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Science Reformers Reduce Political Bias in Psychology

Psychology has a bigtime political diversity problem.  Psychological scientists are overwhelmingly left in their politics, and I co-edited an entire book with over 30 contributors (nearly all of whom are left in their personal politics) about ways in which that influences and distorts their “scientific” claims and conclusions.  For example, claims that advance leftist narratives, such as “the inaccuracy of stereotypes” have been advanced without any supporting data for decades.  Many other phenomena that seem to advance left narratives about the power and pervasiveness of oppression – such as stereotype threat, implicit bias, and microaggressions – have proven to be on weak or dubious empirical grounds.

Can anything be done about this?

Before addressing that, consider this: Psychology is in “crisis” because of a long parade of failed replications of some of psychology’s most cherished findings, especially in my home discipline of social psychology.  But scientific psychology (and many other disciplines) is plagued by more than failed replications. Widely accepted conclusions have gone wrong for a myriad of reasons, including suboptimal methods and statistics, insufficient transparency, insufficient skepticism about dramatic findings, misinterpreted results, confirmation biases, overclaiming, and leaping to conclusions in order to advocate for social and legal changes.

In response to this crisis, a vigorous science reform movement has emerged within psychology.  That movement is spearheaded by the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS, launched in 2016), and has a laser-like focus on improve psychology’s methods and practices.

It arose just after another organization, Heterodox Academy, appeared on the scene specifically targeting academia’s political diversity problem (the lack of ideological diversity, and the concomitant distortions to scholarship plague many of the social sciences and humanities).

Intellectual diversity and science reform should be two well-coordinated efforts.  Each strengthens the other.  In my view, the two efforts are synergistic, but estranged.  There is little overlap in the membership of the two organizations.  This is unfortunate because SIPS implicitly embodies intellectual diversity in everything it does and because one of HxA’s primary concerns is improving the quality of scholarship in the academy by combating the distorting effects of intellectual and political monocultures.

Why the estrangement? I don’t know for sure, but people may erroneously equate intellectual diversity with political diversity, which is not a concern at SIPS. This error probably occurs because many members of HxA, myself included, have been quite vocal in criticizing academia for a slew of dysfunctions that stem from it being dominated by those on the political left.  I am pretty sure such criticism of leftwing psychologists makes plenty of leftwing psychologists both uncomfortable and suspicious of the motives of Heterodox Academy members.

However valid that may be, intellectual diversity is about more than politics.  Writing about theories and research in astronomy in Nature: Physics, Harvard Professor Abraham Loeb argued “Uniformity of opinions is sterile; the co-existence of multiple ideas cultivates competition and progress. Of course, it is difficult to know in advance which exploratory path will bear fruit…”

SIPS and science reform is its own form of intellectual diversity writ large.  They can be viewed as Psychology’s Constitutional Convention –changing the rules of how we do psychological science.  Science reform also has a family resemblance to political controversies, because, both heterodox scholars and science reformers have had to face hostility from their opponents, including insults, denunciations, and condemnations.  Like Queen Victoria, faculty who have achieved eminence under the old rules are rarely amused when a bunch of mostly younger reformers come along and challenge the practices that produced their eminence.  SIPS embodies a different aspect of intellectual diversity but to much the same extent as does HxA.

Despite their estrangement, however, their shared intellectual DNA is on full display at each SIPS conference. SIPS seems to be addressing many of the problems of central concern to HxA without even trying.  For example, one common manifestation of the field’s extreme left skew is that Republicans and conservatives are routinely the butt of jokes even at professional conferences.  Another is that vulnerable early career researchers who are publicly nonleft in their politics are subject to insults and harassment.  Yet another is that data based conclusions that contest leftist narratives are often the target of intense pushback and hostility in public venues.

I have attended SIPS meetings in 2017 and 2018.  This included multiple talks, events, workshops, working groups, and social events.  There were probably about 500 people attending across the two events.  How many jokes did I hear poking fun at Trump, Republicans, or conservatives?  Zero.

