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.


Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Don, you sense that the Left persuasion has reached it’s peak and will decline. I don’t believe that. The Left seems to be going from strength to strength. Other than in right-wing blogs and media (ie The Australian), I don’t know anyone whom I would regard as non-left. It’s almost universal.

    I’m about your age, and I think my ideological bias is somewhat age-related, although even in age-related organisations like U3A, I find myself ideologically isolated.

    The thing that really surprises me is that polling shows an fluctuating 50-50-ish split between the Left and the Right. This goes completely against my own observations. Maybe I don’t “get out” enough (perhaps to the country?)

    • whyisitso says:

      its, not it’s

    • Don Aitkin says:

      You may be right. But my feeling is that the over-confidence of many in our society that they know both the problems and their solutions is passing, as warming stays tepid, poverty remains, schools continue, and all the rest. The conviction that ‘we have the answer’ is passing, and for good reason. Maybe I get out too much!

    • Mike says:

      I feel the same about the predominance of the left. I live in the electorate of Fraser for it’s sitting member to lose there needs to be a swing of more than 27% so is it where we live? On the other hand is it the people we have known for many years who are still of the left and we have changed? I have a friend in Bathurst sitting member there is National so you would think she could easily meet conservatives. But no she complains about the left bias of her friends. This must be quite frustrating since she is Jewish and the left are going feral about Israel.

      Are you a resident of Canberra? I think these days many of them reject Carl Marx because he was too conservative.

      • margaret says:

        Maybe people who live in Canberra just don’t get that it exists in a rarified (?sp.) atmosphere.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Margaret, I think this is a canard. Canberra is a city of not quite 400,000 people. Most of them have come from somewhere else. Of all the Australian cities, it is the one where one can have sensible conversation about Australia as a whole, and the only one (again in my opinion and experience) where things like how much money you earn, or where you went to school, or what car you’re driving, or where you spent your last holidays, are not the main topics of interest. It has high levels of average income, but low levels of real wealth. Demographically, it is a bit like Sydney’s eastern suburbs (without the real money). The notion that ‘Canberra people’ have no idea how the rest of the country has to battle is, with respect, baseless.

          • margaret says:

            Don, I take your points, but the sensible conversations about Australia don’t take place around the barbie in the large backyards of Canberra suburbia (which admittedly I’m only aware of exist because I had one – and I know now they are getting carved up or are almost non-existent because people wish for large homes on little land).
            The conversations take place in your milieu perhaps.
            It’s a very expensive city with big inefficiencies and dependent on a real estate market and it’s stamp duty and land tax for revenue.
            It’s beautiful, living is easy if you are not poor (like most places), but even if you’re not very well paid it offers much to those over the age of 30 and under the age of 18, (and also that in-between age if you slot into a smooth evolving complacency).
            Why should Canberrans care about the battles of the rest of the nation – no-one cares about Canberra’s often farcical seeming battles.
            Are my biases showing? I love Canberra actually and am constantly surprised at how little it factors in the consciousness of the rest of Australia.
            When we lived there and had cause to visit Sydney often because of family living there we would joke as we approached Canberra’s border and dusk was falling – ‘quick – before they close the gates!’

    • JMO says:

      No, I tend to agree with Don, the Left is
      (slowly) waining, I have found this in my own (changing) biases, and others
      (not all) whom I have known for decades.
      The pendulum does swing, however recently from my perspective, the
      pendulum seems biased to the right. I
      put this down to “progressive fatigue” (despite decades of “progressiveness”,
      the world still has its problems, even more so). Also “doomsday unresponsiveness” (despite all the past doomsday
      predictions – we are still here and (mostly) quality of life is improving. Finally, there is a realisation that the Left
      tends to focus on negativity whereas the Right tends to be positive; there are
      exception of course –eg Abbott in opposition (but that was his job as Leader of
      the Opposition). Of course many people
      love to wallow in their negativity, but mostly people make up their own mind
      and get on improving and enjoying their life.
      Just aside, I highly recommend to watch the film “These Final Hours” – similar
      to Neville Shuttle’s “On the Beach”

      • Daavid says:

        “Finally, there is a realisation that the Left tends to focus on negativity whereas the Right tends to be positive”

        It is so very amusing, that you cannot see an alternative perspective.

