June 13, 2012

Diversity, inequality and the views in the departmental coffee room

Dicronorhina derbyana pairThe Diversity that Dare Not Speak Its Name - Dave Frame has a very good post about the mystery of leftist overrepresentation in the social sciences. The mystery is not so much that there is less diversity in the department as why people are so OK with it, despite clamouring loudly for more diversity in other domains. He goes through various ethical responses for why the status quo is acceptable, finding them all flawed. Very well worth reading.

For some reason the blog didn't accept my comments, so I put them here:


The issue isn't new. Friedrich Hayek wrote about it in 1949, in "The Intellectuals and Socialism". An interesting early essay about cognitive bias and memetics, containing many of Dave's possible explanations. Hayek wrote:

"If we are to understand this peculiar bias of a large section of intellectuals, we must be clear about two points. The first is that they generally judge all particular issues exclusively in the light of certain general ideas; the second, that the characteristic errors of any age are frequently derived from some genuine new truths it has discovered, and they are erroneous applications of new generalizations which have proved their value in other fields."

His theory was that the leftist bias was due to the spread of a few core theories in the field, applied excessively outside their actual domain of applicability but gaining credence because of empirical support or explanatory success in their core domains. But there is also an emergent effect, where the conservative mindset lends itself towards academic specialisation while socialism (due to its universalist ideas) lends itself towards becoming a general intellectual, spreading ideas more widely. This produces a consensus by having the left wing ideas dominate the discourse.

So maybe it is the nature of the social sciences that make them particularly easy to politically bias. The type and limitations of empirical data and the kind of theories and methodologies used play an important role. Then there are things like Schelling-effects, self-interest etc. that amplify the initial bias. One might compare with economics, where a somewhat similar but opposite effect is prevalent.


Robin Hanson has pointed out that while there are plenty of people thinking economic disparities should be evened out, people seem to be entirely fine with inequalities in sexual success. Yet the latter category probably has at least a similar level of importance for adult well-being as the first. While one might argue that economic equality promotes a number of well-being promoting things beyond direct happiness, like political justice, it is still very telling that sexual success inequality is rarely mentioned even as a problem. (Except of course in the domain of sexual minorities, where rules preventing them from expressing their sexuality are often seen as deeply problematic).

While one can likely find reasonable ethical explanations for this particular case (whether they are rationalisations of underlying emotional or social factors is another matter), Robin's main point was that we do care about *some* inequalities or diversities, but not others. He points out that we seem to be fine with vast inequalities of academic or athletic achievement beyond a certain level, inequalities in know-how, physical fitness, appearance and many other life domains. These inequalities represent high diversity of outcomes. Yet only some are seen as problems that need to be dealt with, either by reducing inequality (when diversity is seen as bad) or increasing diversity (when inequality is seen as bad). In some cases I think it is possible to make principled statements of this case (reducing diversity of infectious disease is dominated by the gains of human health), but in many cases it is just a brute cultural fact what we regard as problematic.

In the case of sociology departments it seems that lack of diversity actually works counter to the aim of learning more about human social relations: vigorous debate and avoiding groupthink is helped by a diversity of views. So there would be a reason to try to increase diversity. However, just as in the case of sexual success diversity, there might be ethical problems with the possible *means* to achieve it. Affirmative action for conservatives might be against academic freedom etc. But I am not certain there are *no* possible and moral means. It is just that, since it is one of the domains where diversity is not valued enough, people are unlikely to investigate possible solutions.

Still, the domains of acceptable and unacceptable inequality/diversity shift over time as culture changes/is changed. Inequality of power or diversity of political views have changed in importance, so there is hope for sociology too. What I wonder is whether we are making progress about caring about the inequalities that actually matter, and how we know it.

Posted by Anders3 at June 13, 2012 04:04 PM