Academia in Crisis - Liberal Bias Threatens the Integrity of Our Research

13/03/2015 12:23 GMT | Updated 10/05/2015 10:59 BST

Crisis may seem a little alarmist. Maybe it is, but probably not. The Enlightment taught us that there exists no better way for us to accrue knowledge about the world than the dispassionate, evidence-driven approach of the scientific method and, conversely, no bigger obstacle to progress than ideology and dogma. It is absolutely imperative that, whatever the true nature of the world, our method of truth-seeking has no inbuilt biases that make discovering some possible truths impossible.

Suppose laboratories researching new cancer drugs were set up in such a way that every molecule with a name beginning with 'S' is excluded from experiments. We would rightly be outraged at this non-rational approach to science and the gaping blind spot it creates in our search for candidate drugs. Were such an approach to be uncovered in our medical research it would be dubbed nothing short of a crisis. It would stand against everything we thought we knew about how we make sense of our reality. A non-rational bias very similar to our analogy of the cancer lab currently permeates Western academia.

I recall recently attending a practical ethics tutorial at one of this country's most prestigious universities. Disappointingly, I spent the best part of two hours trying to make sense of the philosophical jargon being thrown around while the rest of the group may have been wondering what on Earth a medical student was doing in a philosophy tutorial. In fact I had gone to listen to one of my close friends present their thesis proposal to the group. It was a paper on gun rights and specifically a philosophical and evidential defence of the right of everyday citizens to own guns.

Though I disagreed, as I do now, with the conclusion of his thesis, I must say the thesis itself was so rigorously argued, with such a meticulous survey of all the extant literature and statistical data, that I was left rejecting the conclusion purely on faith. The tutor running the tutorial, who happens to be one of the country's most eminent ethicists, raised a few objections, which my friend was able easily to deal with due to his grasp of the area of research. The tutor, having granted that the thesis was very well-argued and difficult to fault, went on to advise him not to submit it as his master's thesis. Academics who grade these submissions, he explained, are usually quite liberal and would likely mark it harshly due to their staunch opposition to his arguments and conclusion. Here was a robust piece of research - easily good enough to be published in top academic journals - that may never see the light of day due to biases in the academic community.

It is not just in the field of practical ethics that we find these biases. It seems ideology permeates much of academia and threatens to paint a false reality before our very eyes, with conclusions about the world around us being determined largely by ideology and a vested interest in certain conclusions.

The gender pay gap has been an emotive topic since at least the height of the Second Wave of feminism. In Warren Farrell's esteemed book, Why Men Earn More, he highlights other startling examples of this harmful liberal bias. Farrell, an outspoken feminist during the '70s and '80s, was shocked to discover, during his research, studies that seemed to fly in the face of the prevailing narrative of gender discrimination with regard to pay. One study, back in the 1980s, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, concludes that companies paid men and women equally where their titles and responsibilities were the same and where the responsibilities were of equal size.

He was particularly surprised to find that he had never seen the study cited in any of the research he had done on the topic, and no further work had been done to follow it up. As he delved deeper, it became apparent this was not an isolated case. Studies that did not throw up results that confirm the current zeitgeist were seldom publicised and never followed up. As those who are involved in research know only too well, research can only go ahead if it is funded, and what gets funded is largely based on what the current narrative happens to be. When the narrative is that there exists a widely publicised gender pay gap, the kind of research that is likely to get funded and publicised is the kind of research that will likely confirm this.

It cannot be overstated just how damaging this non-rational element to our science could be. Spurious results in one field can have far-reaching consequences, and not just in that field. For example, one study in the social sciences about gender differences with regard to some variable may be cited by an epidemiological study looking into gender-specific risks in developing some disease, which may in turn be cited by a review of the efficacy of certain treatments for a disease. If we refuse to ask certain questions in our research we may find one day that we have swathes of research built upon rotten foundations.

Writer and entrepreneur Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry voiced similar concerns in his article for The Week entitled How academia's liberal bias is killing social science. In the article he cites a rather alarming survey of academic social psychologists in which 82 percent admitted they would be at least a little prejudiced against a conservative candidate applying for a job. Pascal-Emmanuel goes on to report that different test studies with equal methodological strengths, but with varying conclusions (one with conclusions sympathetic to the liberal world view and one with more conservative conclusions), were sent to different peer-review boards. The studies with more conservative conclusions tended to be criticised and rejected despite being methodologically of similar integrity.

The evident ideological bias within academia should itself not be an issue of ideology. Neither liberal nor conservative should be more comforted or alarmed by any bias in either direction. We should all ask of our science that it be rigorous and robust, and that it should be conducted in such a way as to illuminate the world around us, whatever shadows may be cast. We can perhaps draw a line in some extreme circumstances, but in those situations we should refuse to ask the questions altogether, rather than ask the questions then find only the answers we wish to find.