Academic bias

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Academic bias is the bias or perceived bias of scholars allowing their beliefs to shape their research and the scientific community. It can refer to several types of scholastic prejudice i.e. logocentrism, phonocentrism,[1] ethnocentrism or the belief that some sciences and disciplines rank higher than other. In United States of America in particular, claims of bias are often linked to claims by conservatives of pervasive bias against political conservatives and religious Christians.[2] This claim focuses on what conservatives such as David Horowitz say is discrimination against those who hold a conservative ideology and the argument that research has been corrupted by a desire to promote an progressive agenda. Barry Ames et al., John Lee and Henry Giroux have argued that these claims are based upon anecdotal evidence which would not reliably indicate systematic bias.[3][4][5] Russell Jacoby has argued that claims of academic bias have been used to push measures that infringe on academic freedom.[6]

According to Academic Questions, a quarterly journal with a conservative point of view, evidence for academic bias includes the disproportionate percentage of academics who are political progressives[7][8] and/or irreligious.[9][10][11] Conservative activists such as Horowitz have argued that this imbalance is due to academics creating an inhospitable atmosphere for conservatives.[12][13] Ames et al. and Neil Gross have suggested that this divide is due to self-selection. Instead of conservatives not participating in academia because of discrimination, this theory suggests that conservatives simply are more likely to choose not to pursue an academic career.[3][14]

Empirical support for academic bias[edit]

Some research supports the possibility of academic bias against political conservatives and the highly religious. An audit study suggests that entrance into a clinical psychology graduate program is negatively affected by whether the applicant is a conservative Protestant.[15] Examination of the comments made by members of the admission committees of medical schools also indicated religious candidates were more closely questioned because of their beliefs.[16] Other research indicates a willingness of academics to openly admit that they are less likely to hire a colleague, if they find out that the colleague is either religiously or politically conservative.[17][18] George Yancey's research is particularly notable since he finds that academics in a variety of disciplines are open to discriminating against fundamentalists, evangelicals and to a lesser extent Republicans. Research further suggests that certain types of conservatives are more likely to suffer from potential academic bias. Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter's analysis indicates that economic and foreign policy conservatives' academic careers do not appear to be shaped by their conservatism.[19] Yancey also argues that the label of Republican or Christian may not be enough to trigger bias, but those seen as strongly conservative in their political ideology or religious theology may garner discrimination and prejudice.[20] Furthermore, evidence of academic bias appears to be stronger in the social sciences and humanities than in the natural sciences.[8][17] According to George Yancey, such findings indicate that if academic bias exists, then it does so within a given cultural context.[20]

One study of philosophy found that while half of respondents believed ideological discrimination as wrong, a significant minority believed discrimination against individuals with opposing ideologies was justified.[21] A 2017 paper argued that left-wing ideologies had taken over criminology in the 1960s and 1970s, observing a massive increase in research around fields such as radical, Marxist and feminist criminology. The paper's authors argued this resulted in bias, as the ideology of scientists within the field influenced both the acceptance of certain theories and the rejection of others; criminologists of this period came to regard criminology as being about criticising the social structure of society and those who supported the status quo. The authors also argue that even in the modern day, much of the writing in criminology remains primarily political in both origin and purpose.[22][23] A 2018 study argued that since groups seen as deviant from the norm are frequently seen as in need of explanation, if bias against conservatives existed, then conservatives and conservatism should be seen as more in need of explanation than liberals and liberalism, as a liberal-biased science would see them as deviant and that they would be described more negatively. This was confirmed by the results of the study.[24][25] Other researchers also argue that political bias manifests in scientific research, influencing how ideological groups are described, what measurements are used, the interpretation of results and which results are published.[26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33]

A 2018 study found bias amongst criminal law students, with students engaging in motivated reasoning favourable to their political in-group and demonstrating bias towards their political in-group.[34] Mark Horowitz also argues that researchers' political views can bias their research.[35]

A 2005 paper argued that, controlling for student ability, there was no evidence of any disciplines being biased against conservative students in grading. In contrast, the researchers did find some disciplines, such as economics and business, where conservative students achieved higher grades than would be expected by student ability. The authors concluded that this was unlikely to be due to any explicit or implicit bias in these disciplines, instead arguing that it was likely due to differences in student interest in subject matter, as well as possibly due to differences in discipline teaching methodology interacting with student personalities and values.[36]

Justin Tetrault argues that research into hate groups relied too much upon stereotypes rather than rigorous analysis, likely because said stereotypes appealed to researchers' own beliefs.[37]

