The academy is liberal, deal!

By Razib Khan | February 8, 2011 1:02 pm

A new article in The New York Times, Social Scientist Sees Bias Within, profiles Jonathan Haidt’s quest to get some political diversity within social psychology. This means my post Is the Academy liberal?, is getting some links again. The data within that post is just a quantitative take on what anyone knows: the academy is by and large a redoubt of political liberals. To the left you see the ratio of liberals to conservatives for selected disciplines. Haidt points out that in the American public the ratio is 1:2 in the other direction, so it would be 0.50. He goes on to say that: “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.” Haidt now calls himself a “centrist,” but you define yourself in part by the distribution around you. In the general public he’d probably still be a liberal, as evidenced by the logic he’s using here. The proportionalist idea is so common the Left, that institutions and communities should reflect the broader society, that he’s now attempting to apply the framework to ideology. But there may be many reasons not having to do with crass discrimination why different groups are differently represented in different disciplines. Consider this case:

– Academics tend to be much smarter than average, and liberals may be overrepresented among the very bright. That to me could explain why education professors are more conservative, though I doubt political scientists are that much brighter than engineers!

– Liberals and conservatives have different values, so that people of similar aptitudes may choose different life paths. The standard assumption is that conservatives value the remuneration of the conventional private sector more than liberals, who may opt for the prestige and status of the academy.

– Studying social science may make you liberal, in that conservative ideas are just not correct.

– Finally, subcultures are probably subject to positive feedback loops where small initial differences may result in disproportionate attraction of various types of individuals to different groups. After the initial positive feedback loop is generated, i.e. bright liberal undergraduates know that graduate school is socially congenial to their values, while conservatives know that it is not, group conformity effects can make the politically “out” reminder more liberal or conservative than they would otherwise be (as an inverse case is Wall Street, where may people from conventional liberal backgrounds may still identify as relatively liberal, but on many issues their environment has shifted their absolute viewpoints to a more right-wing position).

Not only do I think there are reasons not having to do with straightforward discrimination as to the skewed ratios, but, I think that barring a Ministry of Conservative Representation enforcing quotas from on high it’s pretty much impossible to change the basic statistics. You could, for example, simply mandate that conservatives get paid 50% more to incentivize them to becoming academics. But why stop here? How about more liberals in the military and corporate boardrooms?

Does this matter? I think it does. “Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences:

The hypothesis of a Hierarchy of the Sciences with physical sciences at the top, social sciences at the bottom, and biological sciences in-between is nearly 200 years old. This order is intuitive and reflected in many features of academic life, but whether it reflects the “hardness” of scientific research—i.e., the extent to which research questions and results are determined by data and theories as opposed to non-cognitive factors—is controversial. This study analysed 2434 papers published in all disciplines and that declared to have tested a hypothesis. It was determined how many papers reported a “positive” (full or partial) or “negative” support for the tested hypothesis. If the hierarchy hypothesis is correct, then researchers in “softer” sciences should have fewer constraints to their conscious and unconscious biases, and therefore report more positive outcomes. Results confirmed the predictions at all levels considered: discipline, domain and methodology broadly defined. Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values. These results suggest that the nature of hypotheses tested and the logical and methodological rigour employed to test them vary systematically across disciplines and fields, depending on the complexity of the subject matter and possibly other factors (e.g., a field’s level of historical and/or intellectual development). On the other hand, these results support the scientific status of the social sciences against claims that they are completely subjective, by showing that, when they adopt a scientific approach to discovery, they differ from the natural sciences only by a matter of degree.

The cult of p-values is such that “sexy” results often get published which are not replicated. Additionally, scientists have biases in terms of what they should find. This occurs in a non-political context in the natural sciences. In Jonah Lehrer’s widely circulated piece on the “decline effect” there were plenty of examples from biology. I assume that the assumed political liberalism in social science labs across the country has a strong effect on what gets studied, how it gets studied, and what gets submitted.

