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Political Activism and Research Ethics Revisited

Summary:
If you spend any time in academia, it’s not hard to find researchers engaging in political activism. In fact, there often are norms encouraging it. In an influential article, BHL contributor Bas van der Vossen says that approach is all wrong. Researchers who study politics should avoid activism, he argues, because it raises the risk of biasing their work. I encourage you to read Bas’s argument if you haven’t already. I’m sympathetic to the motivations behind it. Researchers should be concerned about how bias can undermine their work. That includes those who want to advance justice. Having that intention is fine and good, but if bias infects research, it can lead to faulty recommendations that exacerbate the very injustices one seeks to end. I have reservations, though,

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If you spend any time in academia, it’s not hard to find researchers engaging in political activism. In fact, there often are norms encouraging it. In an influential article, BHL contributor Bas van der Vossen says that approach is all wrong. Researchers who study politics should avoid activism, he argues, because it raises the risk of biasing their work.

I encourage you to read Bas’s argument if you haven’t already. I’m sympathetic to the motivations behind it. Researchers should be concerned about how bias can undermine their work. That includes those who want to advance justice. Having that intention is fine and good, but if bias infects research, it can lead to faulty recommendations that exacerbate the very injustices one seeks to end.

I have reservations, though, with a duty to avoid political activism. I raised some of these concerns in an earlier blog post and since expanded them into a recent article for the Journal of Applied Philosophy (it’s open access). Here I want to focus on two concerns.

First, a duty to avoid political activism would make unreasonable demands. Some may ask what’s so onerous with expecting academics to avoid activism. Activism, though, is a core part of some people’s identity. Imagine someone whose child has a disability and who identifies as a disability rights activist. For them, activism is as important as religious devotion is for others. Now it’s pretty clear that religious activity can increase intergroup and other bias, yet most would be uncomfortable with a duty to avoid it. If that duty is unreasonable, a duty to avoid activism seems unreasonable, too.

A duty to avoid activism also proves unreasonable because it threatens researchers’ integrity. Consider a philosopher who, in their research, concludes that individuals should give much of their salary to effective charities aiding the poor. Few would object to the philosopher then donating to these charities. Indeed, integrity demands it. Now in cases of those who study politics, acting on research often requires activism. Imagine a social scientist who, after researching the destructive effects of current drug policy, feels obligated to support efforts to change it. Like the philosopher, they should be able to act on their research by donating to effective drug reform campaigns.

Second, if the goal is to reduce bias, avoiding politics and retreating to the ivory tower may not help much. Without question, many studies show cognitive bias associated with caring about and engaging in politics. But there also are quite a few studies documenting bias in academic work—for example, being more likely to recommend journal submissions whose results match one’s views. Generally, working in academia doesn’t appear to make one less biased than working in other fields, like politics (see Philip Tetlock’s forecasting studies). 

So politics poses real risks of bias, but academia does, too. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Academic work involves staking out public positions and publicly defending them, making researchers vulnerable to confirmation bias much like activists are. As I put it in my article,

If we only focus on bias in politics, the many examples of biased reasoning there make it easy to jump to the conclusion that politics poses a unique threat to research and scholars should avoid it. But when we take a fuller view of how bias operates in both politics and academia, it becomes less clear that scholars who retreat to the latter minimise the risk of bias…. Rather than avoiding entire spheres of action—with risks similar to spheres that researchers cannot avoid—it seems more prudent to cultivate tools and manners of thinking that help minimise bias across contexts.

What should researchers do, then, to minimize the risk of bias? Research in psychology suggests several promising strategies to reduce bias:

(1) training to recognize common biases

(2) cultivating actively open-minded thinking

(3) engaging diverse points of view

Though Bas and I reach somewhat different conclusions, I share his concern that there needs to be more attention on minimizing bias in research. Toward that end, I would like to see academic institutions and researchers take steps to incorporate the above three strategies to a far greater extent than is the case now.

Ben Jones is the Assistant Director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State

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Author: Ben Jones

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