is there discrimination against conservatives in academia? comment on duarte et al. 2014

There’s been a paper making round and a few folks have asked me for comments. It  is called “Political Diversity will Improve Social Psychological Science.” It is forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and is co-authored by Jose Duarte, Jarett Crawford, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim and Phil Tetlock. Duarte et al. make the following claims:

  • Social psychology, like most academic areas, is politically homogeneous.
  • Intellectual diversity is a good thing.
  • “The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-
    selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.”

My overall reaction is sympathetic, but critical. In my comments, I will start with evidence that is specific to social psychology, but also comment on the broader issue of professorial partisanship.

The lopsided political slant of academia is to be lamented. Since social scientists study human values and ethical behavior, we definitely lose something if only one side of the argument is represented. I also think that when sociologists move from disagreement to hostility, they do a disservice. All students should feel like it is permissible to disagree with an instructor and no one wants to be judged on their political views when it comes to graduate school admissions and appointment to the faculty.

On other points, I am more critical. For example, their coverage of the debate over discrimination is lacking. It is true that that many academics exhibit confirmation bias – they are more likely to approve of studies that support their ideological view. That is a logically consistent story for why, say, sociologists might be overwhelmingly liberal because we deal with lots of research that have social implications. But it doesn’t really explain other facts, like that a majority of physical scientists vote Democrat (see page 29 of the Gross and Simmons’ book on professors*). How would people possibly know the party preference of mathematicians? It’s not on the CV and in the eight years I spent in math departments, I still have no idea what the preferences of my fellow students and teachers were.

Another point of criticism is that they take uncritically the evidence on self-reports of willingness to discriminate. They cover a number of studies showing that liberals admit they would discriminate, while others do not. They see this as strong evidence. I do not because of social desirability bias. The default response is for people to admit they do not discriminate. My hypothesis that overly zealous academic liberals are simply more motivated to admit personal fault, which means they deviate from the socially desirable answer at much, much higher rates.

One point that is never brought up is that liberal disciplines become noticeably more conservative if they try hard enough. For example, it is my impression that economics used to be dominated by Keynesians up until about 1960 or so. Now, there are many notable conservative and libertarian economists who are very prominent. Similarly, there are disciplines which have an even Republican/Democrat balance, such as engineering (see page 29 of Gross and Simmons). Those who think discrimination is the smoking gun in this story need to explain why economics has become more conservative over time, how discrimination is supposed to work in a-political fields like math, and why liberals never conquered other areas. Most of the story about liberal over-representation is about humanities and social sciences which, do indeed, have lopsided tendencies.

Perhaps the point that I always think about is one that Duarte et al. and others always seem to miss. A major finding of Gross’s 2013 book on academic liberals is that there is indeed a self-image problems. And yes, much of it has to do with the fact that conservative students don’t think they will “fit in” with liberal professors. But there is another very strong reason which Gross covers – money. Academia is a low paying profession and conservative students value income in jobs more than other types of students.

This finding dovetails well with an observation about professions. Liberals tend to dominate in areas that are low paying and focus on issues like education, learning, care giving, and culture. These include the arts, entertainment, academia, K-12 teaching, nursing, social work, and science. Once you add some high income, conservatives start appearing in large numbers (e.g., the Dem/GOP is way different for doctors vs. nurses; artists vs. art managers; lawyering vs. other humanities oriented work; physical science vs. engineering).

That summarizes my response to Duarte et al. 2012. The basic point is correct – social psychology, and other areas, by implication, are politically lopsided and it’s likely not a good thing. On other points, I think they over read the evidence. I am certain that discrimination might occur, but when you look at a broad range of evidence, the story gets complicated very quickly.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($1!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

* Disclosure: I have a chapter on this book on the history of ethnic studies.


Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2015 at 12:55 am

11 Responses

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  1. I won’t even get into how things are being operationalized in this study. But I question whether we should be defining political diversity with respect to party affiliations or liberal/conservative distinction. I think even you, Fabio, mentioned in an earlier post that these distinctions don’t actually capture the real fault lines in American political attitudes. Further, I would say: yes, we do have diversity on the social sciences/humanities side of academia, its just a diversity that begins just left of center (Yes there are things we academics are likely to agree on, but I think its easy to underestimate how much more we disagree on). Note: I would argue that the center itself is a moving target and was quite a bit further to the left even a decade ago; Ronald Reagan would essentially be a moderate were he around today. Maybe this is why the relatively few institutional settings regarded as “progressive” or “leftist” seem problematic and close-minded in our political climate, while the many settings where you would never expect to find anyone identifying as liberal seem, well, normal.



