A Different Kind of Bubble in Higher Education and How to Pop It

It will surprise no one to hear that college professors tilt to the left. But the magnitude of the imbalance is shocking. According to a paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, there are about 14 liberal social psychologists for every conservative one. And any professor can tell you that it isn’t a stretch to say other disciplines, at least in the social sciences, have similar ratios.

Why such a large imbalance? Many factors contribute, but one important answer is active selection bias among professors. This is not a paranoid myth, but a reality: Scholars are less likely to support hiring conservative colleagues–just because of their political beliefs. According to one survey cited in the new paper, an astonishing 79 percent of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative than a progressive academic with the same resume. As a result, there is simply a staggering lack of intellectual diversity among America’s university educators when it comes to political philosophy.

The resulting ideological monoculture is problematic not only in principle. As we have seen, it fosters an environment in which youthful protest–which always tests the boundaries of the prevailing culture–becomes downright bizarre because it transcends even the leftism of the faculty. More balance would mean less extremism all around.

More balance would also improve academic quality. Scholars tend to be less critical when reviewing work that confirms their biases and overly harsh when reading work that cuts against their thinking. One particularly interesting study from the World Bank, which looked at the intellectual biases of their own experts, illustrates this problem:

“In a recent exercise, the organization presented identical data sets to employees under two different pretexts. Some employees were told the data were measuring the effectiveness of a skin rash cream, while others were told the same data measured the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty. The politicized context of the second question led to more erroneous analyses, and the accuracy of left-leaning respondents plummeted when the data conflicted with their worldview.”

Boosting intellectual diversity wouldn’t fix every problem in the social sciences. But reducing confirmation bias and empowering minority thinkers to challenge the intellectual supermajority would go a long way. Competition breeds success in markets of all kinds. This axiom applies to the marketplace of ideas.

Getting more balance would improve more than just accuracy, however. As I write toward the end of the piece:

“Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.”

Historically, many academics and intellectuals have been a force pushing American society toward diversity and justice. They pride themselves on these accomplishments, and they should. But the time has come for them to go one step further. It’s time for them to truly embrace their own values in their own profession. It’s time for real intellectual diversity.