Yesterday it was my pleasure to hang out with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist working at NYU Stern. Many interesting things were discussed. Much yummy Japanese food was eaten.
One thing we briefly discussed was Haidt's complaint that social psychology has been hijacked by political interests. This is interesting, because a lot of people say that about economics, but in social psych the political types seem to have made much more headway (though politicization probably matters a lot less in social psych, because the fates of millions of jobs and trillions of dollars don't hinge on psych policies the way they hinge on economic policies).
Anyway, the question is what to do about it. Haidt recommends "affirmative action for conservatives":
I'd like us to set a goal for [the Society for Personality and Social Psychology] that we become 10% conservative by 2020. Yes, I am actually recommending affirmative action for conservatives. Set aside any moral arguments; my claim is that it would be good for us.
Just Imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.This is an interesting idea. But I have a couple of problems with it:
1. Unlike, say, race, political affiliation is a matter of choice. If we start giving preferential treatment to people who say they're conservative, won't people just pretend to be conservative in order to get a leg up in the brutal academic job market? Incentives matter.
2. Affirmative action type programs never perfectly cancel out bias. Instead, they partially counteract bias in some ways and create bias in others. If you start giving jobs preferentially to conservatives, it seems like you could end up with a lot of low-skill conservatives. Conservative researchers might be quietly ignored and disrespected, with the assumption that "he checked the box to get in". This is one of the big problems with race-based affirmative action, and it seems like it would work for political affiliation just as strongly.
3. What are "conservative" ideas anyway? In econ, "conservatives" (or "libertarians", as economic conservatives insist you call them) want to cut government intervention in the economy. In social psych, it seems like "conservative" means something totally different. What if the "conservative" ideas in a field just suck? Shouldn't we be afraid of permanently enshrining bad ideas?
Academia is about ideas. If you treat a package of ideas as if it were an identity group like race or gender, and offer it permanent shelter within academia, I feel like you're restricting the ability of ideas to improve.
But that leaves the question of how to fight against political hijacking of an academic field. Maybe the best way to do it is simply to fight ideas with ideas. If conservative ideas aren't getting enough play in social psych, start giving them play. Write some papers on conservative topics - if you're famous, who cares if no one publishes them, just post them as working papers on your website. Or start a blog, like Scott Sumner did in econ. Gather like-minded academics, using tools like the internet and human networks. Eventually, people will read your ideas and join your movement. If that group reaches critical mass, you can start new conventions, new societies, new journals, etc. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
In fact, this is exactly why academia has tenure in the first place. It's so you can speak out against consensus and not be afraid for your career. The system isn't broken - just use it!