In my comment on Piercarlo Valdesolo's excellent Scientific American guest column on our paper, I wrote up some points that deserve separate post. I'll expand on these issues in journal publications.
Some people come into social psychology with a political agenda – their research and careers are driven by left-wing ideology. A common pattern is to investigate how non-leftists can exist, why they believe what they do, what's wrong with them, and how we can change them. This leads to pathologizing conservatives, and lately, non-environmentalists.
It sometimes looks like dissonance reduction on the part of researchers. If you believe your ideology is true, but look out upon the world and see that large numbers of people don't embrace it, it can be frustrating (I've been there as an occasional pro-immigration activist.) You have a list of issues you think must be urgently addressed by society, yet society is not addressing them, perhaps doesn't even see them as problems to begin with. This can create a lot of dissonance – why don't people see what we see or think as we think? One way to resolve that dissonance is to assume that there must be something wrong those people, that there must be "causes" behind their positions other than simple disagreement, much less any wisdom on their part. So the next step is to inventory the uncharitable reasons why people don't embrace your ideology, the ideology you just know is true and noble.
Jost's system justification theory is a good example of searching for an explanation for the non-universal appeal of leftist ideology. There's a heavy effort to find out how people can possibly justify "the system" or the "status quo", as contemporary leftists put it. The framing is often something like: Obviously it's an unjust capitalist system, so why aren't people revolting? How can the poor support a system that disadvantages them?
These questions and framings are loaded with a number of ideological assumptions, and it's noteworthy that the field has not policed this ideological bias and allows such ideological content in its peer-reviewed papers. Assumptions include:
Beyond system justification, a lot of other research focuses on why people aren't leftist in their outlook, how they can "tolerate" or "rationalize" income inequality, why they don't care about the things leftists care about, whether they are "pro-environmental" and how to make them more "pro-environmental". Environmentalism is a rather new political ideology, and possibly a religion or a substitute for traditional religion, and it's alarming that social psychologists are promoting it and trying to convert people to it. Embracing new, abstract, and somewhat ambiguous values like "nature" and "the environment" is just assumed to be equivalent to rationality or something. Environmentalist values are contested by scholars all over the place (though not so vigorously within academia), but the field seems unaware of this, and unaware of their status as values, as ideological tenets, as opposed to descriptive beliefs about the world.
Biased measures and scales are a common outcome of this kind of bias. We have a number of caricature scales, like Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation, full of cartoonish items that conservatives do not actually endorse. But we report correlations that ride on variance between people at the floor on the cartoon items (leftists and libertarians) and people at or just below the midpoint (conservatives). That is, our correlations don't actually reflect a reality of agreement with the items (in data I've seen, only single-digit percentages of participants score above the midpoint on these scales, and this is largely unreported in papers using these measures.) We have measures of "free market views" that are loaded with proprietary leftist terminology like "social justice", a conception of justice specific to the left and which has no currency anywhere else.
A core issue in all this is that we have complete hegemony over the words. We basically force participants to respond to questions of our choosing, made of our words, resting on our (often ideological) assumptions. Participants have no voice other than the voice we allow them. This is a huge validity problem, and a focus of some of my upcoming work.
There's no equivalent conservative or libertarian bias in the field, probably because there are virtually no conservatives or libertarians in the field, and if they framed their research around similar ideological agendas it would be an easy catch for a leftist field. For example, if a conservative researcher framed his research by talking about the "staggering" number of abortions, he'd be run out of town.
What's more, we often see researchers declare outright that their motivation is to advance their ideology, to spark political action, and so forth. I think it's impossible to argue that the field is not biased when researchers declare themselves to be political activists and that their research is an outlet for said activism. Again, the Jost Lab is the canonical example (but not the only one) – it would be hard to distinguish it from a left-wing political action committee or lobby, given the declared intentions and ideology of its researchers. You can always find explicit activism there. For example, Sharareh Noorbaloochi's lab page reads, in its entirety:
Sharareh’s research focuses on behavioral and neural bases of moral-political attitudes and behaviors. She is currently studying the root causes of moral exceptionalism in the context of foreign policy disputes. Specifically, she investigates how political ideology, moral orientation, and system justification motivation shape moral exceptionalism and intends to use the findings to develop wise interventions aimed at alleviating this barrier to global justice.
I take it that "moral exceptionalism" is the position that it's possible for one party in a dispute to have greater moral standing than another party, for example that the United States or South Korea might have greater moral standing than North Korea, a country ruled by a cult dictator, full of forced labor camps and people so poor that they are several inches shorter than their South Korean brethren.
Whether moral exceptionalism is defensible or not is a philosophical position. This researcher has not only ruled on the issue, but has decided that it is a "barrier to global justice." Her research is geared around developing "wise" interventions to alleviate this "barrier."
