Measuring a Liberal Bias in Psychology

Measuring a Liberal Bias in Psychology

As a self-professed passionate moderate (the liberal charismatic title was thrust upon me by an opponent), I’m very conscious of bias on both the liberal and conservative sides. To be human is to be biased. I have my moderate biases, including a bias toward considering anything from the left or the right obviously biased. You just can’t win with me!

A number of readers likely already know that FiveThirtyEight.com is one of my favorite, of not my absolute favorite, news source. Besides their efforts to state their own biases, and the fact that I like numbers, this is a result of their efforts to cite their sources and show their work. If I question their rating of a pollster, for example, I can go look at what goes into that rating.

Before I get to the article I’m linking from them today, I want to emphasize something important. I like numbers, yes, but you have to be careful. The reason for this is that you have to understand how the numbers you’re liking were produced. Let me give an example. A friend asked me to read a book on the ancient world because I know the languages and he wanted an assessment of how much credence I should give it. In the book, someone gave measurements for the original size of the great pyramid in millimeters. There is no way the author could actually have that information. Numbers calculated in that way are designed to give the impression of precision even when such precision does not exist.

A more common way to produce a number is to assign it, such as asking people to rate something on a scale from 1 to 10. In order to know the question asked, how it’s asked, and who it’s asked of. After that you might consider asking what those people might know. For example, asking a random sample to rate the quality of cardiac care in this country on a scale from 1 to 10 produces information on how the sample views this, but might tell you as little as nothing regarding the actual state of such care, depending on who is being asked and what they could know.

So here’s the article, Psychologists Looked in the Mirror and Saw a Bunch of Liberals. (You need to read the article—the whole article. This material is useless without the reasoning behind it and the look for solutions.)

Someone noted the bias with a simple show of hands, and followed up with a study looking at the way in which results of studies were presented in journal abstracts. Here’s the generalization:

Sure enough, the abstracts more often explained their findings in terms of conservative ideas rather than liberal ones, and conservatives were described more negatively in the eyes of the raters.

The study authors tested for a bias in their raters and found that their liberal raters actually rated the abstracts as more negative regarding conservative views than did conservative raters. In a  separate test, they also note that a panel of psychologists surveyed for their expectation of bias expected the results to be more biased than the study showed they were. You should, in turn, read the note on the potential problem with the panel of psychologists surveyed.

Note to self: Doing a deep enough study on an issue to have a strong opinion is a lot of work and takes a lot of time!

One of the solutions suggested is studies done by “trans-ideogical teams,” i.e., have research done by people who expect different results and who then design a study based on what would change their mind on the topic. I like this idea quite a lot.

I’ll note that this has a great deal to do with the way I publish (my company). I look to create conversation between people of widely differing viewpoints. (This is not identical to creating a church congregation, where some identity is necessary. I also support diverse congregations, but the boundaries will be set up differently.) I believe that in learning, there is great value in hearing the opposing position from someone who actually supports it.

A conservative professor requiring readings from a liberal book and explaining liberal ideas is not as challenging as hearing from an actual liberal. Similarly, if you reverse liberal and conservative. I have lived and learned in situations dominated by conservatives and at other times in ones dominated by liberals. The result I see is the same: Complacency, laziness, and arrogance. One decides one doesn’t have to have support for an idea because “everybody knows that.” But this “everybody” is a very selected subset.

I don’t see any solution here except intentionally involving people who disagree. I have found for myself that I cannot truly express the support for an idea I don’t accept myself nearly as well as a person who truly does support it, even if I try diligently.

This article is encouraging to me because it attacks bias in two ways: 1) Identifying and quantifying it, and 2) Looking at ways to correct for it.

Leave a Reply