Thursday, October 20, 2005

Academic bias: in the eye of the beholder

The other day, New York Times columnist John Tierney published a column on the liberal tilt in academia. Because Tierney is held hostage by TimesSelect, non-subscribers won't be able to access the article, so I'll give a brief recap: Tierney challenges several common (liberal) assumptions about why relatively few conservatives go into college teaching, such as, "conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake," "conservatives do not care about the social good," "conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages," and "conservatives are too dumb." In response, he points out, for instance, that "plenty of smart conservatives have passed up Wall Street to work for right-wing think tanks that often don't pay more than universities do, and don't offer lifetime tenure and summers off."

Tierney argues that the reason for the glaring political imbalance on college faculties (according to a recent study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, 72% of professors self-identify as liberal/left and 15% as conservative/right) is "the law of group polarization":

"If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left."

Of course, the dynamics of group interaction also suggest that people who spend all their time among like-minded others will start to assume that theirs is the only legitimate and acceptable point of view. A person who doesn't share conventional left/liberal beliefs is viewed as a moral leper, as "not one of us."

Yesterday, the Times ran four letters in response to Tierney's column, all of them critical (and all of them from academics). James Henle, a professor of mathematics at Smith College, takes issue with Tierney's claim that the political imbalance is explained by liberal bias:

[I]f this were a significant factor, wouldn't we see a difference between the makeup of a political science department and that of a mathematics department?

Mathematical scholarship has no political coloring. Politics doesn't appear on the résumé of a mathematician. Politics doesn't come up in job interviews. But from where I stand, mathematics departments are as liberal as any in academia.

Any explanation of liberals on campus has to explain bleeding-heart geologists, socialist computer scientists, tax-and-spend physicists and knee-jerk mathematicians. Bias can't do that. But one idea, not mentioned by Mr. Tierney, could.

Perhaps in the marketplace of ideas some ideas are winning - and some are losing.

First of all, there is a difference between political science departments and mathematics departments. Here are the percentages of self-identified conservatives among professors in various departments in the Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte survey, conducted in 1999:

English 3%
Political science 2%
Sociology 9%
Philosophy 5%
Mathematics 17%
Physics 11%
Chemistry 29%
Computer science 26%
Biology 17%
Economics 39%

Obviously, conservatives are a minority in all departments, but the disparity is far more pronounced in the humanities.

Second, I'm not at all sure that subtle political prejudices cannot operate in departments in which the fields of study are apolitical. I may be wrong (my academic experience consists of teaching a 4-week course on feminism and gender issues in the political science department of Colorado College), but don't prospective hires arriving on a campus usually spend some time socializing with the faculty at lunches, dinners, etc.? In such settings, it would hardly be unusual for the conversation to touch on political issues, and that's where the "not one of us" factor could come into play.

And third: since there is no marketplace of political ideas in science and mathematics departments, what exactly is Professor Henle implying? Conservatives are dumb?

An even more revealing letter comes from Neil J. Diamant, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pittsburgh Carlisle, PA:

John Tierney's column about bias against conservatives in academia only proves liberal skepticism about conservative scholarship.

He quotes a conservative professor at Emory who suggested, Suppose that "you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state."

The professor claims that because of liberal bias, this hapless conservative would face mounting and politically motivated obstacles to getting his work published, and therefore would be unlikely to get tenure.

But the problem isn't liberal bias; it's basic scientific methodology. This conservative has already concluded that the effects of the welfare state are debilitating. The question is biased.

Good scholarship begins with an open-ended research question, not one whose results are prejudged. Hmmm ... why does this sound vaguely familiar?

Now, I wonder: Would Prof. Diamant have the same critical reaction to the mention of "a feminist who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of sexism"? Somehow, I doubt it.

Maybe the professor's letter mostly proves conservative suspicions about liberal bias.

In the same vein, many critics of the notion of left-wing bias in academia argue that conservatives of a traditionalist bent are hostile to the scientific method. In this follow-up to their article (free registration required), Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte write:

Indeed, within the academy the most prominent attacks on scientific method ... come not from the Christian right but from the ideological left, in the forms of postmodernism, deconstructionism, and some variants of radical feminism. As a thought experiment, imagine a debate between the academic right and left on [the] proposition that the university’s mission is to apply scientific reasoning to determine the truth. Representing the right are Harvey Mansfield, James Q. Wilson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Robert George. Representing the left are Stanley Fish, Stanley Aronowitz, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Wendy Brown. Now ask yourself which side argues in favor of the proposition and which side argues against it. (Hint: Pick the side that is more likely tosurround the word “truth” with quotation marks.)