How many studies were presented holding up conservatives, Republicans, or Trump supporters to scorn by casting them as stupid, ignorant, bigoted, or authoritarian?  Zero.

How much hostility did I receive when I mentioned the accuracy of gender stereotypes or researchers ignoring evidence contesting left narratives, and the like? None.

I have finely-tuned political bias antennae.  They did not get set off at all.  Ever.

SIPS has shown that my field can function without such biases.  In fact, if one accepts that SIPS is the vanguard of the solutions to what ails psychology, it shows that NOT having such biases is associated with a high functioning scientific field.  Does this occur because removing such biases improves the quality of the field? Or because raising the quality of the field limits such biases? My guess is that it’s both.

How does SIPS do this? I do not know for sure, but here are my guesses.

  1. One of the SIPS leaders, Dr. Alexa Tullett kicked off the conference with a heartfelt call for respect, civility, and inclusivity. “Inclusivity” certainly meant demographic inclusivity, but I think many of us also heard it as referring to status and intellectual idea inclusivity as well. This set a tone of openness to heterodox views, whether they stemmed from methods, theory, politics, or demographic identities.
  2. Psychology’s professional organizations are usually run like medieval fiefdoms, with “great scientists” in their castles on mountaintops showering their wisdom and largesse on the masses. In contrast, SIPS is run like a campground. Flat, everyone is in this together, perceived contributions are based on actual contributions, not status.  This creates a willingness to respectfully engage with almost any view.
  3. SIPS prioritizes getting the science right. Reality, as far as I can tell, does not systematically vindicate any one ideological worldview (with apologies to Stephen Colbert’s joke about reality having a liberal bias — oh, right, he is a comedian). So differences between folks at SIPS tend to be smaller and more hinged to logic and evidence than … almost anywhere else, including other venues for psychological science.
  4. At SIPS, there is full throated embrace of the fact that there is high uncertainty in everything psychological scientists do. Once that is acknowledged, many seemingly contrarian claims can’t be easily dismissed without compelling evidence, which is often lacking. This also contributes to a willingness to engage with all sorts of ideas.

This means that, in sharp contrast to much of the rest of psychology, at SIPS, just because something has been published, even a lot, the finding or conclusion is not presumed to actually be true.  Social scientific consensuses have been known to be wrong.  Whether they are right depends on the quality of the underlying evidence.  There are so many cases now where “lots of evidence” proved unreliable, that SIPS folks generally reject the “We are scientists and our word is TRUTH,” attitude that has gotten psychology into so much trouble. Put positively, SIPS members approach psychology with a much larger than usual dose of professional humility.

I doubt that SIPS will solve all of psychology’s intellectual diversity problems.  Psychology’s decades-long leftward drift is on a trajectory to essentially eliminate all conservatives from the field.  For example, in the 2012 Presidential election, von Hippel and Buss’s recent survey (reported in this book) found that social psychologists voted for Obama over Romney by 301 to 4.  A healthy political diversity in the field is not likely to return anytime soon.  When a field is this lopsided, it means that only questions of interest to liberals will even be addressed, because there is, effectively, no one but liberals in the field.  SIPS’ emphasis on methods will not solve this problem.

However, if the science reform effort in general, and SIPS in particular solves a great many of the other problems – such as political discrimination, cherrypicking evidence to advance narratives, leaping to conclusions to justify social interventions, etc. it  will have done more to improve psychology than many of its members perhaps even realize.  Warts and all, I will sign up for that right now.

 

Lee Jussim is a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University and was a Fellow and Consulting Scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (2013-15). He can be followed on twitter here.

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Lee Jussim is a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University and was a Fellow and Consulting Scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (2013-15). He has published numerous articles and chapters and edited several books on social perception, accuracy, self-fulfilling prophecies, and stereotypes. His most recent book, 'Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,' ties that work together to demonstrate that people are far more reasonable and rational, and their judgments are typically far more accurate than social psychological conventional wisdom usually acknowledges.

