The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Left Behind

published March 2016
Political Bias in the Academy
magazine cover

In the past couple of years imbroglios erupted on college campuses across the U.S. over trigger warnings (for example, alerting students to scenes of abuse and violence in The Great Gatsby before assigning it), microaggressions (saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”), cultural appropriation (a white woman wearing her hair in cornrows), speaker disinvitations (Brandeis University canceling plans to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree because of her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women), safe spaces (such as rooms where students can go after a talk that upset them), and social justice advocates competing to signal their moral outrage over such issues as Halloween costumes (for example, at Yale University). Why such unrest in the most liberal institutions in the country?

Although there are many proximate causes, there is but one ultimate cause—lack of political diversity to provide checks on protests going too far. A 2014 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute found that 59.8 percent of all undergraduate faculty nationwide identify as far left or liberal, compared with only 12.8 percent as far right or conservative. The asymmetry is much worse in the social sciences. A 2015 study by psychologist José Duarte, then at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, entitled “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science,” found that 58 to 66 percent of social scientists are liberal and only 5 to 8 percent conservative and that there are eight Democrats for every Republican. And the problem is most relavent to the study of areas “related to the political concerns of the Left— areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality.” The very things these students are protesting.

How does this political asymmetry corrupt social science? It begins with what subjects are studied and the descriptive language employed. Consider a 2003 paper by social psychologist John Jost, now at New York University, and his colleagues, entitled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” Conservatives are described as having “uncertainty avoidance,” “needs for order, structure, and closure,” and “dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,” as if these constitute a mental disease that leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Yet one could just as easily characterize liberals as suffering from a host of equally malfunctioning cognitive states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one’s lot in life.

Duarte et al. find similar distortive language across the social sciences, where, for instance, certain words are used to suggest pernicious motives when confronting contradictory evidence— “deny,” “legitimize,” “rationalize,” “justify,” “defend,” “trivialize”— with conservatives as examples, as if liberals are always objective and rational. In one test item, for example, the “endorsement of the efficacy of hard work” was interpreted as an example of “rationalization of inequality.” Imagine a study in which conservative values were assumed to be scientific facts and disagreement with them was treated as irrational, the authors conjecture counterfactually. “In this field, scholars might regularly publish studies on … ‘the denial of the benefits of a strong military’ or ‘the denial of the benefits of church attendance.’ ” The authors present evidence that “embedding any type of ideological values into measures is dangerous to science” and is “much more likely to happen—and to go unchallenged by dissenters—in a politically homogeneous field.”

Political bias also twists how data are interpreted. For instance, Duarte’s study discusses a paper in which subjects scoring high in “right-wing authoritarianism” were found to be “more likely to go along with the unethical decisions of leaders.” Example: “not formally taking a female colleague’s side in her sexual harassment complaint against her subordinate (given little information about the case).” Maybe what this finding really means is that conservatives believe in examining evidence first, instead of prejudging by gender. Call it “left-wing authoritarianism.”

The authors’ solution to the political bias problem is right out of the liberal playbook: diversity. Not just ethnic, race and gender but viewpoint diversity. All of us are biased, and few of us can see it in ourselves, so we depend on others to challenge us. As John Stuart Mill noted in that greatest defense of free speech, On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

topics in this column: , ,

36 Comments to “Left Behind”

  1. Linda Liberal Says:

    I read this article with interest, and I agree with many of the points raised. So why are students and social scientists avoiding today’s brand of conservatism?

