The need for right-wing research

Guess my politics.  I study Social Policy, help edit a blog called ‘Inequalities’, and work in a centre dedicated to the study of ‘social exclusion’.  (To add to the stereoype, I also cook with lentils, listen to folk music, and watch depressing subtitled films in foreign languages). And in many ways I’m similar to most of the people I meet in UK social science.

But does it matter if most social scientists are left-wing/liberal? I argue here that it’s a real problem – partly because of how it affects social science itself, but mainly because of how it damages our wider legitimacy. And rather than just trying to put a cat among the pigeons, I think there are concrete steps that we can take to change this – if we have the confidence.

The politics of scientists

Before tracing the consequences of this, though, it helps to provide research to state the obvious: scientists genuinely are more left-wing than the average. A 2009 poll among members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – the world’s largest scientific society, according to their website – found that only 6% were Republicans. A few years earlier, the polemical libertarian Critical Review published a series of articles showing that social scientists were also much more liberal than the average.

I don’t know how robust these results are – for example, Roger Pielke Jr rightly points out the AAAS contains a particular type of scientist and misses out other types, while some of the claims in Critical Review seem a bit far-fetched – but aside from the politics of it all, the general point rings true to me.  Social science conferences and journals are full of left-wing critiques of ‘neoliberalism’. One of the most highly-ranked Social Policy journals even states that “it aims to develop an understanding of welfare from socialist…and radical perspectives.”

Academia isn’t a monolith though, and it’s clear that some disciplines are more left-wing than others.  The Critical Review articles found that economists were notably less liberal than others, which again has the ring of truth. (And also partly explains the often tetchy relations between economists and other social scientists).

The value-free ideal

From the idealised view of ‘science’, the political beliefs of individual scientists simply don’t matter. In our noble quest for truth, we slay ignorance on our path to the holy grail of uncontrevertible truth – with political biases far too weak to win a dual against the tools of the scientific method.

But no-one really believes this picture any more, at least not among those with a passing interest in the nature of social science. Without getting into the much larger debate on this – to which I will return! – values matter in science in terms of:

  • The choice of topic
  • The way we frame our topic, and the lens through which we see the world (e.g. ‘poverty’, ‘inequality’)
  • The point at which a claim is certain enough to be treated as a ‘fact’ for policy – cf. the Spirit Level
  • Our interpretation of our results (which is based on the plausibility of different explanations, and this is embedded in our world-view)
  • And a whole host of other areas….

This is not to say that social science is ‘biased’ in the terms that most people understand bias – I don’t believe that there’s any place for scientists to make up their results, and the main strength of science as a truth-promoting institution is the reliance we place on logical argument. (For those impatient to see a philosophical defence of this, read Heather Douglas’ excellent book).

Getting beyond the idealized picture, the main question is whether the science that we have – a truth-promoting institution, where right-wing researchers do exist, but are a small part of the whole – is sufficient to overcome individual beliefs. I’m not about to resolve this question here, but it’s a serious question that can’t be dismissed.

The legitimacy of social science

Yet the real need for right-wing research is about legitimacy and trust. If social science is seen as biased towards left-wing liberals, then – irrespective of whether this is fair – right-wingers will ignore it.

To me, this is completely disastrous. I believe that democratic debate leads to a far better society when it’s based on truth than falsehood (which you’ll either agree with, or find a slightly strong starting assumption…). If right-wingers pay scant attention to the truthfulness of their claims, then in the long run I think this impoverishes all of society.

This is definitely *not* to suggest that there is no place for a critical (and mainly left-wing) role for social science. Again this is something I’ll come back to, but there’s a strong argument that academia will always have more progressives, in the same way that business will have more right-wingers. But even if academia is primarily liberal, there can be a role for right-wing research within it.

Moving forwards…

This topic needs an entire book, and it feels slightly frustrating trying to shoehorn this into a short blog post on a Monday morning. But if I’ve somehow kept you with me this far, what can we actually do to change this?

