Maria Konnikova has an article in the New Yorker on whether there is bias in social psychology against conservatives. One of the people calling attention to the issue is Jonathan Haidt, whose work my long time readers will know I’m generally a fan of.
The core issue that Haidt is calling attention to is the paucity of conservatives in the field, and that this has effects on what is researched and in how that research is conducted. Social psychology seems to be an extreme case of the situation in most of the sciences (with the possible exception of economics).
As a liberal and a Democrat, I have to admit to being somewhat skeptical of this issue. A strong part of me wants to point out that few conservatives place much value in social psychology, so blaming the field for not having many of them seems somewhat backwards. Again, this seems to be a particularly extreme case for the situation in most sciences. I also wonder how many liberals there are in police departments, the military, or in financial professions. Certain fields seem to attract certain types of people.
But then I also have to admit that this may simply be my own biases kicking in. And given the nature of questions explored by social psychology, it probably makes sense for them to exert particular effort not to be biased. Indeed, even if there really isn’t a systematic bias in the field, it makes sense to avoid the appearance of one, if for no other reason than to head off threats to their funding. (A serious threat given recent Republican attempts to cut funding for social science programs.)
Along those lines, Konnikova mentions a technique for evaluating whether a question or statement is biased that sounds so simple and useful that I think I’ll quote it here:
There’s a simple test of whether a question is objective or ideologically loaded. It’s what, in 1994, the political psychologist Phil Tetlock termed the turnabout test: imagine the opposite of your question. If it sounds loaded, your original phrase probably is, too. Consequently, if the premise of a study is to look at something like the “denial of the irrationality of many religious beliefs,” turn it around to be “the denial of the benefits of church attendance.” Something like the “denial of the economic inequality caused by a strong concentration of wealth” becomes the “denial of the benefits of free-market capitalism.” The point isn’t that researchers need more conservative values. It’s that they need to avoid value-driven formulations in the first place if they are looking to get an objective assessment of a question.
Of course, the trick is remembering to do this simple mental reversal for any question we’re considering or evaluating. But for any of us interested in understanding social, psychological, historical, or similar types of issues, it’s probably a good habit to get into.