Psychologists Looked In The Mirror … And Saw A Bunch Of Liberals

When New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt asked about a thousand attendees at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011 to identify their political views with a show of hands, only three hands went up for “conservative or on the right.” Separately, a survey of more than 500 social and personality psychologists published in 2012 found that only 6 percent identified as conservative overall, though there was more diversity on economic and foreign policy issues. The survey also found that 37.5 percent of respondents expressed a willingness to discriminate against conservative colleagues when making hiring decisions. Psychologists, it appears, tend to fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum.

Social psychology’s left tilt has been widely discussed, yet it has been difficult to measure how political leanings influence the work that the field produces. But a new study has tried to quantify just that, and it found that social psychologists assess conservatives differently than liberals. It also found that scientists were aware of the potential for problems and willing to acknowledge them. The results confirm that a lack of political diversity within psychology may bias its findings on political issues.

The new study, by an international team of researchers, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and had two parts.

In part one, the researchers presented 2,560 participants with 306 abstracts related to political beliefs or behavior drawn from 10 years’ worth of Society for Personality and Social Psychology meetings. Raters were asked to assess how the research characterized political conservatives and political liberals. They were also asked the extent to which conservatives were the target of “explanation.”

Suppose, for instance, a study finds that conservatives are less likely to change their opinions on moral issues than liberals are when exposed to counterarguments. “The researchers could explain this as ‘conservatives are cognitively rigid, inflexible, and resistant to new arguments,’ ” said Eric Luis Uhlmann, a psychologist at INSEAD in Singapore and the study’s corresponding author. “However, they could just as easily have interpreted this as ‘liberals are wishy-washy, overly flexible, and don’t stand by their principles.’ ” Uhlmann and his colleagues asked participants to rate whether a study’s findings were equally discussed in relation to liberals and conservatives, or instead were pinned on one group over the other.

Sure enough, the abstracts more often explained their findings in terms of conservative ideas rather than liberal ones, and conservatives were described more negatively in the eyes of the raters.

The effect sizes they found were “not huge,” Uhlmann said, but they were present. “For a randomly chosen abstract there’s about a 60 percent chance of it describing liberals more favorably than conservatives, and a 56 percent chance of it explaining conservatives more,” he said. (If there were no difference, you’d expect both numbers to be 50 percent.)

These differences are “statistically small, but the practical significance is potentially high,” Uhlmann said. Most effect sizes in social psychology are quite small, he said, but when they occur across society (or an entire field), their consequences can add up.

The researchers hypothesized that conservative raters might perceive a bias against them that liberals didn’t, but that wasn’t the case. Raters were asked to report their own political views and, if anything, conservative raters viewed the abstracts as less biased against conservatives than liberal ones did, Uhlmann said.

The second part of the study tested to see whether psychologists were already aware of their field’s bias. The researchers recruited 198 scientists, explained to them the study’s first part and asked them to predict the results. The scientists correctly predicted that the abstracts would be less favorable toward conservatives, but they estimated that this effect would be larger than it really was.

While it’s tempting to read into that result — psychologists think they’re even more biased than they really are! — this overestimation might be explained by the study’s sample, Uhlmann said. The researchers recruited participants through social media, and “it might be that people who believe that research is more biased were more drawn to participate,” he said.

Before making their predictions, the forecasters had been asked whether they thought social psychology evaluates conservatives and liberals differently and whether the field sought to explain the political beliefs to different degrees. When presented with the actual findings, these researchers updated their beliefs accordingly. That’s encouraging, Uhlmann said, because it provides evidence that challenging people to reconsider their beliefs when presented with contradictory evidence may be one way to create movement on scientific controversies.

“This is a very carefully conducted study, with particular care taken to ensure the results are robust across different ways one could slice the data,” said Linda Skitka, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was not involved in the study. Alice Eagly, a psychologist at Northwestern University, called it “a good demonstration of some bias” but cautioned that “it’s a very narrow demonstration” that focused on a single type of bias: in-group bias, the tendency to favor one’s own group. “This must not be portrayed as a big demonstration that psychology has a liberal bias, because it’s a very, very narrow demonstration of how people think of liberals and how they think of conservatives,” Eagly said.

One way to fight political bias is to work on trans-ideological teams, said Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He said he would like to see more adversarial collaborations, a kind of study design proposed by Daniel Kahneman in which researchers who disagree on an issue come to an agreement on the terms under which they would be willing to change their minds, then set ground rules on collecting data to help settle the issue. Of course, such an approach could be hard to accomplish on any scale if conservative psychologists remain a rarity.

The fact that researchers are engaging in self-reflection on this issue could be a reason for optimism. “Psychology as a field has problems, but it is not in denial. It is working on them,” Haidt said. “I have been raising the alarm and talking about the underrepresentation of conservatives since 2011, and nothing bad has happened to me — I have not been ostracized, and overall the field has reacted very positively.” Discussing an issue and studying it aren’t the same as fixing the problem, but it’s a necessary first step. The new study is “a very good conversation starter — that’s how I’d characterize it,” Tetlock said. “I hope that people build on it and extend it.”

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Mars Science Lab launch delayed two years

WASHINGTON (CNN) — NASA’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory — hampered by technical difficulties and cost overruns — has been delayed until the fall of 2011, NASA officials said at a news conference Thursday in Washington.

A photo illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle that is set to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

A photo illustration of a laser-equipped vehicle that is set to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission had been scheduled for launch in the fall of 2009.

The Mars Science Lab is a large, nuclear-powered rover designed to traverse long distances with a suite of onboard scientific instruments aboard.

