The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Education Matters in the Culture Wars:
Can We Separate Bias From Ideology?

“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” MATTHEW 7:3

“The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.” —THOMAS CARLYLE, HISTORIAN & ESSAYIST

Schools, from kindergarten to graduate programs, are always ground zero in any culture war. Ban their books! Fire their teachers! Extremists from both the right and the left share this censorious impulse to protect their children from dangerous ideas—dangerous ideas being defined as anything on which people disagree, usually sex, race, gender, sex, history, religion, prejudice, and did I say sex? They deliver propaganda. We tell the truth. They indoctrinate our children. We educate them.

Let’s stipulate that everyone is biased. The brain comes packaged with a bunch of self-serving mechanisms (the confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and so on) that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and wise. My favorite bias is the bias that we are unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross named this phenomenon “naive realism,” the conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, “as they really are,” so anyone who disagrees with us is not seeing clearly.

Science, which might be defined as the systematic effort to force us to see clearly especially when we are wrong, is always under attack from those who cannot tolerate the mere existence of dissonant views. Today, however, the venom of polarizing ideologies has been poisoning the process more than ever. How true, but now how quaint, seems the sublime observation by Richard Feynman to students in his 1964 class at Cornell University:

If your guess disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

We read that now and shake our heads, knowing how so many people, including scientists and scholars who should know better, respond when an experiment disputes a belief: “Your guess is racist/sexist/socialist/other-ist, simply because you tried to test the veracity of something we already know is true.” “The experiment is wrong, because it is impossible for my guess to be wrong, because I’m right.” “The experiment is biased.” “Your interpretation is biased.” “You are biased. You are racist and reactionary.” “No, you are biased. You are a communist and a socialist to boot.” “Plus, your ideas are revolting.”

I got to thinking about the problem of bias in my own profession when I was sent a copy of Ideological and Political Bias in Psychology (edited by Craig Frisby, Richard Redding, William O’Donohue, and the late, much admired Scott Lilienfeld). This massive collection—33 chapters running some 950 pages—is a scholarly effort to describe the academic and intellectual harms to psychological science, academia, and society when the vast majority of its practitioners identify themselves as liberal to progressive.1 I fully agree, which is why I find it unfortunate that the title blurs “ideological and political.” I, along with many (most?) politically liberal psychologists of my generation, am as horrified and dismayed by the left-wing ideological changes imposed throughout academia as any conservative is—just as many politically conservative people are horrified and dismayed by the rise of ideologically driven right-wing extremists.2

Both extremes are currently doing great damage to our society. Nevertheless, the rise of today’s Ideological Left is indisputably a major factor underlying the uncritical acceptance of Critical Race Theory, hiring requirements stipulating that applicants have done enough for “diversity,” and (failed) efforts to change prejudices, “implicit biases,” and “microaggressions,” real and assumed, through censorship of dissenting views and mandatory sensitivity (re-education) workshops. It’s now the Ideological Left that, waving the banner of justice and diversity for all except those who disagree with them, has put entire areas of investigation virtually off limits, and caused countless brilliant scientists to be excoriated, shunned, or suspended for taking on taboo subjects or questioning current orthodox beliefs. The eminent gender scientist J. Michael Bailey has a chapter in the Frisby volume, describing how he has been attacked from the right for his work on sexual orientation and from the left for his research on trans issues, daring to dispute the inaccurate—dare I say biased—claims of trans activists. Recently, under pressure from such activists, The Archives of Sexual Behavior caved, retracting a paper he co-authored with Suzanna Diaz on Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.3

The most taboo topics are genetic, evolutionary, or other biological explanations of behavior and group differences. Evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and Luana Maroja have written despairingly of the ideological capture of their profession.4 I filed their superb lament under “read this and weep,” remembering how, in the 1970s, feminist psychologists fought hard against the way biological explanations were being applied in the justification of inequality and misogyny. Who imagined that from there it would be only a short step from correcting a bias in research to imposing new biases—not letting biology raise its nose, or paw, in explaining anything. At the time, research was also profoundly biased by focusing on the “normal” male, with findings often wildly and inappropriately generalized to women; Robert Guthrie’s splendid book, Even the Rat Was White, identified deeply embedded biases in the study of race. (One colleague, noting that rats are nocturnal but researchers study them in daytime, said, “actually, psychology is the study of the white male sleepy rat.” Psychology had plenty of biases to correct.)

Thus, the scientific fight against bias and dogma is never ending, and the ideological wheel is always turning. The New School for Social Research was founded in New York City in 1919 as an act of protest against university presidents who had fired pacifist professors for opposing America’s decision to enter the First World War; nearly a hundred years later, in 2015, the Heterodox Academy was founded “as a response to the rise of [progressive Left] orthodoxy within scholarly culture that leads people to fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social or professional retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea.” In previous eras universities were perfectly willing to silence or eject liberal faculty and students who protested the Vietnam War or wouldn’t sign loyalty oaths in the heyday of anticommunist fervor. Nor have Conservative Christian colleges welcomed liberals and atheists with open arms or allowed them unlimited free speech.