She also says she wishes to study the "root causes" of moral exceptionalism. What if the root cause is people believing that it's wise? What if the root cause is simply disagreement with the researcher? Why is a mundane philosophical position assumed to have "neural bases"?
Why isn't she investigating the "root causes" of disagreement with moral exceptionalism? What's the root cause of that? What are the neural bases of wanting to increase taxes? What's the root cause of being anti-business? What's really behind being a Methodist?
This researcher has already decided that holding a particular position that she disfavors has a certain class of "causes", including behavioral and neural bases. She has pre-emptively shrunk reality, the reality that she will allow herself to see. She will not find a root cause of wisdom, merit or sincere, reasonable variance on philosophical matters and values. Rather, she is extremely likely to find what she is looking for, if she's allowed the use of invalid and biased measures like Right-Wing Authoritarianism. If people who endorse moral exceptionalism tend to register a 3 on a 1 - 7 scale of cartoon items (mild disagreement), while people who reject moral exceptionalism cluster around 1 or 2, we can expect to see "Right-Wing Authoritarianism Predicts Moral Exceptionalism". (In fact, such a finding could easily be reported even if almost no one endorsed moral exceptionalism.)
(I won't even linger on the ocean of ideology likely resting underneath the researcher's use of "global justice.")
Science requires us to be more sober than this. We can't go in having decided already what kinds of causes must be in force. The above example is pervasive in social psychology – the recurrent attempt to attach "causes" to various non-leftist philosophical or political positions. Notably, contemporary leftist thought seems to attach nefarious "motives" to disagreement with leftism. It's a good protective immune system for an ideology to have, to pre-emptively marginalize and de-legitimize dissent as corrupt or ignorant and thus deter one's members from closely examining alternative schools. I assume leftist ideology is not the only ideology with such an immune system regarding dissent – it might be a recurrent feature of ideologies as such. It would make sense. In any case, a valid social science needs to immunize itself from this sort of ideological embedding.
Regarding the Jost Lab in particular, I think it would be difficult to characterize its activities and methods as valid social science. I'm not sure how we would craft a credible defense of the above example of political bias – what sort of argument would redeem it as not biased after all. In his Edge piece in response to Jon Haidt's SPSP talk on political bias, Jost disputed that the field is biased, saying:
"This is because we, as a research community, take seriously the institutionalization of methodological safeguards against experimenter effects and other forms of bias."
The field has no safeguards against political bias, as least none that are branded as such. No such safeguards have scoured the Jost Lab of its deep political bias, as the above example illustrates. As far as I'm aware, Jost has not instituted any efforts to strip his lab of such biases, or to otherwise reduce them. His Edge piece takes leftist ideology for granted, instead of treating it as one ideology among a broad constellation of alternative frameworks. For example, he treats "social justice" and "environmental sustainability" as descriptive categories of research, along with mental health and intergroup relations, where "the best scientific minds have found liberal ideas closer to the mark." These are not descriptive categories, but rather are leftist values. They are also highly abstract concepts that entail assumptions that not all scholars will grant – in other words, they are question-begging.
It seems to be in the nature of ideology to convert ideological tenets and value judgments into descriptive facts/concepts in the mind of the ideologue. Here I don't think Jost necessarily sees his ideology as an ideology, or understands how contingent and optional concepts like "social justice" and "environmental sustainability" are. If the Jost Lab can't get their heads around the fact that leftist ideology is an ideology, and aren't able to zoom back from their ideological framework and see the border between descriptive facts and values, they'll struggle to conduct valid scientific research in political psychology. If that's the case, they should shut down the "lab", perhaps reconstitute it as a left-wing political lobby or think-tank independent of NYU. If they're not prepared to shut down, they'll probably want to consider major bias-corrective measures. One measure would be to actively recruit non-leftist researchers, since all their current and former researchers appear to be staunch leftists, even self-proclaimed activists. A conservative or libertarian (or two) in the Jost Lab would make it much more difficult for biased research to come out of it, especially if they were included on every paper. In this case, I think such inclusion would be required.
Lastly and similarly, I was also stunned to see SPSP diversity travel award recipients – most of whom were not underrepresented minorities – start their bios with statements like "I am an activist." Not a scientist. An activist. We know what kind of activist they will be, what ideology they will be trying to advance. And it was depressing to see virtually all the minorities focus their research on prejudice and stereotyping against their own minority groups. It's like as soon as a minority steps into the field, they go into their assigned corner and conduct ideologically-biased and approved mesearch on prejudice. This marginalizes the very few minorities we have, and somewhat weakens the benefits of diversity, since they're not attending to core social psychology research and the cultural biases therein.
José L. Duarte
Social Psychology, Scientific Validity, and Research Methods.