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It’s important to use evidence-based facts in social psychology studies

Pat Murphy: It’s important to use evidence-based facts in social psychology studiesWhen it comes to discussion of public policy, the term evidence-based has assumed mantra status. Those who deploy it immediately grab the high ground, inoculating their views against criticism from the less informed – which generally translates into anyone who disagrees with them. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Contrarians, mind you, will note that the concept of evidence-based is itself highly dependent on the quality of the underlying research. If the latter is tainted or deficient in any significant way, then what’s presented as an irrefutable appeal to science descends to the level of debatable political argument. By way of illustrating this conundrum, a 2015 paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences suggests a need for casting a wary eye on emanations from the field of social psychology.

Entitled Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science, the paper is the work of six academics, including Jonathan Haidt and Philip Tetlock. Their thesis will raise hackles. To paraphrase a key takeaway, there are problematic implications to the lack of political diversity among academic psychologists in general and social psychologists in particular.

Haidt, the author of the 2012 best-seller The Righteous Mind, is a public intellectual heavyweight of the sort that appears on lists of “top global thinkers.” He’s also a man given to generally liberal sympathies. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal feature a couple of years ago characterized him as a “strongly committed Democrat” who declares he’s only voted Republican once in his life – and that was in a presidential primary rather than a general election.

But personal sympathies notwithstanding, Haidt and his co-authors believe that social psychology has developed a political homogeneity problem. As the discipline is practiced in America today, the overwhelmingly liberal orientation of most academics narrows the range of inquiry, and sometimes shades the results by virtue of embedding ideological assumptions into the research.

Things weren’t always that monochrome. Once upon a time, psychology professors distributed their political affections to both major parties. But by 2006, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans exceeded 11:1.

Undoubtedly, some of this shift is more apparent than real, reflecting the ideological self-sorting that’s transpired over the last 30 or so years. As late as the 1970s, many liberals considered themselves Republicans while many Democrats were philosophically conservative. But the ideological differentiation between the parties has become much sharper. Consequently, liberals now almost always vote Democrat, and conservatives vote Republican.

Data sources that directly address the issue of ideological self-identification, rather than party support, render similarly lopsided results – a liberal-conservative ratio of at least 10:1 among social psychologists. For a field that produces research on politically-sensitive topics, this extreme lack of diversity should be regarded as a red flag.

As an example of what can go wrong, Haidt and his co-authors cite a published 2010 paper on “the denial of environmental realities.” In this case, the culprit was the embedding of liberal values and assumptions into the research method.

For instance, one of the study’s four key constructs was whether the respondent agreed or disagreed with this statement: “The earth has plenty of natural resources if we just learn how to develop them.” If you agreed, it was deemed to be evidence of “denial” on your part.

However, just what would you be denying? Absent a definition of “plenty,” there’s no objective statement of reality to agree or disagree with.

Instead, it can be reasonably argued that what the statement gets at is one’s attitude towards discovery and innovation. Rather than denying that the earth’s resources are theoretically finite, those who agree with the statement could just as easily be expressing a belief in human ingenuity’s ability to expand the practical utility of what’s there. And based on experience so far, they’d be right.

In theory, of course, peer review should provide a safeguard against stuff like this. But when virtually all peers sing from the same ideological/attitudinal songbook, that’s a dicey proposition. After all, social psychologists are people too and thus susceptible to the same confirmation bias as the rest of us.

In a less politically homogeneous field, diversity would provide a natural set of checks and balances. The thing is, though, that’s not what we have. And until we do, a large dose of caveat emptor is thus advisable.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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