Orthodox academic biases and heterodox rectification? What?

Is Heterodoxy in itself a good thing? How strong has orthodoxy to be to make heterodoxy valuable.

I have to admit I am a bit uncertain what the name of the new blog-in-town “Heterodox Academy” implies: Is it meant to be the “Academy of Heterodox views” or just promoting for a less homogeneous academia? I ask, because I more or less interpreted the Academies title in the former way which made me rather unsympathetic to their cause. In this interpretation their mission appears self-serving from my biased left-liberal point of view.

I put the question from the beginning to twitter. Only Richard Tol answered,

which is not the worst possible quote.

You wonder what the Heterodox Academy is? In the end, I guess, it all refers back to this recently published paper which attracted a number of peer-commentaries (also to be found at the above link). The Heterodox Academy summarises the paper here. The text is not too long, thus read it.

But what it’s about? It’s about the following [supposed] problem

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity—particularly diversity of viewpoints—for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in most of the social sciences (other than economics) as well as in the legal academy and the humanities: political diversity.

Online-comments on the HA appear to commonly (mis)understand the argument of the authors to be as follows: to introduce a new bias to oppose the current “liberal” bias in academia so that in the long term an unbiased view prevails. I think that is not what the Heterodox Academy has in mind.

Their argument is rather for a research environment that allows for and includes multiple diverse and possibly opposing viewpoints. Such an environment would, following their logic, reduce/prevent possibly existing biases in the short term, i.e. in the best case for each individual paper. To be more specific, my (mis)understanding of the argument is, that if a methodology is biased against conservative viewpoints, involving a conservative researcher in the development of the study could prevent this bias, or the opinion of a conservative reviewer could result in more thorough discussions of the implications of this potential methodological bias.

The Heterodox-summary at their web-page gives some examples how the current academic environment may prevent diversity of political viewpoints including, but not only, due to obvious hostility towards certain political leanings. However, I think there are more general arguments to be made about the problem.

I am slightly surprised by the form of the opposition to the Heterodoxy. I would assume that it is common sense that diversity of opinions helps to prevent biases. Furthermore, I would think that we all can imagine environments that discourage certain viewpoints to be voiced – for whatever reasons.

Some questions:

Would a post-growth economist want to work at an academic research institute that is clearly oriented towards a non-intervention school of thinking?

More extreme: Would a post-growth economist want to work at an academic research institute whose head publicly calls post-growth economists “Hippies”?

And one more: we can agree that “progressives” are not inherently “better”?

To be clear, I don’t favour opposition for opposition’s sake, and neither balance for balance’s sake – especially not if the opposing viewpoint is ‘objectively’ bollocks – where objectively is either obviously impossible or likely a value-judgement.

Words do matter. Framing a question, framing a discussion depends on our personal subjective perspectives. Therefore, the way we interpret and discuss the results of a study is at least slightly coloured by our assumptions. Awareness of our personal biases and subsequent attempts to minimise them are unlikely to be 100% successful. Peer discussions and review can contribute to reducing subjectivity.

If the space of opinions is one dimensional, discussions and reviews of different views may result in relevant reduction of biases. If the different views are located in the lower two quadrants of a two-dimensional space, a bias is going to remain.

Incidentally Machin (2015) also caught my attention this week and linked to Reider (2014, pdf), who states: “Knowledge is largely directed by the questions we, not merely as individuals, ask, but far more importantly, the questions a given society is willing to invest its resources to discover.” Machin (2015) takes this further: “what a given society counts as a ‘discovery’ will affect the direction that knowledge takes.”

This implies that if a society considers a certain perspective not valid or, less extreme, not valuable, this perspective is in danger not to be pursued. In a democratic society, it is likely that all perspectives within the general [political] spectrum of this society are valued high enough to give input on the questions pursued.

The implication for a society is also valid for different social communities within a society. If a community considers a certain perspective not valid, or less valuable, this perspective is in danger not to be pursued within this social community. The implication applies for academic communities as well. Again, one may hope that single academic branches have enough pluralism of opinions to correct biases. If that is not the case one may assume interdisciplinarity or at least interdisciplinary perspectives may provide a corrective force.

Obviously, there are viewpoints a society may deem unacceptable: far-right and/or far-left, questionable ethics, or more generally, certain value-sets may be off-limits. Could these nevertheless contribute interesting insights, valuable knowledge? Possibly. Nevertheless, shunning them is probably the right thing if they contribute to anti-constitutional or anti-democratic tendencies.

If an academic discipline, a social group, a society limits the ways of looking at the problems it deals with, if it restricts the questions it asks, it narrows the amount of knowledge it can work with, the sources of its progress. Thus, if there are indications, that certain perspectives are deemed less worthy to pursue, the community and the society are well advised to clarify whether this is really the case. Similarly, if potentially shunned points of view are within the valid spectrum, disciplines, communities and society are well advised to ensure that biases are reduced or at least measures implemented to compensate for the effects of the biases.

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