Thursday, April 07, 2005

Krugman's Thesis

Paul Krugman's op-ed in Tuesday's NYT about why there are fewer conservatives than liberals in academia raised a number of questions in my mind. Krugman notes that conservatives aren't just outnumbered in the humanities and social sciences, where measures of academic quality can be subjective, but also in the hard sciences and engineering. This is based on a study that showed that liberals outnumbered conservatives 5 to 1 in the faculties of universities, and that since 1984, the gap has widened. The widening of the gap argument has serious issues as pointed out here (Basically, the problem with the widening-of-gap argument is that the study from 1984 which they use as baseline included two-year colleges and fewer research universities. The new study over-represented research universities, where of course, there are more liberals on the faculties than at two-year colleges.). Still, there are way more liberals than conservatives in academia, particularly at the higher quality schools. This has been true of my experience at Yale and NYU.

But, why are there also fewer conservatives in the sciences where judgements about scholarship quality are much more objective than in the humanities and social sciences and political affiliation is usually unknown to hiring committees? As a scientist, who is on the Right on most political issues, I am rather interested in this question. So, I looked at the study itself and found the following for Liberal/Conservative identifications:

Mathematics: 4.1 to 1

Physics: 6 to 1

Chemistry: 2.2 to 1

Biology: 4.4 to 1

Computer Science: 2.8 to 1

Engineering: 2.6 to 1

Economics: 1.4 to 1

By contrast, humanities and social science departments (except economics, which is probably more scientific than most of the other social science departments) have the following divides:

English Lit: 29 to 1

History: 7.7 to 1

Philosophy: 16 to 1

Theology/Religion: 16.6 to 1

Political Science: 40.5 to 1

Sociology: 8.6 to 1

Psychology: 10.5 to 1

So, yes, a gap does exist in the sciences, and it is a rather large one, but not nearly as profound as in the humanities and social sciences (aside from economics). So, what is going on here? Is Krugman correct that it isn't liberal bias that is driving conservatives away from academia but rather conservatives' preference to go to the private sector to make more money (because didn't you get the memo that all that conservatives care about is money and nothing else... oh yeah, and I forget, oppressing women -- Ed.)? This is a point made by many academic bloggers, for example, here.

1) I think that it is true that part of the reason so few conservatives are in academia is self-selection. But part of it is also that the whole system is a feedback loop. Liberal professors often use the classroom as a personal soapbox and sometimes treat conservative students unfairly (and then sometimes even threaten to keep them from getting jobs). So of course, conservative students will choose not to pursue graduate study, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, if they think that their professors will treat them unfairly in graduate school, and then again in the hiring process for academic posts. This has been true of a number of people I knew who planned on entering academia, but then chose not to because they were too tired of dealing with people who were substituting political opinions and partisan cheap-shots for actual scholarship and fairness.

2) I also think that academics tend to be more liberal in general, because part of the job description is to use reason to arrive at answers to important questions. Of course, this is as it should be. But, it is not a far leap to then conclude that economic central planning is a good idea. If we can use reason to settle questions about Boltzman gases or the true meaning of Joyce's Ulysses, then why not use reason to guarantee employment to everyone or severely regulate commodity prices? This is illustrated by the fact that according to the aforementioned study of political attitudes, 66% of faculty strongly or somewhat agreed that the government should guarantee employment and 72% strongly or somewhat agreed that government should reduce the income gap. This is not a critique of reason, so much as it is a critique of academics who do not realize that it is the assumptions that you put into the reason machine that are important. Centralized rationality has a limit when you are dealing with 250 million humans floating around all doing their own thing (if you want a full discussion on this, read Richard Epstein's excellent piece on Hayek. Or better yet, go read Hayek yourself.).

Finally, even leaving the question of economic central planning aside, academics are used to being handed problems and solving them (that's how they got to be academics, after all). So, if there is a problem in society (e.g. too many poor people), then of course, someone ought to solve it. Who better to do it than the government?

This only helps to explain why academics tend to be liberals, but not necessarily why conservatives are not academics (although certainly these two questions are related since faculty hiring is usually a zero-sum game).