Finally, Melvyn Conner, an anthropology and human biology professor at Emory University asks rather plantively if liberals can't have at least one institution, a "marginalized and ridiculed" one at that, to themselves. I'm not sure an institution where people pay $12,000 to $30,000 a year (or more) to send their kids is all that marginalized and ridiculed. But that aside, the political one-sidedness of the academy is the academy's own loss. It's not good for any group of people to spend a lot of time listening only to like-minded others. It's especially bad for a profession whose lifeblood is exchange of ideas.

My own take on the subject, from last April, can be found here.

Update: See the comments for some very interesting discussion, including responses from Prof. Henle and Prof. Diamant.


Rainsborough said...

Seems to me Young's reply to the math department point was rather feeble. Even if there are fewer liberals on the math hall than the political science, still it's striking that there are so many.
It's also rather striking that the percentage of conservatives in economics is so high. I presume because they appreciate the virtues of the market, and other social scientists, rather simplemindedly, don't.
I haven't seen the data. But I will bet that if one went to high schoool elective courses (say Vietnam or some sort of Civics II) one would find more liberals than conservatives. I'm not sure why--maybe because conservatives are more into practical sorts of courses. But I do think there's a lot of innocuous self-selection going on, that "liberal" and "interested in social science" run together.
Possibly wanting to do research/teach is an interest that correlates with liberalism. And wanting to study society is a particular type of academic interest that even more strongly correlates with liberalism.
The first step to showing there is a problem is to find solid data that conservatives with credentials stronger than (or equal to) liberals are getting winkled out in some unfair fashion. Is there such data?
You might note that at CC a 4-week course packs in a semester's worth of reading.

Cathy Young said...

Rainsborough, obviously, as I pointed out, the disparity exists in math/science departments as well. Still, the proportion of conservatives in math and science departments according to this survey is about 7 times higher than in political science and English -- which might indicate bias against conservative ideas.

Rothman et al. did find that professors with similar qualifications were employed at lower-tier academic institutions if they were conservative, but one published critique suggests that this is not necessarily indicative of bias; conservatives might gravitate toward less prestigious institutions because those institutions are less skewed to the left politically.

Oh, and you're right about CC. They have 4-week "block courses" where the students meet every day (students only take one course at a time typically) and have the same amount of readings as they would in a regular course. It's an interesting system, and one that allows the school to invite a variety of guest lecturers who may not be available for an entire semester but can manage a month. It was a very enjoyable experience, actually! (Though I'm told that the women's studies department was not happy about my course.)

Cory said...

It seems to me that the liberal reasons are partly right, but they cannot explain the entire disparity. Assume no group polarization, I would guess that 20-25% of academics would sympathize with conservatism, though obviously I cannot prove that. What really suprises me is that the percentage in Physics is so low. A few hypotheses as to why:

1. They included geophysicists, who are pushed left/ pushed away from the right by their work on global warming.

2. Physicists are more likely to be from overseas/ a member of a minority group, and this pushes them left.

3. Physics tends to be small field of study, and many major physics programs are in elite schools in liberal dominated areas, and they tend to reflect the political makeup of the surrounding community.

In any case, I would be delighted, as a conservative, if the makeup of the history department came to have 17% of its members sympathize with conservatism. Advocates of intellectual diversity should have their goal be a reasonable distribution, not parity. If they made that clear, they might encounter much less opposition.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I work for a large, private university. I'm staff, not faculty (have a ms, not a phd). I work doing research and data analysis. I thought I just chime in my perspective.

I think that it would have been much more helpful, if instead of just asking people to lump themselves in the categories of liberal / conservative, they had been more specific about the type of issues they were referring to. For instance, if asked a question like that, I would probably identify as a 'liberal', even though I am very conservative when it comes to fiscal and some other issues. If only given those two choices, I would identify as liberal so I wouldn't get lumped in with the social conservatives. I honestly don't think I am all that unique in this regard. I really think if that survey actually asked questions about values, fiscal policy, the role of government, etc, they would find that many people at universities are more conservative than they are perceived to be (at least people in the math and sciences, business, law, and medical schools. There really are some fruitcakes in the humanities and social type studies. I absolutely think that conservatives are right to complain about them. I just wish they wouldn't tar us all with the same brush.).

That being said, I do think the environment is a turn off to social conservatives, and a turn on to socially liberal people. It would almost have to be. On campus, you have students and faculty from many different countries, faiths (or lack of), sexual orientations, and perspectives. Tolerance isn't just a PC buzz word, it is necessary in order to get along with the people you work with. When social conservatives start ranting about intellectuals, gays, muslims, atheists, etc, it is hard to be neutral. These aren't just abstract concepts, they are people you know, work with, and care about.