    I’d say that conservatism has become associated with denial or foot-dragging on the redress of many discriminatory attitudes and practices. Granular parsing of corrective legislation; delays in its passage; or clinging to precedent in the face of ongoing damage have all become associated with conservatism. I’m afraid that wanting to keep things the way they are when that condition is manifestly unfair or anachronistic is perceived by many as disingenuous. Another problem for conservatism is the distasteful tenor of those who espouse it today — some pretty coarse and mean-spirited individuals have hijacked the conservative label and agenda. Back in the days of William F. Buckley, conservatism had a much more civilized, intelligent argument and image. More diversity of opinion would be terrific, but its not going to happen until conservatism itself becomes more attractive to bright, socially concerned individuals. It’s a shame, because unopposed attitudes can become exaggerated, as we see. But conservatives need to clean house before they can invite students and social scientists in and expect their invitations to be accepted.

  2. Bill Morgan Says:

    Margaret Thatcher once said, “The only problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Conservatives are sick and tired of the Government taking their money through taxes and giving it to people who don’t work in the form of welfare, food stamps, aid to dependent children, etc. The liberal process over the last 50 plus years has given us a $19 Trillion debt we cannot pay off because we have run out of other people’s money. This is why Trump is wining the Republican Primaries. The American people are sick and tired of the corrupt Government in Washington and we are going to be making big changes with Trump in the White House.

  3. Vere Smyth Says:

    When I first read this I assumed it was a joke and that there would be a punchline. I was dismayed to find this was not the case. You really do see it as a “problem” that intelligent people are 5 times more likely to be liberal and care for others as well as themselves than to be conservative. In the UK, and probably the rest of the planet, we are watching in disbelief that so many in the US are taking Trump seriously. We only hope for your sake that the voters will come to their senses when the time comes. (Certainly there won’t be many academics voting for him.) But if this article is any indication of US national thinking then I have serious misgivings for the future of your country.

  4. Fred Bucheit Says:

    Hmmmm. the 19 trillion in debt came from spending other people’s money? Now that is a flawed statement. Most of that money was spent on military equipment. I will agree that the social security and medicare system needs to be completely restructured as that is contributing a great deal to our debt. But this concept of “other people’s money” is also flawed. It turns out that some people have the intelligence and power to grab most of the wealth in the country and could easily leave the less capable living in dire poverty. The ruthless grab for more wealth is out of control and if it continues we will see air and water next on the agenda for acquisition by the wealthy and powerful. Unbridled capitalism is as bad as unbridled communism. Extremes never work.

  5. Pim Says:

    The surest way to become a dogmatist is being convinced of dogmatism of your opponent.

    That is what you see with a lot of those left-wing ‘intellectuals’. The immense arrogance in their own infallibility and their opponent’s stupidity. Added with their conviction of a black and white world (liberals vs conservatives)and taking the most stupid conservative as example for every opponent of their own doctrines, we have a recipe for disaster.

    They should study Karl Popper a bit more carefully. What a better world would that bring and a lot more humble intellectuals.

  6. Leo Says:

    It doesn’s surprise me to much that a majority of sociologists are found a little leftfrom the middle line. Also there are not many evolution researchers members of the tea party. Maybe that’s compensated by rather few leftists working for the navy seals. It’s mainly a matter of (rather individual) definition what is “left” or “right” for you as a more universally accepted explanation that was previously given by philosophers (or McCarthy) is contemporary lacking. The PC problem in academia is a result of a human (american) tendency to overdo basically good things until they turn bad.

  7. Pim Says:

    Comment nr. 3 from Vere Smyth is so telling. The arrogance and the stupidity of this person is unlimited.

  8. skeptonomist Says:

    It is a good thing that most universities and colleges are “liberal” meaning open-minded and progressive (as my dictionary defines the term). Some of course, especially religious institutions, will be conservative. It is probably inevitable that this tends to reinforce social and political bias – that’s how humans operate. Some of the special demands pass into absurdity. But it would be a bad thing if the type of partisan conflict that we see in politics today were imported onto campuses. There is very little enlightenment in this conflict – it is mostly a matter of a clash of material and racial interests. The Republican party has deliberately embraced racism and xenophobia to further their partisan ends (in the past it was the Democratic party in the South which did this) and any party can exploit nationalism in any environment.

