While scholars churn out books diagnosing the political rift, perhaps only the most Pollyannaish think dialogue might “heal the wounds” or help forge compromise on our most divisive issues. The most optimistic observers hope that science might inform public discourse with sober theorizing and objective appraisals of evidence. This is, of course, a central tenet of Enlightenment reasoning. Let the scientists furnish the facts to help settle our public debates.
Our team surveyed 301 anthropologists, 479 sociologists and 253 economists in graduate programs in the United States. Querying each field about their controversies, we do not shy away from some the most combustible issues in social science today. Here is just a sample of questions:
Given the overwhelming predominance of left/liberals in academia—a fact not lost on conservative critics—we did not have enough data from conservatives or libertarians to even report their responses in the anthropology or sociology surveys. Only in economics was there an adequate number of libertarians, though even here they were only 13 percent of the sample, a small figure but one consistent with prior research.
Despite the lack of right-wing presence in the academy, a glance at the table below shows the palpable influence of scholars’ political leanings on their responses. Notice how social scientists’ political orientations track their views in a typical “stairway” fashion across virtually all of the questions. If we begin with Q1, for example, we see that 56 percent of self-identified “radical” anthropologists affirm that prehistoric societies were on average more peaceful than later agricultural or industrial societies. This view, which contradicts the famous “better angels” thesis of the renowned linguist Steven Pinker, was shared by only 29 percent of “moderate” anthropologists, however (with liberals in between).
Putting aside the radicals, the only area of general agreement in the field is a shared skepticism about the prospect of mass structural unemployment due to automation (Q9). Economists’ nonchalance on this issue, we might note, contradicts widespread public anxiety over job loss and at least one presidential candidate who’s focused his campaign on the dislocating effects of broad-based technological displacement on working people.
We provide a tentative explanation of the divergence in scholars’ views by drawing on contemporary moral psychology. Our basic argument is that social scientists bring their partly inherited political orientations with them into their professional training and roles. They gravitate (consciously or otherwise) toward like-minded scholars, forming interpretive groups that tend to use the same methods and interpret evidence in kindred ways.
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