So, does that mean it is ok to be nasty to social conservatives? No. Are there some people in academia who are? Yes, and frankly, those people bother me, and I would like to see a lot less of that. Academia does need to actively recruit conservative intellectuals, but the pressure to do so, has to come from venues like this, published essays, research, etc. Rants on AM radio do nothing to address the problem.

William R. Barker said...

Yeah... I'd say self-reinforced group think combined with real and perceived self-interest has a lot to do with the ideological make-up of American academia. Go along to get along... don't rock the boat... fit in... human nature would seem to conspire with the DNC when it comes to the Academy!

Cathy Young said...

cory -- good points. I don't recall where I've read that, but I believe that with any minority in an institution, 25% is considered a "critical mass" at which the group can exercise substantive influence and is no longer marginal.

By the way, in the survey by Rothman et al. conservatives made up 10% of the history faculty.

Regarding the percentage of conservatives in physics departments: One thing to remember is that the numbers should be interpreted with some caution when comparing various departments. While the overall survey sample was sizable (1,643), the total number of physics professors surveyed was only 37.

There is, however, a clear trend for greater representation of conservatives in the sciences. Overall, the survey found that 9% of faculty in the humanities and the social sciences alike were self-identified conservatives, compared to 20% in other fields.

anonymous, good point about the meaning of "liberal." In addition to political self-identification, the survey by Rothman et al. included questions about opinions on specific issues. As one might expect, the faculty in the survey were especially liberal on social or "lifestyle" issues (abortion, gay rights, the acceptability of extramarital cohabitation). Of course by that measure, Glenn Reynolds, Eugene Volokh, and Ann Althouse would be "liberals" (ditto for yours truly).

Anonymous said...


That is really oversimplifying. Sure, we do all just have to get along in order to work together. However, honestly, it isn't hard to do that, at least in the sciences. You just focus on the work, and you never get that WE'RE the MAJORITY and how dare the MINORITY impose their values on US attitude, because, in one way or another, everyone here is a minority. Let's face it, most social conservatives are white, American, Christian, and heterosexual. Most of the best and brightest students and faculty in the math and sciences aren't in that narrow demographic. They have very different experiences and this lends itself to very different outlooks.

Besides, in some fields, like biology, you can watch evolution happen in a lab. You can manipulate and measure the process. It is hard to come out of that experience and relate to social conservatives who take the bible literally.

Cathy Young said...

anonymous: for what it's worth, I think you're oversimplifying too. For instance, foreign-born science professors (and probably Asian-American science professors as well) are probably more likely to be socially conservative than American/white professors.

I also think that biblical literalism is a red herring. In their follow-up article (see the link in my post), Rothman et al. report that only about 1% of the professors in their survey were Christian fundamentalists.

Biblical literalism within the academy is pretty much a non-issue. On the other hand, a number of biologists -- including female biologists -- complain of hostility from feminist academics to any research that deals with the biology of sex differences. I myself don't care for the men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus outlook espoused by many social conservatives, but I thought the academic response to Lawrence Summers's suggestion that we should consider innate sex differences as a reason for the relative paucity of women in scientific fields was a disgraceful example of anti-intellectual hysteria and dogmatism.

Jason H. Bowden said...

Interesting post.

The GOP used to be the pro-science party even as late at the 1950s, obtaining the majority of votes from scientists. Republican efforts to politicize science, either for the benefit of corporate donors or the evangelical base, have made many scientists think twice about voting Republican, even if they are conservative on a lot of issues like myself. There is an article titled "Science Friction" by Nicholas Thompson online from the Washington Monthly that explains much.

I'd add that many scientists are baffled by religiously motivated attempts to water down science at the grade school level. University science departments already have to import a lot of foreign brains; it seems as if half the upper-level students are Chinese and Indian already. The fear is that taking an anti-science jihad to the extreme will render the United States completely dependent on foreign expertise in scientific work in both the private and public sectors.

I would balk to say these attitudes and prejudices constitute a "bias" against conservative students in a subject like physics. One's political orientation has little to do with how well a student performs on an exam in, let us say, molecular quantum mechanics or intro to solid state.

beAzl said...

There's a perfectly innocent liberal explanation for the disparity:

1) Polls show conservatives tend to be married with children, liberals tend to be single or in a childless relationship. Therefore conservatives need to spend more time with their family, and can't be as dedicated to academic research.
2) Polls show Republicans and Democrats achieve roughly the same educational level, so on average, they're equally smart. But liberals tend to have a wider ***variation*** in educational achievement, which translates at the upper end into...

