Is Social Science a Giant Liberal Conspiracy?

McCarthy Testifying at a Hearing
Photo: Bettmann/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Ever since news broke of the academic scandal surrounding Michael LaCour, the UCLA grad student accused of having fabricated data for a highly touted study in Science about how to change people’s minds about gay rights and marriage, some conservatives have wondered aloud whether the blame for the whole thing can be laid at the feet of biased liberals. On Friday, those sentiments congealed into a Wall Street Journal editorial, and despite its general silliness it’s worth responding to (it’s paywalled, but if you drop the headline into Google News, you should be able to access it that way).

Five paragraphs in, it’s clear the Journal’s editorial board isn’t acquainted with even the barest facts about this case. The editorial explains that “the canvassing firm [LaCour] claimed to have employed has never heard of the project — and there is no proof anyone was ever contacted, much less changed their minds.” But that’s not true. The door-to-door canvassing did occur; it was the before-and-after online surveys that appear to have been entirely fabricated. It’s hard to imagine any journalist with a basic grasp of the scandal’s details making this error, given how crucial this detail is.

Setting that aside, here’s the meat of the WSJ’s argument:

The larger question is why anyone invested Mr. LaCour’s paper with the authority of “science.” Experience and common sense suggest that persuading people to reconsider their opinions is difficult. An uninvited nag carrying on about politics on the front porch sounds like one of the less successful approaches.

Then again, the study flattered the ideological sensibilities of liberals, who tend to believe that resistance to gay marriage can only be the artifact of ignorance or prejudice, not moral or religious conviction. Mr. LaCour’s purported findings let them claim that science had proved them right.

Similar bias contaminates inquiries across the social sciences, which often seem to exist so liberals can claim that “studies show” some political assertion to be empirical. Thus they can recast stubborn political debates about philosophy and values as disputes over facts that can be resolved by science. President Obama is a particular aficionado of this bait and switch. 

Referring to the fact that Science, like many other pro-science people and outlets, has decried a GOP plan to cut the National Science Foundation’s social-science funding by a full half, and to cut climate-science funding as well, the editorial concludes with some tut-tutting: “Science magazine editors who rebuke politicians might have more authority if their own science wasn’t so political.”

So by the author’s argument, the paper by LaCour and his co-author, Donald Green, was accepted by Science not because it appeared to have scientific value, but because it “flattered the ideological sensibilities of liberals.” The implication is that Science was more interested in pushing a liberal agenda than in publishing good, well, science. And within the logic of this worldview, that makes perfect sense, since the social sciences “often seem to exist so liberals can claim that ‘studies show’ some political assertion to be empirical.”

This is an argument whose modern manifestation dates back to the Cold War and the turbulence of the ‘60s: Academia (not to mention the media) is just oozing with leftists, and these leftists use their positions to advance their radical agenda, which probably involves overthrowing society or something, facts be damned. It’s an entrenched conservative trope that probably won’t ever go away, and stodgily conservative outlets like the Journal’s editorial page are among its most enthusiastic broadcasters.

It’s also a complete caricature. LaCour and Green’s study was clearly published simply because it ran counter to so much prior research showing that it’s really difficult to change people’s political views (and it didn’t hurt that Green’s name was on it, given how respected he is in the field). If the social sciences “often seem to exist” to promote research suggesting, for example, that people can be talked out of their conservative views, then why are there so many reams of studies showing basically the opposite? What kind of half-assed academic conspiracy would allow in so much disconfirming evidence? Lots of things had to go wrong for LaCour and Green’s paper to be published, and it’s important to get the full story of how this all happened. But there just isn’t any evidence that Science editors convinced themselves to publish it simply because it fit into some sort of preexisting agenda.

The editorial also portrays social-science as a hivemind where these issues are never discussed. Jonathan Haidt is probably the single best example of how wrong this is (though certainly not the only one). A moral-psychology researcher at NYU, he’s one of the most successful social scientists of his generation, and his wonderful best seller The Righteous Mind argues, in part, that liberals need to do a better job understanding and taking seriously conservative moral intuitions — a viewpoint that, while controversial in some circles, somehow hasn’t led to him being drummed out of the left-wing cabal that is social science (he must have damaging photos of one of the higher-ups).

Haidt, drawing on a bunch of prior research into the political leanings of social-science professors (yes, they are mostly liberal), has taken up ideological diversity in the social sciences as a cause — despite the fact that he himself isn’t a conservative, he wants more onboard. The research on this stuff is probably best summed up in a paper he co-authored that makes the argument that “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.”  This is an ongoing conversation, in other words, and one it’s good that the social sciences are having. So to accuse social science of mindlessly promoting liberal causes is to ignore not just the basic processes underlying how scientific research is conducted, but a lot of the internal conversations going on within the social sciences as well.

It wouldn’t usually be worth responding to a WSJ editorial that reads much more like the script for some piece of curmudgeonly performance art than like an actual argument. But trust in the sciences is an important issue in a country where sizable chunks of the population still don’t believe in evolution or anthropogenic climate change, and where people tend to become easily misled as a result of complex-sounding scientific principles. We’re in trouble if outlets like the WSJ can convince more people that “social scientists” should be seen as just another ideological category along the lines of “Democrats” or “Republicans” — that is, as just another agenda-driven group vying for their attention, rather than one that really does make a good-faith attempt — albeit a human, imperfect one — to understand the world as it really is.

Now, it’s unlikely social scientists will ever be able to live up to the exemplary example set by House Republicans, whose attempts to gut climate-change and social-science funding obviously have nothing to do with politics. But it’s unfair to say the discipline isn’t at least trying to conduct solid research, and to improve itself along the way.