Political bias in social science

About a month ago I wrote an article about the replication crisis that plagues academic research in a variety of fields, which you can find here. Today I am writing about another problem that is an idiosyncrasy of the social sciences, that is, political bias.

Most people know that social scientists tend to lean towards the political left. I remember from my time in France that the social science faculty, Universite Toulouse II Jean Jaures, had the reputation of being the headquarters of Toulousain leftists of all kinds. However I do feel like people only have this vague cliche and are incapable of actually quantifying the ideological bent of universities. I will thus in a moment try to accomplish just that.

The situation is not limited to France in its scope. The same is true of most social science faculties in the West and even beyond. I believe this phenomenon has extremely serious consequences that needs to be addressed.

One of these consequences is the fueling of the political polarization of our societies and rising tensions that could result in conflict. Another one, perhaps more direct, is the negative impact on the quality of the academic literature.

To be clear, I take no issue whatsoever with people being on the political left, nor with the right for that matter. I do however have a big problem with my tax dollars being used to fund activism disguised as scholarship. And that would also hold true if the universities leaned to the right instead of the left.

To dissect this topic, I will first discuss the extent of the political bent of western universities, then diving into the subject of ideological motivations behind research before concluding with the harmful effects these phenomena have on society.

Political affiliations in academia

According to Gross & Simmons (2007) 43% of academics in the social sciences and humanities are either Marxists, radical leftists or left-wing activists. That fact alone should be a massive red flag. It roughly means that at least 43% of academics in those fields are part of the far-left. The proportion of academics that self identified as conservatives is 3-5%.

Close to 18% of social scientists were marxists, which is something I still have trouble grasping knowing the atrocities committed in the name of that ideology during the 20th century. Imagine if 18% of social scientist were fascists.

Image

In the chart above, from Micthell Langbert (2018), we can see that in every discipline in elite colleges, even hard sciences, democrats outnumber republicans. Note that these data have been gathered from elite colleges which tend to be further on the left than non-elite ones. However, I do not believe this undermines the point at all because it is the elite colleges and universities that usually control the prestigious academic journals and who define the zeitgeist.

One might argue that this is nothing to worry about because conservatives tend to be more interested in material success and therefore pursue studies in more lucrative fields than social science. I disagree. While the latter part is true, it was also true in the sixties, yet the political bias in academia has worsened since that epoch.

Publishing their findings in their 1975 book The Divided Academy (the study was performed in 1969), Ladd and Lipset found that about 46% of professors described themselves as liberal, 27% described themselves as moderates, and 28% described themselves as conservative. That is a far cry from the 3-5% conservatives we observe today.

One possible explanation is that the moderate bias towards progressivism reinforced itself, generating a positive feedback loop. If conservatives feel slightly uncomfortable in social science faculties and start slowly leaving, they will make room for more progressives. The ratio of conservatives to progressives will thus be even weaker, making remaining conservatives feel even more uncomfortable and causing them to leave as well.

There is some evidence supporting that hypothesis. Indeed, surveys of different academic faculties found that large proportions of academics were willing to discriminate against conservative job applications, research with a conservative perspective or grant applications by conservatives (Inbar & Lammers (2012)). These findings have been replicated in America and Europe.

Ideologically motivated research

One might argue that it does not matter what the political affiliations of academics are, as long as they produce high quality objective research. But they don’t. As we’ve seen in my previous piece, most academic research is rubbish, even in some of the hard sciences.

However, the situation is particularity dire in the social sciences, because they suffer from the double jeopardy of the publish or perish system and of the political bias on top of that. Let us look at a few examples.

Indigenous American research

We have proof that some anthropologists selectively report research findings in order to construct a rationale for their political narratives, especially regarding native Americans. Disingenuous academics have created a myth around these people, portraying them as peaceful and ecologically conscious unlike the war mongering and ecologically destructive Europeans. This is a continuation of the Rousseauist myth of the noble savage.

Indeed, the anthropologists Chacon and Mendoza have studied this phenomenon of misreporting in anthropology and have documented it in their book Ethics of Native American indigenous research. They take the example of Means and Wolf (1995) whose take on indigenous warfare was this :

“Before the whites came, our conflicts were brief and almost bloodless, resembling far more a professional football game than the lethal annihilation of European conquest”

This has supposedly been written by grown adults with a straight face and sent to a grown adult reviewer who read it and decided to publish it in a journal. One of the huge downfalls of social scientific research is that a big chunk of it is qualitative, and in qualitative research you can get away with a lot of nonsense.

