Notes & Comments March 2011
Man, elephant: it’s big!
Which group is really underrepresented in The Society for Personality?
Last month, the journalist John Tierney wrote a sly piece for the Science section of The New York Times called “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.” It brought the news—news to many readers of the Times, anyway—that psychologists as a group are biased against . . . conservatives.
What a revelation! Who knew? “Discrimination,” Tierney writes, “is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference.” Who would doubt it? Racism. Sexism. “Homophobia” (the scare quotes are in deference to sensitive etymologists who will wince at the nonsensical construction). You know the drill. Our favorite item on this menu is “unconscious bias”: what a delicious invitation to meddlesomeness that pseudo-category opens up!
But at the annual meeting of this academic organization in January, one talk unveiled a new “outgroup” that might deserve a place on that coveted list, victims of discrimination. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, polled the audience of 1,000 psychologists. Eighty percent identified themselves as liberals. Thirty-odd people claimed the label “centrist” or libertarian. Conservatives? Three people. Three out of 1,000. Conservatives? “This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt observed. After all, some 40 percent of the population identifies itself as conservative, while only 20 percent checks the box marked “liberal.” Why, then, the “statistically impossible” reality in this segment of the professoriate? Remember that psychologists, like all bona fide academic social scientists and humanities professors, see themselves as warriors against prejudice, discrimination, and bias of any kind.
Well, not of any kind, perhaps. As Dr. Haidt notes,
Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.
Right: if white males moderately outnumber a group on the official Index of Deserving Victims, the guardians of virtue swing into action to demand redress. Let it be conservatives who are on the sharp end of discriminatory practices or attitudes, however, then the excuse factory is put into overdrive. Years ago, Patrick Moynihan pointed out the devastating effect on blacks of dysfunctional families who that been trained to government dependence by misguided welfare policies. Result? Moynihan was widely decried as a racist and a bigot. A few years ago, Larry Summers speculated at an academic conference that one possible explanation for the preponderance of folks possessing a Y chromosome at the higher reaches of mathematics and science might be the—note the delicate phraseology—“different availability of aptitude at the high end.” Result? Larry Summers was instantly denounced, distaff members of the professoriate threatened to faint, and the hapless President of Harvard is hounded out of office.
None of this is news, we recognize. It’s all of a piece with the academy’s contempt for conservatives, memorably epitomized by one Robert Brandon, a philosophy professor at Duke, who in 2004 misquoted John Stuart Mill to explain why there were so few conservatives in academia. “We try to hire the best, smartest people available,” Professor Brandon told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the nba tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.
When we reported on Professor Brandon in our March 2004 issue, we opined that it wasn’t often that academic arrogance mades “quite so blatant a spectacle of itself. Everyone knows,” we wrote, “that professors as a group tend to think they are smarter and politically more virtuous than anyone outside the professorial flock, but generally they communicate this conviction indirectly, through snobbery and other forms of patronizing behavior.” The snobbery and implicit sentiment of entitlement persist, but we suspect what we might call Brandonian Brazenness has become more widespread as the virus of political correctness has progressed from a doctrine espoused and argued for to an habitual assumption that was just taken for granted.
It’s all part of what Dr. Haidt called the academy’s “tribal-moral community.” We welcome the empirical investigation of group differences as in the example offered by Summers. The problem arises in the unexamined double standards of academic rhetoric. What’s partly amusing and partly appalling is the fact that, sensitive though the professoriate’s antennae are for any whiff of “discrimination,” they are nonetheless remarkably discriminatory in their war against discrimination. The statistics dramatize the story. But so does this little typographic slip—was it a slip?—that John Tierney reports. Like all orthodox institutions these days, The Society for Personality blah blah blah maintains a “Diversity Initiatives” section on their web page. (We are virtuous!) Before Jonathan Haidt’s embarrassing revelation, that page proudly announced that funds were available to help pay for travel to the Society’s annual meeting for students from
underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students).
I.e., eh? That’s id est, i.e., “that is.” The list, in other words, was complete. No other “underrepresented” groups need apply. Dr. Haidt pointed this out. The Society then changed the text to “e.g.,” i.e., exempli gratia, “for example.” The change, Tierney notes, “leaves it open to other groups, too. Maybe, someday, even to conservatives.”
Maybe. We aren’t holding our breath.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 7, on page 1
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