The Chronicle Review

A Political Defector

Yana Paskova for The Chronicle Review

Jonathan Haidt
January 29, 2012

One of the core ideas in Jonathan Haidt's new book is that morality "binds and blinds." As the psychologist dug into that topic, it led him in an unexpected direction: examining what he sees as the liberal bias of his own field.

The University of Virginia professor went public with his concerns in an incendiary talk last year, portraying social psychologists as "a tribal moral community" bound together by liberal values.

In the speech at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the main scholarly organization for social psychologists, Haidt argued that the field discourages conservatives from entering—and leaves those who do feeling like closeted homosexuals. He called for affirmative action to make the field 10 percent conservative by 2020.

In support of his ideas, Haidt pointed to "taboos and danger zones," subjects that turn on the moral "force field" and prevent researchers from exploring "the full range of alternative hypotheses." He offered as one example the controversy that engulfed Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard, after he speculated that innate differences might partially explain why men are overrepresented in mathematics and science departments at leading universities.

"We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage," Haidt said. "We should have defended his right to think freely."

Haidt also pointed to the extreme underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology. When he surveyed the 1,000 colleagues who attended his talk, 80 to 90 percent identified themselves as liberals. Only three people said they were conservatives.

The speech created a furor. One criticism is that Haidt lacked the evidence to back some of his conclusions. Another is that his argument might arm those who are "eager to dismiss our findings," as John T. Jost, a psychologist at New York University, expresses it. "We've seen this with climate-change issues," he tells The Chronicle. "If you can just accuse the scientist of ideological bias, then you can ignore the research findings."

Jost adds that the personal beliefs of social scientists are "scientifically irrelevant" because of safeguards against bias that are built into the research system. "Any research program that is driven more by ideological ax-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity," he wrote in response to Haidt's talk, "because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers—all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them."

One young psychology professor feels that Haidt painted an accurate portrait. It's a measure of the sensitivity of this topic that the professor, a conservative who contacted Haidt to express her gratitude for the talk, declined to let The Chronicle publish her name. She fears that exposing her political leanings could cause friction with her colleagues, and she also worries that going public could sabotage her career, damaging her ability to win tenure or preventing her from getting hired by another college.

The professor, who earned her Ph.D. from a major public research university on the East Coast, recalls frequent jokes about Republicans. One conference presenter, she says, discussed the need to mold undergraduates into liberals while their minds are malleable.

"It makes you feel not welcome," says the professor, who now teaches at a Christian university in the South. "They basically hold an attitude that conservatives are racist and full of hate and stupid."

She also says a liberal mind-set guides researchers. "They're not testing things that might contradict their findings," she says.

Haidt continues to study the topic. He is collaborating on a paper about how intellectual diversity would improve social psychology. And since giving his talk, he has received more stories from nonliberals. "I have not gotten a single response from a conservative who says there is no problem," Haidt says. "Every one I've gotten has been just exhausted, worn down, angry, and bitter about having to hide, having to endure insults. ... It's a basic issue of justice."