The virtual absence of conservatives in some fields of social science is leading to poorer quality scholarship. That’s the concern expressed by Heterodox Academy, a new initiative created by a politically diverse group of academics led by Jonathan Haidt to target the lack of viewpoint diversity in academia. From the site’s mission statement:
Science is among humankind’s most successful institutions not because scientists are so rational and open minded but because scholarly institutions work to counteract the errors and flaws of what are, after all, normal cognitively challenged human beings. We academics are generally biased toward confirming our own theories and validating our favored beliefs. But as long as we can all count on the peer review process and a vigorous post-publication peer debate process, we can rest assured that most obvious errors and biases will get called out. Researchers who have different values, political identities, and intellectual presuppositions and who disagree with published findings will run other studies, obtain opposing results, and the field will gradually sort out the truth.Unless there is nobody out there who thinks differently. Or unless the few such people shrink from speaking up because they expect anger in response, even ostracism. That is what sometimes happens when orthodox beliefs and “sacred” values are challenged.
The site also contains comprehensive documentation of the problem, including links to major academic papers, a blog that will host discussion and commentary, and a list of twelve potential solutions. Few of the proposed remedies—i.e., “expand organizational diversity statements to include politics”, “eliminate pejorative terms referring to non-liberals; criticize others’ scholarship when they use those terms”, and “be alert to double standards”—are groundbreaking, but all are quite reasonable. In any case, the real question is how these reforms—or, for that matter, any reforms designed to open the social sciences to new political perspectives—could actually be operationalized in the face of resistance from an academic establishment that thinks that things are just fine as is. After all, conservatives have been attacking left-wing bias in the academy for decades.But there are reasons to believe that, as Haidt promises in the mission statement, Heterodox Academy “will be different.” For one, it’s not a conservative project aimed at reclaiming the ivory tower for political reasons; it’s an non-ideological project composed of accomplished researchers from across the political spectrum concerned first and foremost with improving the quality of academic research. More broadly, it eschews the gin-up-the-outrage strategy that has become commonplace among many dogged critics of political correctness. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week:
In recent years, Campus Reform and a similar publication, The College Fix, have emerged as major forces in academe’s ideological battles. Each routinely puts college administrators and faculty members on the defensive with articles alleging liberal bias or indoctrination. Each has demonstrated a knack for generating outrage by producing stories that spread virally through social media. Conservative radio and cable-TV programs and right-leaning websites amplify their reach by picking up their stories. […]Campus Reform and The College Fix make no effort to hide their ideological slant. That’s apparent in their use of headlines and photos that portray colleges as beset by leftist tyranny and liberal excess. Recent headlines from Campus Reform include “Atheist organization goes after college football chaplains” and “UCLA student: criticism of my tampon column was sexist.” A recent College Fix headline said, “UNC’s ‘Literature of 9/11’ course sympathizes with terrorists, paints U.S. as imperialistic.”
There is clearly an important role for this kind of strategy, which helps mobilize public opinion against politically correct follies. But taken too far, conservative claims of victimhood and expressions of outrage can come to resemble the very political correctness they are supposedly trying to eliminate. Moreover, just as left-wing political correctness doesn’t actually change conservative opinion, exaggerated right-wing claims of persecution are unlikely to win over many moderate or left-of-center academics.Heterodox Academy might be able to perform an important function that the activist sites can’t—that is, persuade social science professors that incorporating a broader range of political ideas would be beneficial to their fields. Ultimately, it is incompatible with academic freedom for political change to be imposed on the social sciences from some outside entity, governmental or otherwise. If they are to come at all, reforms must come from within the academy itself, and Heterodox Academy seems like a promising vehicle for bringing them about.