    Any effort to increase diversity in universities should not be run by politicians – it should not be a matter of introducing propagandists for big-money interests. Some of this already exists in certain fields.

  9. bruce Says:

    Vere Smyth said:
    “When I first read this I assumed it was a joke and that there would be a punchline. I was dismayed to find this was not the case. You really do see it as a “problem” that intelligent people are 5 times more likely to be liberal and care for others as well as themselves than to be conservative. In the UK, and probably the rest of the planet, we are watching in disbelief that so many in the US are taking Trump seriously.”
    I didn’t where it said anything about measures of intelligence and it seems a little self-serving to assert your hypothesis here.
    Also, I get that you don’t like Trump, so who do you think “intelligent” Americans, assuming there are any, should vote for. Presumably you know best.

  10. Doug Dean Says:

    Michael, are you saying that the solution to ultra liberal opposition to relative university conservativism is for the universities to becomes more diversely conservative? Isn’t this calling for reinforcements?

  11. David Meier Says:

    As others have noted, the comments by Vere Smythe are the height of arrogance. The comment “You really do see it as a “problem” that intelligent people are 5 times more likely to be liberal and care for others as well as themselves than to be conservative” is as laughable as it is indefensible. Where do people get such odd and self serving stats. Great article.

  12. Indy Tracie Says:

    Bill, while you have missed the point of this article entirely, I am loath to let your comment stand without rebuttal.

    I hear this Conservative mantra all the time, too. “I am sick and tired of the Government taking MY money through taxes and giving it to people who don’t work…”. Most “Conservatives,” have been fleeced into believing this lie by corrupt Politicians and media outlets. Our tax money is NOT being sucked up by the “Welfare State.” Quite the contrary.

    Conservative icon Ronald Reagan’s Trickle Down economic theory sounded good, but overwhelming evidence shows that it works more like the water trough on Mystery Hill – and the money is indeed flowing uphill.

    The generous Bush era tax cuts, giant tax loopholes for banking and business, and excess military spending on two trumped-up wars have led to cuts in safety-net programs like TANF, SNAP, and Unemployment; education funding; and public works programs (see: Flint, MI), as well as to this the $19 Trillion in debt that you wish to blame on “Liberals.”

    Bill Clinton’s “Liberal” free-trade agenda, which culminated with NAFTA, was equally disastrous-putting American Union workers out of work and further eroding the US tax base. Additionally, tariff collections fell, since we no longer collected these taxes on goods manufactured by our foreign neighbors. (Conservatives argue that reduced tariffs make consumer goods cheaper, which is good for the economy; but when your consumers can’t afford even these “cheap” goods, what good is that?)

    We’ve lowered the tax rate for those who can afford, beyond any reasonable doubt, to pay higher taxes, but haven’t done much to prop up or grow the middle-class. Middle class incomes are falling the middle class tax burden-in proportion to income-is steady or rising. If we have run out of “other people’s money,” it is the direct result of Conservative economic theory.

    Trump may not need other people’s money…but he’s as corrupt as they come and a demagogue to boot. America will continue to backslide into 2nd World status with Trump at the helm.

  13. Grokk Says:

    Perhaps I am missing the point here… the fact that people are trying to defend their political belief system is proof of the paper. We bring our beliefs and biases n to research and surround ourselves by similar thinking people. The question is how does research present the facts in a format, not inferring our political beliefs into the process. What/whom is checking both the items researched AND how the research is presented. I am reminded of the saying attributed to Mark Twain paraphrased of course, there are facts, my facts and the rest of the lies.

  14. Doug Dean Says:

    [ Leo Said: It’s mainly a matter of (rather individual) definition what is “left” or “right” ]. The right/left divisions of politics are criticized for being simplistic. But if I can’t explain a complex issue in language a 12 year old understands I’m not satisfied.