15 Comments

  1. Lack of ideological diversity is a major, self perpetuating problem. It’s self perpetuating because those being initiated into graduate programs learn early on that they are not going to succeed by doing what they want; they succeed by doing what their advisors want and making sure to NEVER challenge leftist narratives. This means that even those whose honest academic inquiry may have led them down a more conservative path will never encounter such an opportunity or be in a position to pursue it. The social science fields at this point are so thoroughly dominated by the left that new entrants only succeed on condition of pulling the ideological line and censure any reservations they may have.

  2. steve says

    Maybe honest, scientific inquiry generally doesn’t lead to republican ideology because republican ideology is wrong headed…

    A policy to affirmative action hire based on political bent seems misguided when valid scientific inquiry is the target outcome.

    Overreaching conclusions, inferencing problems, methodological problems in psychological studies can also be attributed to the need for professors to publish, despite having nothing significant to contribute at the time.

    The publishing requirements for professors and misaligned college rankings reports may be the biggest barrier to honest and accurate research… Not political ideology.

    • Peter from Oz says

      I’m a conservative, and I agree with you that any affirmative action in this case would be silly.
      I think it’s good that we let all the second-raters flock together in academia. It’s easier to ignore the blighters there.

  3. Emmanuel says

    Lack of political diversity in the social sciences would not be such a problem if “social scientists” were behaving as scientists rather than professional activists. Facts and logic are apolitical (although the way they are used is not ) : there is no such thing as leftist fact or a conservative syllogism. Either you can prove what you are writing or you can’t and therefore your work should not be described as scientific.

    When I was a social anthropology student in France, at the School for the Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, I quickly realized that most academics and students there would accept other academics’ conclusions and results without paying any attention to the way those conclusions were reached : their way of thinking (” ok, that guy has a phd and left-leaning opinions so he must be right”) was the opposit of what scientific reasoning should be. Thus I believe that the problem of social sciences is mostly a matter a methodology : many social scientists don’t care about it. I am personally appalled by the number of unsupported assertions in allegedly scientific literature.

    More ideological diversity would help solve that problem if it meant a less complacent public for social scientists : when the people who read your works do not agree with you as a matter of principle and will be looking for any flaw they can find, you have no choice but to correct those flaws yourself. However, I would say that the main cause of the problem is a lack of intellectual integrity and scientific methodology rather than political diversity itself.

  4. John the PhD says

    As a cognitive psychologist with past experience in academia, this state of affairs follows from several things:

    1. Universities have been heavily funded through non-competitive and minimally critical means for several generations (e.g., NIH, NIMH, and student loans). As such no one is motivated to smash absurd, dead-end ideas. Universities survive by exploiting impressionable young children and can therefore get away with anything, as the children aren’t yet tough enough to call them on their foolishness.

    2. College professors are typically excellent students, but *exceptionally* timid, naive, and risk-avoidant. They rarely have serious experience outside of academia and therefore have a poor global perspective. And they simply cannot understand this… They avoid biting the hand that feeds, and seek a safe and lazy/easy lifestyle (as best provided by left-leaning statist political parties). Hundreds of small cliques engage in empty publishing (as only a few new ideas can possibly come from available data) mainly to maintain control over the culture and advance their careers.

    3. Thinking cultures always experience dumbing down over a few generations. This applies to everything from pop music to politics. The innovators (e.g., Beatles) devolve into corporate rock (e.g., Journey), and intellectual rebels (e.g., The Clash, Black Flag) become a derivative genre (e.g., Green Day). The innovators are risk takers and fail as much as they succeed, while the timid conformists that follow steal a formula and mass produce it. Imitation can be quite economically viable–consider the millions made by hair metal bands in the 1980s or boy bands across every generation.

    In politics and academia, ideas dumb down and implode in 50-75 year (i.e., lifespan length) cycles. Following the post-darwinian eugenics era (ending with Nazism), we had the post-WW2 Marxist era. Marxism has reached late-stage self parody in recent years, where there is now intense competition to be the weakest and therefore the most righteous. This is obviously a dead end (e.g., the pacifists of the 1960s have become masked Antifa combatants –> de-facto Darwinians). Everyone recognizes that something is broken today, and all sides are working out the next cycle.

