“Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity — the diversity of ideas — and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work…

…even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results — especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas — tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration’s Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time.These concerns aren’t a modern innovation. In one classic experiment from 1975, a group of scholars was asked to evaluate one of two research papers that used the same statistical methodology to reach opposite conclusions. One version “found” that liberal political activists were mentally healthier than the general population; the other paper, otherwise identical, was set up to “prove” the opposite conclusion. The liberal reviewers rated the first version significantly more publishable than its less flattering twin. The World Bank has found a similar phenomenon at work among its own staff. In a recent exercise, the organization presented identical data sets to employees under two different pretexts. Some employees were told the data were measuring the effectiveness of a skin rash cream, while others were told the same data measured the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty. The politicized context of the second question led to more erroneous analyses, and the accuracy of left-leaning respondents plummeted when the data conflicted with their worldview.

Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.”, Arthur C. Brooks, “Academia’s Rejection of Diversity”, The New York Times, October 31, 2015

The Opinion Pages | Contributing Op-Ed Writer

Academia’s Rejection of Diversity

Arthur C. Brooks

ONE of the great intellectual and moral epiphanies of our time is the realization that human diversity is a blessing. It has become conventional wisdom that being around those unlike ourselves makes us better people — and more productive to boot.

Scholarly studies have piled up showing that race and gender diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving.

Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity — the diversity of ideas — and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work. This year, a team of scholars from six universities studying ideological diversity in the behavioral sciences published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia. The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.

Why the imbalance? The researchers found evidence of discrimination and hostility within academia toward conservative researchers and their viewpoints. In one survey cited, 82 percent of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative colleague than a liberal scholar with equivalent qualifications.

This has consequences well beyond fairness. It damages accuracy and quality. As the authors write, “Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking.”

One of the study’s authors, Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, put it to me more bluntly. Expecting trustworthy results on politically charged topics from an “ideologically incestuous community,” he explained, is “downright delusional.”

Are untrustworthy academic findings really a problem? In a few high-profile cases, most definitely. Take, for example, Prof. Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who in 2011 faked experiments to show, among other things, that eating meat made people selfish. (He later said that his work was “a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth”).

This kind of ideologically motivated fraud is mercifully rare. As a social scientist working in universities and think tanks, I have never met a colleague who I believe has engaged in this sort of misconduct.

But even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results — especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas — tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration’s Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time.

These concerns aren’t a modern innovation. In one classic experiment from 1975, a group of scholars was asked to evaluate one of two research papers that used the same statistical methodology to reach opposite conclusions. One version “found” that liberal political activists were mentally healthier than the general population; the other paper, otherwise identical, was set up to “prove” the opposite conclusion. The liberal reviewers rated the first version significantly more publishable than its less flattering twin.

The World Bank has found a similar phenomenon at work among its own staff. In a recent exercise, the organization presented identical data sets to employees under two different pretexts. Some employees were told the data were measuring the effectiveness of a skin rash cream, while others were told the same data measured the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty. The politicized context of the second question led to more erroneous analyses, and the accuracy of left-leaning respondents plummeted when the data conflicted with their worldview.

Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.

Many academics and intellectuals see their community as a major force for diversity and open-mindedness throughout American society, and take justifiable pride in this image. Now they can be consistent and apply those values to their own profession, by celebrating ideological diversity.

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 31, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Academia’s Rejection of Diversity.

Posted on November 2, 2015, in Postings. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Absolutely great article and post…..it states the obvious, but white-washed truth. Mark Nelson 3256 Sitio Tortuga Carlsbad, CA 92009 760.473.7558 mnelson.doit@gmail.com

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