    Categorizing people’s political actions on a continuum between two extremes is useful in evaluating what, and how, people oppose each other. One can be ‘too hard’ or ‘too soft’ on others in opposing them. You can guess how this parallels the right/left distinction – unless you’re one of them. Ideally one will be hard on those needing it and soft on those needing that. Why join a party who habitually uses one solution when a response more proportioned to the issue is more adaptive?

  15. David Says:

    I can see from comments by those like Pim, who degenerated into name calling almost immediately, that diversity alone won’t be the answer to a more balanced university teaching staff.

  16. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Dr Schermer assumes that the conservative and progressive opinions on social issues are equally valid (as far as teaching and conducting research in the field) and hence both groups should be able to contribute equally well to sociology studies. Can he demonstrate this assertion is valid?

    Without unambiguous evidence, he might as well advocate for an equal number of Fundamentalist Christians in Biology, Astronomy & Geology departments! They’d make for some diversity, I tell you what.

    There is another matter – if social scientists tend to be liberal which is the cause and which is the effect? Maybe liberals are drawn to this field more than conservatives. Or maybe after years of studying societies, the researchers become more liberal. If the latter is the case, then recruiting conservatives won’t work – they’l all turn liberal over time.

    The real problem is that sociology isn’t a hard science, so personal biases can go unchecked for much longer periods of time. Dr Schermer would be laughed out of the room if he suggested that Physics would get better if we had an equal number of democrats and republicans in the field.

  17. Nigel Guthrie Says:

    It is less important whether you judge Conservatives or Liberals to possess the moral high ground. The more important message from the article is that we should be more open to argument. The prejudice and intolerance of the young has been around for a long time. I remember 2 relevant incidents about 50 years ago in Scotland.

    A student protest cancelled a conference of South African academics in Edinburgh. Such meetings of minds might have hastened the demise of apartheid.

    Students also managed to cancel lectures by Hans Eysenck, on the (mistaken) grounds that he was a racist.

    Presumably, students are still afraid that their blind faith might be challenged by rational argument.

  18. Pim Says:

    Mr. David: You are right. My comment should have been:

    Comment nr. 3 from Vere Smyth is so telling. The arrogance and the stupidity of this comment is unlimited.

    I should not have said this person.

  19. Wayne Podrouzek Says:

    The points in the article have become conflated, and perhaps a tad muddled. I’m not sure we don’t need more folks “with” views on the right of the spectrum, or perhaps not folks on the right so much as folks who are prepared to put forward “right-leaning” viewpoints, and folks overall who are willing to meet these viewpoints with intellectual openness, honesty, and exploration (and not the “every view has it’s own validity” tripe). What we have now is a very fascist left-wing majority who really do see the proffering of any ideas with which they disagree as tantamount to assault, even a form of academic apostasy. This, of course, stifles debate, leads to group polarization and “bay of pigs” group think phenomena (like Wilde’s [?] comment that an idea was so stupid that only academics could believe it).
    The Golden Age of Islamic thought, science, and Philosophy essentially came to an end shortly after al-Ghazali (Islamic cleric, jurist, philosopher) came up with the notion of “Zandaqa”, or secret apostasy, and it became popular (I’m not making a causal argument here, but it is interesting), in which people became fearful of making statements not in line with what some weight of power saw as “truth” and doctrine. It doesn’t matter what your motives were, but if you made a statement “out of line” you could be charged with zandaqa, and even executed for your apostasy.
    Academia today is similar in many ways. Statements that can be interpreted as being out of step (microaggressions and “arguments”) can land one in considerable hot water with closed minded liberal, and I’ll use the word again, fascists. Those who disagree with their leftist positions do so at some risk. And this certainly “chills” discussion, proposing counterarguments (microaggressions in themselves), and impoverishes academia, where instead of education one gets indoctrination.

  20. Leigh Says:

    All should see this comes to one point: the belief in religion. If you believe in magic, you will want things to stay the same because the magic man will take care of all problems. If you don’t believe in voodoo you will realize in man’s humanity.