I think there are two relatively straightforward changes we can make, at least in the UK Social Policy field. The first is to encourage right-wing students to take Social Policy courses – which not only means marketing the subject to these students in schools and universities, but also ensuring that right-wing ideas are not just summarily dismissed in our teaching. UK think-tanks have already moved in this direction due to the need to stay relevant (and solvent!) in a time of a Conservative-Liberal coalition, hence Demos’ ‘Progressive Conservatism’ project.

The second is to develop personal links to right-wing politicians and thinkers. This doesn’t mean ‘selling-out’ – I for one have no intention of spending my spare time working for causes that I don’t believe in. Yet if a right-winger comes to us looking for the truth about an issue, we have a responsibility to give it to them, even if we don’t like the way they might use this. In other words, we need to be able to mentally divide between (value-laden) ‘facts’ and (even more value-laden) ‘values’, and have the trust of those on the right that we can tell these apart.

I’m interested in what you think, anyway…

Update 13:10pm

I forgot to say that Brendan’s argument last week is relevant here – it’s impossible to reach out to some people on the right (like Glenn Beck), because they’re simply not interested in checking the truth of what they’re saying.

Also, I linked to two posts that I didn’t mention enough – by Dan Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr, both of whom have written some great stuff in the past. Sarewitz interestingly points out that ‘scientists’ in general are still well-respected (despite being liberal); I don’t know how far this extends to ‘social scientists’ too though.

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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9 Responses to The need for right-wing research

  1. Chris says:

    I completely agree with Ben. I am moderate liberal and I have great respect for conservative viewpoints on most topics because the rest of my family and many of my friends are conservative. But I have trouble finding social science literature that fairly addresses many conservative views about social issues.

    I am also a lawyer and I find that legal debates on most current topics of interest (e.g., the health care bill) are quite well balanced. Although legal academia is dominated by liberals, there is a substantial, and intelligent minority of conservative legal scholars that is further supported by brilliant judges and lawyers in private practice. As a result, on any particular legal issue, I can always find several very well-researched and intelligent conservative arguments to balance more liberal arguments on the same issue. After reading arguments on both sides, I always come away with a deeper understanding of the issue and – perhaps more importantly – more confidence about my own conclusions.

    I have no similar feeling about social science literature. Every once and a while, I get interested in a social science question and read a book or two about it, which are good, fair-minded, but invariably left-slanted, in the subtle ways that Ben lists (framing of topic, interpretation of results, etc.). However, I struggle to find serious, scholarly, intelligent conservative books on the same questions that respond to the liberal books I read. Now this may be because liberals are clearly right on most social science questions, but that seems unlikely to me. I can’t help but think that intelligent social science research with a conservative slant and relentless criticism from the same perspective would probably change the social science literature. As a result, I find social science books interesting but have very little confidence in the conclusions I draw from them.

    I would love to see some conservatives conduct studies on various social problems, especially poverty and crime. Social science in these areas discounts or attacks intuitions widely shared by conservatives (and many moderates) about the causes of poverty and crime as anecdotal or rooted in prejudice. Listening to debates on these subjects makes one understand why even wealthy conservatives complain about “liberal elites.” It sounds elitist when you are told that the common-sense principles and observations which have structured your life have been disproven by social scientists who know better.

    It would be fascinating to see whether intelligent, serious conservatives, trained in social science methods, could produce evidence to support their intuitions about the causes of crime and poverty or to challenge the current approaches to these topics. I think we would all learn something from the effort, even if our ultimate views did not change.

  2. Thanks Ben for an interesting post. I agree with you, and with Chris’ comment (whose arm perhaps I can twist one of these days to write something about American criminal law and social policy, or some other topic of his choice).

    I’d like to issue a challenge to you and to me to try to invite some conservative scholars that study social policy to contribute to our blog. My main challenge is identifying a likely candidate — I won’t out my peers other than to say that the students at Harvard studying inequality that I know range from conventional democrat to full-blown pinko. Not a promising start.

    Oh, and do you have any good lentil recipes?

