Mark Sherman Ph.D.

Real Men Don't Write Blogs

Does Liberal Truly Mean Open-Minded?

Groupthink can be harmful, regardless of how right you usually are.

Posted Mar 10, 2011

"Social Scientists See Bias Within" is the intriguing title of a story that appeared on thefront page of the Science section of the New York Times on Feb. 8 . The article, by John Tierney, focuses on a speech by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in which he pointed out to those at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology that this organization, which has long been interested in biases concerning such issues as race, gender, and sexual orientation, has failed to detect a bias within its own ranks (and, by extension, the ranks of the social sciences, in general), namely, one favoring liberals over conservatives.

The piece elicited more than 500 comments, many of which said that the preponderance of liberals in the social sciences made sense. For one thing, a hallmark of any science is a search for evidence, and as one commenter wrote, "their (conservatives) absence highlights how far to the right the contemporary conservative movement has traveled and how out of sync it is with evidence-based reality." I would agree: Among those who believe strongly in "evidence-based realities," such as evolution and climate change, liberals certainly outnumber conservatives. It's one of the reasons I am a lifelong liberal.

Another is the linkage of liberals with trying to help the downtrodden. In this regard, one of the comments was "Liberals' life of the minds are always exciting; they are thinking of ways to improve things, to right injustices, to make life better, to extend human liberty...We need conservatives to keep things more or less predictable and consistent, but our ability to grow and improve ourselves come from the liberals' not the conservatives' ideas."

So if, like me, you are a strong believer in both science and social change, it is more than reasonable to be a liberal. But to a good academic, the science - data, evidence, and, when possible, experimentation -- should come first. And science goes hand in hand with a larger concept: Truth. It is no accident that Harvard University's motto is "Veritas."

Granted, what we see as truth can change, especially in the social sciences. And that is one of the things that make the enterprise exciting. But a problem for me, as a liberal, is that some possible truths -- as supported by whatever data we have -- are not always what we liberals would like them to be. Yet, one of the definitions of "liberal," but not of "conservative," is "open-minded." If you Google "liberal means open-minded," you get more than 5000 hits. Googling "conservative means open-minded" yields exactly one.

Paradoxically, anyone who spends any time at a college or university will see that that this definition often gets lost in groupthink. Again, to quote a commenter on that Times piece, "What the author describes is an example of groupthink-- a group that adapts a set of shared assumptions, and exhibits hostility to those who do not share them. The damage is that concepts which conflict with the groupthink are dismissed out of hand, without any real attempt to analyze, evaluate, or test them."

The article mentions Larry Summers and the attacks he sustained for suggesting, in January 2005, that just as there appear to be more males at the extreme low end of the curve in abilities, such as science and math (and cognitive functioning in general), so, too, one might entertain the possibility that there are more males at the high end as well (as at the very top of the science and engineering professoriate). Keep in mind that he was talking about "people who are 3 ½ to 4 standard deviations above the mean, the one in 5,000 or one in 10,000 class."  He also suggested that perhaps more men than women were willing to give themselves over to the intense work and hours needed to fully employ one's genius on behalf of science and engineering.

However, his even speculating on this led to a liberal feeding frenzy, which probably contributed to his resigning as president of Harvard a year later.

But shouldn't liberals, whose defining characteristics include open-mindedness, have recognized that Summers could have been, wasn't necessarily, but could have been right?

Incidentally, some nine years before the remarks he made that helped destroy his Harvard presidency, Summers said something that everyone seems to have forgotten about. This was cited by then First Lady Hillary Clinton in a commencement address in 1997: "Every study that has recently been done about developing economies has demonstrated, as Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has eloquently written, that investment in the education of girls may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world. That message is getting through now."

This reminds me of a serious problem in the developed world that liberals - including those in academia - have all but ignored: the way boys and young men have fallen behind their female counterparts.

Certainly there is little question that today, as in 1997, girls and women are discriminated against in much of the developing world. But it is very different in the developed world, including our country, where girls and young women are excelling. Boys and young men are clearly not showing the drive and ambition of their sisters, especially when it comes to education. Young males are not doing as well as females in school, at virtually all levels, and across the races and ethnicities.

Liberals have never tried to help with this, in spite of their tendency to help those who are struggling. The idea that males, of any age, could need our society's attention appears to be anathema to liberal thinking. They will acknowledge that young minority males might be having special problems, and, yes, their situation is acute and serious. But pretty much across the board, boys and young men of all races and ethnicities are not fulfilling their potential as compared with girls and young women. However, if a five-year-old white boy is struggling in school, along with many of his peers, or if parent after parent of sons in their 20s and 30s report that their sons are unmotivated, that is just not something that liberals seem ready to attend to. I strongly believe that the focus of attention on girls (of all races and ethnicities) but not boys (of any race or ethnicity) over the last two decades -- starting with programs such as "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" -- is a contributing factor to the dire straits that so many young minority men find themselves in.

So if you are a liberal, and I have always been one, why can't you see the problems of boys as an issue that needs attention?  Is there something in the liberal mold that says young males cannot get special attention? Is it so absolute?

What Jonathan Haidt said at that conference in San Antonio did get a good response from the people there, and it did make the newspapers, but the comments that came flooding in mostly took issue with what he said. However, groupthink is groupthink, no matter what form it takes. The truth has a hard time getting its full hearing no matter what, but when those people who are most committed to science as well as helping those in need put ideology ahead of possible truths, and won't even entertain a viewpoint that doesn't fit with their politics, we all suffer.

One of the things that drew me into college teaching was the freedom I felt in the classroom as an undergraduate in the early 1960s. I loved it. I loved the idea that in a college class, you could say almost anything. I had never been in any environment where I had ever felt such freedom of expression. As someone who always thought for myself and who always questioned ideology of any kind, the idea of a job where you could speak your mind, and encourage others to do the same, was just what I wanted.

Granted, necessary changes had to come to a system dominated by white males. But by the early 1980s, an often aggressive political correctness began to take hold on campus. Fear began to dominate; for instance, by the early 1990s I heard male professors refer to female babies and three-year-olds as women, so worried were they about inappropriately using the word "girl."

I learned. I learned that college was nothing like what I had experienced. But I didn't realize how bad it was until the day a student in a general psychology class asked a question about human aggression and the extent to which it might be innate, and I found myself saying, "I'd really like to answer that, but this being a college classroom, I don't think I can."

I didn't say it with irony. It came out of my mouth before I even thought about it. But when I heard myself say it, I realized that I couldn't keep teaching much longer.