Anthropologist McNickle, cited in Allen (1986), contends that 70% of Amerindian tribes were pacifist. On top of pulling that figure out of the wazoo, this is completely false. In fact, Chacon and Mendoza (2007) and Chacon and Dye (2007) found that “evidence indicating the presence of Amerindian warfare and/or violence has been recovered archaeologically and/or documented historically from virtually every culture area within the American Hemisphere”.

In their book, they also assert that there is a very large body of evidence that Native Americans were perfectly capable of over-harvesting natural resources.

Nonetheless, some anthropology academics reject these findings. Their rationale behind this is that the authors of this research are part of a large and longstanding conspiracy to give power to the white man. To quote Goduka (2006) :

“These scholars are aware that their approach serves to channel us [indigenous peoples] into levels of inferiority and weakness that devour the strength and eventually break the power of our [indigenous] stories and voices so grounded in oral tradition”

Portraying Indigenous Americans as harmless little puppies instead of fellow humans is profoundly racist and dehumanizing. Humans of all ethnicities engage in war, that’s just part of who we are. These academics playing savior of the helpless First Nations want to be seen as the new Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They want glory and fame and engage in virtue signalling to reach that end.

Political bias in quantitative research

In social psychology, it seems like there is a bias against research showing bias against men in STEM and a bias in favor of research showing bias against women in STEM. Indeed, although the literature on the subject is mitigated and inconclusive, Lee Jussim found that studies showing bias against women tend to be reported more often.

Moreover, Smaldino and McElreath (2016) found that the mean statistical power in the social and behavioral sciences was 0.24, the recommended power being 0.80. Statistical power is the probability that a statistical test will correctly reject the null hypothesis when it is false, given information about sample size, effect size and likely rates of false positives.

Economics, which is often considered the most rigorous social science, was found to have a median statistical power of 18%, with 90% of research being under powered (Ioannidis, Stanley, Doucouliagos (2017)).

In a nutshell, low power in a field means more false discoveries. The social and behavioral sciences are not doing well. Researchers conduct low power studies until they obtain results that suit their agenda or that can advance their careers.

Clark university allegedly dismissed a graduate student who pushed back against questionable research practices, also known as p-hacking. To quote the article linked above :

The first time they ran the data, Nissenbaum says, she and Stewart considered one to be heterosexual, two to four to be bisexual, and five to be homosexual. But that analysis found no significant connection between sexual orientation and harassment, Nissenbaum says. So Stewart allegedly told her to re-run the analysis, with one to two being heterosexual, three being bisexual and four to five being homosexual. And this time, Nissenbaum says, the results were significant.

Her adviser asked her to manipulate data to try and evidence the existence of bias against some sexual orientations. That research would’ve fit into the status quo in academia and therefore earned recognition.

It is often believed that qualitative research is inferior to quantitative research as forms of evidence. And although I would tend to agree with that statement, these were examples of how even quantitative research can be used to push an agenda. As the saying, often attributed to writer Mark Twain, goes :

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Anti-scientific methodologies

As we have seen both qualitative and quantitative research in the social sciences are severely flawed. Nonetheless, there are a few strands of qualitative research that I would like to address more thoroughly. One of them is critical theory.

Critical Theory is “an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures” according to Wikipedia. It emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt school in the 1930’s. From this description alone we can know that critical theory is unscientific.

Indeed, it assumes a priori that some power structures exist in society and that we just have to reveal their consequences through analysis. They never provide proof for the existence of these power structures and expect us to trust their word and accept the existence of these structures without the need for such a triviality as evidence.

But the critical theorists themselves admit they are anti-scientific anyway, they refuse to use the scientific method unless it fits in a framework of human emancipation. This is because it is according to them a potential tool of oppression of marginalized groups of people.

They effectively advocate in favor of confining scientific research within an axiological framework. The obvious issue with this is that people would never agree on what framework science should be restricted to because this an issue not of science, but of ethics. Critical theory is therein deeply antithetical to the principles of freedom of inquiry.

This propaganda is being taught to our youth in social science faculties as you read this. In fact, entire fields of “research” are based on this pseudo-methodology.

These fields include post-colonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, fourth-wave feminism, gender studies, fat studies, and ableism. Critical theory is also being taught in sociology, anthropology and political science.

Ideological similarities are found between critical theory, post-modernism and post-structuralism. All these streams of thought roughly claim that their epistemology is superior to the scientific method which is considered an oppressive force.

Although, in their strongest form, I believe post-modernism and critical theory are contradictory, many thinkers were at the intersection between them, such as french philosopher Baudrillard or even Michel Foucault. This fusion between the two is called postmodern critical theory.

