Political bias in science: quotes from Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 book

Gunnar Myrdal, who was Swedish, expresses an early version of the views the media repeat endlessly these days. To give some examples:

White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.

The treatment of the Negro is America’s greatest and most conspicuous scandal. It is tremendously publicized, and democratic America will continue to publicize it itself. For the colored peoples all over the world, whose rising influence is axiomatic, this scandal is salt in their wounds.

In this sense the Negro problem is not only America’s greatest failure but also America’s incomparably great opportunity for the future. If America should follow its own deepest convictions, its well-being at home would be increased directly. At the same time America’s prestige and power abroad would rise immensely.

The study of women’s intelligence and personality has had broadly the same history as the one we record for Negroes. As in the case of the Negro, women themselves have often been brought to believe in their inferiority of endowment. [all quotes from The American Dilemma]

Less known are his statements on the influence of political bias about experts in academia. These are very prescient given recent years’ debates. Some other quotes from his massive 1944 book (An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy):

In general, poor people are not radical and not even liberal, though to have such political opinions would often be in their interest. Liberalism is not characteristic of Negroes either, except, of course, that they take a radical position in the Negro problem. We must guard against a superficial bias (probably of Marxian origin) which makes us believe that the lower classes are naturally prepared to take a broad point of view and a friendly attitude toward all disadvantaged groups. A liberal outlook is much more likely to emerge among people in a somewhat secure social and economic situation and with a background of education. The problem for political liberalism-if, for example, we might be allowed to pose the problem in the practical, instead of the theoretical mode-appears to be first to lift the masses to security and education and then to work to make them liberal.

The paramount practical importance of scientific research on the Negro is apparent for improvement of interracial relations. It is no accident that popular beliefs are biased heavily in a direction unfavorable to the Negro people-because they are steered by white people’s need for justification of the caste order. And it is, consequently, no accident either that scientific research, as it is progressing, is unmasking and rejecting these beliefs and giving rational reasons for beliefs more favorable to the Negroes. It is principally through encouraging research and through exposing the masses of people to its results that society can correct the false popular beliefs- by objectivizing the material out of which beliefs are fabricated. Seen in long-range perspective, a cautious optimism as to the results of gathering and spreading true information among the American people in racial terms seems warranted. The impression of the author is that the younger, and better educated, generation has, on the whole, somewhat fewer superstitious beliefs, and that, during the last decade at least, the racial beliefs have begun to be slowly rectified in the whole nation.

It should by this time be clear that it is the popular beliefs, and they only, which enter directly into the causal mechanism of interracial relations. The scientific facts of race and racial characteristics of the Negro people are only of secondary and indirect importance for the social problem under ·study in this volume. In themselves they are only virtual but not actual social facts. “.. to understand race conflict we need fundamentally to understand conflict and not race.” We have concluded, further, from the actual power situation in America that the beliefs held by white people rather than those held by Negroes are of primary importance.

On the nature of political bias in science [Appendix 2: 1 A Methodological Note on Facts and Valuations in Social Science]:

The underlying psychology of bias in science is simple. Every individual student is himself more or less entangled, both as a private person and as a responsible citizen, in the web of conflicting valuations, which we discussed in Appendix I. Like the layman, though probably to a lesser extent, the scientist becomes influenced by the need for rationalizations. The same is true of every executive responsible for other people,s research and of the popular and scientific public before which the scholar performs, and whose reactions he must respect. Against the most honest determination to be open-minded on the part of all concerned and, primarily, on the part the scientists themselves, the need for rationalization will tend to influence the objects chosen or research, the selection of relevant data, the recording of observations, the theoretical and practical inferences drawn and the manner of presentation of results.

The method of detecting bias also is simple. As the unstated premises are kept hidden, the inferences drawn from them and from the factual data contain logical flaws. The general method of detecting biases is, therefore, to confront conclusions with premises and find the non sequitur which must be present if inferences are biased. If all premises arc not stated explicitly, the inferences must be inconclusive. Thia method works as long as the biases are restricted to the plane of inferences. If the basics have influenced the very observations, so that the observed data are wrongly perceived and recorded, the method is to repeat the observations. If they have influenced the selection of data collected, the viewpoints and hypotheses applied, or the demarcation of the field of study, the check consists in the application of alternative hypotheses and the widening of the scope of research to embrace the neglected fields. The awareness of the problem of bias is a most important general protection.


In the course of a general movement in the American social sciences toward increasing emphasis upon the “environment” as a cause of differences between social groups the scientific treatment of the Negro problem has, during the last few decades, become vastly more friendly to the Negroes. Without any doubt many white scientists in the field, perhaps the majority, have attached their research interests to the Negro problem or to various aspects of it because of a primary reform interest. In the national ethos there is traditionally, as we often have occasion to point out, a strong demand for “fair play” and for consideration toward “the underdog.” Since Negroes are severely suppressed, even today, and since by virtue of that fact they often fall below the mark in conduct and accomplishments, and since public opinion is still prejudiced against the Negroes, even a friendliness which stands out an exceptional may allow views which are rather on the unfriendly side of true objectivity. The range of scientific opinions, therefore, docs not even today necessarily include the unbiased opinion.

and specifically:

(c) The Scale of Radicalism-Conservatism. The place of the individual scientist in the scale of radicalism-conservatism have always had, and still has, strong influences upon both the selection of research problems and the conclusions drawn from research. In a sense it is the master scale of biases in the social sciences. It can be broken up into several scales, mutually closely integrated: equalitarianism–aristocratism, environmentalism–biological determinism, reformism–laissez-faire, and so forth. There is a high degree of correlation between a person’s degree of liberalism in different social problems. Usually the more radical a scientist is in his political views, the more friendly to the Negro cause he will feel and, consequently, the more inclined he will be to undertake and carry out studies which favor the Negro cause. The radical will be likely to take an interest in refuting the doctrine of Negro racial inferiority and to demonstrate the disadvantages and injustices inflicted upon the Negro people.

The tendency toward increased friendliness to the Negro people, already referred to, is undoubtedly related to a general tendency during the last few decades, in American society and its social science, toward greater liberalism. In a particular problem where public opinion in the dominant white group is traditionally as heavily prejudiced in the conservative direction as in the Negro problem, even a radical tendency might fail to reach an unprejudiced judgment; whereas under other circumstances or in other problems the objective truth might lie beyond the most extreme conservative position actually held. The prevalent opinion that a “middle-of-the-road” attitude always gives the best assurance of objectivity is, thus, entirely unfounded.

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