  3. Bryonny G-H says:

    Hi Ben. You’ve picked a good topic here!

    I think there are partly historical reasons for social sciences leaning to the left – Marx was a social scientist, after all!

    But I wonder whether it’s also partly to do with the role of social sciences in, often, critique. It’s fair to say, I think, that in the neoliberal era, right-wing ideas are in the ascendancy. So if the social sciences critique the ascendant order, it would follow that they would lean left.

    If that’s true, then the question isn’t how can we have a right-wing social science, but what would a right-wing social science look like?

  4. Jack says:

    Lots of social scientific papers are hugely biased, just read anything by Danny Dorling. Let us not delude ourselves and hide behind ‘scientific objectivity’, some have an out and out political agenda.

    I met a Geoff Dench once, he had worked with Michael Young and others on “The New East End”. He was doing a talk about the book, how it was written, what it found, to a group of social scientists, mainly from City Uni. One of their findings was that the recent waves of immigration had caused a feeling amongst whites from the area that they had been forced out their ‘ancestral home’ and were second class citizens in their own country. You might have heard this argument from a certain wonky faced fat Cambridge graduate. The reaction in the room was one of utter horror, all sorts of people made points about how it ain’t so, how it cant be, how housing is all needs based, that it is neutral to colour. Geoff Dench sat back and merely reiterated what the data had told him, disdainful of the protests and close to personal insults that came from the floor. This was in 2006 but the material for the book had mainly been collected in the late 1990’s, they can not have been the only researchers to have come across this unrest. Had the prevailing feeling amongst social scientists been more receptive, more willing to listen, to this abhorrent racial hostility amongst a section of society then the rise of the right wing during the first 10 years of the 21st century may have been less pronounced.

    Incidentally though, why would a right wing person seriously study social science after their UK 1980s leader, Meryl Streep, declared there is no such thing as society?

  5. Chris says:

    I noticed this article came out on the same day as this post. I’m not sure if it was linked to in the post. It fits nicely with what Ben said: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08tier.html?src=me&ref=general

  6. Mark says:

    Fantastic post Ben – I disagree with your argument (or at least I think I do!) but it really challenged me to consider what my grounds for that are exactly. You should write that book!

  7. Ben Baumberg says:

    Thanks for the link Chris, it’s a really interesting article! Obviously there was something in the air that day…

    Bryonny, that’s maybe the crucial question: how do we create a social science that (i) is ‘truthful’, i.e. fairly considers right-wing claims; (ii) whose ‘truths’ are trusted across the political spectrum; but also (iii) still has a critical function that tries to fight against dominant right-wing ideas? Do we need different people to do different tasks, or can a single person combine all these?

    Jack – interesting that you mention ‘The New East End’. It’s not a book I completely agree with, but I think it’s exactly the sort of thing we should be teaching/discussing, it’s one of the most challenging and fascinating social science books I’ve read in the past few years.

    Brendan, you’re right – we should go in search of conservative policy scholars for the site, if anyone has any recommendations then let us know!

  8. Martin Dupont says:

    Interesting blog Ben. I had no idea that such a large percentage of scientists are left-wing, but is it really that surprising? What ‘right-wing’ generally means in the context of the world we live in is support of a system and values designed to maintain the extreme wealth and power of a tiny elite. Effectively this means that the majority of right-wingers support a system in conflict with their own self-interest. In a system of ‘democracy’ this can only be achieved with a large degree of propaganda, misinformation and misleading generalisations – in other words, concepts at odds with principles of scientific inquiry. Scientists are seekers of the truth by the very nature of their vocation and I would suggest that anyone (outside the elite) more interested in understanding the truth of our world than the varnished propaganda our daily lives are engulfed in will invariably lean to the left as a result.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the really thoughtful reply Martin. I guess I’m not convinced that that people interested in understanding the truth of our world will necessarily lean to the left – or more precisely, on some issues I think this is true, and on other issues I don’t. But it’s an important idea to engage with, and one that I need to go away and think about more, to be honest…

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