    January 9, 2015 at 3:22 am

  2. If you don’t think discrimination occurs on a daily basis you have never stepped in a regular seminar or lecture in political science, sociology, psychology or philosophy. Or if you have, then you’ve never considered how it would feel as a conservative student listening to authority figures making highly insulting (and irrelevant) comments about conservative beliefs to the resounding cheers and laughs of the entire class.

    Liked by 2 people


    January 9, 2015 at 4:28 am

  3. I agree completely with @seal above. Yes, there is lots of self-selection into academia, and it’s hard to be a sociologist in particular unless you think, say, social structure exists and is constraining, which flies in the face of some conservative positions. But sociologists (and maybe social psychologists) frequently make statements, including in classrooms, that assume conservatives or libertarians are prima facie hateful, ignorant, evil, etc. And there’s a lot of in-group talk that assumes everyone in the room has similar political positions.

    I don’t think the social sciences should aim to replicate the political distribution of the nation as a whole. But we could do a lot better at distinguishing between what we know through social science and what we believe for other reasons (and how the two intersect). You don’t have to hide, or compromise, your own political stance in order to engage respectfully with people who don’t share it.

    Liked by 7 people


    January 9, 2015 at 5:22 am

  4. I talk myself blue in the face trying to encourage conservatives to speak up in my (family) classes. In spin out their arguments for them in elaborate, eloquent (I think) speeches. And hardly anyone bites. I think there are two reasons: first is not many female social science majors are conservatives; and second those that are conservative are not dedicated, engaged conservatives but rather legacy or cultural conservatives who just aren’t there to argue about ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    Philip N. Cohen

    January 9, 2015 at 1:11 pm

  5. Glad to see the discussion move beyond active discrimination to include structural factors as possible explanations. I’m a bit confused by the social desirability bias argument though. Wouldn’t it depend on who they see as their peers for which they want to demonstrate the socially desirable answer? My guess would be that the perception of academia as full of enlightened liberals would make them more likely to respond as they do because it is seen as helping keep knuckle draggers out of the profession. It’s my understanding that research shows more ideological people (such as overly zealous academic liberals) tend to be more confident in their views rather than more likely to see and admit their own faults.

    Liked by 1 person

    Josh Mccabe

    January 9, 2015 at 4:34 pm

  6. Last year, I saw the phenomenon that @epopp describes in her first paragraph. Two of my first-year graduate students were humiliated by a sociologist and his doctoral students for their white, Christian, conservative appearances and demeanors during a semester-long course. They left the program.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 9, 2015 at 4:37 pm

  7. In support of Phil’s comment, women tend to get a lot more conservative after they get married, so there’s a life course skew to our predominately female students (especially undergrads) skewing center-left or left.

    Contra Fabio, I don’t really buy the income thing as being anywhere powerful enough to explain very much of the causation. You have to consider that there is this parallel universe of political intellectuals, and it’s not actually the case that most of them experience life as one of filling a goblet with champagne urinated by gold statues of Cupid rendered in the likeness of the Koch brothers. I have friends who are more successful at being political intellectuals than I am at being an academic and I’m pretty sure I make more money than they do and I definitely have more job security. Junior fellows for this policy magazine or that think tank make about the same amount of money as grad students, freelancers often make less than adjuncts, junior editors make a lot less than assistant professors, and senior research fellows make about the same or less than full profs of comparable fame. (In fairness, senior management compensation at think tanks is competitive with that at universities. For example the president of AEI makes more than UCLA’s president or provost, about the same as the provost at Harvard, but less than the president at Harvard). Moreover political intellectual jobs typically require you to live in DC, or maybe NY, whereas a lot of academics live in college towns w low cost of living.

    On the issue of self-selection, as I’ve remarked before, the best evidence for this is to serve on graduate admissions. A majority of applications are basically “I want to get a PhD in SJWology.” Interestingly, I have also noticed that while the modal applicant is a SJW of no particular technical skill or theoretical sophistication, there tends to be a pretty strong consensus against admitting people whose writing sample consists of interviewing their roommates about how much it sucks to be them. Interestingly, out of the roughly 400 applications I’ve read, I recall seeing only about 4 or 5 military veterans and if memory serves, all of them were admitted and any discussion in the committee of their experience in the service was characterized by treating this as a signal of maturity and competence with no derogatory complaints whatsoever about militarism, “regimented thinking,” or anything like that. (I’m not assuming that veterans, especially millennial enlisted vets who apply to soc PhD programs, lean right, just that this is pretty contrary to any assumptions about tenured radicals, etc). Admissions committees want people who already know R, not people who want to stick it to the man.

