Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Liberal bias in academia?

So is there a liberal bias in academia? The New York Times reports here that a recent meeting of social psychologists noted this concern. However, the "evidence" seems rather flimsy.

The group examined were those delegates who happened to have attended a particular talk. The speaker asked delegates to raise their hands if they were "liberal" or "conservative" and found the overwhelming majority to be liberal and only about three in the audience were conservatives. From this it was then speculated that this finding was statistically significant in that it could not be random that so few self-identified conservatives were in the room. There must be some explanation and it was advanced that the best explanation is a liberal bias.

First, it would be an error to generalize from this sample to say the same bias exists in other professions. The fact that a great majority in social psychology might have such a bias is not evidence that the same phenomena exists in other academic fields. In fact, no other academic field was examined. So it is quite a leap -- and major mistake -- to say all academia might have this bias on the basis of this one sample.

Secondly, the sampling itself is highly problematic. The sample consisted only of those persons who chose to attend this particular talk by this individual at a specific conference. While I do not know how many of the conference delegates did attend this talk, it may be the case that many delegates abstained for various reasons. If this were so, then this sample might not represent a fair representation of those social psychologists who did attend the conference. Any such "bias" found might be a bias of only those social psychologists who attend talks of this kind (or for some other reason) and not a generalized truth of all social psychologists -- and not even a generalized truth of social psychologists at this conference. So it is far from clear that this "bias" is true for the academic group sampled at this conference and probably a mistake to generalize that it is true for that academic discipline as a whole.

If this is so problematic, then why does this story have wings? One reason is that it gives credence -- on whatever weak grounds -- to the rightwing's conspiratorial ideology that universities are run by the left in an attempt to brainwash (however naively and unknowingly) students into adopting liberal views instead of conservative views. The Leiter Reports has regularly challenged this view and I'd do so again. Success at university -- certainly not in the humanities and social sciences -- is not down to saying the "right answers" to controversial questions. In fact, the opposite seems true: many of the most successful philosophers are those who challenge our everyday assumptions in trying to offer distinctive and novel theories. One would think if the right held plausible worldviews that this would be a field ripe to be picked: after all, academics are always looking to make a name for themselves through the distinctive positions and arguments they offer. The fact that so many academics might not identify as "conservative" might then be evidence not of a bias, but informed debate.

So academics often disagree with the rightwing press. The latter may want us to believe that it is academics who have the bias, but why not think the "bias" moves in the other direction? Does this not make best sense? Unless, of course, you have a "bias" . . . .


Matt said...

Thom, I think you're right that Haidt needs to say more to make a case for bias. His talk is interesting, though, and definitely worth reading. Here's my summary, and reaction, for what it's worth:

Prof said...

Meanwhile, I am waiting for the universe-rocking sequel, in which Haidt will discover a conservative bias in the military! He's got audience-polling!!

You still allow sarcasm in the comments, right?