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How an awkward conversation about girls, hormones and math gave birth to Heterodox Academy

Jonathan Haidt was “already a prominent scholar and best-selling author” when the New York University social psychologist decided to take on the real but rarely discussed problem of ideological homogeneity in the academy.

But long before founding Heterodox Academy as a safe space for academics who promote viewpoint diversity to protect the integrity and rigor of research, Haidt was struck by the fear of true scientific discussions among his own colleagues at the University of Virginia.

The Chronicle of Higher Education goes inside Haidt’s history and motivations and the growth of Heterodox Academy into a feared and hated power player in academic controversies and national politics. Here’s how it started:

When he taught at Virginia, the psychology department hosted a weekly lunch presentation. One day the topic was women and math. The talk focused on how cultural messages girls receive dissuade them from pursuing math. Haidt proposed an alternative explanation: “We know that prenatal hormones influence the brain, changing all kinds of interests. Is it possible that girls are just less interested in math?” There was dead silence. “Wait,” he pressed. “Do you think hormones influence behavior?” More silence. “Nobody agreed, nobody disagreed, nobody would touch it,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized our science is suffering. Social science is really hard; it’s always multiple causal threads. If several threads are banned, then you cannot solve any problem.”

While Heterodox Academy is flush with new cash from major Republican donor Paul Singer, and it’s pursuing a “center-left donor” so it can rent office space, the group is finding blowback from former allies, potential members and rigid critics who worry it’s doing the Trump administration’s work:

“Haidt has led the campaign against political correctness, which became the mantra of the Trump movement” says Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Yale University who calls Heterodox Academy a “scaremongering rage machine” that targets “oppressed minorities who are vastly underrepresented in the academy.”

In reconciling with a founding member of Heterodox Academy who very publicly quit the group, Haidt told his growing member base they must “proceed with caution” so they don’t become identified with Trump:

“In a time of such powerful and understandable passions, it will be harder for HxA to make the case that wisdom is to be found on all sides, and from the conflict of viewpoints.” He added, “It will be easier for us to anger and alienate potential supporters.” …

Haidt knows that, at least at the moment, Heterodox Academy provides more comfort to the right than to the left. The imbalance can make him uneasy. “The election scared the hell out of me,” he says in his office. “I’m very alarmed by the decline of our democracy.” … He is especially worried about how social media deepen our political divisions. “We are all immersed in a river of outrage, drowning in videos of the other side at its worst,” he says, predicting that our political dysfunction will soon lead to violence. “I expect hundreds to die. Things are going to get a lot worse.”

And he’s even self-censoring now because the Aggrievement Machine known as the academy is using its favorite weapons against him:

His default intellectual style is provocation. He used to relish posing questions like, “List all the good things Hitler did,” and he even invented a game, “Racist Jeopardy,” in which he names a stereotype and asks students to identify the ethnic group it describes. “It was very uncomfortable,” he says, adding that he no longer plays the game because he’s worried about running afoul of NYU’s bias-response team. He’s already been the subject of at least two student complaints.

“I’m used to skating on thin ice, but I knew how thick the ice was,” he says. “Now I have no idea.”

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