Oh, wait, I forgot, liberals can't make that argument.

The disparity between the hard sciences vs the humanities is probably a corollary of something David Brooks once observed: Liberals like Microsoft Word, Conservatives like Microsoft Excel.

I think in a liberal utopia, the constitution of the United States would be replaced by something written in the style of "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Progressive Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (see ). Constitutional rulings would be ad-libbed poetry readings by Maya Angelou, accompanied by Wynton Marsalis to set the atmosphere. It would be up to critics at the New York Book Review, after consulting with the International Court of Justice, to inform the ignorant masses which side actually won the case.

I think this approach would seem more appealing to someone in the English or art history departments.

For conservatives, the ideal supreme court judge would be a computer. Feed it the text of a law congress passed. Compare to the enumerated powers the constitution lists. If a match is found, it's constitutional. Otherwise, throw it out. Such views would probably receive a warmer (tepid, maybe) reception at an artificial intelligence symposium.

But the big missing piece in the discussion about the academic liberal slant is this: Universities believe (maybe correctly) that they will receive more funding under a liberal administration than a conservative one. Thus supporting conservativism (or libertarianism) at a university is like working at a Chinese herbal institute and advocating for tougher FDA regulations.

Ampersand said...

Color me unimpressed. The figures you quote no more prove bias that the gender wage gap, quoted without any other context, proves gender wage bias. Real proof requires a much more serious and sophisticated examination of the question - as anti-feminists realize when the subject is the wage gap, but forget when the subject is discrimination against conservatives.

(I should say that I'm talking about the conservatives who have reacted to this study; the study authors themselves quite properly point out that this study doesn't prove the existence of discrimination against conservatives).

Personally, I think there is probably some discrimination against conservatives, which should be remedied, but that discrimination alone most likely won't explain the entire gap. But that's pure speculation, and the evidence that exists so far doesn't even allow us to say that discrimination even exists.

Now, I wonder: Would Prof. Diamant have the same critical reaction to the mention of "a feminist who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of sexism"? Somehow, I doubt it.

Talk about an argument that will only carry water among a group of like-minded people! Do you have any evidence at all to support your assumption? Lacking evidence, there's no difference between your statement and "Diamant disagrees with me politically, therefore I assume he must be a hypocrite who applies double-standards."

Finally, regarding your thought experiment, surely you realize that I could easily come up with a list of anti-science conservatives versus left-wing physicists. (Especially since the large majority of academic physicists, biologists, etc, are politically to the left.)

* * *

My biggest pet peeve with this issue isn't with conservatives, but with something that the debate seems to propagate on both sides: narrow, partisan-based definition of intellectual diversity.

The truth is, what current US political party you belong to doesn't say much about where someone stands on the critical issues in many academic fields. (For example, what's the conservative position on what game theory tells political scientists about election districts in 1840s Austria?)

An economics department that was 50/50 between democrats and republicans, but 100% game theorists, would have a lot less intellectual diversity than one with 100% republicans but also included ecometricians (sp?), game theorists, comparative economists, Austrian school, etc etc.

The real intellectual diversity in academic disciplines is much more varied and interesting than the left/right categories that so much of American life is shoehorned into. If unfair discrimination against conservatives happens (and I think it probably does), then that should be remedied as a matter of simple fairness; but it won't necessarily do much to add to real intellectual diversity in academia.

Cathy Young said...

Barry: The fact is that there is an entire "discipline" (women's studies) that is geared to particular ideological conclusions. And yes, I am well aware that there are differences of opinion among academic feminists, running the entire gamut from, say, U to Z (maybe with an occasional T or S here and there). The majority of academic feminists quite unabashedly defend the idea of feminist scholarship as the academic arm of feminist political activism and of feminist professors as agents of societal transformation.

I don't know Prof. Diamant, of course. However, unless he objects to the existence of women's studies in its present form, I would say that the good professor does exhibit a double standard.

Incidentally, the problem is not limited to women's studies. At an conference on family violence I attended at the University of New Hampshire in 1994, several speakers openly defended the idea of "advocacy research."

Cathy Young said...

Forgot to reply to this:

Finally, regarding your thought experiment, surely you realize that I could easily come up with a list of anti-science conservatives versus left-wing physicists. (Especially since the large majority of academic physicists, biologists, etc, are politically to the left.)

True, of course; but those anti-science conservatives would be, pretty much without exception, outside the academy.

Ampersand said...

Point well taken.

