The Corner

Education

How Groupthink Is Harmful in Academia

A herd of sheep grazing in Berlin, Germany, August 12, 2019. (Fabrizio Bensch/ Reuters)

If all of the scholars in some field hold the same set of views about the world, then mistakes are apt to go unnoticed and questions that would only occur to someone with a different set of views will go unexplored. Unfortunately, that is the case in numerous academic fields. Criticism and creativity are suppressed by ideological homogeneity.

In today’s Martin Center article, Professor Christian Rodriguez of Chile reflects on his field — social psychology. “Ideally,” he writes, “scientific validity does not depend on the political or moral values of the scientist, but on the reasonability of the research process. However, personal values and biases can affect researchers in multiple ways. They can affect how scientific ideas are conceived, developed, and tested. One of the biggest effects is in how values determine research questions.”

Rodriguez gives several examples of the kind of bias introduced by groupthink. The top journal in his field recently published an issue filled only with articles on such leftist causes as “ableism” and “neoliberalism.”

Another instance involves the well-known academic assumption that religious people are not open-minded. A professor at the University of Toronto (Keith Stankovich) had done a study that seemed to support that conclusion, and no one disagreed. But then he thought about his approach some more. Rodriguez writes, “However, in a highly unusual publication, Stanovich himself revised his own scales and realized that they might be intrinsically skewed against religious individuals. Evidence showed that once the bias in the open-minded scale is corrected, the correlation decreases noticeably. Reflecting on this, Stanovich wrote: ‘It never occurred to us that these items would disadvantage any demographic group, let alone the religious minded. No doubt it never occurred to us because not a single member of our lab had any religious inclinations at all.’”

Is there any hope of at least ameliorating this problem of academic groupthink?

Rodriguez makes this solid suggestion: “The key is dialogue: In the early stages of a research project, social scientists could reach out to scholars in departments that traditionally do not hold dominant liberal views (such as business schools, health sciences, or engineering departments). Even a non-technical discussion of research questions could yield valuable insights about potential blind spots. Academic institutions could promote these dialogues to improve scientific research—which is the very reason they exist in the first place.”

Good idea, but any scholar who does that is apt to find himself facing the wrath of leftists who decry his willingness to engage with “bad” people.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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