Diversity is all the rage on college campuses. And for good reason. It is important for the diversity of our nation to be reflected in higher education and beyond. However, the people who champion gender, racial, and cultural diversity often shun viewpoint diversity. Universities have become increasingly ideologically homogeneous. This is especially the case in the social sciences; fewer than 10 percent of professors in these fields identify as conservative, and this number keeps shrinking. Conservatives have little influence in the scholarly disciplines that have the most to say about social and cultural life, family, and mental health.
The study of prejudice in social psychology (my field) illustrates why this lack of viewpoint diversity is problematic. Considering how harmful prejudice can be, most people would agree that it is a worthy topic of research. The problem isn’t the topic. The problem is how the personal ideologies of social psychologists can influence how the topic is studied. For example, social psychologists have long been interested in a possible link between political ideology and prejudice. To study prejudice one has to pick a target group. And guess what? Liberal social psychologists tend to pick target groups that are generally viewed as political allies (e.g., gay men and lesbians, atheists). The research then reveals that conservatives, compared to liberals, are less tolerant of members of these groups. And the liberal social psychologists proclaim that the finding supports the broader notion that conservatives are more prejudiced, less tolerant than liberals.
Social psychologists have now produced a rather large literature promoting this idea. However, when researchers have bothered to examine attitudes about target groups that tend to be conservative (e.g., evangelical Christians, members of the military), the opposite pattern is observed. It is liberals, not conservatives, who display intolerance. But there are far fewer studies that focus on such target groups, probably because there are very few conservative social psychologists.
This issue does not disappear when scholars focus on cognitive and personality traits instead of political beliefs because these traits are often correlates of conservatism/liberalism. This research tells a familiar story. Liberals have the characteristics associated with thoughtfulness, fairness, and empathy for others. Conservatives do not. But again, many of these studies were incomplete. And recent research has helped reveal this fact.
When fields like social psychology are almost entirely composed of researchers who are ideologically similar, it is easy to create a social science that rarely looks inward. Prejudice and closed-mindedness become the undesirable characteristics of those who are not part of this elite liberal group.
The problem extends beyond the individual researcher. Journal reviewers and editors often don’t catch the biases of researchers because they have the same biases. And when a researcher does submit work for publication that challenges liberal assumptions, it will likely receive more scrutiny. So not only might researchers be neglecting certain questions or ideas because of their liberal worldview but it might be harder for such research to get published when it is conducted.
More broadly, in any field that requires turning conceptual variables into measurable variables the risk for bias is high. For example, questionnaires designed to assess racism often contain items that are more reflective of political beliefs than attitudes about race. In fact, though studies have shown that conservatives view African Americans more negatively than liberals, recent research demonstrates that this is only the case when the African American target is a liberal. When the African American target is identified as a conservative, liberals are the ones who appear prejudiced. In other words, the claim that conservatives are more racist is based on flawed studies that conflate political views with attitudes about race. No wonder conservatives often look baffled when they are so quickly labeled as racist.
If you are a liberal, try this little thought exercise. Imagine if the social sciences were dominated by conservatives. If conservatives designed studies the way many liberal researchers who study prejudice do, the literature might paint a picture of liberals being the more racist group. Then imagine lay conservatives feeling emboldened by “the research” when their guts tell them that liberals are the intolerant racists. I used prejudice as an example but the same reasoning applies to a range of intellectual and social issues studied by social scientists.
So why aren’t there more conservatives in the social sciences? Some argue that conservatives just aren’t naturally interested in these fields. Perhaps not. However, might this at least partially be the result of these disciplines having a reputation of being hostile toward conservatives? In one survey of social psychologists, the majority of liberal respondents indicated some willingness to discriminate against a qualified conservative job applicant. Qualified or not, many liberal academics evidently don’t want conservative colleagues.
I have been picking on social psychology because it is my field. But at least it is an empirical field. Liberal reviewers and editors can eventually be persuaded by data. Plus, there is plenty of research in psychology that is less likely to be influenced by the personal beliefs of the researchers because it focuses on underlying cognitive, neurological, and motivational variables that have little or nothing to do with political ideology. In fact, these studies often reveal a common humanity; all people have natural inclinations and self-serving motives that can positively and negatively impact intergroup relations. The lack of viewpoint diversity in less empirical or more activist-oriented social sciences has undoubtedly had a much more dramatic impact on the theories and claims advanced in those disciplines.
A lack of viewpoint diversity also has many practical consequences for university life. For one, some college campuses have become overtly hostile toward students who dare to openly question far-left orthodoxy. Likewise, the safe space, trigger warning, and microaggression movements that have emerged at many colleges are making it more and more difficult to have open discussions about controversial topics. Free speech is in real danger on many campuses and ideological diversity among faculty could help.
Higher education is supposed to facilitate intellectual, social, and personal growth. Do we want colleges to become increasingly self-segregated so that conservative parents send their kids to more conservative schools and liberal parents send their kids to more liberal schools? Do we want young liberals to think it is okay to hide from ideas or censor speech they don’t like, or young conservatives to think college is not for them? This will only further divide and ultimately weaken us as a nation.
We also need conservative politicians to value the social sciences. They might see these disciplines as more worthy of funding and having an influence on public policy if they are made up of scholars with diverse viewpoints working together to understand the human condition and solve pressing social ills. Imagine that, liberals and conservatives working together to make our country and the world a better place.
*I would like to thank Heterodox Academy for being such a great resource for those interested in studying viewpoint diversity in higher education and how ideological bias can influence research and teaching on college campuses.