Also, I was just reading the article by Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte, and I realized that a quote I thought was by you was in fact by them. I'm sorry for the misattribution.

I don't know Prof. Diamant, of course. However, unless he objects to the existence of women's studies in its present form, I would say that the good professor does exhibit a double standard.

Since you don't know him, and his letter doesn't say a word about women's studies, I don't think you can assume his opinion on WS one way or the other. From my experience, it's not safe to assume that a liberal Poli-Sci prof is pro-WS; a lot of profs in "legitimate" social sciences have contempt for cross-discipline "identity politics" fields like ethnic studies, black studies or WS.

As for "advocacy research," if I correctly understand what the phrase refers to (maybe I don't), I don't see what's wrong with it. What matters is the methodology of the research, not the motives of the researcher; suggesting that a otherwise legitimate, well-done, peer-reviewed study is invalid because of the researcher's motivations is an ad hom argument.

Of course, researchers need to be aware of bias. But this is true of all researchers; even completely apolitical researchers are frequently biased by the pressures of academic life to want interesting and publishable results.

Finally, I tend to dislike critiques of academics for "openly defending" ideas - it smacks of a combination of anti-intellectualism and political correctness. Although conservative journalists just love taking cheap shots at academics ("look at the wacky titles of the papers presented at this or that academic conference," etc), in fact academia is healthiest when academics are exploring even ideas that sound wacky.

William R. Barker said...

Sorry to be simplistic, Anonymous, but while obviously the topic interests me, I'm not interested enough (nor do I have the expertise) to blow your socks off with brilliant commentary (*GRIN*) on this particular thread.

That said...

To paraphrase Potter Stewart, "I know bias when I see it."

My undergrad days are far behind me and I'm not professionally involved in academia, but I know as a student at Northeastern in the 80's (majoring in political science with a concentration in international affairs) I consistantly came out of each trimester with three A's and a C. (*GRIN*)

My point? A clear majority of my liberal professors graded on achievement, on scholarship; an equally clear minority couldn't manage to separate personal ideological disagreement from their duty to grade fairly.

Oh... I suppose it's "possible" (*SMIRK*) that the bias was all in my imagination and that I just "happened" to do poorly in certain classes when in similar classes I'd get A's... but I don't think so.

Now I realize I'm moving a bit far afield from the focus of the topic, but what I'm trying to do is to point to personal experiences that support my thesis that liberalism on campus is self-supporting and self-sustaining.

While most liberal academics are fair and professional... the entrenched liberalism inherent in the academy allows that small cadre of committed "by any means necessary" liberals to get away with biased behavior.

Cathy Young said...

ampersand -- the defense of "advocacy research" offered at that conference wasn't just of "research by advocates," it was of "research with an agenda."

jason: very interesting points; I replied to you in a separate blog post. Thanks for your input!

Jim Henle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim Henle said...

I contacted Professor Henle by email and sent him a link to my post. Due to some software quirk he hasn't been able to post in this thread, so I'm reposting his reply here. Apologies for the removal of the previous post -- the margins got messed up while I was posting it, and blogspot does not allow editing comments.-- Cathy Young

Cathy Young asked if I would like to reply, so here goes.

Her first point is to note comparative data from the Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte survey. There does appear to be a difference between the sciences and the social sciences, but I wonder how significant it is. When Ms. Young wants to explain away the low figure for physics, she points to the small sample size. Can I do the same to
explain the (somewhat) high figure for mathematics?

In fact, I am always suspicious of research like this. Mathematicians
probably have less respect for numbers than the general population, and I am a mathematician. I am wary when social scientists attach numbers
to ideology, religiosity, or academic achievement.

The sample size for mathematicians in the Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte paper is 49 and we are told 17% are conservative. So I'm interested in how many of the 49 said they were conservative. I find that it must be more than 8 because 8 out of 49 is 16.3%. But it also must be less than 9 because 9 out of 49 is 18.3%. In other words there is a mistake in the paper. It's probably a small mistake, but it doesn't engender confidence.

In my department of about a dozen, there are three who voted in 1968 for Dick Gregory. I suspect we are all liberals, but I can't be sure because we don't talk politics much.

Ms. Young's second point is the suggestion that mathematicians might still hire and fire on the basis of ideology. We might, for example, discover conservative proclivities over the interview dinner. I can't say anything about the process across the country, but I don't recall
that happening in my (nearly 30) years here. The talk is about
mathematics, teaching, and fringe benefits. We do worry about the
candidate fitting in, but not fitting in with us, fitting in with our students. Can they communicate with them? Will they respect them and earn their respect?