3) Science is an odd case, where the usual conservative arguments of bias may not work out because one can do science in the private sector. If one has a Ph.D. in biology, then one can be a biologist for Pfizer. If one has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, then one can be a chemist for Dow. If one has a Ph.D. in physics, then one can work at Boeing. If one has a Ph.D. in Engineering, then one can go work, well, anywhere really. So yes, money may be a factor, in the sense that private industry pays better, but there is nothing inherently "conservative" about this factor, unless one paints one of the ridiculous charicatures very common amongst various academics. But I would also venture to guess that most people who get Ph.D.'s in the sciences are not conservatives. I would say that many are probably libertarians (based on my experience). To test Krugman's odd theory that the reason scientists aren't conservatives is because the GOP has become the party of creationist loons, I would be interested in knowing the number of academis who have switched their party affiliation in the last, say, 15 years.

4) Even if you are a scientist in academia, you still have to deal with non-scientists! And so, have to endure the constant political activism not only by the students, but also your colleagues and the overall leftism of the faculty (and often the administrations themselves). As a result, many conclude that they're fed up with the academic world. I've had that reaction at various stages of my academic career. So this phenomenon might contribute to that feedback loop seen in reason #1. I don't think it's a very strong one, however.

So, suppose that in the sciences, conservatives are outnumbered and bias did not contribute to it. That doesn't explain, however, why they would be outnumbered in the humanities and social sciences! One can get a Ph.D. in science and still do that science in the private sector, as I discuss above. But, you can't do English in the private sector or history (museums being the exception... though they hire such a tiny portion of history Ph.D.'s as to be negligible). And by "do English" I mean, do serious research, literary criticism, the whole nine yards. Not just teaching, or working in publishing, or advertising. I mean, being an actual literary scholar.

So the explanation that conservatives prefer to go into private industry for more money would only explain conservatives going into private industry for more money in the sciences where one can actually do the same thing one does in academia, without having to put up with the economic tradeoffs necessary for the academic life. The only way that this argument could work is if it is used in conjunction with the argument that conservatives also don't care about studying Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner, Larkin, etc. whereas liberals do. But that's odd since it is usually conservative colleges like St. John's College in MD (where Strauss once taught) that champion Great Books curricula. Also, is it not conservatives who criticize the MLA for de-emphasizing the Western Canon? Finally, ever heard of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute? For all of its faults, ISI has been at the forefront of promoting Great Books/Western Canon as the basis of education. So, the claim that conservatives are somehow less interested in reflection through study of books, is rather unfounded (remember Strauss, the Left's favorite philosophical bogeyman... after all, he believed that universities are essentially big libraries and professors are sort of like librarians in that they tell you which books to read and guide you through them).

Finally, as I wrote before, I knew of a number of conservatives who try to keep their political affiliations from becoming public for fear of reprisals. And I know of at least one person (possibly even two) who is almost certain that his/her admission to graduate programs was torpedoed because his/her CV included "conservative" work experience (a year after being rejected everywhere, he/she applied again, but this time didn't include "conservative" work experience on his/her CV and got in almost everywhere, including a number of extremely prestigious departments).

And as even some academics who don't buy the idea of systematic oppression of conservatives in academia admit, there have been a number of instances of liberal academics abusing their power and treating conservatives unfairly.

Unlike David Horowitz, I do not think that there is a systematic oppression of or bias against conservatives. I think part of it is subconscious (e.g. Brian Leiter thinks that it would be hard for intelligent people to be conservative: "Far more plausible, as we've remarked before, is that it is some combination of self-selection and the simple, and so far undisputed, fact that it's hard to be intelligent and informed and take seriously the world view of, e.g., Bill O'Reilly or Tom DeLay, not to mention the pathological David Horowitz."... so if one is a conservative, then obviously one is likely not intelligent... so obviously, one would have a major strike against him/her in the hiring process). Another part of it has to deal with the fact that certain disciplines start out from first-premises with which conservatives disagree (e.g. Ethnic studies). Similarly, because of academia's love for academic fads, this works against conservatives, since conservatism itself is generally not amenable to chasing after academic fads. So, hiring committees looking to make offers in new trendy areas are likely not to find many conservatives applying for these positions. A third is the feedback loop that I mentioned before, no doubt caused by the non-systematic but still sometimes occurring phenomenon of professors misusing their power to intimidate conservative students.

What would systematic bias even entail? I don't think anyone claims that the deans of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, and MIT get together somewhere over brunch on the Upper West Side and plot how to oppress conservatives. Nor do I think that every liberal academic is out to get every conservative academic (the vast majority of liberal academics I know are quite honest, professional individuals). But I do think that bias and unfairness towards conservatives happens often enough (and sometimes in subtle ways) that it helps keep conservatives away from academia.

