Academia’s Rejection of Diversity

Arthur C. Brooks, New York Times, October 30, 2015

One of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of our time is the realization that human diversity is a blessing. It has become conventional wisdom that being around those unlike ourselves makes us better people–and more productive to boot.

Scholarly studies have piled up showing that race and gender diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving.

Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity–the diversity of ideas–and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work. This year, a team of scholars from six universities studying ideological diversity in the behavioral sciences published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia. The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.

Why the imbalance? The researchers found evidence of discrimination and hostility within academia toward conservative researchers and their viewpoints. In one survey cited, 79 percent of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative colleague than a liberal scholar with equivalent qualifications.

This has consequences well beyond fairness. It damages accuracy and quality. As the authors write, “Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking.”

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But even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results–especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas–tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration’s Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time.

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The World Bank has found a similar phenomenon at work among its own staff. In a recent exercise, the organization presented identical data sets to employees under two different pretexts. Some employees were told the data were measuring the effectiveness of a skin rash cream, while others were told the same data measured the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty. The politicized context of the second question led to more erroneous analyses, and the accuracy of left-leaning respondents plummeted when the data conflicted with their worldview.

Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.

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