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