Political Bias in the Social Sciences:A Critical, Theoretical, and Empirical Review

posted in: reading | 0

“Everyone is biased,” is a mostly vacuous truism. It may be literally true in some superficial sense, but this is entirely useless with respect to figuring which claims made by which person or scientist are valid or not. Clearly, some scientific claims are true, others are not. Sometimes, evidence is contradictory or muddled. Yet some scientific claims are obviously true, and some scientific claims may be true despite not being obvious. Thus, the truism “everyone is biased,” does not necessarily mean that all conclusions reached by all people are biased, especially since some are better at overcoming their biases than others (Tetlock & Gardner, 2016). For truth-seeking enterprises, such as science, and truth-communicating enterprises, such as news and education, the stakes are unusually high. As Mark Twain probably never actually said (but is a good point nonetheless), “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets youinto trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Biased science can lead to counterproductive interventions, useless social programs, decades of wasted time and resources, and unnecessary social conflict by virtue of misleading people to believe false and derogatory things about those they view as their ideological opponents.
This chapter is a critical, theoretical, and empirical review of political bias. It is “critical” in that it roundly criticizes the manner in which the social sciences have allowed political biases to undercut the validity and credibility of their scholarship. It is a theoretical review because the chapter presents two complementary and synergistic models of academic bias (one about its manifestations, the other about its processes). It is empirical because the chapter then uses those models to review the now vast evidentiary case for political bias, and because this chapter presents new data providing further evidence of such biases. This chapter also highlights when proposed manifestations of political bias are plausible but not yet demonstrated – thereby also identifying potential directions for future empirical research.Scientist’s personal political biases, however, are not necessarily a problem under three conditions: (1). When there are plenty of scientists holding a range of ideological positions, so that, even though some individuals may be biased, the skeptical vetting that comes from having claims evaluated by political opponents insures that, over time, only the best and most valid claims–those most clearly supported by strong, rigorous evidence appropriately interpreted–come to be widely accepted as true (we refer to this as “canonization”); (2). When the topic is apolitical; and (3). When the norms of, and practices of, scientists guarantee the winnowing of unjustified claims and the canonization of justified ones.
The first part of this chapter is organized around reviewing theory and evidence regarding those three conditions. Although the second condition is often met (there is a great deal of research on apoliticaltopics), we conclude that the evidence argues strongly against both the first and third conditions. Because political biases are a serious problem for social psychology and the social sciences, the second part of the paper presents theoretical models describing many of the ways those biases manifest, and reviews evidence regarding those manifestations.

Ryan Watkins