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Why Social Scientists Increasingly Look Liberal

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."
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Do social scientists have a liberal bias? Research suggests they increasingly do, but the real issue might be that politics have shifted away from science.

Earlier this year, a new study suggested that academic psychology, especially social psychology, has lost the political diversity of 50 years ago, and that researchers often inject liberal values into their work. Countless studies document prejudice against racial minorities, for example, yet few even look at similar prejudice against conservatives such as religious Christians.

Conservatives cheered the result. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute recently argued in the New York Times that such bias undermines “accuracy and quality” in social science, particularly on politically charged issues.

He's right that we should be concerned: Diversity of perspectives generally leads groups to make better collective decisions, and in principle should lead groups of scientists more reliably toward the truth. Even so, diversity of perspectives isn't the same as diversity of political ideologies. Is the latter really something we should be aiming for?

An ideology is a set of beliefs that people find useful in making sense of the world, and in connecting themselves with others of similar orientation. Some ideologies may have more intuitive appeal than others, or more inspirational power. Some might also be better at encouraging open, scientific learning.

Consider the belief that God created life and the universe, specifically as described in the Bible. This is a typically conservative conviction that evolutionary biologists, for example, are highly unlikely to share. A good biologist must be open to the idea that the character of life on Earth can be explained without reference to supernatural beings. Hence, it's not academic bias if biology departments don't hire many creationists.

Social psychology may have similar prerequisites. The field got its start by seeking scientific explanations for the nature of social attitudes and interactions among people. The field advanced by focusing on issues driven to prominence by the Second World War and ensuing social change -- the nature of authority and blind obedience to it, as well as the roots of gender inequalities and racial prejudice. It's thus entirely possible that its core insights simply conflict with basic elements of conservative ideology.

Political theorist Corey Robin, in his book The Reactionary Mind, argues that the central theme in conservative thought through history has been a preference for social hierarchies -- owner over employee, man over wife, rich over poor, white over black. If so, it's not surprising that few conservatives would find themselves drawn to social psychology, which doesn't approach hierarchies as inherently praiseworthy and valuable. Rather, it sees them as phenomena to be explored and understood, and perhaps judged as useful or not, depending on circumstances.

In this context, the liberal shift among social psychologists also makes sense. The study shows that roughly half of academic psychologists voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1920s. That began to change in the 1960s, and by 2006 the Democrats dominated by 11 to 1. But who modified their beliefs -- the psychologists or the parties? It was a Republican, Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and proposed both a national health-care plan and a negative income tax for the poor. Today he would sound like an extreme liberal. Perhaps psychologists haven't changed as much as the political atmosphere has.

Groupthink and political ideology can lead to bad research -- and Jose Duarte, one of the study's authors, offers some disturbing examples on his website. Still, this doesn't mean that there are too many liberals in social psychology. It does mean that academics -- liberal and conservative alike -- need to raise their standards.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net