Among the proponents of post-modernism we can find among others Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida. The post-modernists, along with other far-left thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, were driven by their ideology to sign a petition to legalize pedophilia in the late seventies.

These are also people who continued to support the USSR even after the existence of concentration camps was exposed, that endorsed the Islamic revolution in Iran that enslaved the country, that collaborated with the Vichy regime and that abused underage girls.

What Yolande Cohen, History professor at UQAM, had to say about De Beauvoir and Sartre’s nauseating behavior towards underage girls is “Question, don’t judge”. That’s a feminist professor’s advice to victims of sexual abuse, question your aggressor, but don’t judge him. Even today, professors endorse and defend these deranged intellectuals.

As we can see, a certain number of post-modern thinkers were, and some still are, extreme moral relativists. They were ready to endorse any opposing force to the Western hegemon and its values, not matter how cruel that opposing force was. And these are authors that are part of social science and humanities curricula in the West today. I believe it can be said that these thinkers did not love the weak, but simply hated the powerful.

If you’re still not convinced of the un-seriousness of critical theory and post-modernism, let me tell you about the grievance studies hoax.

A couple of academics, all somewhat left leaning, wrote 20 fake papers and sent them for publication to famous and prestigious journals known for endorsing critical theory and/or post-modernism. Of the 20 papers submitted, 7 got accepted, 7 were in the process of being reviewed and 6 were rejected when the hoax was revealed. Had it not been for the twitter account New real peer review that detected the hoax, a handful more would probably have been accepted.

Some of the published papers were a re-writing of an excerpt of Mein Kampf with feminist language, a paper claiming that rape culture in human society was responsible for dogs humping each other in parks and another one claiming that heterosexual males should start using gay adult toys to purify themselves from homophobia.

Indoctrination on campus and beyond

You might think that all of this does not matter because these are problems of ivory tower academics who are completely disconnected from the real world. That most people with a real job don’t adhere to these theories anyway. But I believe you would be wrong.

These academics, especially the ones in prestigious schools, are close to political parties. They influence politicians, they influence journalists. Journalists who also tend to lean to the left, report the low quality research of social scientists and also cherry pick what suits their agenda among that research, which already leans to the left. Most people do not have the tools to distinguish good from bad research, so they think sociology findings are true like Newton’s gravity is true (Newton’s gravity is an approximation of reality but that’s a subject for another day).

Amerindians are portrayed as “noble savages” in movies, Netflix sitcoms talk about white privilege, and also this :

During an online training by now famous critical race theory peddler Robin Di Angelo, she told Coca-Cola employees to be “less white”. Scandalous. That woman sold thousands of books, taking advantage of the BLM protests.

These theories are also being taught to kids in primary school in some cases. They are dangerous ideas that fuel the climate of political polarization in the West.

The corruption of social science leads conservative individuals to distrust science as a whole and turn to ridiculous conspiracy theories, which in turn lead to catastrophes such as the invasion of the Capitol building by trumpists.

If conservative voices and opinions were properly represented on campus they could be criticized, sharpened and improved. Instead, pseudo-intellectuals on the internet try to fill that role and have a free pass to propagate lies since they are not subject to any scrutiny.

I, for example, found a severe misreporting of data, or a lie, by white nationalist Sean Last on his blog. To know more about it you can read the above thread.

Universities are guilty of taking advantage of gullible young people, using advertising strategies consisting of promising them that they can be heroes of social justice.

It shall be mentioned that, in my understanding, civil debate and dialogue are impossible under marxian, critical theoretic or post-modern paradigms. Indeed, these philosophies contend that the individual is a mere mouthpiece for an array of group interests.

Therefore, according to them, if you are in favor of capitalism it is because you benefit from its system or have been indoctrinated by it. If you think the movie Peter Pan’s depiction of indigenous Americans is not racist that’s because you’re of European descent and benefit from a racist system and you have been indoctrinated by it.

The reason Marx called for revolution of the proletariat and civil war instead of debate is because he believed that your ideology was largely determined by your material conditions, and therefore unchanging. This idea is called dialectical materialism. Marx’s thought is in that aspect self negating. If we accept that idea as true, then we can dismiss his thought as the sole expression of the feelings of a 19th century lower middle class rebellious German, which would be irrelevant to us today.

My last wish is for any country to descend into civil war. We have to reestablish dialogue before it’s too late, and have constructive debates about our society. Don’t let resentful academics drive us into large scale conflict.