    So as a proximate cause, self-selection is a pretty overwhelming source of explanation and in fact would probably be worse were it not kept in check by admissions committees who demand technical skill and theoretical sophistication. (Not to say that lefties can’t also be talented, and they often are, just that talentless activists do apply and they get rejected. See Jeremy’s recent posts over at Scatterplot to see how I’m thinking about collider processes in admissions). But the self-selection itself is heavily influenced by the public character of the discipline, and especially by our undergraduate pedagogy.

    None of this is to say that there is not also some ideological discrimination of varying degrees of subtlety, and it is definitely not to say that I think it is either intellectually healthy or healthy for our engagement with the broader public for sociology to be so ideologically skewed away from the general population and I have a lot of thoughts about all of that. All I’m saying is that if you’re trying to explain that skew in the short run, the main proximate cause is self-selection.



    January 9, 2015 at 5:30 pm

  8. […] Rojas is generous and clever, and his review of the Duarte et al. paper on academic discrimination lays out some of the best arguments that […]


  9. I think that before we begin this discussion it would be useful to define two key terms- “discrimination” and “conservative”. Without doing so I don’t think its possible to debate this topic effectively.

    To me, political labels like “conservative” are really social identities. As such, I don’t think that the best way to conceptualize what it means to be “conservative” is to understand it as a representation of a roughly coherent worldview, ideology, or set of values and policy preferences. Some people who describe themselves as “conservative” merely have a healthy skepticism of government while others who describe themselves as “conservative” might be religious fundamentalist who believe that climate change is a global conspiracy to create a one-world government ushered in by the anti-Christ. In addition, people may hold incoherent positions such as an extreme disdain for “the government” yet an extreme idealization of the military, which is of course part of “the government”

    Then, we need to clarify what we mean by the term “discrimination”. Does discrimination mean that conservatives will be denied opportunities (e.g. graduate admissions, grant funding, tenure, etc.) or does it refer to more “micro-aggressive” inter-actionary phenomenon? Also, do we care about the actual, objective existence of discrimination or the perception of discrimination? I make this point because survey evidence suggests that many conservatives, especially older and more affluent conservatives, believe that they are being victimized in our society, though it is unclear why they feel this way. Hence, it is imperative for us to clarify what “discrimination” actually means.
    Many empirically incorrect beliefs are associated with holding a conservative political identity. For example, imagine that I’m teaching about racial discrimination and presenting information from empirical studies which, on balance, strongly suggest that discrimination against African-Americans is still prevalent in our society. it’s a common conservative belief that discrimination against Whites is common and African-Americans are actually privileged in our society. A student with a conservative identity might feel that the lecture is “discrimination” because his opinions are not being represented. This type of thinking is the cornerstone of Fox News’ branding.

    Given that being a “conservative” is correlated with a number of empirically inaccurate beliefs, we need to think critically about how to handle such individuals if they are to be our colleagues. If your colleague is teaching students that whites, christian, conservative males are the “true victims” in our society what should you do? If job candidate gives a talk in which they argue that climate change is a global conspiracy to create a one-world government and take our guns away, how should you react? Is it “discrimination” to dismiss or challenge their ideas?

    To conclude, I’ll note that my imagine of what is means to be “conservative” is likely colored by my background. I grew up in a lower-income, all-white semi-rural area in which the vast majority of people were “conservative”. For me, “conservative” is very viscerally associated with animus towards non-whites, religious fundamentalism, disdain for the LGBTQ community all wrapped up with a profound sense of victimization. My experience with “conservatives” is much more intimate and, indeed, until my early 20s I thought of myself as “conservative”.

    Whenever this topic comes up on the blogs I get the sense that the OP and commenters think of “conservative” differently- maybe someone who is pro-Business and vaguely “libertarian”. Again, this is why its so important to define these terms.


    Silly Wabbit

    January 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm

  10. I haven’t read Neil Gross’s book, but I don’t see how his explanations fit with our observations of change over time. If his thesis is accurate, then we should be able look backward and see liberals numerically dominating academia for decades (because of its low paying nature). In reality, we see a significant change after the 1960s. Jonathan Haidt has talked about that here:

    You’ll have to forward to 52:00.

    Again, I haven’t read Neil Gross’s book so perhaps he discusses this point.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 15, 2015 at 7:38 pm

  11. There are also many overt attempts to fire people who say things that violate liberal taboos, but few (or no) attempts to fire people who say things that violate conservative taboos. See, for instance:

    Note that the WaPo reporter quotes factually incorrect feedback by a random social media user but does not mention that Stephen Ceci wrote a comment supporting the accuracy of the article on sex differences!

    Admittedly, Salaita was de-hired for saying things that violate conservative taboos, but U Illinois has had to pay a pretty large price for that.



    January 19, 2015 at 9:10 pm

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