Consider the work on gay parenting. This is an aspect of the “Culture War” where conservatives are slowly and inexorably losing, with gay marriage assumed to be inevitable within the decade. Much of the recent work shows that there is no difference in outcomes of children from gay parents, or that these children even fare better. Now, imagine if a pro-gay rights researcher find a marginally statistically significant effect of having gay parents being correlated with adult psychopathology. Social science being what it is the researcher could plausibly argue to themselves that this isn’t a robust result which would be validated by replication, especially in light of the previous research in this area. Additionally, what if you add in the possibility that there is a gay marriage ballot measure in the state where this researcher lives, and where their research university is prominent? Should they present their findings at conference and so allow it to get reported at such a critical juncture?

I’m giving you a pretty stark and bald example, but I think more subtle forms of bias are just part of the bubbling epiphenomenon of science. Especially in light of the psychological discipline’s tacking with the cultural winds when it comes to homosexuality I don’t think that it is likley that there isn’t a level of political cheerleading going on here. I actually accept the behavior genetic finding that parents matter a lot less than we assume, so as a matter of fact I assume that having gay or straight parents doesn’t have a large effect. But, I don’t believe that researchers in this area, which is at the heart of the culture wars, are dispassionate. And, I think that effects their outcomes somewhat in the aggregate.

Where does this leave us? Buyer beware! I’ve identified myself as conservative several times on this weblog. I’m pretty skeptical of the findings of social science in a lot of cases because I assume there’s bias which creeps in because there’s so much unanimity of thought in labs. I’ve heard plenty of stories on the ideological pressures which are get reinforced as a matter of course. Not only that, but many social sciences have normative biases baked into the cake of their disciplines. Economics is one where many on the far Left complain that “orthodox” “positive” economics is actually ideology pretending to be science. As a conservative, and not a libertarian, I think they have a point. In particular, the materialistic methodological individualism of modern economic models of utility do miss something I believe when it comes to Eudaimonia.

But as a conservative, I believe in muddling on. I’m skeptical of social engineering generally, and I’m skeptical of social engineering in this case. Just how the die rolls.

Addendum: One thing about ideas is that quality, not quantity, matters. So I don’t think you need proportionate number of conservatives or liberals in a discipline of culture to make ideas heard. The Federalist Society for example has changed the legal world, despite the likelihood that most elite lawyers remain conventional liberals.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Social Science
  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    The trouble here is that the left-right scale might measure differently social attitudes from economic attitudes. Before the bankers looted society I was a social liberal and an economic conservative.

  • William Sears

    Why is Physics never on these lists?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    why do people never click through? it is. but with an N = 37 i left it out.

  • http://teapotatheism.blogspot.com Carter

    No Geology? Aww. I was hoping to find geology the most liberal discipline so I can brag to my poli-sci mother.

  • dan

    it’d be cool to see a chart of only lower level teachers. i’d bet the ratio would be more even but i could be wrong. maybe having a conservative ideology interferes with moving up to the big leagues in some way. it’s a very interesting “coincidence” that liberalism is strongly correlated with academia *and,* separately, high intelligence;) however, i remember a chart Razib posted a while back showing Anglicans edging out Atheists and Jews by a point or two for IQ. is that outdated now? further, i remember Aud. Epigone posting a chart showing the south is dumber than the north even when controlling for race. does that including teachers vs. teachers?
    if i had to guess i’d say it’s because liberalism happens to agree with reality more often than conservatism but, to be fair, libs have some really weird science-denier views when the reality violates their (most precious) goal of equality for all. “HFCS, GMOs and any notion of “race” MUST be stopped! Onward to Portlandia!!”

  • benj

    This is not scientific but here is what I observed as a long time student with 3 MAs in social sciences (because I love to learn many things): the best students in my classes almost never continued to doctorate. They usually did not like the academia too much seeing all its flaws.
    On the other hand, the one staying for PhDs were average students and in many cases extreme-left wing activists from all kind of pro-anything groups.
    I don’t know what was the political affiliation of most of the best students, but in the few cases they expressed an opinion it was usually right wing.
    So in my opinion, the positive feedback loop is indeed very strong and appeals in particular to losers who would not make anything interesting in the real life.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan


    So in my opinion, the positive feedback loop is indeed very strong and appeals in particular to losers who would not make anything interesting in the real life.

    hey now, some of my best friends are academics!

