One of the instructions I used to give to my undergraduate students was to be aware of their own biases. One day an aggressive bearded 35 year old asked me was I aware of my own biases — and what did I do about them? That led to a much more interesting tutorial than usual. A summary of my position was that I was brought up in country towns, by parents who had made it to university through scholarships; my grandparents were working class Protestants, who thought hard work was the way, and didn’t drink or smoke; and I was trained in history, which taught me to look for and weigh evidence. So I was sympathetic to the plight of those who were from the country, and workers who had nothing, but I wasn’t much given to big-picture ideologies. It worked for me, I said, but I was aware that it gave me a certain bias.
The aggressive man then gave his summary, which revealed a background much less protected than mine, and an almost anarchic belief that everything in the world was rotten. Since those years I have continued to be conscious of my own biases, such as they are, and of course alert to those of everybody else. My principal bias, as I have explained, is toward data and evidence. I am unsure about many things, and accept what passes for evidence unless it is weak and/or equivocal. Then I wait to see.
So I don’t think that it matters a great deal which of the principal parties is in power, I haven’t yet encountered God in any way, I see no real sign that ‘climate change’ is a problem for humanity or even for the planet itself, and my view is that some kind of regulated market system has so far been the most effective way to deal with matters of supply and demand.
What about the rest of our society? Well, I don’t know where their biases come from but I guess that, like mine, theirs come from a mixture of family upbringing and the sort of intellectual training they received at school and afterwards. Then a correspondent sent me a link to a piece about social psychologists, which I read and enjoyed. It was in The New Yorker, but it wasn’t a funny piece. It was written about Jonathan Haidt, and you can read it here.
Haidt is a social psychologist who is regarded as one of the leaders of modern American thought, and works largely on theories of the role of the emotions, on happiness, and why good people disagree. The piece that I read focussed on whether or not it was true that social psychologists, his own tribe, were in ideological terms overwhelmingly to the Left, and if it was true, why was it so. To summarise:
Social psychology, Haidt went on, had an obvious problem: a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity. It discouraged conservative students from joining the field, and it discouraged conservative members from pursuing certain lines of argument. It also introduced bias into research questions, methodology, and, ultimately, publications. The topics that social psychologists chose to study and how they chose to study them, he argued, suffered from homogeneity. The effect was limited, Haidt was quick to point out, to areas that concerned political ideology and politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality.
On the whole the data are supportive of his view. There is, at least in the USA, a strong Leftish slant to what social psychology regards as its domain, what counts as an interesting question, and what counts as evidence. That ‘gender’ is seen as an important criterion in what is to be studied, Haidt would argue, is an example. I happen to think that matters of ‘gender’ were once much less studied than they ought to have been, but I would join with him in arguing that today they have become almost unarguable, which seems wrong to me.
What about in Australia? My current view, supported by what I have read of the social sciences over the last twenty years, is that Haidt’s view is by and large true here too. And that suggests that there has been a real turn-around since the 1950s, when I became a graduate student. Then the general view in the social sciences was, I think, conservative, with the occasional Marxist yelling to be heard. Feminists were unknown. By the 1970s feminists and quasi-Marxists were being appointed to university staff in the social sciences, and by the 1990s they were more likely to be appointed than conservatives were, if only because they were now in a majority.
Where will it end? My sense is that the Left persuasion has reached its peak, and will decline — not dramatically, but in time. I think that is likely to be true, too, of the environmentally religious, who do seem to be in numbers in departments of climate change and their counterparts.
And I keep suggesting that people keep examining their own biases, and be prepared to question them if the evidence seems to go the other way. Lord Keynes is said to have made a good quip here, when he asserted ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’
Alas, there is no real evidence that Keynes ever said it, memorable though it is.