Rutgers professor discusses intellectual diversity in scientific research


Sam Rosenblatt and Jess Kaplan

On Thursday, Oct. 3, Rutgers University Professor Lee Jussim visited campus to discuss the importance of intellectual diversity in science and social science research. The talk was held in the Arches Lounge of the Elaine Langone Center and was a part of the Campus Politics and Civil Liberties 2019-2020 Speaker Series. The series is sponsored by the Bucknell Program for American Leadership and Citizenship, which invites speakers from a diverse set of political backgrounds to inform civic leadership on campus.

Jussim is the chair of the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University, as well as the graduate director. He has published six books and over 100 articles about social perception and stereotyping. Jussim’s research focuses on the politicization of the social sciences and its implications in perpetuating bias and prejudice.

After briefly reviewing the meaning of intellectual diversity, Jussim began by discussing what constitutes a “fact” and the possibility of presumed facts to be disproven in research. He highlighted that accepted facts or the consensus around them can be wrong, in whole or in part, and that facts can be open to interpretation. Jussim pointed to the former consensus of a geocentric universe and the multiple interpretations of gender-based hiring practices as examples of these qualifications.

“Science is filled with examples where the consensus around the facts turned out not to be true,” Jussim said. Jussim cited psychology’s replication crisis, where psychologists have struggled to reproduce results that support long-held consensus in the field as evidence of this trend. “This goes into case after case in social and cognitive psychology where some study was conducted and it just reached the wrong conclusions,” he said.

Jussim then highlighted the importance of four different aspects of intellectual diversity in research. The first pillar of this is skepticism, which involves questioning one’s assumptions about facts and consensus and encompasses the other three dimensions of intellectual diversity as well. The second aspect, according to Jussim, is theoretical diversity, which can consist of framing research questions as two-sided questions rather than a one-sided claim. He applied the significance of theoretical diversity to the question: are conservatives especially biased in their evaluation of scientific evidence?

Jussim noted that when researchers considered who is more biased in their evaluation, “It turns out that . . . the most recent answer – the best answer – is that bias is about equal [from both ends of the ideological spectrum].”

Demographic diversity comprises the third aspect of intellectual diversity. While this term often refers to promoting access for minorities or historically discriminated groups, in this context, Jussim argues this promotes better science, especially given science’s tendency to study thinkers from Western, European and industrialized civilizations.

“At the frontiers of science, no one knows what the right or wrong answers are — that’s why they’re doing research,” Jussim said. “When people with different biases challenge each other, cancel each other out, out of which the truth is more likely to emerge.”

The final point of intellectual diversity for Jussim involved political diversity. According to Jussim, bringing individuals who disagree with each other politically strengthens scientific research with enhanced skepticism. “If you are ideologically predisposed for or against some conclusion, particularly against some conclusion, you are far more likely to be skeptical of that conclusion and hold that conclusion to a much higher standard of evidence before you’re willing to accept it,” Jussim said. “You want your ideological opponents in there, not because you like them, not because they’re nice, not because you respect their values; you need their skepticism.”

Jussim concluded by emphasizing how this intellectual diversity promotes more accurate conclusions from scientific research.

Students who attended Jussim’s talk appreciated his perspective on potential biases in academic research. “I thought that he offered an interesting perspective, something we have never talked about in any of my classes here at [the University],” Gabi Coleman ’21 said.

“Jussim’s excitement about the subject matter was apparent,” Sam Ritter ’20 said. “Everyone in the audience was very engaged. It clearly made everyone think.”

“I was really interested in Jussim’s questioning and skepticism about widely accepted ideas in society, and when asked why people shouldn’t be skeptical of him and his ideas, he snickered and responded that people should not take his own ideas at face value either. Instead, we should look for evidence to verify our beliefs and perceived norms,” Annie Lindenthal ’20 said. 

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