Politics (except for campus politics) is just not relevant to what we do. That fact I mentioned earlier--that three of us voted for Dick Gregory---only came out after I had been here 20 years.

In the end, Ms Young wonders what "marketplace of ideas" I was referring to and did I think Conservatives were dumb?

I think I wasn't very clear here, but I meant the marketplace in the
academy as a whole.

Let me restate my reasoning here. My point is simply that bias cannot explain the liberal dominance on campus. And if it can't, we must look elsewhere for an explanation.

The Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte data, even if correct, does not invalidate this. It can't explain any of the disparity in mathematics, for example, and the disparity is wide (four times as many liberals as conservatives). That being so, there must be a different explanation for liberal mathematicians. That same explanation, reasonably, must
explain most of the disparity in social science departments and in the rest of academia.

I certainly didn't mean to say that conservatives are dumb, I would like to apologize to any conservatives I have offended. Quite the contrary. I suggested that liberal ideas were winning in the academic marketplace of ideas. I can see, for example, an intelligent, rational conservative coming to a university. In time, because of her/his intellectual engagement, his/her careful consideration of opposing arguments, and her/his patient thought, he/she embraces liberal ideas.

Well, it sounds natural to me.


colagirl said...

Or, (re: Henle's scenario about the intelligent conservative above) an alternate scenario might be that because of psychological processes such as group norming, lack of exposure to other viewpoints, etc., the intelligent conservative comes to modify hir views to fit in with those of the group around hir. (Interesting tangent--Henle states that he suspects that the other members of his department are liberals although he doesn't know for sure because they don't talk politics. I'm curious to know why he assumes they are all liberals, and would suggest that he should find out--the results might be interesting.)

As for "the best ideas" winning in a marketplace of ideas, I'll simply point out that, if we were to approach this issue from an evolutionary standpoint, academia is an exotic environment in which many selection pressures that apply in the real world are absent, and many extremely different and stylized selection pressures are present (including things such as "trendiness"). This is particularly true in areas like the humanities and some of the social sciences, where experimentation and objective evaluation of ideas are not necessarily required and in fact, sometimes are even explicitly rejected as being products of biased Western thought that can only serve to reinforce the prevailing colonialist Western hegemony--see, for example, the work of archaeologists Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, who argued that archaeologists should explicitly reject objectivity for just that reason. Simply because an idea can take root and hold in academia says nothing about its fitness to survive the selection pressures of the outside world.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog. I totally agree that the “law of group polarization” is at the heart of why academia has gone off the rails in so many respects.

And yet the math/science disparity is indeed a puzzle. Why is it that the political inclinations of academics in math/sci are so lopsided (though markedly less so than the more politicized depts.), especially since that seems to be a change from an earlier era? I think there are several reasonable hypotheses, which, taken together, might explain much of the puzzle, but of course no compelling evidence on any of them.

Here are some thoughts:

1. I think there is a tendency on the part of many scientists (especially engineers) to believe that the experts should run things (a view which dates to the Progessive era). This comes naturally (and innocently, if naively) from what they do, i.e. try to control nature. This does predispose them to big/activist government. In a word, their natural engineering bent carries over to social engineering. So they tend to oppose the small-government types, i.e. modern-day conservatives. I think this is true both in academia & outside of academia. But I also hasten to add that this is only insofar as they think about politics at all, which is typically only tangential to their interests.

In a previous era, e.g. during & after WWII, the libertarian influence on the Republican party was much less, so this may explain what appears to be a shift in scientists' leanings from one of more parity to the current lopsidedness (at least in academia).

I grew up in a scientific family w/the idea that the explosion in scientific advances had outpaced the knowledge of how to run society, i.e. how to make policy; if only the tools of science were carried over to government, things would be better. This is why I went into economics. My views are very different now, after (most of) a career in the field, both academic & government policy-making -- I pay much more attention now to issues of human fallibility, etc., which the scientists tend not to see. Many of them assume that humanity could, in general, be brought up to their level of rationality, intelligence, and good will, so they don't worry so much about the laws of unintended consequences (like welfare dependence).

Scientists’ belief in progress (which I share, to be sure), also often leads them to pay less attention to historical development of ideas. they don’t spend much time on the history of physics, since early physics is obsolete. In politics, this means they tend to have less interest in the founding philosophy of the country, than serious political thinkers do. I think this gives scientists less of an appreciation for why the founders built a system of limited government.

2. as I think someone on the blog pointed out (or came close to pointing out), scientists depend heavily on Federal funding. Therefore they favor high taxes to make such funding more readily available. Again, in an earlier era (during & after WWII), there may have been less of a difference between Repub & Dem stance on this, as regards science funding, since so much of science funding was defense-related.

