The Unskewed Project is an initiative aimed at providing scholars, policy makers, and the general public with accurate, research-based information on families and social issues within the global society. Particular attention is given to correcting inaccurate or poorly conducted research findings that are propagated in general media sources and public policy reports. The primary aim of the Unskewed Project is to counterbalance the widely-acknowledged problems of bias and lack of viewpoint diversity in the social sciences and popular media outlets reporting on family-related studies.
The Problem: “A Lack of Viewpoint Diversity”
In recent years, a growing number of scholars from across the political spectrum have raised concern about a serious problem at American universities: Liberal bias and the lack of viewpoint diversity. It has long been understood that the academy as a whole — and social science scholars in particular — lean left on the political spectrum. In the past, this was not too concerning because there were still conservative scholars in every discipline and department that would challenge claims that are based in ideology rather than evidence.
But things have changed dramatically. It is estimated that, throughout the 1900s, the ratio of liberal to conservative scholars was about 3 to 1 in most disciplines. Now, the ratio is closer to 15 to 1 overall, and even greater in the social sciences. In the 15 years between 1995 and 2010, the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left (see www.heterodoxacademy.org/problems).
This problem of liberal bias and the lack of balance in the social sciences has become so significant that the Heterodox Academy recently labeled “the rapid loss of political diversity over the last 20 years” as the “second-greatest existential threat” to the social sciences (after the replication crisis that has been well publicized). The Heterodox Academy was founded to call attention to this trend and the problems it causes in scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and related fields, such as law and public policy. They explain:
“The word heterodox means “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards of beliefs.” We chose that word to contrast with “orthodoxy,” which refers to conforming with accepted norms and beliefs. Orthodoxy has religious connotations, but it can be applied to any view that becomes dogma or dogmatic, such as “orthodox Marxism,” “social constructionist orthodoxy,” or “progressive orthodoxy.” …Sometimes ideas become accepted because there is so much evidence in support of them that it would be perverse to believe otherwise. Other times, however, ideas become widely accepted, even entrenched, without any real evidence. Such entrenched beliefs often arise because they support particular political or moral agendas; if the beliefs are falsified, the moral agenda will be threatened.
A recent article by Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, and Tetlock (2015) in Behavioral and Brain Sciences describes what goes wrong when social science fields are dominated by a single political viewpoint. As the authors argue, a lack of ideological diversity means that left-wing values and perspectives shape the types of questions asked and the manner in which data are interpreted. Correspondingly, potentially important (but politically less acceptable) questions are not asked and ideologically diverse interpretations are not offered. Moreover, the left-wing tilt of much work discourages talented but politically conservative (or moderate, or libertarian) individuals from joining the field.
Family Scholarship: “A Hall of Mirrors”
Specifically related to family scholarship, Dr. Paul Amato, past-president of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) recently wrote an open letter to the organization’s membership lamenting the “erosion of ideological diversity” in the organization in recent years. He said:
Have you ever noticed how many journal articles and conference presentations are heavy on rhetoric and light on evidence? People are often unaware of political biases that creep into research. Social psychologists refer to this as confirmation bias: a tendency to embrace information that is consistent with our own worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence. Similarly, the false consensus effect occurs because we tend to associate with like-minded people and mistakenly conclude that everyone (at least everyone that is reasonable) thinks the same way that we do. Because of confirmation bias and false consensus, liberal scholars often have difficulty seeing the ideological underpinnings of many areas of family science…
Confirmation bias and false consensus are problems in a field that claims to have a scientific basis because both lead to distorted views of the world. For example, experimental studies have demonstrated that reviewers rate manuscripts more favorably that present data and conclusions consistent with their own political and social beliefs. Correspondingly, reviewers are quick to see methodological flaws in research that contradicts their beliefs. Because all studies in the social sciences have limitations; it is easy to disparage studies on methodological grounds if you don’t like the findings
In an ideologically unbalanced field, we risk “getting it wrong” much of the time and misunderstanding the families we study — families that usually are more conservative, by the way, than the researchers who study them. We need ideological diversity in NCFR (and in family science more generally) to ensure that a variety of questions are asked, alternative perspectives are considered, and dominant views are challenged. Otherwise we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors, with our own ideological assumptions reflected back to us. Although sometimes messy, conversations between people with divergent views have the potential to move us closer to the truth. Indeed, social psychological research has demonstrated that groups comprised of individuals with a variety of perspectives are the most successful at solving problems.
Is There Conservative Bias, Too?
Isn’t there right-leaning or conservative bias too? Our answer to this is of course there is and it can also be a problem. However, the peer-reviewed process at journals and media outlets tend to screen out most of this bias from our cultural conversation. In fact, conservative scholars are often much more accustomed to grounding their claims in data and findings with the expectation that they will be challenged. But, Unskewed is anxious to correct conservative bias, as well.
The guiding belief of the Unskewed Project is that the erosion of ideological diversity and the establishment of unexamined orthodoxies impede scholarly inquiry and lead to incorrect public views. This is particularly true in relation to the rapid changes in family formation and structure that have been occurring in our society. In concept, there is a strong consensus in the academic world that viewpoint diversity is important because bringing diverse viewpoints to bear on social, intellectual, philosophical, legal, and moral problems is likely to enhance the quality of the scholarship that bears on those issues. We enthusiastically embrace this view.
However, in practice true diversity is becoming an endangered species on most college campuses. The academic world must have viewpoint diversity if it is to function properly and produce reliable research to guide public policy and personal decisions making.