- - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

It’s not every day that left-leaning academics admit that they would discriminate against a minority.

But that was what they did in a peer-reviewed study of political diversity in the field of social psychology, which will be published in the September edition of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, surveyed a roughly representative sample of academics and scholars in social psychology and found that “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues.”

This finding surprised the researchers. The survey questions “were so blatant that I thought we’d get a much lower rate of agreement,” Mr. Inbar said. “Usually you have to be pretty tricky to get people to say they’d discriminate against minorities.”

One question, according to the researchers, “asked whether, in choosing between two equally qualified job candidates for one job opening, they would be inclined to vote for the more liberal candidate (i.e., over the conservative).”

More than a third of the respondents said they would discriminate against the conservative candidate. One respondent wrote in that if department members “could figure out who was a conservative, they would be sure not to hire them.”

Mr. Inbar, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008, cautions that the finding reflects only what respondents said they would do — not necessarily what they actually would do in real life.

Generally speaking, the more liberal the respondent, the more willingness to discriminate and, paradoxically, the higher the assumption that conservatives do not face a hostile climate in the academy.

To Massimo Pigliucci, chairman of the philosophy department at the City University of New York-Lehman College, the problem is not that conservatives face discrimination; it’s that any hint of political bias, whether conservative or liberal, necessarily flouts the standards of objectivity to which scholarship must adhere.

“It is to be expected that people would reject papers and grant proposals that smacked of clear ideological bias,” he says. Mr. Inbar and Mr. Lammers, he says, should have examined the extent of bias against liberal-leaning papers and grant proposals. If the degree of bias against liberals and conservatives is similar, maybe the data on discrimination against conservatives would not be so alarming after all.

But Harvey Mansfield, a conservative professor of government at Harvard University, argues that the anti-conservative bias is real and pronounced. He says conservatism is “just not a respectable position to hold” in the academy, where Republicans are caricatured as Fox News enthusiasts who listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Beyond that, conservatives represent a distinct minority on college and university campuses. A 2007 report by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that 80 percent of psychology professors at elite and non-elite universities are Democrats. Other studies reveal that 5 percent to 7 percent of faculty openly identify as Republicans. By contrast, about 20 percent of the general population are liberal and 40 percent are conservative.

Mr. Inbar and Mr. Lammers found that conservatives fear that revealing their political identity will have negative consequences. This is why New York University-based psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a self-described centrist, has compared the experience of being a conservative graduate student to being a closeted gay student in the 1980s.

In 2011, Mr. Haidt addressed this very issue at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology — the same group that Mr. Inbar and Mr. Lammer surveyed. Mr. Haidt’s talk, “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” caused a stir. The professor, whose new book “The Righteous Mind” examines the moral roots of our political positions, asked the nearly 1,000 academics and students in the room to raise their hands if they were liberals. Nearly 80 percent of the hands went up. When he asked whether there were any conservatives in the house, just three hands — 0.3 percent — went up.

This is “a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Mr. Haidt said.

Mr. Inbar and Mr. Lammers, who were at the conference, couldn’t believe that there were really so few conservatives in their field. A month or two after Mr. Haidt’s talk, the two researchers were having a few beers and decided to design a survey examining their colleagues’ political beliefs.

Beyond their findings on discrimination, the pair determined that while conservatives are minorities in their field, they are not statistically negligible: About 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as moderate or conservative on economic issues, while 30 percent did so on foreign policy issues. The widest divide occurs on social issues, the contested terrain in the culture wars shaking the academy. On these contentious issues, 90 percent identified as liberal and only 4 percent as conservative.

“As offensive as it may seem to many social psychologists,” Mr. Inbar and Mr. Lammers write, “believing that abortion is murder does not mean that one cannot do excellent research.” To think otherwise, they argue, damages the scientific credibility of psychology — a field that has been criticized in the press for being a pseudo-science.

The statistical representation of self-reported conservatives in the study may be largely moot as long as they are intimidated by a hostile, discriminatory majority. After all, a silent minority can hardly function as the kind of check on the prevailing assumptions of their liberal colleagues essential for robust academic debate.

“Because of the way the confirmation bias works,” Mr. Haidt says, referring to the pervasive psychological tendency to seek only supporting evidence for one’s beliefs, “you need people around who don’t start with the same bias. You need some non-liberals, and ideally some conservatives.”

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