Seeking unnatural diversity

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist best known for his work on the categorical sources of human morality, has found a new source of discrimination — in his own profession.

The New York Times reports that Haidt argued, in a speech to the recently-concluded annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, that there is an unacceptably liberal skew among his colleagues.

While surveys indicate that fully 40 percent of Americans are self-described political conservatives and only 20 percent are liberals, Haidt’s informal poll at the start of his speech showed that liberals made up 80 percent of the psychologists in attendance. Only three of the 1,000 psychologists raised their hands when Haidt asked for a count of the conservatives.

Haidt concludes that what he calls “a statistically impossible lack of diversity” shows that psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that interfere with objective research and damage their public credibility — and at the same time blind them to their own bias:

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. But when we find out that conservatives are under-represented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.

“Jump” is an apt word, for there is an unexamined and possibly unwarranted assumption behind Haidt’s concerns, an assumption whose correction may render the liberal “bias” a little more understandable, and a lot less alarming. And it’s the same statistics that the New York Times cites in support of Haidt’s concern which point to a more benign social cause than discrimination. The Times reports:

The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They’ve independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

Today’s most senior professors, including psychologists, were students in the volatile 1960s. Social divisions were mirrored in each student’s choice of major, with students of one or another political bent gravitating to those fields which best reflected their own values. A dominant concern for the human cost of racism and war led quite naturally to the study of the human animal and the societies we create. Liberal-minded students, today’s senior professors, became history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political science majors in numbers disproportionate to the university student body at large.

In a similar process, business programs and technical sciences like engineering reasonably would have attracted more of those students whose politics did not motivate them as much to study social and human sciences. Survey the senior managers who run the Fortune 500 companies, and you’re likely to an 80% “bias” for conservatives. This may mean nothing more than that conservatives are drawn more to business and liberals are drawn more to social science. Where’s the bias? In places like Vancouver, young working singles are often drawn to the energy and convenience of  higher-density urban lifestyles. They flock to the high-rise apartments of the West End and the gentrified lofts of Yaletown. No one seriously suggests that this means that there is “discrim-ination” against families with minivans, two teenagers, and a large dog. These families are naturally attracted to more open areas, such as suburbs with lawns and triple garages and nearby golf courses. To see bias here, you have to look at the cause and effect backwards.

The “sacred values” of “a tribal-moral community” which Haidt sees may be nothing more than an over-diligent application of postmodernist relativism and political correctness. Ironically, his tendency to see bias in an “unequal” distribution of political views among psychologists may be less a matter of actual discrimination than it is a matter of Haidt’s own bias toward seeing discrimination in any disproportionate population cluster, no matter how otherwise neutral or benign. There may be no more real discrimination in the fact that liberal university professors outnumber conservatives 6-1 than there is in the fact that, at CitiBank, MBA’s outnumber Philosophy PhD’s by a far greater ratio.

Not every lack of diversity is a bias. Everyone in my family is related to me. There is such a thing as a natural distribution, and it may well be that being attracted to a career in university education is nothing more than one of those natural tendencies.

Haidt goes on to make the standard Kuhn-derived argument that psychological research may be compromised by group values and preconceptions. He gives the usual examples of the postmodernist, PC attacks on unwelcome theoretical postulations and research results. These are real and troubling cases, but what they may really show, in the end, is less a structural bias in the field than the equally unpopular fact that much of social science is not, in fact, science. There’s a great difference between interpretation and measurement, and the social sciences often have a lot of trouble making the transition distinguishing the one from the other. If their data were truly empirical, it would be far more difficult to dismiss or misinterpret it, or at least to continue to do so in the light of confirmatory replication.

Another study cited in the New York Times article supports this view. When research showed that there were fewer women with university professorships than there “should be,” the university community responded with a wide range of “affirmative” programs. Yet more thorough study showed that there was no difference in the success rates of male and female candidates for jobs — that is, there was no selection bias for men in hiring practices. Instead, fewer women were applying — that is, there was a selection bias, but it operated in the other direction. The problem wasn’t bias, but the nature of the job situation:

Instead of presuming discrimination in science or expecting the sexes to show equal interest in every discipline, the Cornell researchers say, universities should make it easier for women in any field to combine scholarship with family responsibilities.

“Expecting the sexes to show equal interest in every discipline” is precisely the kind of assumption that may lie behind Haidt’s claim of a “statistically impossible” distribution of political bent among social psychologists. Why presume that the field should represent the general distribution of political philosophy in the general population? No self-selected group is likely ever truly to represent the general population.

The “problem” here simply may be one of not being able to see the trees for the forest.