Preston Stovall is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a member of the Heterodox Academy.
In a series of three essays published at Crooked Timber, philosopher John Holbo argues that the Heterodox Academy’s campaign against ideological homogeneity in the academy is not well founded. Holbo’s argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdam, developed over his first two essays. Suppose Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is true. According to MFT, the left-dominated academy of today is characterized by a lack of individuals who respect the loyalty/authority/purity axis of moral sentiment. This results in a narrowness of moral vision that, so the Heterodox Academy tells us, leads to problems. At the same time, (Holbo argues) PC-culture displays reverence for values along just that axis—for what is all the protesting and shouting down of debate, the aggressive suppression of those who disagree with orthodoxy, and the call for safe space from microaggressions, etc., but the display of loyalty to a cause, respect for the authority advancing that cause, and an emphasis on social purity? Thus, by MFT’s lights, these displays of outrage should be the corrective to the problems the members of the Heterodox Academy are pointing to. But the Heterodox Academy takes precisely the opposite stance. And so the project is incoherent. Here is Holbo summarizing the dialectic at the start of the third essay:
If the problem were moral narrowness, per se, repressive PC-culture should solve it, not exemplify it.
Though he does not pursue it, Holbo recognizes there may be another way to ground the project. While at the end of his first essay he writes “the stuff Haidt (and others) say at Heterodox Academy mostly makes no sense whatsoever”, in his third essay he says of his critique that it
will have a somewhat indirect bearing on the stuff at Heterodox Academy. Not all that stuff is based on Haidt’s book, yet if these Righteous Mind arguments are active in their minds – Haidt is one of their active minds – and if the argument are bad, that’s a sign they may not have made their minds up right.
In this essay I lay out a defense of the project of the Heterodox Academy that does not presuppose MFT as a theory of our moral or political sentiments.
The contention that ideological homogeneity is corrupting the academy is founded on the empirical claim, concerning the academy as it exists today, that the absence of political diversity, of the sort that is broadly characterized along a left/right or liberal/conservative (in the American senses) spectrum, is responsible for bad scholarship in some places. A paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2015 (“Political Diversity will Improve Social Science”) argues for this empirical claim. The authors (Duarte et al.) document three “risk points” where political biases deleteriously impact research in social psychology, and they discuss a number of cases over the last few decades that are evidence of these biases.
Risk Point 1: Liberal values and assumptions can become embedded into theory and method. In this case Duarte et al. discuss papers that purport to show that conservatives were more likely to behave unethically than liberals, but which on closer analysis presupposed a liberal notion of ‘ethical’. They write (p.5)
Liberal values of feminism and environmentalism were embedded directly into the operationalization of ethics, even to the extent that participants were expected to endorse those values in vignettes that lacked the information one would need to make a considered judgment.
Risk Point 2: Researchers may concentrate on topics that validate the liberal progress narrative and avoid topics that contest that narrative. Here Duarte et al. discuss politically distorted research on stereotypes and prejudice, and they point out that in some cases conservative voices are the ones doing the correcting.
Risk Point 3: Negative attitudes regarding conservatives can produce a psychological science that mischaracterizes their traits and attributes. In this case the authors point to flaws surrounding studies that have claimed to show that the right is more ideologically dogmatic and intolerant. Here again ideological presuppositions shape the conclusions drawn. When such studies are re-run without those presuppositions, we discover that people on the left and people on the right both show a tendency toward intolerant ideological dogmatism toward their tribal political allegiances. Duarte, et al. go on to predict that an increase in political diversity in social psychology will lessen the influence of two further mechanisms widely regarded as problems for social science research: confirmation bias. (on which we look for evidence that supports our antecedent views and avoid evidence that disconfirms them) and minority influence (on which a small number of people influence a larger number by exerting non-rational pressure to conform to the minority view).
For an indication of where the debate lies, here is a discussion of 33 criticisms of the BBS essay prefaced with the following remark:
In our target article, we made four claims:
- Social psychology is now politically homogeneous;
- This homogeneity sometimes harms the science;
- Increasing political diversity would reduce this damage; and
- Some portion of the homogeneity is due to a hostile climate and outright discrimination against non-liberals.
In this response, we review these claims in light of the arguments made by a diverse group of commentators. We were surprised to find near-universal agreement with our first two claims, and we note that few challenged our fourth claim. Most of the disagreements came in response to our claim that increasing political diversity would be beneficial. We agree with our critics that increasing political diversity may be harder than we had thought, but we explain why we still believe that it is possible and desirable to do so. We conclude with a revised list of 11 recommendations for improving political diversity in social psychology, as well as in other areas of the academy.
At this stage, the contention that the absence of political diversity in the social sciences results in bad social science has been well-established as something worth considering, and a convergence appears to be forming around the conclusion that this is indeed a problem. Though it is early days to be tracking a trend, and there is substantial debate about how bad the problem is and what should be done about it, this is where things stand today. And so one could reject moral foundations theory, both as an explanation of the psychological origin of the problem and as a theory of our moral sentiments, and still be convinced that ideological homogeneity is a problem in the social sciences today. For it is the impact of that lack of diversity that is the problem, not the lack of diversity itself (cf. Lee Jussim, coauthor of the BBS paper). As a consequence, one can endorse the Heterodox Academy’s diagnosis of the problem and list of proposed solutions without appeal to any particular theory of our moral sentiments.