More on the Political Bias in Academia

by Veronique de Rugy

As I have reported in these pages before, George Mason University’s Dan Klein has done a lot of work on the political bias against conservatives or free-marketeers in academia. Yesterday, over at Freakonomics, Stephen Dudner added to the conversation by commenting on a piece by John Tierney in the New York Times about the bias that “some of the world’s pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.”

Tierney’s note about the bias:

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.

This part is really interesting:

“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,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

Dubner makes a good point which is that under representation isn’t hard to understand in a self-selecting group. In fact, it is the point of the selection.

The lack of diversity isn’t actually “statistically impossible” in a self-selecting group. But that of course is the point. How can it be that an academic field is so politically homogeneous? What kind of biases does such homogeneity produce? What sort of ideas get crowded out? And how homogeneous are other disciplines?

I have to say that I was surprised at the overt political (leftward) bias exhibited by several prominent economists at the recent American Economics Association meetings, although my sample set was quite small.

Tierney concludes:

In the old version, the society announced that special funds to pay for travel to the annual meeting were available to students belonging to “underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students).”

As Dr. Haidt noted in his speech, the “i.e.” implied that this was the exclusive, sacred list of “underrepresented groups.” The society took his suggestion to substitute “e.g.” — a change that leaves it open to other groups, too. Maybe, someday, even to conservatives.

Finally, a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a new analysis that shows the left-leaning bias in Harvard University Press:

Harvard University Press’s output during the last decade has leaned heavily to the left, according to an analysis published this week in Econ Journal Watch. The press’s slant embodies and reinforces ideological disparities in academe, the paper argues, because faculty members are rewarded for publishing with prestigious presses like Harvard.

The analysis is here.

It would be interesting to understand why such bias exists (especially in economics where my bias tells me that it doesn’t make sense!). Also, does evidence of bias make it go away?

Thanks to Jason Fitchner for the pointer.