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The Dress viral phenomenon
December 3, 2015+John Wright
+Constructive Disagreement

What Color is the Dress?

Perhaps you recall the worldwide debate about the color of a wedding dress? If not, here is the short version. A picture of a wedding dress was posted online along with a question:

What color is this dress?

It seemed that when some looked at the dress, they saw the dress to be blue and black in color while others saw the dress to be gold and white.

The ensuing debate appeared to be something out of a social psychology experiment. The blue and black camp circled the wagons, supported each-other’s observations, and then disparaged the gold and white camp. Of course the same dynamics were at play in the gold and white camp. Each side was incredulous. How, they asked, could the other side be so wrong and not see it?

Those in the debate eventually called on scientists for answers. Using the science behind light wavelengths, retina sensitivity, optic nerve signaling, and the brain’s processing of visual cues, scientists eventually told us that both groups perceptions were understandable: the image itself, the lighting, etc. “hits some kind of perceptual boundary” — creating a situation wherein the color seems obvious to most people, but there is nonetheless strong divergence between them as to what that obviously-correct interpretation is (for the reference, the company that makes the dress eventually confirmed that it was, in fact, black and blue — a reality that becomes clear to virtually everyone when the object is presented in a different light).

The dynamics surrounding the dress highlight not only the social dynamics that occur when people disagree, but also how groups eventually turn to science to get unbiased answers. And here, as they say, is the rub:

The lack of viewpoint diversity in the social sciences compromises, but does not invalidate, claims of scientific objectivity. Compromised scientific objectivity is deeply problematic and likely causes a series of biases that we are only now trying to recognize and to correct. However, one source of bias that is often widely visible emerges from the use of “science,” or at least a quasi-commitment to the scientific method, to support advocacy for social and political causes.

Social and political advocacy blurs the lines between objective scholarship and scholarship motivated by other purposes. Social and political advocacy, which in academia is almost always for left-leaning causes, also distorts the climate in which research and teaching occurs. This has been on full display recently as we have witnessed social and political advocates who hold faculty positions lead marches, sponsor protests, and organize and motivate like-minded students.

Their advocacy often but not always crosses into the classroom and into their department’s curriculum. At times their passions seemingly drive them to take positions that violate traditionally liberal principles.

  • We got a glimpse into this during the recent protests in Missouri where a professor with a joint appointment to journalism, no less, called for “muscle” to help prevent a student reporter from doing his job.
  • We also got to see this just recently at Dartmouth. After a BLM protest in the Dartmouth library, where some participants shouted racist epithets at white students, a Vice Provost met with students and referred to the protests as “a beautiful thing.” More revealing, however, she went on to blame conservatives for the backlash from the library video saying “There is a whole conservative world out there that is not very nice.” A student then echoed her point shouting “Yes, they are fucking racists.”

My own institution has not escaped controversy. Social and political advocates from around campus have embraced the Black Lives Matters group and another, similar group, called the Irate8. The right of the Irate8 and BLM to organize on campus and to protest is unambiguous. Instead, my point is that the current social context allows us to see and to experience that which is often shrouded by the cloak of academic objectivity. Today, we get to see how liberal biases flow through the university and especially through certain departments.

As an illustration, this link will take you to the Facebook page of the anthropology department at the University of Cincinnati. It’s clear the anthropology department is committed to anti-racism. This is an admirable goal. However, a closer look finds that the department also has a decidedly sharp left-wing political agenda—one that informs the types of presentations they offer to students, one that informs some of the courses they offer, one that informs the types of faculty they hire, and one that attracts certain students and likely repulses others. Moreover, it is fair to say that, at least on this issue but likely many others, no viewpoint diversity exists in this program.

My point is not to single out the anthropology department but to show what liberal bias looks like and how it shapes academic life, teaching, and research. This example, and there are others, also vividly demonstrates the distortions that emerge when social and political advocacy is married to scholarly research and teaching.

Yet another issue emerges when we realize the extended consequences of social and political advocacy. Data tell us that the ratio of liberals to conservatives in anthropology ranges from 20 to 40:1. While there is little doubt about the reality of the disparity, many still deny the disparity is meaningful. They argue, for example, that the disparity is the byproduct of innocuous self-selection, where liberals choose to enter these disciplines while conservative students do not.

Clearly self-selection is an important mechanism leading to these remarkable disparities. However, self-selection is not value neutral. Instead, self-selection reflects cognitive and emotional appraisals that influence student choice. These appraisals are sensitive to attractors and to indicators of social similarity. Students may be intellectually interested in anthropology, for example, but they also value other disciplinary attractors. Students interested in left-wing causes or who are motivated to become social and political advocates will likely find anthropology an attractive discipline. Others who do not share those values, however, likely will not.

The point, of course, is that liberal hegemony in certain disciplines, namely those that more fully embrace social and political advocacy and those with diminished viewpoint diversity, are going to more easily recruit students who share their values. In turn, these students will eventually fill faculty ranks.

Recent events across the United States, from Missouri, to Dartmouth, to Yale, to the University of Kansas have allowed all to see how social and political advocacy and the absences of viewpoint diversity collude and how this collusion shapes the university climate and the research and teaching that occurs in that climate. In short, this is the untarnished reality critics of liberal bias in higher education point to and it is likely a source of unmeasured bias in our research.

Similar to those who called on science to explain the color of the dress, we need objective analyses into the processes that lead to the distortion of research findings and to viewpoint exclusivity. One of the first places to look may be the ascendency of social and political advocacy on college campuses and their potentially distorting influences. Having people who see the dress only in gold and white and who disparage those who see the hues of black and blue may not produce the best science.


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