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Political Bias in Psychology?

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova has a story that asks, is the field of psychology politically biased?  As the popular saying goes, to ask the question is to answer it.  Anyone who has spent any time within the field of psychology knows, if they're being honest, that the answer to that question is an emphatic "yes" all around.  But what is the nature of the bias? 

First, there's the pathetic belief that conservatives just can't cut it in academia:

The critique started with data. True, there was little doubt that conservatives in the world of psychology are few. A 2012 survey of social psychologists throughout the country found a fourteen-to-one ratio of Democrats to Republicans. But where were the hard numbers that pointed to bias, be it in the selection of professionals or the publication process, skeptics asked? Anecdotal evidence, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert pointed out, proved nothing. Maybe it was the case that liberals simply wanted to become professors more often than conservatives. "Liberals may be more interested in new ideas, more willing to work for peanuts, or just more intelligent," he wrote. The N.Y.U. political psychologist John Jost made the point even more strongly, calling Haidt's remarks "armchair demography." Jost wrote, "Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on."

The views on the other side are equally strong. When I asked Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale who edits the journal where Haidt's paper will appear, what he thought of the research, he pointed out what he believed to be a major inconsistency in the field's responses. "There's often a lot of irony in this area," he said. "The same people who are exquisitely sensitive to discrimination in other areas are often violently antagonistic when it comes to political ideology, bringing up clich├ęd arguments that they wouldn't accept in other domains: 'They aren't smart enough.' 'They don't want to be in the field.' "

But what about the the science that is produced by the field?  Perhaps the folks who produce it lean overwhelming one way but the science they produce is neutral and void of bias.  Maybe not:

Perhaps even more potentially problematic than negative personal experience is the possibility that bias may influence research quality: its design, execution, evaluation, and interpretation. In 1975, Stephen Abramowitz and his colleagues sent a fake manuscript to eight hundred reviewers from the American Psychological Association--four hundred more liberal ones (fellows of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and editors of the Journal of Social Issues) and four hundred less liberal (social and personality psychologists who didn't fit either of the other criteria). The paper detailed the psychological well-being of student protesters who had occupied a college administration building and compared them to their non-activist classmates. In one version, the study found that the protesters were more psychologically healthy. In another, it was the more passive group that emerged as mentally healthier. The rest of the paper was identical. And yet, the two papers were not evaluated identically. A strong favorable reaction was three times more likely when the paper echoed one's political beliefs--that is, when the more liberal reviewers read the version that portrayed the protesters as healthier.

Over the years, I've seen this time and time again.  And what's worse, these scientific studies are frequently cited in all sorts of legal authorities - including Supreme Court cases and most assuredly APA amicus briefs - as reporting uncontroverted empirical fact.  To me that real scandal is the suspension of scientific skepticism when a proposition supports one's own political beliefs.  As Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissent in Roper v. Simmons, APA claimed that teenagers are less culpable than adults because of their immature mental faculties yet possess sophisticated adult judgment when it comes to having an abortion.   How can that be?  Well, Konnikova's article suggests one strong possibility.        

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