  • John Emerson

    I think that the practicality and applications angle is somewhat decisive. On the one hand, academia is almost never a good economic choice, so economically oriented people (whether they want to get very rich, or whether they just want to get a job right away and start a family) are not going into academia. And second, academia insulates you from daily life, and educated people with hands-on jobs (nurses and schoolteachers) tend to be more conservative than academics — despite teachers’ reputation for liberalism,and despite the fact that education and medicine are closely intertwined with big government. (Many still go into these fields for religious reasons). Economists are the most conservative social scientists, and they also have the most lucrative career tracks.

    The forms of liberalism or leftism fostered by the university are pretty limited. Outside literature, anthropology, and maybe history (i.e., the three worst careers in the three most powerless fields) you don’t get far being far left. It’s mostly a sort of internationalist big-government administrative liberalism.

    Another way to approach it is to look at contemporary conservativism. One big chunk of conservatives are Bible Christians. Historically many scientists and scholars were Christians, but they weren’t Bible Christians (fundamentalists), and as time has gone one religion and science have diverged. (Fundamentalism was essentially a revolt against the kind of Christianity that fostered science). And another chunk is anti-intellectual for other reasons (Practical people who despise “losers who would not make anything interesting in the real life.”)

    There are conservative enclaves. The neocons have strength in some political science departments. Chicago school econ is very conservative. History and literature departments have a conservative tradition (Hugh Kenner was a close friend of Bill Buckley) but it is useless in today’s context because it was strongly anti-populist and elitist; in fact, the elitism of contemporary liberalism can be traced back to historians and lietary critics of the 50s.

  • benj

    “And another chunk is anti-intellectual for other reasons (Practical people who despise “losers who would not make anything interesting in the real life.”)”

    Of course, I learned 3 MAs and spent 9 years at university because I am anti-intellectual.
    Or maybe, you could learn to read.

  • John Emerson

    Anti-intellectualism is an attitude. And frankly, when someone brags about 3 MAs and then sneers at people with PhDs, you have to ask questions.

  • benj

    When I said, learn to read, I was serious. I was just stating my own personal and absolutely non-scientific, observation during my long time as a student – the brightest usually don’t go for a PhD, at least in Social Sciences (here Economics, International Relations, Public Policy). That’s what I saw and it’s not representative of anything. Don’t feel so insecure about yourself.

  • AG

    @benj

    In my observation as student, I got opposite finding from you. All my brightest class-mates went for academia, the ones who can not finish school went for bussiness.

  • Finch

    My experience in electrical engineering at MIT was that the kids who went on to a PhD program were bright, but second tier. It was a way of postponing getting a real job. Whether or not this is actually correct, it was a common belief. One might expect that an aversion to the corporate world would be associated with being liberal. I was there in the late 90s when no-one worried about getting a job.

    Mind you, in engineering, there is a real advantage to operating in the non-academic world: real budgets let you build non-trivial things.

  • Ian

    A comparison with “the American public” isn’t really appropriate – to even be in the pool where you’re thinking about an academic career, you need to have a college degree. And that population if memory serves, is far more liberal than the population at large. More realistic would be a comparison with the population of people who have graduate degrees – since this includes a large proportion of people who have MBAs, JDs and teachers who get an MA or MEd to improve their standing on the pay scale.

    If the NYT article accurately portrays Haidt’s argument, he’s making a deeply flawed straw-man argument. Which either means he’s being deceptive, engaging in sensationalism, or isn’t intelligent enough to see the flaws in his argument.

  • Ian

    You actually see an interesting (but anecdotal) counter-argument among ecologists. Ecologists (and even environmental science textbooks) take great pains to distinguish between the groups. When it comes to ‘environmental issues’, ecologists tend to be far more conservative than environmentalists (especially when you take into account the animal rights activists and anti-GMO types who are increasingly vocal among environmentalists). And yet, a fair proportion of the people who become academic ecologists start out as starry-eyed environmentalists. How large a proportion, I don’t know.

    Now you could always argue that the shift from undergraduate to faculty represents maturity and aging, becoming more conservative simply because you have more to lose (property, status, a tenured job). But how many of the grown-up environmental activists are former undergrads in biology? When it comes down to it, your experiments are only as good as your null hypothesis. But are most policy makers and politicians in a position to understand things like that? Before you can learn anything, you need to come to terms with the idea that you might be wrong.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    And that population if memory serves, is far more liberal than the population at large. More realistic would be a comparison with the population of people who have graduate degrees – since this includes a large proportion of people who have MBAs, JDs and teachers who get an MA or MEd to improve their standing on the pay scale.

