Thursday, February 10, 2011

Social Scientist Sees Leftist bias among academic psychologists

Some of the world's pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year's meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new "outgroup."

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a "tribal-moral community" united by "sacred values" that hinder research and damage their credibility - and blind them to the hostile climate they've created for non-liberals.

"Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation," said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. "But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations."

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) told the audience that he had been corresponding with a couple of non-liberal graduate students in social psychology whose experiences reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s. He quoted - anonymously - from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal.

"I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work," one student wrote. "Given what I've read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not."

The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They've independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. "The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy," he said, arguing that this shared morality both "binds and blinds."

"If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community," he said. "They'll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they'll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value." It's easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace "intelligent design" while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks - violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

"Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist," Dr. Haidt said. "Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along."

Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). "This was not a permissible hypothesis," Dr. Haidt said. "It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely."

Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias. But that assumption has been repeatedly contradicted, most recently in a study published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Cornell psychologists, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. After reviewing two decades of research, they report that a woman in academic science typically fares as well as, if not better than, a comparable man when it comes to being interviewed, hired, promoted, financed and published.

"Thus," they conclude, "the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort. Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past." Instead of presuming discrimination in science or expecting the sexes to show equal interest in every discipline, the Cornell researchers say, universities should make it easier for women in any field to combine scholarship with family responsibilities.

Can social scientists open up to outsiders' ideas? Dr. Haidt was optimistic enough to title his speech "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology," urging his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values. To overcome taboos, he advised them to subscribe to National Review and to read Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions."

For a tribal-moral community, the social psychologists in Dr. Haidt's audience seemed refreshingly receptive to his argument. Some said he overstated how liberal the field is, but many agreed it should welcome more ideological diversity. A few even endorsed his call for a new affirmative-action goal: a membership that's 10 percent conservative by 2020. The society's executive committee didn't endorse Dr. Haidt's numerical goal, but it did vote to put a statement on the group's home page welcoming psychologists with "diverse perspectives." It also made a change on the "Diversity Initiatives" page - a two-letter correction of what it called a grammatical glitch, although others might see it as more of a Freudian slip.

In the old version, the society announced that special funds to pay for travel to the annual meeting were available to students belonging to "underrepresented groups (i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first-generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students)."

As Dr. Haidt noted in his speech, the "i.e." implied that this was the exclusive, sacred list of "underrepresented groups." The society took his suggestion to substitute "e.g." - a change that leaves it open to other groups, too. Maybe, someday, even to conservatives.


Australia: Overwhelming load of new red tape for universities

As is to be expected from a Leftist government

NEW reporting requirements under the federal government's $500 million program to boost participation among the disadvantaged have been criticised for lacking evaluative rigour while creating excessive red tape.

The government's proposed reporting guidelines under the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program were released for discussion last week but left many equity executives reeling at the level of detail required, without there being an effective process for evaluating whether outreach programs were working. Under HEPPP, the government has allocated $505m from 2010-13 towards boosting the participation of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The bulk of the funding, about $379m, is being paid as a loading for low-SES undergraduate enrolments. The balance, $126m, is for outreach partnerships between universities, schools, governments and community groups. Much of this will be allocated by competitive grants.

The Group of Eight was among those planning to propose a series of changes to the program. Concerns include that reporting on the use of so-called partnership funding appeared to focus on just counting numbers of students involved in outreach activities rather than the depth or effectiveness of programs.

"It is accountability for accountability's sake. They are asking for an enormous amount of detail without a depth of analysis or evaluation," director of student equity at the Australian National University Deborah Tranter said, adding that the usefulness of the proposed reporting requirements was "highly questionable".

"There are no requirements for an objective, independent evaluation process," said Ms Tranter, who is also co-convener of the Equal Opportunity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia.

"A process of evaluation and reporting that is academically valid and rigorous, and is practical, is what is needed," she said.

A group of independent experts could be established to devise such a process. It could include student and parent surveys and the tracking of students' decision-making once they leave school.

Ms Tranter said without such evaluation universities might fail to learn from each other about what works and what doesn't.

There is also concern that the program could be vulnerable to being shut down by future governments if it can't prove it is working. The Cameron government in Britain has discontinued Aimhigher, a similar program.

Pro vice-chancellor (social inclusion) at Monash University Sue Willis said using a quantitative rather than qualitative approach to evaluation would encourage universities to spread their money too thinly, effectively exchanging coverage for effectiveness.

"Spreading it thinly won't do the job. It may look fair but it will be spuriously fair," Professor Willis said.

Professor Willis, who is also convener of the Go8's Social Inclusion Strategy Group, said the department appeared to be open to feedback.

Director of equity at Queensland University of Technology Mary Kelly said the government should hold universities accountable for their spending under the program, but she wanted to see "less focus on operational detail and more focus on quality, depth and impact of program activities".

She said universities should be asked to outline a medium-term evaluation strategy.

"After this initial collection of reports there should be a national conversation on what it means, whether there is room for a national approach to impact tracking, how we will share good practice with each other," she said.


Update: Mansfield Arabic Program On Hold

After parents protest

A Mansfield ISD program to teach Arabic language and culture in schools is on hold for now, and may not happen at all. The school district wanted students at selected schools to take Arabic language and culture classes as part of a federally funded grant.

The Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant was awarded to Mansfield ISD last summer by the U.S. Department of Education.
As part of the five-year $1.3 million grant, Arabic classes would have been taught at Cross Timbers Intermediate School and other schools feeding into Summit High School.

Parents at Cross Timbers say they were caught off-guard by the program, and were surprised the district only told them about it in a meeting Monday night between parents and Mansfield ISD Superintendent Bob Morrison.

The Department of Education has identified Arabic as a ‘language of the future.’ But parent Joseph Balson was frustrated by the past. “Why are we just now finding out about it?” asked Balson. “It’s them (Mansfield ISD) applying for the grant, getting it approved and them now saying they’ll go back and change it only when they were caught trying to implement this plan without parents knowing about it.”

Trisha Savage thinks it will offer a well-rounded education. “I think its a great opportunity that will open doors. We need to think globally and act locally.”

Mansfield ISD says in addition to language, the grant provides culture, government, art, traditions and history as part of the curriculum.

Some parents had concerns over religion. “The school doesn’t teach Christianity, so I don’t want them teaching Islam,” said parent Baron Kane.

During Monday’s meeting Morrison stressed the curriculum would not be about religion, but about Arabic language and culture, similar to the Spanish curriculum already in place in the district.

Kheirieh Hannun was born in the Middle East but raised in the U.S. She believes giving students the option to learn Arabic will give her son and others like him the option to learn more about their culture. “It was surprising, but I think it’s okay, and it will help come down on the stereotype.” Hannun says she is hopeful the class could broaden the minds of not only students, but also parents.

The FLAP grant was awarded to only five school districts across the country, including Mansfield. The district says the plan is on hold so it can hear from more parents. After that evaluation is over, the district says it is possible they might return the grant.


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