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***

35 Comments:

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Just found your blog via Daniel Drezner. Nice work!

As a recent refugee from an English Lit graduate program, I especially appreciated this clear and thoughtful post. I was once a fairly hard-core liberal (not a hard-core socialist, though--my family's from East Germany and that protected me forever from the "worker's paradise" bs), but I've moved steadily rightward over the last ten years. My evolving center-conservative point of view was definitely unwelcome in most of my classes.

And not only did my politics clash with everyone else's bumperstickers, I also found the epistemological framework that most of my profs worked in to be directly counter to the spirit of genuine intellectual inquiry. Since everyone is to some extent ideologically biased, runs the thinking, we might as well let our biases run every aspect of our "research," and it's okay that we inevitably reach conclusions that support our original assumptions. After all, those patriarchal scientists do it for the evil corporations all the time.

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