Let’s start with some ifs. IF diversity is really a minimum requirement for vibrant intellectual life, and IF college professors really tip toward liberalism and leftism, and IF academic groupthink has had a damaging effect on social sciences . . . IF those things are true, then don’t we need to improve political diversity in order to encourage real intellectual progress? A new study by a group of social psychologists argues that we do. Only by encouraging researchers who embrace conservative worldviews, they write, can social scientists make real progress.
This academic team is not a collection of conservative pundits. As have other self-identified liberal academics such as Jonathan Zimmerman, these psychologists argue that in order to preserve even the liberal goals of the liberal arts, some sort of academic affirmative action is required.
First, some background: this new study will be published soon in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. It has been made available in an unedited, uncorrected pre-publication form to invite peer comment. The authors include José L. Duarte of Arizona State University, Jarret T. Crawford of The College of New Jersey, Charlotta Stern of Stockholm University, Jonathan Haidt of New York University—Stern School of Business, Lee Jussim of Rutgers University, and Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. These academic psychologists are careful to note that none of them identify as political or cultural conservatives. Their argument is not a bitter lament from an excluded right wing, but rather a call to action by concerned academic insiders.
ILYBYGTH readers may remember Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. In a nutshell, Haidt argued that Americans of all political stripes make up their moral minds first, then adduce reasons to explain their positions.
This new argument is different. The authors limit their claims to the field of social psychology. Their field, they contend, is
At risk of becoming a cohesive moral community. Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogenous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?
For example, studies of public attitudes toward climate change have described disagreement with mainstream science as “denial.” By calling one side “science” and the other side “denial,” doesn’t the very structure of the study adversely affect its outcome?
As the authors warn, “Embedding any type of ideological values into measures is dangerous to science.”
Not only does political homogeneity threaten to derail the answers found by social scientists, it tends to skew the questions they ask. As an example, the authors describe the career of the idea of “stereotype accuracy.” Due largely to ideological commitments, social psychologists had assumed that stereotyping was a false and negative tendency. In the 1970s, however, a rare conservative psychologist examined the question in a new way, and “found results that continue to make many social psychologists uncomfortable.” In this case, conservative psychologist Clark McCauley found that many stereotypes are actually based on rational assumptions and fact.
Why are there so few political and cultural conservatives in this academic field? The authors suggest a range of possibilities. They reject the notion that academic careers attract liberals because liberals are somehow smarter than conservatives. But they do find that the field may suffer from a self-propagating tendency. Since it is perceived as hostile to conservative thinkers, young conservative academics steer clear. Professor Haidt includes a sample of comments by conservative graduate students from his earlier work. One conservative academic told Haidt that he or she remained in the academic “closet.” Due to anti-conservative prejudice, this person wrote, “I find myself hiding my intellectual views and values every day.” Another conservative graduate student wrote that “the political ecology became too uncomfortable for me.”
This sort of weeding-out, the authors warn, threatens the field. By encouraging a culture of similar-minded researchers, the field of social psychology undermines its own scientific validity.
What is to be done? The authors offer a laundry list of suggestions, including more funding for conservative graduate students and an active recruitment process for tenure-track university positions. Universities are already good at searching for diverse faculties and student bodies. They only need to expand their notion of “diversity” to include a true intellectual, cultural, and political diversity. More broadly, the authors encourage all social psychologists to examine their own prejudices. “Instead of assuming,” they suggest,
That stereotypes are inaccurate without citing evidence, ask, ‘How (in)accurate are stereotypes? What has empirical research found?’ Instead of asking, ‘Why are conservatives so prejudiced and politically intolerant?’ . . . ask, ‘Which groups are targets of prejudice and intolerance across the political spectrum and why?’”
These are issues near and dear to ILYBYGTH hearts. Time and again, conservative intellectuals and pundits have complained that higher education has been lost to a morass of identity politics and destructive Red-Guardism. Perhaps most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. quipped that he would rather trust the government to the first four hundred people listed in the Boston phone book than to the faculty of Harvard University. More concretely, as I’m uncovering in my current historical research, conservative evangelicals have devoted considerable amounts of time and treasure to the establishment of dissenting conservative colleges, where students and faculty will be free to pursue truth undeterred by self-defeating and short-sighted secular humanism.
Certainly, this study will likely be embraced by conservatives as more proof that their complaints are justified. I wonder how many conservative intellectuals, though, will embrace the liberal premises of this study as well as its conservative-friendly conclusions. That is, will conservative thinkers agree that diversity is a requirement for true intellectual growth? Many conservatives, after all, have rejected racial affirmative-action programs that promise greater intellectual diversity. Can conservatives accept this study on conservative grounds?
It is worth repeating that this article limits its claims to the field of social psychology. But clearly its implications are worth considering for academia as a whole. Do mainstream colleges need a dose of true political diversity?