  21. Gabriel Says:

    Well said Bab Boy Scientist.

    Republicans lose a lot of credibility with me when they lie and deny about such facts as evolution, global warming, and the Big Bang. I feel in these cases their true colors are exposed. And part of that is that the truth is not important to them.

  22. dleet Says:

    Ward Churchill did not fare well, but were liberals behind his demise?

  23. Mr. Rothaach Says:

    I don’t see it as a problem with liberalism (and why is liberalism always blamed for things like this?), but as the psychological problem of immaturity. I read several news articles about these campus problems and one featured a letter written by a dean to the student body. The gist of it was: college is the place where you encounter the world; some parts of this world are going to be disgusting, so grow up, grow a pair, and deal with it. On some chat forums for grade school teachers that I came across, everyone expressed frustration with how school policies were trying to make them shield children from the disappointment of bad grades, and how children raised in such a system were turning into special snowflakes unable to deal with the discomforts of life. So, the deterioration of liberalism, if that is a thing, in my opinion, is the end result of a wider social problem involving the k-12 educational system, the generation managing it, and the parents who go along with it.

  24. MBG Says:

    Fascinating article, even if I’m not sure what one of my favorite commentators was driving at, other than like minded individuals tend to congregate, mostly to their deficit. One thing seems clear, especially after reading the comments. Everyone knows what’s wrong with the world and everyone knows it’s someone else’s fault.

  25. Brent Meeker Says:

    These most thinking people are liberals is that there is no coherent conservative philosophy anymore. For Jefferson and Burke and even Goldwater, it was limited government and personal responsibility. But Reagan and talk-radio morphed that into government is bad and if you’re rich it’s because your a superior person and deserve and if you’re poor it’s your own fault and helping you will only make you dependent.

    Yes, PC has gone off the rails. But it should be countered by facts and reason. Colleges need to bring in liberalism of Jefferson and Mill to counter the excesses of victim porn, not Glen Beck to teach sociology.

  26. catwalker Says:

    Michael quotes findings that ” ‘Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science’ found that 58 to 66 percent of social scientists are liberal and only 5 to 8 percent conservative and that there are eight Democrats for every Republican.”

    Those who go into social science are more likely those who tend to feel that it is possible to understand and influence behavior. The belief that behaviour is mostly determined by inborn traits, and hardly influenced by one’s experiences, would make the choice of social science as a profession a lot less attractive.

  27. J. Gravelle Says:

    I’m always relieved when Dr. Shermer foregoes the contentious subject of religion and instead does a column on a topic that has historically always united mankind: politics.

    It’s more than a little befuddling that we’re becoming, by some metric, demonstrably more civil while at the same time arguing over what were once banal truisms like: “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”.

    Perhaps as the larger issues of racism, sexism, et al are being settled all we have left are the nit-pickiest of disagreements?

    One can hope…

  28. Gerry Rising Says:

    Several reactions:

    1. We have plenty of discourse of the type called for by this proposal. Listen to the news on our major TV outlets including PBS and you get “balanced” reporting, aka two sides of everything, even facts. The Flat Earthers get equal time.

    2. Science in particular suffers from this everything-is-open-to-discussion approach to reality.

    3. Nine percent may be a minoity but it is representation. If there were none, the author would have a better case.

    4. We have on display in the political arena today the best case I can think of to reject this proposal that obfuscates diversity by equating it with some form of equal representation.

  29. zetetic0 Says:


    You’re cherry-picking events and using emotional language to arrive at an unwarranted conclusion: Too many liberals in academia are ruining THE CHILDREN!

    Jeez Louise, most students and academics I know roll their eyes at the mention of the events you mention. We’ve all gotten a good laugh at some of those clowns.

    RationalWiki has a much better write-up on the alleged left-wing bias you’ve spent years trying to distance yourself and other effete conservatives from. Go read it and educate yourself.

