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Research  Taboos and self-censorship among U.S. psychology professors (paper)

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ABSTRACT: We identify points of conflict and consensus regarding (a) controversial empirical claims and (b) normative preferences for how controversial scholarship—and scholars—should be treated. In 2021, we conducted qualitative interviews (n = 41) to generate a quantitative survey (N = 470) of U.S. psychology professors’ beliefs and values.

Professors strongly disagreed on the truth status of 10 candidate taboo conclusions: For each conclusion, some professors reported 100% certainty in its veracity and others 100% certainty in its falsehood. Professors more confident in the truth of the taboo conclusions reported more self-censorship, a pattern that could bias perceived scientific consensus regarding the inaccuracy of controversial conclusions.

Almost all professors worried about social sanctions if they were to express their own empirical beliefs. Tenured professors reported as much self-censorship and as much fear of consequences as untenured professors, including fear of getting fired.

Most professors opposed suppressing scholarship and punishing peers on the basis of moral concerns about research conclusions and reported contempt for peers who petition to retract papers on moral grounds. Younger, more left-leaning, and female faculty were generally more opposed to controversial scholarship.

These results do not resolve empirical or normative disagreements among psychology professors, but they may provide an empirical context for their discussion.

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