It is, according to NASA’s Web site, part of a “long-term effort of robotic exploration” established to “study the early environmental history of Mars” and assess whether Mars has ever been — or still is — able to sustain life.

The delay of the launch, according to NASA, is due to a number of “testing and hardware challenges that must (still) be addressed to ensure mission success.”

“The progress in recent weeks has not come fast enough on solving technical challenges and pulling hardware together,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Changing to a 2011 launch “will allow for careful resolution of any remaining technical problems, proper and thorough testing, and avoid a mad dash to launch,” argued NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler.

The overall cost of the Mars Science Lab is now projected to be roughly $2.1 billion, according to NASA spokesman Dwayne Browne. The project originally carried a price tag of $1.6 billion.

NASA’s entire budget for the current fiscal year, according to Browne, is approximately $15 billion.

According to NASA, the Mars rover will use new technologies and be engineered to explore greater distances over rougher terrain than previous missions to the planet. This will be done in part by employing a new surface propulsion system.

“Failure is not an option on this mission,” Weiler said. “The science is too important and the investment of American taxpayer dollars compels us to be absolutely certain that we have done everything possible to ensure the success of this flagship planetary mission.”

Weiler asserted that, based on the agency’s preliminary evaluations, additional costs tied to the delay of the Science Lab launch would not result in the cancellation of other NASA programs over the next two years. He did, however, concede that it would result in other unspecified program delays.

Critics have charged that the delay and cost overruns associated with the Mars Science Lab are indicative of an agency that is plagued by a lack of accountability and inefficiency in terms of its management of both time and taxpayer dollars.

“The Mars Science Laboratory is only the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending,” wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator, in a November 24 op-ed in the New York Times. “A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects.”

Stern charged that the agency’s cost overruns are being fueled by “managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur” and “members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.”

Browne replied in a written statement saying that NASA administrators are “constantly working to improve (the agency’s) cost-estimating capabilities. … We continually review our projects to understand the true risk in terms of performance, cost and schedule.”

“The fact of life at NASA, where we are charged with creating first-of-a-kind missions of scientific discovery, is that estimating the costs of … science can be almost as difficult as actually doing the science,” Browne said.

NASA’s most recent Mars project — the mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander — came to an end last month after the solar-powered vehicle’s batteries ran down as the result of a dust storm and the onset of Martian winter. It had operated two months beyond its initial three-month mission.

NASA officials had landed the vehicle on an arctic plain after satellite observations indicated there were vast quantities of frozen water in that area, most likely in the form of permafrost. They thought such a location would be a promising place to look for organic chemicals that would signal a habitable environment.

Scientists were able to verify the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life, and observe snow descending from the clouds, NASA said Thursday.

All About Mars ExplorationNASA

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Exclusive: Jeff Bezos plans to charge at least $200,000 for space rides – sources

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Jeff Bezos’ rocket company plans to charge passengers about $200,000 to $300,000 for its first trips into space next year, two people familiar with its plans told Reuters.

Potential customers and the aerospace industry have been eager to learn the cost of a ticket on Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle, to find out if it is affordable and whether the company can generate enough demand to make a profit on space tourism.

Executives at the company, started by Inc founder Bezos in 2000, told a business conference last month they planned test flights with passengers on the New Shepard soon, and to start selling tickets next year.

The company, based about 20 miles (32 km) south of Seattle, has made public the general design of the vehicle – comprising a launch rocket and detachable passenger capsule – but has been tight-lipped on production status and ticket prices.

Blue Origin representatives did not respond to requests for comment on its programs and pricing strategy. Bezos said in May ticket prices had not yet been decided.

One Blue Origin employee with first-hand knowledge of the pricing plan said the company will start selling tickets in the range of about $200,000 to $300,000. A second employee said tickets would cost a minimum of $200,000. They both spoke on condition of anonymity as the pricing strategy is confidential.

The New Shepard is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 62 miles (100 km) above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurized capsule returns to earth under parachutes.

The capsule features six observation windows Blue Origin says are nearly three times as tall as those on a Boeing Co 747 jetliner.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard lifts off during a test in Van Horn, Texas, U.S. in an undated photo. Blue Origin/Handout via REUTERS

Blue Origin has completed eight test flights of the vertical take-off and landing New Shepard from its launch pad in Texas, but none with passengers aboard. Two flights have included a test dummy the company calls “Mannequin Skywalker.”

The company will do the first test in space of its capsule escape system, which propels the crew to safety should the booster explode, “within weeks,” one of the employees said.


Blue Origin, whose Latin motto means “step by step, ferociously,” is working towards making civilian space flight an important niche in the global space economy, alongside satellite services and government exploration projects, already worth over $300 billion a year.

Bezos, the world’s richest person with a fortune of about $112 billion, has competition from fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Elon Musk, Tesla Inc’s chief executive.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it has sold about 650 tickets aboard its own planned space voyages, but has not set out a date for flights to start. The company is charging $250,000 per ticket, in line with Blue Origin’s proposed pricing.

SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, says its ultimate goal is to enable people to live on other planets.

All three are looking to slash the cost of spaceflight by developing reusable spacecraft, meaning prices for passengers and payloads should drop as launch frequency increases.

While Blue Origin has not disclosed its per-flight operating costs, Teal Group aerospace analyst Marco Caceres estimated each flight could cost the firm about $10 million. With six passengers per trip, that would mean losing millions of dollars per launch, at least initially.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Three sources said Blue’s first passengers are likely to include its own employees, though the company has not selected them yet.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Rosalba O’Brien

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