  30. Patrick Wright Says:

    A Democrat won the 2008 Presidential Election with 53% of the vote. Obama won it again in 2012 with 51% of the vote. If you believe that Obama is a “liberal”, then higher education is only 7-9% more liberal than the general voting public. The real question is: why should this be a bad thing? The biggest limit on free expression in the United States is your own employer. Academics have much more freedom thanks to tenure. They’re just showing what the country would sound like politically if people didn’t worry about what their employers think.

  31. Bob Zannelli Says:

    Apparently Shermer wants to establish an affirmative action plan for conservatives in our universities and colleges. I do wonder, however, why Shermer spends so little time, being critical of his own brand given the current state of conservatism in our country

  32. Steve Says:

    I had to smirk at Linda Liberal’s comment, because she was doing the exact same thing that the author criticized.

  33. Nathan Krawitz Says:

    The whole purpose of being a skeptical thinker is to avoid failures in critical thinking. A bunch of smug liberals correctly pointing out a failed argument by conservatives, such as denying human-caused climate change doesn’t give said liberals an inside track on being correct. These same liberals look silly when trying to argue against vaccinating their children.

    Other issues where people believe silly things are all over the political map. A society that teaches critical thinking skills goes a long way to saving itself from its own absurdity. But there will always be failures. Confirmation bias is the one failing we all are more likely to suffer, but one we can practice to avoid. None of us is perfect, but the more people there are who think ckearly, the fewer idiotic ideas that linger on.

  34. Chuck Says:

    I find it amusing to read some of the comments from some of the more liberal responses. First of all, Fred’s statement that the defense budget is responsible for the entire $19 trillion deficit is preposterous. The defense budget has not made up more than about 20% of the total budget, mostly less, for the past 40 years, and 60% is spent on Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, welfare, free lunch programs, etc. Others here seem to think that being conservative means you are anti evolution and so on, when most conservative people are actually fiscally conservative, meaning they have seen how much money has been wasted on social programs which have made things rather worse, not better, and have not improved the poverty rate. Conservatives see that liberalism has led to ridiculous out of wedlock and teen pregnancy rates and much higher drug abuse. They have seen liberal policies stifle free speech and create a culture of victimhood and not overcoming. As I have said to a friend recently. liberal policies ignore the law of unforeseen consequences; they only look at the immediate effect and not the long term or secondary and tertiary effects. That is why Mr. Shermer believes that lack of diversity in social sciences lead to problems – because everyone is expecting the same outcomes and answers and they don’t have another differing opinion to say why they may be wrong.

  35. Richard Says:

    let me try and do some critical thinking here. I am surprised at how many people responded emotionally to the article. They reacted as if Shermer had a political agenda either for or against their own. He presented an important issue on college campuses. I would hope that readers see what he presented as a problem. Shermer saw a problem then proposed a cause and solution. He presented some evidence to back up his position. At this point I do not know if he is correct or not. But what happened to focusing on the problem, its causes and solutions? This is what I thought the article was about. People reacted as if his solution was the real problem. If you do not agree with his analysis then what are the causes and solutions? I am sure he is open to other ideas whatever their political leanings.

  36. Wendy Says:

    Thanks at least for trying to tackle what I see as one of the most distressing problems of American society today. I agree with the above author — Commenters cannot separate themselves from their fiercely held prejudices on both sides of the divide in order to consider the insight you are trying to provide.
    Most of the people I know are avid liberals who pride themselves on being “better” than “the other side.” They never stop to consider that they themselves propagate propaganda that’s every bit as destructive as what is said by Trump supporters. I once had someone ask me about writing a book about “propaganda.” I said I thought it was a good idea, but that it should be balanced. He contacted me a few weeks later and said that he couldn’t do it because there “was no” propaganda on the part of liberals.
    Perhaps we all need to go back to 8th grade and study civics and critical thinking, because I am beginning to despair that it no longer exists.
    Thanks for trying though.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.