    1) college graduates aren’t

    2) graduate school degree holders are

    If the NYT article accurately portrays Haidt’s argument, he’s making a deeply flawed straw-man argument. Which either means he’s being deceptive, engaging in sensationalism, or isn’t intelligent enough to see the flaws in his argument.

    haidt’s coarse proportionalism is relatively common and unchallenged when it comes to race and sex, so i wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t deeply reflected on his left-liberal assumptions here.

  • John Farrell

    Engineering: 2.7? That’s a shock! ;)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #17, i think that shows the power of academia vs. private sector (or public sector non-academic) environment.

  • http://lorenzo-thinkingoutaloud.blogspot.com/ Lorenzo from Oz

    But does it matter? is a good question. Which turns out to be three questions.
    (1) Does bias/conformity matter? For example, for what these institutions are paid to do.
    (2) Does an outlook division between academe and the general public matter?
    (3) Does this particular bias/conformity matter?

    You have canvassed (1) fairly well.

    On (2), I am inclined to think a widening division in outlook and concerns (those feedback loops) between academe and the general public is not healthy for either.

    On (3) I suspect it encourages certain sorts of unreality, discounting of issues, etc which gets in the way of application of critical reason to public policy issues.

    Being also sceptical of social engineering, I tend to go for the “alternate institutions” model. But, in many ways, that is precisely what think tanks are, for example. I would also abolish all government run schools, but mostly for other reasons — I do not believe nationalised education works any better than nationalised food or car production.

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  • http://www.gnxp.com TangoMan

    the best students in my classes almost never continued to doctorate. They usually did not like the academia too much seeing all its flaws.

    My experience in electrical engineering at MIT was that the kids who went on to a PhD program were bright, but second tier. It was a way of postponing getting a real job. Whether or not this is actually correct, it was a common belief.

    As luck would have it some academics looked at this general theme, “Returns to Graduate and Professional Education: The Roles of Mathematical and Verbal Skills by Major”:

    If major-specific skills at the bachelor’s degree level are increasing in market value, then they will tend to lower incentives to pursue graduate work in that field. Conversely, majors whose skills are falling in value at the bachelor’s level will have disproportionately high numbers of graduate students.

    Moving on from the field of study to the individuals within the field of study, we see:

    Those who do not go on to graduate school are drawn atypically from the upper tail of the GRE quantitative distribution and the lower tail of the GRE verbal distribution, both of which are expected to raise their earnings. On the other hand, those who go on to graduate school are drawn disproportionately from the lower tail of the quantitative GRE distribution and from the upper tail of the GRE verbal distribution, both of which lower their opportunity costs of graduate school.

    The market value of cognitive skills is influencing the composition of the student body which goes on to higher levels of education:

    Our study points out an interesting role for cognitive skills in the market for advanced degrees. Students in majors with higher average quantitative GRE scores are less likely to attend graduate school, even though such students presumably are more likely to be successful in graduate education. The opposite happens for verbal skills—students in majors with higher average verbal GRE scores are more likely to attend graduate school. This leads to a sorting effect whereby students whose cognitive skills would suggest lower earnings at the bachelor’s level are more likely to attend graduate school. This sorting effect appears to be part of the cause of the downward bias in estimated returns to graduate education—the average earnings of those who do not go to graduate school overstate the opportunity costs of graduate education for those who do pursue advanced degrees.

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  • AndyTK

    I read an article somewhere that talked about liberal and conservative values. It showed that conservatives value respect and team loyalty more than liberals. Is also showed that conservatives were more change adverse than liberals. Is it possible that these differences, which affect how we view different issues making us liberals and conservatives, may also affect how well we do in an academic environment? That is to say liberals may be more suited psychologically for academia than conservatives?

    I would also point out that if conservative radio and TV personalities continuously attack academia young conservatives may self-select out of academia seeing it as a less than honorable profession? Or, if once in academia conservatives might disassociate themselves from conservatism because of the attacks? (I didn’t leave conservatism, conservatism left me).

    Computer science is a field that is heavily dominated by men. I can attest that this has nothing to do with a hostile environment against women and everything with women either not being interested in the field, or being hostile to men in the CS field as being less than men.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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