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Sunday, February 13, 2011

On being an outlier

I saw an interesting piece in the New York Times today regarding psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.
This article led me to his TED talk at It is well worth listening to. The message he sends is that there are innate moral circuits in our brains and that liberals and conservative cultivate differently. What is common to both groups is that they firmly believe in the same thing; that they are right and that this certainty actually hinders their efforts to get to the "truth".

I have long since realized that my views are outlier views in my environment, an academic medical center and university. I must say that it is healthy to have one's views constantly challenged. I have an open mind and when I am wrong, I find it easy to separate my ideas from my ego. When wrong, admit it and move on. I am used to this given that I am surrounded by people who hold many views to the contrary. It forces me to re-examine what I think and why I think the way I do. It is something akin to intellectual weight lifting, with a toning effect on my intellectual fitness.

I was amazed last week when I met with close friends who have a different political bent and they remarked they listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps they were simply tired of hearing many of their friends and colleagues simply parrot when they already believe? It is unfortunate that they need to listen to entertainers to get a conservative spin. The university should be a place a real intellectual melting pot, where diversity is more than a marketing slogan.


  1. I think that diversity of opinion and a willingness to perform "intellectual weight lifting" are very important.

    However, I find the need to identify as "liberal" or "conservative" as troubling in and of itself. You do not seem (although I may have simply misunderstood) to object to these classifications. You do not say so explicitly, but your characterization of your views as outliers in your academic medical environment seem to indicate that you self-identify as "conservative" (although your outlying opinions may simply reflect your "contrarian" tendencies rather than conservative leanings). What seems to bother you more is that social psychologists or members of your academic medical center and university tend to be overwhelmingly "liberal" and blinded by their own egos. I suspect that you would similarly lament a situation in which the vast majority of community members were "conservative" and tolerated little dissent. It seems that you would like to have a balance between these groups, and that each group be more open to the ideas of the other. Certainly commendable.

    But what of the need to self-categorize as "liberal" or "conservative?" I do not mean to be a nihilist by arguing that these terms have no inherent meaning. But they certainly have many different meanings. One's opinions on taxation, health care reform, the military, social security, medicare, finance reform, public education, and many other "liberal vs. conservative" hot-button issues need not be consistently "liberal" or "conservative."

    I think that the perceived need to divide into "binary" camps is the source of much of the problem.

  2. Fundamentally, you are correct. The use of tags can and does tend to convey a simplicity which may not be so simple.

    However, this correct observation does not nullify the observation that academic institutions are characterized by unhealthy political homogeneity.