By John S. Rosenberg
It is not really news to most of us that the most avid and outspoken devotees of "diversity" often live and work in the most politically and ideologically un-diverse pockets of America, academic communities, but that must have been news to editors at the New York Times since they found reporter John Tierney's surprisingly intelligent article (surprising considering its source) on the bias of social psychologists fit to print.
Tierney reported on a dramatic presentation by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia social psychologist, at a recent convention of social psychologists in San Antonio. After polling his audience of a thousand psychologists in his audience and finding that 80% identified themselves as liberal, fewer than 36 as centrists or libertarians, and only three conservatives, Prof. Haidt pointed out the obvious. "This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," he observed, pointing to polls showing 40% of Americans identify themselves as conservative and 20% liberal.
But that wasn't all.
"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."
Moreover, according to Prof. Haidt, the ideological uniformity of psychologists actually creates blindspots in their teaching and research. They have become "a tribal-moral community" with shared "'sacred values' that hinder research and damage their credibility --- and blind them to the hostile climate they've created for non-liberals."
At this point evidence of the "underrepresentation" of conservatives usually degenerates into finger-pointing about hypocrisy left and right. As Megan McCardle shrewdly points out,
Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias.... Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.
Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination --- structural or personal --- suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything.
I have to admit that it's fun watching Paul Krugman squirm, shrilly insisting with little success that "Ideas Are Not The Same As Race." True, but then they would seem to provide a more reasonable basis for diversity than skin color. In any event scientists are liberal, Krugman lectures, because they "actually know science" while conservatives deny climate change and evolution. "You can choose your ideology, but not your race," etc. So, like the color of a chameleon, ideology is not even skin deep? Conservative papers for conservative profs, liberal ones for liberals? Is this what Krugman advises his students?
Ultimately, however, this ideological gamesmanship is not fruitful. In addition to the moral and legal objections conservatives have to sorting and rewarding people by race, the assumption that "underrepresentation" is always the smoke revealing an underlying discriminatory fire can actually impede the "diversity" that liberals seek.
A Better Way to Look at "Underrepresentation"
In a major study just published by the National Academy of Sciences, "Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science," Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, professors in Cornell's Department of Human Development, argue that discrimination does not explain the underrepresentation of women in science and that remediation policies and programs based on the assumption that it does "can delay or prevent understanding of contemporary determinants of women's underrepresentation."
Explanations for women's underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, and hiring. Claims that women scientists suffer discrimination in these arenas rest on a set of studies undergirding policies and programs aimed at remediation. More recent and robust empiricism, however, fails to support assertions of discrimination in these domains.
I think what Ceci and Williams mean by "robust empiricism" is looking more carefully at the facts, which they themselves certainly do. "To better understand women's underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and its causes," they explain,
we reprise claims of discrimination and their evidentiary bases. Based on a review of the past 20 y[ears] of data, ... [w]e conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed. Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort: Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, rather than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women's participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today.
Ceci's and Williams's study is thick with analyses, and perceptive criticisms, of the extensive literature blaming discrimination for the absence of more women in math-based science, but their most fundamental criticism of this reigning orthodoxy is precisely that it is an orthodoxy.
"The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy," Prof. Haidt explains, arguing, as The New York Times's Tierney notes, "that this shared morality both 'binds and blinds.'"
"If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community," he said. "They'll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they'll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value."
The impressive contributions of Jonathan Haidt, Stephen Ceci, and Wendy Williams offers both a challenge and an invitation to the tribal-moral community of social scientists and fellow-traveling liberals to temper their "sacred cause" with a touch of secular "robust empiricism."
Who knows? If social scientists and their liberal acolytes would experiment with un-circling their wagons from their conformist faith that discrimination explains all ills and allow a few centrists and even conservatives into their councils, they might find that they enjoyed practicing diversity as much as preaching it.
John Rosenberg is a lapsed historian blogging at Discriminations.