        What do the Right think of taxation for example ? Or what do Conservatives think of Gay marriage, homosexuality, condoms, topless bathing, euthanasia, smoking marijuana, graffiti at bus stops or leaves on the footpath? I could go on and on. 🙂

    • dlb says:

      Might be 50 / 50 in the general community, a bit hard to believe in academia or the MSM.

  • margaret says:

    I have instantly picked up your bias against beards.

  • PeterE says:

    What! Me biased? This assertion requires brutal interrogation and, if found to be false, significant reparations would be in order.

  • dlb says:

    No post about bias would be complete without mentioning the ABC.
    Fixed now 🙂

  • kvd says:

    I love The New Yorker, with its longer thought-pieces – can’t imagine a life consumed by Twitter and its imitators. You don’t have to agree with anything written, but the thought process behind the articles, and some usually quite astute comments provoked are very interesting.

    Perhaps relevant to your ‘bias’ piece is a lovely example I read this morning: which is not only interesting for itself and the author’s two course links, but also for his classic statement of bias “they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers”. Made me smile.

    Anyway, all this assertion of “Left” and “Right” treats the two words as monolithic – whereas each is a spectrum of views, which frequently overlap on some issues. And that word “Progressive” – what a slur that has become in some writings. If it was a human being I think it would have a good case for defamation.

    • whyisitso says:

      “Progressive” is a word that’s been hi-jacked by the Left. I don’t know how long ago it came to mean “left-wing”, but in my youth it is was certainly a non-pejorative word.

      “Conservative” on the other hand has become much more pejorative among the left in recent decades. When leftists I know utter it, it’s done with a lip-curling sneer.

      “Gay” of course is another stolen word. When I listen to Bob Rogers on Saturday nights, as a lot of Sydney people of my vintage do, one hears many hit songs of our youth with the word “gay” meaning happy or carefree.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    I have observed that when folk go through the submissions on my competition/project Art Toppling Tobacco , their biases come in to play. Do it as an exercise.

    Note too that the judges have their biases and that is why I have selected ( and will be in future) art that puts down the tobacco industry listed on Director Decision list. All winning and selected art goes into the Grand Final ,winners announced World No Tobacco Day 2015, to be judged by Dr Brendan Nelson Director of the Australian War Memorial (hoping he puts his biases aside).
    My statement on Home Page must raise many a bias and that is wanting selected art to be projected on to the Sydney Opera House- down the track that is.
    The following will raise many a bias- ambition is for selected art to be displayed in our National Gallery in Canberra- Art That Topples Tobacco. Down the track there may be Performance Art either via video or in real life- that will make visit to gallery an exciting thing. Yes the government could make money and the exhibition could travel to all state and regional galleries around Australia. The world needs it too judging by the submissions that have come from other countries. FAY

  • dlb says:

    I always thought the ABC had a bias against Tony Abbott. After cringing through his address to world leaders in Brisbane yesterday I think I can see why.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    What kind of a person would you be were you to have no opinion about anything? Presumably, quite free of bias. And probably not an engaging conversationalist.
    Most of us would claim for ourselves values and attitudes, and so I would say “I have an opinion, you are not hearing what I’m saying, and he or she is utterly biased”. What to do?
    Perhaps the key issue is not what set of opinion and values we bring to the discussion, but how we proceed in that discussion. Very often what may seem to be confused thinking, arises from differing premises. It is a willingness to explore both the premises and their adequacy, that indicates to me a relative freedom from bias. Usually agreement about the logic of an argument follows. It’s the unconscious presumption about the soundness or completeness of the premises, that can be the major stumbling block.
    Related to that is the capacity to evaluate objective information, especially if it appears to contradict a cherished opinion. Relative freedom from bias requires that dispassionate evaluation.
    Haidt is probably right about the field of social psychology, but all fields can and frequently do become self-selecting. It’s not just in academia. It’s collective behaviour. I was thinking the other day about how different subject areas become popular as undergraduate courses. Cultural studies is one, heralded as having a good future. Oh, really? I gather it’s overpopulated now, and there aren’t enough jobs to go round. I predict the same for environmental science; the time will come soon enough, where its softness will be exposed, and the degree worth little. That’s the problem when you have ideology drive curricula, and ideology is founded on bias.

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