President's Report: Diversity, ideology, and family science

by Paul R. Amato, Ph.D., NCFR past president
NCFR Report

NCFR has had a long-standing commitment to diversity — a commitment that was apparent when I joined the organization in the 1980s. But despite the valuable efforts that have been made over the years to foster a broad spirit of inclusion within the organization, NCFR is becoming less (rather than more) diverse in one important respect: the political and social values of our members. Like most social science organizations, the majority of NCFR members are politically liberal, and this has been true for a long time. But a gradual erosion of ideological diversity in recent years (exacerbated by the departure of many conservative scholars from our organization) has shifted our membership even more to the left.

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.

As a political moderate, I often find that I fit uncomfortably with my peers in the social sciences. When I served as NCFR president, I received critical email from those on the left (complaining that I'm too conservative) as well as those on the right (complaining that I'm too liberal). This might seem like the worst of all possible worlds. An advantage of being in the middle, however, is that it is easier to spot instances of ideology (from the left or the right) intruding into research.

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. The same phenomenon occurs, of course, when conservative scholars read research that has a conservative spin.

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 this manner, a field populated primarily with left-wing (or right-wing) thinkers can produce a research literature deeply embedded with liberal (or conservative) assumptions about the world.

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.

Although many of our members are proponents of diversity, fostering a broad range of perspectives within NCFR is not high on everyone's agenda. Supporting ideological diversity is tricky, especially when people are convinced that their way is the only way to achieve social progress. But diversity based on attitudes, beliefs, and values is necessary for an organization that wants to understand and help families in all of their bewilderingly complexity.

Here's a suggestion: At the next NCFR conference, strike up a conversation with someone on an important topic you disagree about. Now that would be diversity in action.


Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, e130

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