Turning A Blind Eye?

This morning, I ran across an article from yesterday’s New York Times entitled “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.” John Tierney, the article’s author, began the piece with an unusual account of a man willing to issue a bracing critique to his own profession:

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

Teirney goes on to mention at least two significant instances where the recognized orthodoxy of the social sciences suppressed legitimate but opposing ideas. (Read the entire article here.)

My desire in drawing attention to all of this is not to argue against or defend one side of the political spectrum. Rather, my intention is twofold. First, it’s simply to point out that even entire fields of academia are potentially vulnerable to an unhealthy groupthink. This potentially impedes their practitioners from engaging in or being persuaded by what might otherwise be sound and persuasive ideas, research, etc.

Secondly, however, I wanted to comment on what may turn out to be an ironic mention of this very phenomenon, since it comes to the forefront in another excerpt from Tierney’s article:

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” [Haidt] said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

“Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” Dr. Haidt said. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”

Notice that Tierney quotes Haidt’s recognition that a group can “evolve into a tribal-moral community” centered on “sacred values.” Further, he details an example in which a prevailing belief among academics in a particular discipline caused them to turn a blind eye to a cogent but contrary position. Given these things, one might think that the author of such an article would at least hesitate before summarily dismissing a current effort seeking to challenge an academic field’s reigning orthodoxy.

Instead, Tierney casually brushes off the intelligent design movement—currently a David to Darwinism’s Goliath in the physical sciences—as if it were self-evidently illegitimate. (A side question: are the quotation marks around the name meant to cast doubt on the “intelligent” part of “intelligent design”?)

Coincidentally, I’m nearly finished with God and Evolution, an edited volume written by proponents of intelligent design. Reading it has persuaded me that a handful of common misconceptions are likely behind Tierney’s remark:

1. ID proponents are united in understanding biological life to be the work of an intelligent designer (i.e., God) and not simply the product of random, purposeless physical processes. Even so, they are not uniform in their views of how life developed. Some would argue against what might be broadly called macroevolution. Others would embrace at least some elements while maintaining that God in some way superintended their unfolding.

2. Certainly not all ID proponents are “fundamentalist” Christians, even as the term is commonly employed. In fact, biologist Michael Behe, one of ID’s leading proponents, is Catholic. God and Evolution itself includes essays by Protestants, Catholics and Jews. On top of all this, I’d be willing to bet that many evangelical ID proponents wouldn’t exactly fit the stereotype most people associate with the word “fundamentalist.”

3. ID is not meant to be merely a “God of the gaps” movement. In other words, it doesn’t seek merely to point out places where current scientific orthodoxy lacks explanatory power. On the contrary, it seeks to highlight detectable evidence for design in the natural world. So, for example, some ID theorists seek to demonstrate that DNA is best understood as an information-rich language. Others marshal evidence that certain biological mechanisms are irreducibly complex, i.e., they can’t be explained by a gradual accumulation of mutations. And so on.

I don’t mean to assert that ID proponents have finally supplied the last word in the debate over how life came about. But I would suggest that it might be unwise for their opponents to view them as feeble challengers, especially without engaging with their actual arguments.

In the meantime, those who can’t conceive of scientists endorsing Darwinistic evolutionary theory for any other reason than the evidence supporting it, consider the words of zoologist D. M. S. Watson (1886-1973): “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or…can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible” (quoted in C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 136).

It’s surely not reasonable to think that Watson spoke for all scientists, or even all zoologists, in his day. On the other hand, is it reasonable to think he was an isolated voice? If not, we’re hard pressed not to see him as a representative of a community whose members “embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” And if it happened a few decades ago, couldn’t it be happening now?

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