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Friday intellectual spot 7: Tobias Ziegler on perceptions of ideological bias in research

27 Feb

If that sounds like a recent post by Bruce, it’s because I took my cue from that post! I commented there: “I may steal this for my Friday Intellectual Spot (or should that be in my case ‘Intellectual’?) — a really good find, Bruce.” Now I have stolen…

Tobias Ziegler has a blog, Not a Hedgehog, on WordPress.com. The item Bruce cites appeared on a Crikey blog, Pure Poison, on 24 February: Pure Science: Seeing ideological bias in research findings. So I have tagged this “meet a blog” as well, since you have now met several so far!

The results suggest that research findings which support liberal approaches to public policy are more likely to be regarded with scepticism, and that this scepticism seems to be associated with concerns about the ideological bias of the researchers. These perceptions of bias are more likely to come from those who are conservative in general, or who hold conservatively-aligned attitudes on the specific issue the research looked at. These findings seem consistent with a lot of the reactions to research that we see in conservative columns and blogs, and in responses from the commenters on those sites. And although they were explicitly artificial, the descriptions of research findings are similar to what we typically see presented in the mainstream media – brief, superficial and lacking the detail needed for critical evaluation. Under those conditions, there appears to be a tendency to see Leftist influence on the research endeavour – and the source of the research becomes the focus, rather than the integrity and quality of the research itself…

…We regularly see scientific research and academic institutions criticised as having philosophical and/or ideological motivations to conduct research that supports certain outcomes (e.g., anthropogenic global warming). This study provides evidence for one type of bias in judgment that may contribute to these types of claims.

But that doesn’t mean those of us who lean to the left can sit back with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. Liberals still appear to be more suspicious of findings that contradict their existing beliefs. It’s good to be sceptical, but that scepticism needs to be applied equally, without being influenced by the nature of the findings. And as the authors of this study note, the proneness to see liberal but not conservative bias might be because researchers are more likely to be liberals.

Rigorous, objective research should be able to serve as evidence in the debate over public policy. Rather than dismissing any research on ad hominem grounds, everyone involved in that debate needs to focus on the research itself. If the findings are genuinely affected by ideological bias, point to the evidence of ideological contamination in the study. We need to avoid this natural tendency to point to the researcher just because the findings don’t fit with what we believe.

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Posted by on February 27, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, intellectual spot

 

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