In every era too, there have been the ideologically committed academics and practitioners who try to kill the messengers of news that threatens their beliefs and, more important, their livelihoods. In the late 1990s, when psychiatrists and psychotherapists were being convicted of malpractice for their use of coercive methods to generate false recovered memories and multiple personalities, one recovered-memory practitioner offered his clinical colleagues at a convention this advice:

I think it’s time somebody called for an open season on academicians and researchers…in particular, things have become so extreme with academics supporting extreme false memory positions, so I think it’s time for clinicians to begin bringing ethics charges for scientific malpractice against researchers, and journal editors— most of whom, I would point out, don’t have malpractice coverage.

Some psychiatrists and clinical psychologists took his counsel and sent harassing letters to researchers and journal editors, made spurious claims of ethics violations against scientists studying memory and children’s testimony, and filed nuisance lawsuits aimed at blocking publication of critical articles and books. None of these pre-internet efforts were successful at silencing the memory scientists, but they paid a big price for their courage in anger, frustration, and considerable expense.5

Perhaps, then, instead of talking about a liberal-conservative bias in education, we should be thinking about liberal-conservative biases and orthodoxies by topic. The bias that is most relevant today is what Keith Stanovich, that stalwart promoter of critical thinking, calls the “myside bias,” which lives in the intersection of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. In 2021, when the din echoing across the political chasm was at it loudest, he published The Bias That Divides Us, arguing that we don’t live in a post-truth society so much as a “myside” society.6 Each side is perfectly able to value the truth and respect the facts, he argues, but only insofar as those facts confirm what their side believes on a particular subject. “Intelligence does not inoculate against it,” Stanovich noted, “and myside bias in one domain is not a good indicator of bias shown in any other domain.”

For example, as other researchers have found, among conservatives, higher levels of scientific literacy and education are associated with reduced acceptance of climate change, the importance of vaccination, and trust in science; among liberals, the reverse is true.7 But whereas most liberals accept the scientific evidence that supports climate change and vaccination, many—to pull up a random example from myownside—do not accept the evidence that questions the safety and necessity of “gender affirming” medical interventions on young teenagers. As people trek step by step into the territory of ideology, their views tend to become increasingly impervious to data. Indeed, Stanovich finds, as did Elliot Aronson and I in our book on cognitive dissonance, that bias and other cognitive blind spots are especially prevalent among the most intelligent and highly educated members of society, precisely because they see themselves as being smarter and less vulnerable to bias. Yale-educated Ted Cruz, anyone? Harvard-educated Robert F. Kennedy Jr., anyone? The Supreme Court, anyone? Accepting lavish gifts and trips from mega-billionaires doesn’t affect their decisions, or does it?

What is new about the latest turn of the ideological wheel in universities and many organizations is the institutionalization of rules, language, and policies that permit, indeed require, the exclusion of those who dissent from the new progressive orthodoxy. What is new is the immediate availability of an army of authoritarian activists who mobilize at the drop of a tweet to get scientific articles retracted from once-serious journals and their editors fired. What is new is that too often, the journals capitulate. What is new is that universities and scientific institutions have stopped being the grown-ups, fearful for their wallets if they say no to organized social media pressure.

But some of the problems across academia today stem from generational and economic changes that have nothing to do with liberal bias. For example, the seeds of “safetyism,” students demanding intellectual and emotional protection from any dangerous ideas they might encounter in college—otherwise known as “education”—were planted decades ago by a generation of fearful, overprotective parents who controlled every aspect of their children’s lives, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe so well in The Coddling of the American Mind.8 Colleges responded with a return to in loco parentis policies, since students and parents insisted on them. At the same time, the corporatization of universities had transformed students into paying consumers, with the ensuing need for administrations to yield to their “demands” for everything from safety to higher grades to the power to censor unwelcome speakers. (Another turn of the wheel: my college cohort had lots of demands too, from getting the U.S. out of Vietnam to letting boys into our rooms. We marched with signs that said “in loco parentis is loco” and “the Open- Door policy failed in China, too.”)

So my modest proposal is that we focus our energies issue by issue, domain by domain, ever aware of our own myside biases, and to hell with labels. I will always be liberal in supporting child labor laws, abortion on demand, expanded access to voting, and many other issues. But I resigned from the ACLU years ago for its failure to support teachers who were being fired for espousing dissenting ideas and for defending those who would fire them on “social justice” grounds. I will protest where I can the once-“liberal” organizations that fail to defend free speech and civil rights, including women’s rights. To change the currently entrenched ideological culture on most college campuses and a growing number of mainstream institutions, we will need the best efforts of liberals and conservatives alike, and damn the dissonance that will ensue. END

About the Author

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and writer on many topics in psychological science. Her books include Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), with Elliot Aronson; Estrogen Matters; and The Mismeasure of Woman. A Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, she has received numerous awards for her efforts to promote science, skepticism, critical thinking, and gender equity.

  1. Frisby, C., et al. (Eds.). (2023). Political Bias in Psychology. Springer.
  5. Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2020). Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (3rd ed.). Mariner.
  6. Stanovich, K. (2021). The Bias That Divides Us. MIT Press.
  8. Lukianoff, G., and Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind. Penguin Books.

This article was published on December 6, 2023.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy