Viewpoint diversity

inside jokeIn a guest blog at Scientific American, social psychologist Clay Routledge asks whether American (and presumably this applies to other countries) universities allot an excessive amount of attention to racial, gender, and cultural diversity, but insufficient attention to viewpoint diversity. He notes that his own field of study is particularly distorted by the prevalence of liberals over conservatives in most university departments:

Considering how harmful prejudice can be, most people would agree that it is a worthy topic of research. The problem isn’t the topic. The problem is how the personal ideologies of social psychologists can influence how the topic is studied. For example, social psychologists have long been interested in a possible link between political ideology and prejudice. To study prejudice one has to pick a target group. And guess what? Liberal social psychologists tend to pick target groups that are generally viewed as political allies (e.g., gay men and lesbians, atheists). The research then reveals that conservatives, compared to liberals, are less tolerant of members of these groups. And the liberal social psychologists proclaim that the finding supports the broader notion that conservatives are more prejudiced, less tolerant than liberals.

Social psychologists have now produced a rather large literature promoting this idea. However, when researchers have bothered to examine attitudes about target groups that tend to be conservative (e.g., evangelical Christians, members of the military), the opposite pattern is observed. It is liberals, not conservatives, who display intolerance. But there are far fewer studies that focus on such target groups, probably because there are very few conservative social psychologists.

So, it is not the methods per se, but the questions that are asked. As someone whose degrees are entirely in the field of economics, I would say that this criticism is one I often heard, although from the left: that mainstream economics takes the market economy and its power relations as a matter of fact, and confines its analysis to marginal changes to this or that policy within the existing market economy structure. And so I can see his point, although to note that its not just conservatives who find themselves in the minority in departments. Surely the changes in humanities fields since the 1970s have been through attempts to gain more diversity in fields dominated by conservative approaches?

But then we begin to part ways. Professor Routledge continues:

A lack of viewpoint diversity also has many practical consequences for university life. For one, some college campuses have become overtly hostile toward students who dare to openly question far-left orthodoxy. Likewise, the safe space, trigger warning, and microaggression movements that have emerged at many colleges are making it more and more difficult to have open discussions about controversial topics. Free speech is in real danger on many campuses and ideological diversity among faculty could help.

The paragraph is, I think by design, vague. What exactly is the “far-left orthodoxy” students might want to question? I teach at a big state university, see lots of diversity among student viewpoints, and have yet to see any student shunned, much less disciplined, for saying that single-payer public health insurance would represent government overreach, or that higher taxes on the richest 1% would produce harmful disincentives to investment and innovation. How does a desire by some students for “safe spaces” impinge on students’ ability to discuss controversial topics? I have taught as a faculty member since 1982 and have yet to come across a case where a student requesting, or a faculty member offering, a trigger warning has limited other students’ ability to read, watch, listen to, or discuss anything they want. A recognition of microaggressions is a part of students’ education: don’t make assumptions about others based on their race, gender, or other aspects of their person. We can still talk about controversial subjects in that framework. How would more “ideological diversity” among faculty change any of this?

Do we want young liberals to think it is okay to hide from ideas or censor speech they don’t like, or young conservatives to think college is not for them?

Again, what “ideas” is Professor Routledge talking about? Why so cagey?

I’m going to hazard a guess. If I’m wrong, tell me so. The “ideas” concern whether some people, including students, deserve full respect and equality. John Derbyshire was prevented earlier this year from speaking at Williams College not because, as the Washington Post headline has it, he has “provocative opinions”, but because he is a racist. He calls himself a racist. Milo Yiannopolous has been banned from many campuses not because he has “ideas” liberals want to hide from, but because he is on record in public media as being grossly racist, enough to get banned from Twitter, which, if you follow Twitter, you recognize as something of an accomplishment.

I have taught at all manner of public universities and colleges. My students have been there to learn, from their faculty and other students and guest speakers to campus, to read and engage in the arts, and, obviously, to gain qualifications that will enable them to earn a living. They don’t come to college to be in an environment where racists are invited to speak at the college because of their intent to offend. That’s not “hiding from ideas”.

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  1. Well then, it might be interesting to list some specific cases where “viewpoints” were rightly or wrongly suppressed in academia. It seems they are most commonly blocked when societies are under deep stress. A famous recent case is Ward Churchill’s assertion that the victims of 9/11 were the “litte Eichmans,” the “technocrats” who helped to enable US crimes over the last half century. Even though written in an inflammatory manner, the article, and later a book, raised some interesting questions about the role the financial industries play in imperialism, a topic that might even interest economists. And of course, the largest CIA Bureau outside of Langley was housed in the WTC as well.

    Churchhill was accused of academic misconduct by the U. of Colorado and fired, even though he had worked at the university for 17 years, was a full professor, and tenured. Many thought the firing was actually due to the outrage caused by his 9/11 comments. I don’t subscribe to his ideas, much less the way he states them, but I still wonder if his firing was justified.

    There is also the BYU physics professor, Steven E. Jones, who claimed that airplane crashes and fires could not have resulted in so rapid and complete fall of the World Trade Center Towers and 7 World Trade Center, suggesting controlled demolition instead, based upon his own experiments. His ideas fall into the very worst category of conspiracy theories. He was placed on paid academic leave and essentially forced into retirement. Still, the question remains: was his firing due to his ideas alone, or to the social climate surrounding 9/11? Would it have been better to discount his ideas on the basis of science and not create the appearance of the suppression of viewpoints?

    There’s also evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill’s controversial book “A Natural History of Rape,” which asserts that rape is a natural part of male sexuality, and that women should restrict their behavior to avoid this “natural” phenomenon. The book has been widely and rightfully criticized. The 2003 book “Evolution, Gender, and Rape, was written in response and compiles the views of twenty-eight scholars opposed to sociobiological theories of rape.

    There seem to be occasions where unscientific assertions are valuable in the sense that they lead to the research to disprove them. The air is thus at least partially cleared of bigotry.

    In the mid-1960s, physicist and Nobel laureate William Shockley claimed there might be genetic reasons that black people in America tended to score lower on IQ tests than whites. Educational psychologist Arthur Jensen followed with a long article suggesting that compensatory education had failed because of genetic group differences. A similar debate among academics followed with the publication in 1994 of “The Bell Curve” by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. It is astounding how many books and articles have been published along these racist lines in the 20th century. They are now rightly viewed as racist, but their publication led to further research that disproved their ideas. Historical race concepts have evolved to far less racist viewpoints over the last century exactly because academic dialog was allowed and motivated by poor or unscientific claims. Dialog is often a pathway to truth.

    It might be helpful if there were established guidelines that helped university administrators determine when controversial viewpoints reach a threshold for discussion, and when they are merely unscientific, inflammatory and harmful as an end in itself.