    To me, the solution is economic and echoes past eras. It follows from concepts that are not yet understood by the political left (as mainly focused on defending the old order), and is best grasped by the Intellectual Dark Web community. Progress involves twisting the Marxist narrative back to reality of how it’s actually been sustained (i.e., tax dollars and generosity from capitalists outside the bubble). Rectification requires bringing back true competition among ideas. Eliminate tenure. Limit student loans. And in the ultimate Marxist irony, let information already paid for across past generations actually be free. With the ultimate unintended consequences of “free college for all” — cut the overhead and needless waste of university jobs. Move toward radically cheaper online courses, and end the heavy debt burden placed on young children.

    As one working in industry today, there is intense demand for academic skills outside the bubble–if only the ideological narrowness and sloth common with academics is stripped away. Forget direct politics. Act locally, think globally. Bring your skills to those who actually need them. YOU CAN INDEED FIND WORK, AND YOU WILL WILL HAPPY! BE TOUGH! HAVE COURAGE!

    When both the children in school and the naive professors who never had the courage to leave school are forced to make tough decisions, their thinking and ability to compete will improve. The pendulum turns and the cycle starts anew.

    • @John The PHD
      “Progress involves twisting the Marxist narrative back to reality of how it’s actually been sustained (i.e., tax dollars and generosity from capitalists outside the bubble).”

      Indeed. This brings to mind the paradox of billions spent on African aid to feed the poor. The masses of poor in Africa get their influx of food and Maleria vaccinations and i return end up multiplying by the billions (much faster than the do-gooder populations so focused on making sure they don’t die). They’re still a divided tribal society, they have not come together on their own terms to form institutions that are applicable to their populations. The enlightened do-gooders of the West steps in to “save” them, without letting their populations workout ways of being on their own. In return this breeds extreme resentment, envy and mass discontent, which is now flooding into European countries by the masses.

      Moral to the story is that sometimes survival of the fittest, while not being a nice philosophy, is more true at the population level than we like to admit. Maybe tinkering and intervening so much with nature is not in the best interest of humanity. We need to let cultures die out or naturally fade instead of propping them up artificially (like the financial system, or the overuse of antibiotics that will eventually create a superbug).

  5. Harry says

    Yay to diversity and heterodoxy efforts, as long as they don’t creep into a bogus all-perspectives-merit-equal-respect doctrine of fairness.

    There’s some straw mannish stuff in this piece, such as the inference that science outside of SIPS doesn’t prioritize getting it right, and the hyperbolic medieval fiefdom analogy. The status quo problems cited are real, but the claim of everybody receiving equal respect in the SIPS campground seems fanciful if not preposterous, especially coming from a social psychologist. Humility also seems absent from the unjustified implication that better science would inevitably result from involving more psychologists voting for Romney.

    It is true that psychologists lean left politically and I too get squeamish when presenters not subject to peer review display their lean. I think this political orientation plays out most obviously in the topics people choose to study (may explain why the author doesn’t have much company in focusing on the extent to which stereotypes are accurate). Hard to imagine though how this political orientation norm could be otherwise right now, given the trends in the relationship between support for science/education/journalism and political orientation in the past quarter century. The reality of platforms and policies, and the rightward drift of the political center cannot be ignored in this discussion.

  6. I think related to this is the total lack of intellectual diversity at the level of licensed therapists and clinical psychologist. These are the people that are providing services day to day to persons that come into the mental health system. I’ve worked in mental health and addiction for almost 20 years and I now work at a state regulatory agency for the industry. I can tell you that there is ZERO intellectual diversity in the field at the level of counselors and supervising psychologists. I am always, in every work environment, the only conservative and I keep my head down most of the time.
    This is important because these are the people that clients look to to assist them in getting their lives together. I believe that mental health essentially operates a pseudo-religious institution with therapists as the priests / pastors and the psychologists and psychiatrists as the higher religious authorities. This has the effect of deforming the minds and consciences of those that come to mental health professionals for assistance and direction, honestly its another way that chunks of the population can be brainwashed and directed into the support of leftist schemes of social reorganization, one client at a time.

