Monday, February 14, 2011

But Liberals Would Never, Ever Do Anything Wrong, By Definition.

Megan McCardle:
So my post on the liberal slant in academia has garnered what I believe to be a record number of comments, many, even most of them, pretty angry. And as I predicted, the positions are very much reversed from the normal take on such things. Conservatives are explaining how bias can be subtle and yet insidious; and liberal, many of them academics are saying that you can't simply infer bias from statistical underrepresentation, and sarcastically demanding to know whether I really think that people are asking candidates for physics professorships who they voted for in the last election.

They're all right, of course: you can't simply infer bias from statistical underrepresentation, and yet bias can be subtle and yet insidious. I thought it might clarify the argument a bit to outline how I think bias works in institutions, even though much of it should be old hat, particularly for social scientists.

Most people, when they are accused of being a member of an in-group that is excluding some other set of people, immediately define bias in the narrowest possible terms: conscious, direct personal discrimination. Did we make an explicit rule that no person of that persuasion could be hired? No we didn't. Well, then, no bias!

Those people offered their own alternate theories, which boiled down to:

Smart people are almost always liberal

Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait

Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor

Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals

Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're more interested in something else (money, the military)

Conservatives don't want to be professors because they're anti-intellectual

Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors


So what's happening in academia? Is it simply that conservatives are less interested or qualified, or are being turned into liberals by the process of education, as my interlocutors have argued, or is there more going on here?

The evidence offered for proposition that it's all the hiring pool is pretty weak. There's an awful lot of gross stereotyping: there are no conservatives because creationists can't be professors; because conservatives are hostile to new ideas; because reflective thinking inevitably turns you into a liberal.


One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance. Somehow, the problem is never them. It's always the out group. Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle--blacks are happy-go-lucky and don't want the responsibility of management, women wouldn't deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service. These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.

More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they're deployed against conservatives in my comment threads. In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs--if conservatives can't make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better. This is possible, of course. It's also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.

So while in theory, it's true that you can't simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you've identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn't because of bias, but because the people they've excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ's . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.

When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can't be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second's serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible. More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.


And with apologies to all the brilliant, open-minded, scientifically grounded liberal academics who suggested this one, it's also not because academia simply weeds out illogical people who can't handle the scientific method. Professors are overwhelmingly pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, anti-military, and in favor of redistribution and regulation programs. These aren't a matter of logic and scientific evidence; they're value judgements. Moreover, they cluster in a way that suggests something other than rational analysis driving the decision--why should your views on military operations in Iraq, or climate change, be correlated with your views on abortion?

Note that this also excludes the thesis that professors aren't really that liberal, but just self-identify that way because conservatives are so terribly anti-intellectual. Professors are mostly of one mind on most of the major liberal political issues.


There are three potential arguments for why it's a problem. One if the harm it does to conservatives. But the others are the harm it does to academia, and to the rest of us. I think the latter are by far the bigger problems. Not to trivialize the conundrum faced by conservatives who want to be professors . . . but it's not like they're ending up as longshoremen. The other two problems are much more broadly harmful.

Excluding conservatives means that academia is losing the trust of the more conservative members of society. Academics are incredulous and angry about this--the way that many whites are when they hear rumors are spreading in the black community that AIDS was deliberately created and released by the government to destroy them. But the mistrust of the government in the black community is not crazy--not after things like the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment. Nor is it crazy to think that academia wields its prestige like a club against conservative ideas--or even conservatives themselves, as with the steady stream of studies that characterize conservatives as authoritarian, less open to experience, and so forth. Conservatives point out that the questions are more than occasionally loaded, and the studies are done on psychology students, an overwhelmingly liberal group whose few conservatives may not look much like conservatives in the wild. Yet the academics in question more than occasionally participate in the denigrating connotations this information is given in the media.

Which hints at the other problem with excluding conservatives: it makes scholarship worse. Unless we assume what to many liberals is "proven" by their predominance in academia--that conservative ideas have no merit--leaving conservatives out means that important viewpoints are excluded. We are never the best interrogators of our ideas. It requires motivated critics to lay bare our hidden assumptions, our misreading of the data, our factual inaccuracies. No matter how scrupulously honest you try to be, you are no substitute for an irritated opponent thinking, "That can't possibly be right!"

If you build a group with the same assumptions, you can all too easily go wrong.


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