It has been argued that apparent evidence of a "prejudice gap" between right-wingers and left-wingers - the idea that right-wingers are more prejudiced than left-wingers - was caused by researchers having not measured groups that left-wingers would be prejudiced towards. It has been suggested that this was because this was not regarded as prejudice or was not seen as worthy of investigation.[38] Chrstine Reyna argues that ideological bias can effect how scales are constructed and interpreted in multiple ways.[39] Lee Jussim argues that right-wing individuals were classified as "cognitively rigid", however he argues this label is misleading because what studies indicate is that right-wing individuals were less willing to change their beliefs and to be open to new experiences relative to left-wing individuals but this did not make them "rigid" in any absolute sense and that absent any absolute measure as to how cognitively flexible a person should be, labels such as "rigid" were meaningless.[40][41] A 2019 study by the researchers measuring "actively open-minded thinking" noted that the researchers' original scale was biased against religious individuals due to test items, skewing correlations, and that the team had not realised this error for almost two decades, requiring a new scale.[42]

Empirical support for self-selection[edit]

However, reasons given for the unwillingness of conservatives to pursue an academic career may be because conservatives prefer higher paying jobs[3] and are not as tolerant of controversial ideas as progressives.[43] Empirical support for self-selection can be found in the work of Neil Gross.[14] Gross conducted an audit study whereby he sent emails to directors of graduate study programs. He varied the emails so that some of them indicated the student supported the presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain, some of them supported the presidential candidacy of then Senator Barack Obama and some of them were politically neutral. He found that the directors of graduate study programs did not significantly vary in their treatment of the senders of the letters regardless of the implied political advocacy of that sender. His work suggests an absence of systematic discrimination against political conservatives.[14]

Implications of academic discrimination[edit]

Brent D. Slife and Jeffrey S. Reber assert that an implicit bias against theism limits possible insights in the field of psychology.[44]

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative group, argues that course curriculums betray a progressive bias.[45] However, John Lee argues that this research is not based on a probability sample and uses a research design that cannot rule out explanations other than political bias.[4] Furthermore, research suggests little or no leftward movement among college students while they are in college.[46]

Academic bias has also been argued as a problem due to discrimination against conservative students. Research has indicated that conservative Christians may experience discrimination on colleges and universities, but these studies are anecdotal and rely on self-reported perceptions of discrimination. For example, the Hyers' study includes "Belief Conflicts" and "Interaction Difficulties" as discriminatory events.[47][48] However, other work suggests that very few students experience discrimination based on political ideology.[49]

Phillip Gray argues that ideological bias in political science risks creating "blind spots", whereby certain ideas and assumptions are just accepted as normal and not challenged. Gray argues that this could mean that issues that concern the ideology of the dominant majority could receive a lot of focus, while issues that concern less prominent ideologies could be seen as less worthy of investigation and thus be consequently understudied. This risks resulting in a fairly ideologically homogenous field whereby certain "givens" are just accepted and thus not examined. In addition, Gray argues that this means that certain studies are not given adequate examination if they confirm the dominant group's ideological priors, even if the studies are flawed. Gray further argues that ideological bias in academia risks portraying other political groups not as another group of actors with their own beliefs but rather as a threat (too ignorant or prejudiced to know what is good) or menace (inherently inclined towards destructive acts and policies). This results in these groups being portrayed as dysfunctional and requiring diagnosis rather than understanding; while Gray does not believe political science blatantly "otherizes" its ideological outgroups, he does argue that there is an implicit "diagnostic" attitude towards groups that disagree with the majority's view.[50]

Asle Toje argues that while academic bias does not seem to make scholars dishonest, it does affect what questions are deemed worthy of research and what conclusions are deemed career-advancing. Toje also argues that the field of social science is filled with biased terminology that a priori discredits certain perspectives while lending credence to others.[51] Similarly, Honeycutt et al. argue that bias can affect not only what questions get asked but how they are asked - they observe that the debate of whether rightists were more biased than leftists or if the two were equally biased failed to consider if leftists were more biased as a possible debate point.[52][53][54][55]

Cofnas et al. argue that activism within social science can undermine trust in scientists.[56] Brandt et al. argue that bias can limit what topics are researched and thus limit scientific knowledge as a whole. In addition, political bias in social science can risk creating a perception amongst the general public that the scientific field is producing politically biased findings and thus not worthy of receiving public funds.[57]

Bias in other dimensions[edit]

There is some evidence that academic bias can be based in non-political and non-religious dimensions. At least one study suggests that perception of classroom bias may be rooted in issues of sexuality, race, social class and sex as much or more than in religion.[58] However, according to Yancey's research willingness of academics to discriminate against colleagues indicate little appetite for such discrimination, unless the target is religiously or politically conservative.[17]


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