Jonathan Haidt, a prominent University of Virginia social psychologist, is asking some very important questions about his discipline. These questions have consequences for all of higher education. He is concerned about the absence of conservatives in his profession and what that might mean for the quality of research and its credibility with the general public, where conservatives outnumber liberals two to one.
Haidt starts by documenting how rare conservatives are among social psychologists. He notes the published surveys and then proceeds to collect new information on his own. First, he conducts a Google search for “liberal social psychologists,” gets 2,740 hits, and then does the same thing for “conservative social psychologists,” where he gets three hits, but none of those actually identifies as a conservative social psychologist.
Next, he surveys a sample of social psychologists, asking if they know any conservative social psychologists. The majority respond that they don’t know any, and the minority responses lead to one self-confessed conservative, Rick McCauley at Bryn Mawr College.
He also surveys his colleagues asking them to identify conservative graduate students and finds no conservatives, only two right-leaning moderates. Finally, when he makes a presentation at the social psychology national meetings in January, he surveys his audience (some 1,000 people) and finds approximately 800 declare themselves liberal, while only three claim to be conservative (most of the rest are left leaning). (http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/jhaidt-819710-haidt-postpartisan-social-psychology/) This leads to a 267 to 1 ratio among his audience.
It is important to remember that Haidt is a dedicated liberal; he has no conservative ax to grind. In his presentation, he goes to great lengths to explain how such uniformity of perspective creates “a tribal moral community.” Tribal moral communities lead their members to be “blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values.” This means questions that should be asked do not get asked, and he sites Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, as an example.
Summers was fired for suggesting that the disproportionate number of female faculty members in math and science at elite universities might be explained by the known greater variance in IQs among men and women. The implication is there are more men in the upper tail of the distribution than there are women. (Don’t forget, this also means there are more men in the lower tail of the distribution than women). Haidt notes this is a perfectly legitimate hypothesis; yet, there was such outrage at the question that Summers was fired for asking. Haidt says social psychologists should “be more outraged by the outrage,” and they should defend Summers for raising the issue.
Haidt asked the two right-leaning graduate students what it is like to study with liberal faculty. In order to characterize what they said, he recast one of their responses as if it were a “coming out” testimonial from a gay person. It conveyed the same sense of not belonging and fear of revealing their true preferences. He notes that tribal moral communities create inhospitable environments for those who do not adhere to the tribe’s “sacred values.”
Haidt explains how inconsistent this is with true “diversity” and, more importantly, how detrimental it is to the pursuit of science and the truth. In other words, it is a threat to the core values that justify higher education. In the end, he calls for a “post-partisan social psychology” and affirmative action hiring of more conservatives.
In my own judgment, the existence of tribal moral communities in higher education is a worse threat to academic freedom than any previous or current outside threat. I have seen this, up close and personal. Furthermore, tribal moral communities are the reason higher education refuses to reform. The communities prevent anyone from asking the uncomfortable questions that have to be asked in order to make reform successful.
Bob Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.