Post-publication modifications :

  • Added parts on evidence for over-harvesting by Native Americans, the rejection of evidence of warfare and ecological by post-colonial academics
  • Added the part on statistical power in economics, added the report on the Clark University incident, Mark Twain quote
  • Added a small intro to the “anti scientific methodologies” part, lengthened the paragraph on the relationship between critical theory and science, added additional comments on post-modernism and its relationship to critical theory
  • Changed the title of the last part from “cancel culture on campus and beyond” to “Indoctrination on campus and beyond”, added a paragraph about dialog under marxism, post modernism and critical theory, discussed dialectical materialism

3 Comments

  1. > Close to 18% of social scientists were marxists, which is something I still have trouble grasping knowing the atrocities committed in the name of that ideology… Imagine if 18% of social scientist were fascists.

    I myself don’t think Communism is something that works or can work. However, I would give these Marxists some benefit of the doubt by assuming that they do not support the specific versions of communism instituted in Russia and China. Even though I don’t trust them, charity remains a virtue. As for fascism, I’ve never heard it as a concept divorced from the Axis powers; Communism is to Marx as Fascism is to… who?

    Thus if one supports fascism, it’s natural to assume one supports Hitler. But if one supports communism, it’s plausible that one rejects Stalin, Mao and even Lenin.

    > it assumes a priori that some power structures exist in society

    This is not an assumption, it’s an observable fact. *Of course* there are power structures in society. Denying this part is just… silly. The “reflective assessment and critique of society” part sounds like (traditional) philosophy rather than science, though.

    It is fashionable to criticize social science with bare assertions devoid of evidence, as you have done here. I do not have a good impression of social science, but this article doesn’t really add anything to my knowledge because I can’t tell whether it has any empirical basis. For valid analysis it is necessary to actually go out and look at evidence, such as popular published papers, or meta-analysis of those papers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I disagree with your statement that it is obvious that “power structures” exist. Some people have more power than others, that is obvious. But the power structures that critical theorists discuss are very often not backed by observation, they are supposed to be subtle and indiscernible for those untrained in CT. One of the “power structures” that is often discussed today is ethnicity/race. It is assumed a priori without empirical backing, that western society has a race hierarchy. The work of critical theorist is therefore to look for and expose consequences and instances of this hierarchy. But that is analogous to confirmation bias, if you really want to find racism somewhere, you will. But you might be right that I should have been clearer on this point. Meta-analysis isn’t a surefire way to prove something, in fact it can make things worse (this is about internal meta analysis, but many of the points apply to external-meta analysis as well) :

      http://datacolada.org/73

      I do cite some empirical evidence on bias in academia at the beginning, but maybe I should have done it more. Since I published this piece, the CSPI report on political bias has come out and discusses the data at great length, which might interest you :

      https://cspicenter.org/reports/academicfreedom/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That political bias survey is interesting. Particularly: over a third of US centrists in academia feel there is a “hostile climate for your beliefs”. Well, if people are being intolerant to centrists, then obviously the right will feel much worse about it (and they do). Actually, I’m worried more about that – about intolerance, discrimination and censorship – than about Marxist professors or papers about a priori power structures, though maybe there’s some a relationship between the two.

    Today I found out that there seems to be an automated block against my comments on multiple YouTube channels. Whenever I post a comment in certain places, it is automatically deleted within a minute. As far as I know, I was publishing my very first comment on hbomberguy’s channel, responding to his apparent belief that a goal of 100% renewable and 0% nuclear energy is completely practical and the obviously-most-reasonable-path as he supported Mark Z Jacobson over another scientist. So I explained: “Mark Z Jacobson is the guy who published a study documenting that the U.S. has 87 GW of peak hydro-electric power capacity, but then in his model that shows how 100% renewables can be achieved, it uses 1,348 GW of peak hydro-electric power capacity. And nowhere does the paper mention or explain this discrepancy. This is explained in great detail here: https://kencaldeira.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/mzj-hydro-explainer/ But okay, cool, people make mistakes sometimes. That’s okay. That’s not the problem with Mark Jacobson. The problem with Mark Jacobson is that when 21 other scholars criticized the mistake, Jacobson sued them for defamation. […]”

    I think this is representative of the kind of comment I usually post: I disagree, but I explain my reasoning and link to a source. So I have to wonder what sort of “power structure” decided my comments should be automatically deleted. Regardless, if this is happening to me, it’s probably happening much more to right-wing people. And I worry that somehow the tendency of tech companies to censor people – without ever trying to correct them – could be contributing to their radicalization.

    Funny that the technical correct term for this is illiberalism. Illiberal liberals! And worst of all, survey says, “younger academics are significantly more authoritarian than those who are older.” So these authoritarians may be with us for at least the next 50 years…

    Like

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