It is also worth noting that the Republican & Democratic parties have switched stances on taxes over the years. In an earlier era the Republicans were for higher taxes (to eliminate deficits), while the Democrats (famously, Pres. Kennedy) favored tax cuts for Keynesian (or even proto-supply-side) reasons. The Republicans were less a party of “small gov’t” than “small deficits/high taxes” than they are today.

3. as was pointed out on the blog, sci/math types are mostly apolitical. Hence, they are more susceptible to influence of group-think on campus. I think many of them may naively think: "well, here's what the experts on campus – my colleagues, after all -- say about political issue X or Y -- it's their field, I havent got time to think a lot about it, and I havent heard any other views -- they all seem to agree, so...."

4. I do tend to credit the view that math/sci types are particularly concerned by the influence of Christian conservatives/anti-evolutionists on the Republican party. I think that has become a more important concern in recent years, from their viewpoint. It is true, as someone pointed out, that on campus the far greater threat to science is from the postmodernist left, but the scientists are generally unaware of that (w/a few exceptions, such as the Sokal hoax & Paul Gross). They are far more aware of the anti-science currents off-campus – and they may in fact be right that these are potentially more threatening.

Of course, the biggest threat of all to the scientific enterprise is simply the vast & growing gap between the scientific knowledge of our schoolchildren & those of the rest of the world. This is an issue that one hopes will gather serious bipartisan attention very quickly, but that may well require the Democratic party to part ways with the teachers’ unions, who tend to oppose high standards & other policies that might address the problem.

Neil Diamant said...

Neil Diamant's comment, also emailed and reposted with permission. -- Cathy Young

Well, I've never blogged or read a blog before this, so this is a first. And since I'm mentioned, I might as well take a crack at it.

In my experience in the social sciences, a dissertation proposal that aimed to study "the debilitating effects of sexism" would not get through the dissertation committee for the same reasons I pointed out: the question is vague and biased, just in the other direction. It might pass in Women's Studies, but very few people get PhDs in Women's Studies and those that do are usually associated with a more recognized discipline. I would certainly critique it and send the student back to the drawing board. Political Science is a fairly conservative discipline, certainly in terms of methodology.

Post-modernism, cultural studies, etc. are pretty marginal in the discipline; sociology is also very quantitative these days, for better or worse. Where one does often see a high degree of politicization along so-called "leftist" lines is in English departments and some other places in the humanities, but even here there is wide variation by institution. The English Department at Dickinson has a couple of postmodernists but also courses on Milton, Shakespeare, and Scottish writers. In short, as a whole, I disagree with the notion that the left has someone "captured" the academy, and that this has resulted in an increase in "leftist" propaganda in the classroom.

This does not mean that the numbers about the number of Republicans/Conservatives (whatever that means these days-since So-called Conservatives designed a radical strategy to topple a foreign regime and blow the deficit sky high) are not correct. They probably are, but I'd have to look at the survey. The reason, however, is much more simple: there is a very strong correlation between education and party affiliation. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. This cuts across disciplines. Colleges and universities only hire people with PhDs (95% of the faculty or so, compared to 1-2% in the overall population). Its a very unique demographic, so of course this is going to be reflected in a skewed ratio in party affiliation. If one complains about this, I guess one should also complain about wealthy industrialists and millionaires disproportionally favoring the GOP, but I doubt Tierney will write about this bias, which probably has more real consequences in politics than more democrats teaching undergrads (studies show that political attitudes and party affiliation are closely tied to parental party affiliation, not professors, and by the time they get to college many are already associated with a party and don't change all that much.

Anyway, I think this topic is overblown. I've been on several hiring committees and not once has party affiliation or the liberalism/conservatism of the candidate come up, nor was it evident in their research topics. Many of these are apolitical and nonideological anyway. But,as I said, English. Cultural Studies, that's another story, and I certainly won't defend postmodernism. Nevertheless, English is one department of many, and students take a lot of that stuff with a grain of salt anyway. I would be more concerned by fake journalists, fake news reports, and other, more consequential shananigans than wild-eyed post-modernists brainwashing students about the evils of capitalism.

Neil Diamant

PS. Dickinson is in Carlisle, PA. I was writing from Pittsburgh at the time.

beAzl said...

Neil, don't know if you are still engaged with this discussion, but you mention:

The reason, however, is much more simple: there is a very strong correlation between education and party affiliation. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic.