I am not under the illusion that academia would have perfect ideological balance. But, I would at least expect the situation in the social sciences and humanities to be on par with what it is in some of the sciences (so, say 2.5 to 1), rather than the ridiculously lopsided ratios of 29 to 1 or 40 to 1 as you see now in the important fields of English Lit. and Political Science (a 40 to 1 ratio in Poli Sci would mean that there are entire departments in this country with not a single conservative on the faculty) or an overall lopsided score of 4.9 to 1. As many before me have pointed out, ratios like this alone would trigger instant strict scrutiny by the courts if this was the ratio of men to women. Now, of course, I am not advocating that. I am just saying that most academics support gender-bias legislation and policies for universities. But seem incredibly hostile to these politices in the case of ideological imbalance.

This all comes back to David Horowitz, of course. His Academic Bill of Rights has been lambasted by academics everywhere. In particular, the provision in the Florida legislature which would allow students to sue their professors for indocrination, an example of which could be a biology professor teaching evolution without the caveat that it is only a theory. This proposal is silly and dangerous, for it will place courts as arbitrers of good and bad scholarship. As much as I might dislike what goes on in academia, the courts are not the place for this.

Having said that, however, I do think that state legislatures ought to have closer oversight of their state universities. He who pays the piper picks the tune. For example, they ought to have committees of overseers that submit a report every five years on the status of the state university. That panel ought to consist of liberal and conservative academics. That way, the legislature gets to ensure that faculties who are biased don't declare themselves unbiased and say "well, that's that" and academics get to be judged by other academics rather than politicians. That seems pretty fair to me. The universities (especially public ones funded by our taxpayer dollars) have done nothing to clean up their acts. I think that maybe a cleaning of the augean stables from the outside is in order, though certainly not on the scale suggested by the legislatures enacting Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights.

***This post has been UPDATED since the original to clarify a couple of things***

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Kleiman/Krugman vs. Kerr/Non-Volokh

Orrin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy rightly criticized Paul Krugman's column in the NYT for making broad caricaturish statements about conservatives. In response, Mark Kleiman slams Kerr and Co-Conspirator Juan Non-Volokh:

Orin Kerr twists Krugman's meaning completely out of shape, transforming a legitimate attack on the nutty positions taken by specified Republican officeholders into a character attack on "consevatives" generically.
Yes, Krugman's column shifts between explaining why conservatives mostly don't become professors and explaining why professors, even those not liberal by inclination, might refuse to vote for the current crop of Yahoo Republicans. But Krugman never does what Kerr accuses him of doing, and what my post criticizes Kerr for saying that Krugman did: caricature conservatives in general -- as opposed to conservative politicians -- as a bunch of ignorant religious fanatics.
Orin Kerr can't figure out why I'm upset about his attempt to portray liberals, and Krugman in particular, as foolish bigots who think that all conservatives are obscurantist religious fanatics. Juan non-Volokh points to one sentence in which Krugman, having pointed to several conservative leaders by name, then makes a general remark about "conservatives," as if that backed up Kerr's original attribution of foolish bias to Krugman, and by extension to liberals generally.

The relevant graf in Krugman's screed is:
Conservatives should be worried by the alienation of the universities; they should at least wonder if some of the fault lies not in the professors, but in themselves. Instead, they're seeking a Lysenkoist solution that would have politics determine courses' content.

But that's not all, Krugman earlier writes:
One answer is self-selection - the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.

But there's also, crucially, a values issue. In the 1970's, even Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican Party was the "party of ideas." Today, even Republicans like Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the "party of theocracy."

Seems to me like Krugman is trying to paint conservatives and Republicans in general, not just some select Republicans who hold public office, as religious zealots, people hostile to science, and people who want to make money in the private sector rather than choose an academic career. I find it odd that Mr. Kleiman didn't get that general gist from Krugman's column. It appears that Krugman is making the general claim about conservatives and the Republican party in general -- that they are obscurantist/Lysenkoist/hostile to research -- and then using particular Republican office-holders as evidence that indeed he is correct. This is a pretty standard method of argumentation and is pretty transparent in Krugman's column. So, I don't understand what is Kleiman's beef here.