    • Caligula says

      Incentives and rewards are different in clinical psychology and research psychology.

      Research psychology mostly exists within the “the publish or perish” academic system, where there remain perverse incentives (e.g., it’s almost always better to produce low-quality research than no research, and especially to produce what might be called “click-bait” research).

      But clinical psychology is gated by credentialism. Unfortunately there seem to be no good measures of a clinical psychologists effectiveness in actually treating patients, and thus one is left only with credentials.

      It would hardly surprising if a field that lacks objective measures of performance (for which credentials are a poor proxy) just might be full of ineffective practitioners, would it?

  7. Bubblecar says

    As I’ve suggested before, the trouble with this idea of “political/ intellectual diversity” is that there just aren’t many truly conservative intellectuals, and the reason is that conservatives just don’t need them.

    Being a conservative normally means deferring to tradition rather than exploring new ideas, solving new problems or conducting original research. Conservatives tend to be suspicious of such endeavours.

    Most conservatives who enter into intellectual discussion are more concerned with countering this or that progressive idea rather than offering any constructive alternative vision – hence today’s most-quoted conservative intellectuals are usually adversarial “controversialists”, good for feisty anti-progressive soundbites and not much else.

    The real problem outlined in this article is not a dominance of generally leftist/progressive attitudes but a dominance of particular strains of dogmatic leftist ideology, a lack of open rational debate and not enough focus on scientific rigour.

    Intellectually, progressive critics of overly dogmatic leftist views in academia outnumber conservative critics, at least in regard to rational and constructive criticism.

    Much of the criticism from the conservative right takes the form all too familiar on internet forums – much repetitive moaning about how SJWs and “libtards” etc are ruining the world, with little understanding that improving academic standards is itself inevitably a challenge that can only be solved by a progressive approach.

  8. Nick Brown says

    On paper, given its demographics, SIPS ought to be even further left than the average psychological society; I guess that the percentage of SIPS members voting for Trump was no higher than anywhere else in academia. It’s just that at SIPS, people seem able to keep their politics separate from their science. Or it could be a recognition that trying to build social reform on bad science doesn’t do anyone any favours.

    Another aspect that might be worth thinking about is the international dimension. A third of the delegates at SIPS 2018 were not affiliated with institutions in the US, and next year’s conference is being held in Europe. I suspect that the average Dutch social psychologist is not all that far to the left of the average Dutch person; in any case that gap is probably smaller than the equivalent would be in the US. (Of course, to many Dutch people, a lot of Bernie Sanders’ social proposals sound a bit conservative.) Plus, at a meta level, the relationship between one’s political views and one’s actions as a member of society (whether in the workplace or elsewhere) is culturally dependent.

    In contrast to that, it seems to me that Heterodox Academy is addressing a very specific US(mostly)-American issue, with US definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” positions. This makes it a lot harder for people outside the US to relate to, unless they have a deep understanding of US academic and political life.

    • Maybe European Academics don’t necessarily lean more leftward than their fellow country people because European mainstream conservatism isn’t as blatantly wrong and dangerous as Republican conservatism in the US (re: climate change, health care, gun control, money buying political influence, …)? It’s not by chance that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote left.

      Science needs reform and SIPS is doing a great job, but political diversity really won’t further the issue, re-focussing good scientific practice and a de-capitalism-ization of academia will.

      • ga gamba says

        Yet Europe’s political left is scientifically wrong on GMO, more so than on climate change, and that doesn’t dissuade them.

        Re gun laws and their control in Europe, they vary greatly. In Switzerland about 25% of household have at least one gun, for example. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the guns but the people. You might want to take a look at who’s committing gun crime disproportionately. Of course, they may not be thwarted by gun restrictions.

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