I've searched the web in vain for data to back up this assertion. There may have been a shift in this direction in the 2004 election (perhaps because Bush ran a rather populist campaign). But what I did find was this:

Yet Republicans in the general public tend to be better educated than Democrats. In the 1994-2002 General Social Surveys (GSS), Republicans have over 6/10ths of a year more education on average than Democrats. Republicans also have a higher final mean educational degree. Further, Republicans scored better than Democrats on two word tests in the GSS--a short vocabulary test and a modified analogies test.

If one breaks down the data by party affiliation and political orientation, the most highly educated group is conservative Republicans, who also score highest on the vocabulary and analogical reasoning tests. Liberal Democrats score only insignificantly lower than conservative Republicans. The least educated subgroups are moderate and conservative Democrats, who also score at the bottom (or very near the bottom) on vocabulary and analogy tests.


This is obviously not an academic link. If this is wrong, it might be worthwhile posting some information, with source, to back your assertion, so those of us who rely on the web for such data will get a more accurate view.

Even if the information above is more accurate than what you state, I am still inclined to believe that incoming Ph.D's fresh out of grad school are disproportionately Democrats, which is more pertinent to the point I think you are trying to make.

Cathy Young said...

beAzl, I've seen those data too, and they're quite interesting -- definitely belying the notion that Bush got reelected by dumb hicks.

I do think that according to exit polls, a slight majority of people with postgraduate education vote Democratic. I'll have to check out the data.

beAzl said...


Actually, I meant to suggest (and probably wasn't very clear) that, while Bush's 2000 exit polls showed a fairly even split, the exit polls from 2004 showed that he may have received more support from the less educated "hicks."


Cathy Young said...

Oh yeah, I did see that poll. Interesting that according to these data, Kerry had a slight edge in two groups (in terms of educational levels): the least educated (less than a high school diploma), and the most educated (postgrad study).

By the way, I assume "postgrad study" includes people with professional degrees (law, medical, etc.)

William R. Barker said...


What jumps out at me is the assumption that "number of years of higher education" corrolates with being educated... with being smart... with being knowledgeable... with being logical.

Bear with me please.

Obviously there are some VERY smart, well educated people posting on this board. I'd guess - from the quality of the posts - that the average poster is far more learned... educated... "smarter" if you will... than the average American.

In America, pretty much everyone (at least in the middle class) goes to college. In order for this to fly, obviously a modern college education (especially in the liberal arts) isn't what it used to be. (*SMILE*)

Pretty much any idiot can get a college degree in America and in terms of the liberal arts... getting your masters is pretty much the same deal. Punch your ticket... get your degree.

But leave aside quality vs. quantity... we then move on to specialization and interest.

Is your average Ph.D in physics "learned" in American history or economic theory/practice? Is the average MBA "qualified" to comment intelligently on foreign policy or constitutional law?

There's well educated in terms of credentials... and then there's well educated in actually knowing what the heck you're talking about.

Listen... I know very smart, well educated liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans and very... well... DENSE liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans. The quality of a person's argument... position... logic... and factual support for same is what interests me - not whether the person happens to agree or disagree with my specific policy positions.

Basically... I guess what I'm trying to say in a fairly inarticulate (*SMILE*) way is that this whole debate about who is better educated - Republicans or Democrats - isn't really a debate that can be won or lost based on dueling statistics. The measurements themselves are too imprecise - the labels are too imprecise.

JGW said...

On the one hand, I agree with Neil Diamant that using surveys such as the referenced one to try and prove partisan bias in the academy is a flawed methodology.

However, I have to take exception to his point about the skew in the survey results being reflective of the tendency for people with more education to vote Democratic, and his implication that this somehow dismisses the issue.

I think it's fair to say that a large majority of the people who complete divinity school and receive a Doctor of Divinity degree are religious. Should all academic subjects be taught through the filter of religion?

The problem here is not that more professors should vote Republican. The problem is that an entrenched set of biases among the professoriat have stultified the academy. Many of the responses from the academy toward studies which investigate this issue only serve to further prove the point. At some point in the past few decades, a sort of paradigmatic conventional wisdom (akin to "the earth is flat!") crystallized among the intellectual class. For a variety of reasons, it has expressed itself most stongly in universities. People who are most prone to believing in the conventional wisdom tend to pursue its study for much longer, attaining higher degrees (like the religious attending divinity school). Those who don't, pursue other things (atheists tend not to go to divinity school or study theology).

The objection therefore is that the academy has become a church of articles of faith (political correctness, etc.), rather than an engine of free and open inquiry, and that the professoriat has devolved into a hallelujah chorus. The inevitable litany of hosannahs emanating from academicians whenever this issue comes up doesn't help to convince outsiders that the objection is false.

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