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Ideological Discrimination and Self-Censorship Among Philosophers and Beyond
Academics are a powerful group. They produce the ideas, theories, and data that form our collective human knowledge; they educate the next generation of thinkers and leaders; they are the gatekeepers to scientific journals; they are the experts called upon to advise on many of the most consequential societal issues; they determine who receives funding to pursue their research; and, they decide who else gets to be an academic. Academics are also overwhelmingly politically liberal, as numerous reports have now shown. Many critics have argued that this political uniformity might create systematic biases or discrimination against non-liberal ideas and non-liberal scholars, but empirical evidence is limited.
A new paper just published in Philosophical Psychology by Uwe Peters, Nathan Honeycutt, Andreas De Block, and Lee Jussim examines whether the political views of academic philosophers are associated with willingness to discriminate against peers in grant applications, paper acceptances, symposium invites, and hiring decisions. Spoiler alert: they are.
Peters and colleagues sent a survey to an email list of philosophers and (after exclusions) collected responses from 794 philosophers (graduate students, postdocs, professors, and lecturers) primarily from Europe and North America. Participants indicated their own ideological views on a continuum from very left-leaning to very right-leaning. And they reported a variety of attitudes about their perceptions of ideological discrimination in the field and their own willingness to discriminate on ideological grounds.
As in other academic disciplines, these philosophers were predominantly left-leaning (74.8%), with fewer reporting a right-leaning (14.2%) or moderate (11.0%) ideology. They correctly perceived their colleagues as predominantly left-leaning but also estimated that their colleagues were more left-leaning than they were themselves.
Across the political spectrum, participants reported experiencing ideological hostility, occasionally even from those from their own side of the political spectrum (particularly within the left-leaning camp). But more right-leaning philosophers reported experiencing more hostility from their colleagues (for the statistically inclined, r = .47), a pattern confirmed by third-party reports: participants reported seeing more hostility against right-leaning philosophers than toward left-leaning ones. And participants reported that they would be more reluctant to defend their own argument if it led to a right-leaning conclusion than if it led to a left-leaning one.
On average, participants reported greater willingness to discriminate against right-leaning perspectives and individuals than against left-leaning perspectives and individuals. And although both left-leaning and right-leaning individuals reported a willingness to discriminate against their ideological opponents, left-leaning philosophers confessed greater willingness to do so than right-leaning philosophers (in contrast to research suggesting that liberals and conservatives are similarly discriminatory toward ideologically dissimilar others). More specifically, left-leaning philosophers reported greater willingness to discriminate against their right-leaning colleagues in grant applications, symposia invites, paper acceptances, and hiring decisions than right-leaning philosophers reported in regards to their left-leaning colleagues. The figure below depicts the percentages of right-leaning, moderate, and left-leaning philosophers who responded at or above the midpoint in willingness to discriminate against their ideological friends and foes within the four discrimination categories.
In line with this ideological discrimination asymmetry, more left-leaning participants believed discrimination against right-leaning individuals was more justified. Conversely, more right-leaning participants were no more likely to report that discrimination against left-leaning individuals was justified–virtually nobody thought it was justified.
Peters and colleagues also coded a free-response question and found concerns about discrimination even within the left-leaning group. Some 28 participants mentioned the existence of hostility toward views that are too liberal (e.g., feminism, communism, anarchism), and another 11 mentioned experiencing hostility for not being liberal enough. However, consistent with the data reported above, many more (78) mentioned hostility toward the right or ideas perceived to be right-leaning. For example, one participant stated:
“I suspect that men and women are predisposed to have different interests, and that this accounts for the disparities in gender ratios across disciplines/professions. Yet this view is not one I am able to voice openly […]. I don’t know what reaction people would have if I were to make this view public, but I suspect it ‘hostile’ would be an understatement.”
Still, some participants reported skepticism about the existence of ideological bias or discrimination in the field in these open-ended responses (mentioned by 34 participants). Perhaps these data will change their minds.
Philosophers are not peculiar here. The present findings are roughly similar to previous studies in which academics reported willingness to discriminate against ideological opponents in social psychology and across disciplines in California State Universities. Given that ingroup favoritism appears to be a fundamental feature of our human psychology, it seems likely that similar findings would emerge in any discipline whose lines of inquiry touch on political issues. This means that left-leaning academics are also not peculiar.
Although the Peters and colleagues’ study found somewhat greater willingness to discriminate on ideological grounds among left-leaning philosophers than among right-leaning philosophers, right-leaning philosophers also reported a willingness to discriminate. And if conservatives ruled academia, almost inevitably, left-leaning perspectives would suffer more discrimination than right-leaning ones (and perhaps right-leaning philosophers would be emboldened to believe this discrimination was justified).
These new data cannot tell us whether discrimination against conservatives explains their growing absence from academia, but perhaps common sense can. Hostility toward right-wing individuals likely dissuades young conservative scholars from pursuing academia for the obvious reason that humans prefer to avoid hostile people. Hostility toward right-wing perspectives likely causes self-censorship even among liberal scholars who are willing to sacrifice intellectual honesty to avoid reputational damage. Indeed, Peters and colleagues found that both left- and right-leaning individuals were more reluctant to defend arguments with right-leaning conclusions than those with left-leaning ones. This can create an illusion of false consensus on any politically relevant topic, as noted by one participant:
“Comments and jokes about those on the right are frequent, and this makes it difficult to gauge the true balance of opinion as any right-leaning individual is likely to remain quiet.”
Perhaps liberal scholars should not care about this. They have seized control of one of the most powerful institutions in modern society, and from a tactical perspective, all the better if conservatives feel unwelcome in academia. I suspect, though, that this strategy is unsustainable (see Peters and colleagues’ discussion of epistemic and ethical costs). Academia earned its reputation and influence because it prioritized truth, which facilitates problem-solving. Without accurate knowledge, we cannot create effective solutions. As academia drifts toward progressive activism at the expense of truth, it will become increasingly ineffective, it will lose its reputation as a disinterested arbiter of truth, and it will lose its position of power. Indeed, this has already begun to happen.
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