased political diversity... It's just not as serious a problem as a head count would imply.

  4. This is the tip of the iceberg of the problem.

  5. My research, like so much research in social psychology, demonstrates that we humans are experts at using reasoning to find evidence for whatever conclusions we want to reach.

    Well put. A related concept is "backfire", which holds that facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds... Indeed, quite the opposite, as misinformed people actually tend to cling to their beliefs more strongly when presented with opposing evidence.

    More links here: http://tinyurl.com/5wo33ot

  6. Krugman notes that certain political ideologies incline the holder to reject climate science. it should also be noted that certain ideologies induce the holder to place undue credence in climate science findings. Certain climate science findings have been shown to have been derived by statistical methods that based on unjustified assumptions. However these mathematical findings are rejected and their authors decried as 'deniers' etc.

    Krugmam is right that politics invades science but seems not to notice that it invades the sciences from all places on the political spectrum

  7. There's a tendency, especially for those on the left, to project political labels onto how we think, i.e., if someone is politically conservative, then they must be intellectually conservative, or not open to new information that could/would change how they think. Conversely, being politically progressive means that you are open-minded and have the ability to change your assumptions based on new information.

    Yet, anyone who operates out of an ideological basis, whether they term it liberal, progressive or conservative, is more likely to be closed-minded. An ideologue, by definition, shapes information into a predetermined form and rejects anything that doesn't fit.

    WRT to climate change, my concern is the ever increasing extent it is being driven by ideology in the public arena. The actual science has become fairly irrelevant at this point.

  8. The professionals surveyed in the studies Krugman cites are public employees. Public employees are more often than not union members. Union members are more often than not Democrats. I suggest these results reflect not the political ideology of the academy, but individual self-interest. That's an explanation an economist might appreciate.

  9. I am an amateur climate scientist of the skeptic persuasion and also a political conservative. I’d like to think that my opinions on climate science are grounded in science, not politics. The situation among climate scientists is somewhat similar to that of social psychologists. Skepticism is widespread but is usually selective and restrained . Only a very few establishment climate scientists are actually out of the closet, vocal skeptics. Climate science in theory is a hard science but the data and understanding are so poor that it ends up being a soft science with multiple interpretations possible of the same data. From my point of view the climate science establishment is nearly blind to important, obvious and devastating facts. For example it is obvious that all CO2 control measures are a waste of time because China will not participate, but the climate science establishment continues promoting CO2 control without serious consideration of the China problem. Another example: the unexplained early 20th century warming could not have been caused by CO2 but the establishment insists the similar late 20th century warming must have been caused by CO2 because they can’t think of anything else that caused it. Another example is the recent and unexplained lack of ocean heat storage when the canonical theory says it should be increasing.

  10. Roger, I don't know if this is the right place to put this, so forgive me. Judith Curry has flagged an interesting post by David Roberts at Grist, more or less saying what you have been saying about the 'clean energy' challenge. Anyway, I commented with the following:

    Pielke Jnr passim has been saying the same thing for years: Perhaps one should read his book. Stern et al involves one in utopian projects whose stated ends have no meaning. One might question, therefore, why so much is being invested in them? Not for the ends as stated, at least. Perhaps, there is some bad faith here – not concerned with the future, which those invested believe will take care of itself, but for other, more parochial reasons? And that is the point – there are many who have that faith in human ingenuity that believe, whatever happens, we will deal with it. As the figures show, we must. The squabble, therefore, being between Canute and those who are busy building the boats!

  11. Lewis #10,

    According to the legend, Canute was not the one who thought he could stop the tides. It was his sycophantic court. His wet feet and robes were a lesson to them on the limits of power, not to him. Of course the whole story is likely apocryphal.

    But your point is still valid.

  12. Nature AND nurture may be more at work in deriving one’s ideology than the conscious “choice” Krugman would have one believe. See, “Is There a Liberal Gene?” at:

    As a self-acclaimed “liberal”, Krugman apparently abhors any proposition that conservatives are under-represented in academics. He’s also not “open” to the possibility that under-representation may result in academic “bias”.

    Haidt views his colleague social psychologists as a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility. He is reported to say, “If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community…They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” This phenomenon seems not only natural, but not uncommon.

    Witness the “climate tribalism” recently identified by Dr. Judith Curry. While engaging AGW skeptics and simultaneously defending herself for doing so, she wrote, “the problem seems to be that the circling of the wagons strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks against climate science are now being used against other climate researchers and the more technical blogs …. Particularly on a topic of such great public relevance, scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them.”

    After all, it appears “saving the planet” is every bit a “sacred value” to climate scientists as is “non-discrimination” in the field social psychology.

    Lastly, Krugman also curiously objects to Haidt’s sampling his audience by “head count” to dramatize that the large majority was “liberal” while just three were “conservative”. Krugman acknowledges that natural scientists in various fields are predominantly liberal, that it may be “hard to be a conservative in some social sciences”, and he even claims an “obvious bias” by peer review (albeit against his Keynesian view) in economic journals. Apparently, he believes that observations should not get in the way of a committed ideological bent.