But to make things worse, he then continues his post with a gratuitous attack on both Non-Volokh and Kerr:

Wouldn't you expect a pair of lawyers to be a little bit better at reading documents?

Even if he were right, which he isn't, maybe such attacks are a little unwarranted?

I will soon post a general response to Krugman's column. I spent part of the day thinking about why, as Krugman notes, there are few Republicans/conservatives in the hard sciences, where bias based on politics is pretty much nonexistent (since it's more objective what is good scholarship and what isn't and since most faculty's political opinions are probably unknown in those fields to hiring committees).

Monday, April 04, 2005

Assertion City

In an otherwise insightful post about the Democrats' inability to sound sincere on national security, Mark Kleiman includes this gem of an attack on the Republican Party:

The Democrats support lots of policies that are demonstrably contrary to the interests of African-Americans, especially policies that maintain cruddy school systems in big cities and that can't be changed for fear of offending the teachers' unions. When Republicans such as GWB try to make that issue, black voters laugh at them: "As if you gave a rat's ass about our kids."

The fact that the Republicans are obviously and comfortably the party of those who think that black folks have gotten too big for their britches makes them simply not credible when they argue that some particular policy they oppose for other reasons is actually bad for African-Americans. The fact that they often play the race card when it's not there to be played -- as on Social Security -- and never, never, ever support something they would otherwise dislike simply because it's actually good for blacks makes it obvious that their invocations of the needs of African-Americans are insincere and therefore to be ignored. So does the fact that they're so indifferent to the real issues facing black America that they don't bother to learn anything about the details, and therefore often wind up sounding disconnected from reality when discussing race.

Kudos to him for at least admitting that "the Democrats support lots of policies that are demonstrably contrary to the interests of African-Americans." But, I am not quite sure how "obvious" his claim that Republicans are the party of people who think that blacks have become too uppity is. What evidence does he have of this?

The use of Social Security as an example of Republicans playing the race card in contexts where it is inappropriate actually works against him, for he doesn't seem to understand the argument I have usually heard about why blacks ought to favor Social Security reform. One can't collect his Social Security check if he is dead. Only about 55.5% of all black males survive to age 70, whereas 71.5% of white males survive to that age. The life expectancy for black males who are now 30 is 71.6. Contrast this with 76.7 for white males (data courtesy of National Center for Health Statistics). So, assuming a retirement age of 67 (for those born after 1960), white males have more than twice as many years to collect Social Security as black males do, even though both had been paying into the system for the same number of years. This sounds like a raw deal to me. I am not saying that that means that Social Security privatization or any other reform is necessarily a good idea. But to claim that there is absolutely no argument to make that the current system hurts black males is to refuse to look at the numbers. Maybe I am not getting what race card he is talking about, but this is the common argument I have heard from conservative PAC's like BAMPAC about why Social Security harms blacks.

I am not saying that there are no people in the Republican party who use race to their political advantage without actually caring about the plight of African-Americans. But to say that these are the majority or that they dominate Republican Party policy is rather unsubstantiated. In fact, there's plenty of people on the Democratic side of the aisle who do the same. Doesn't Kleiman's own example of the Democats hurting blacks by opposing inner-city school reform because this reform is opposed by the Dems' more important constituency of big labor, sort of demonstrate this point? This isn't to shout, "well they do it too!" But it is to say that the Republicans aren't uniquely guilty of refusing to sacrifice on their core ideological priorities (Wait, I thought that civil rights was a core ideological priority of the Dems? Maybe campaign contributions by the unions has something to do with it --Ed.)

A better explanation I would have for why blacks reject arguments made by Republicans about particular policies that hurt them is that for years the Democrats have successfully painted the Republicans as the party of rolling back civil rights and returning America to the time of Jim Crow (cf. the confirmation fight over Charles Pickering whom the Democrats have successfully managed to paint as a racist despite the facts).

It seems that Kleiman's main argument is that if you care about black people, then you will "feel their pain" and have "good intentions" to help them. Never mind that years of good intentions on the part of Democrats and the American left haven't done much for the black community (affirmative action being a good example). Someone once said, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Too few politicians and pundits heed these words today. If Kleiman and other Democrats continue with this condescending and somewhat hateful attitude towards Republicans then -- no matter how many Southern Democrats who don't look like Charlie Brown when riding around in a tank they have running for President -- they will remain, as they are now, without a great deal of political power in national politics.