Tuesday, March 01, 2005

How to Use Evidence of Academic Discrimination

Julian points to a funny, if somewhat unfair, response to charges that academe is dominated by left-leaning professors:
A shocking recent study has discovered that only 13% of Stanford professors are Republicans. The authors compare this to the 51% of 2004 voters who selected a Republican for President and argue this is “evidence of discrimination” and that “academic Republicans are being eradicated by academic Democrats”.

Scary as this is, my preliminary research has discovered some even more shocking facts. I have found that only 1% of Stanford professors believe in telepathy (defined as “communication between minds without using the traditional five senses”), compared with 36% of the general population. And less than half a percent believe “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil”, compared with 49% of those outside the ivory tower. And while 25% of Americans believe in astrology (“the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives”), I could only find one Stanford professor who would agree. (All numbers are from mainstream polls, as reported by Sokal.)
The kernel of truth that makes the parody effective is that measuring the beliefs of academics relative to the beliefs of the general public is worse than pointless. The general public believes all kinds of ludicrous things, and we should be glad that scientists don’t share those beliefs. Besides, it’s hardly surprising that people who have intensely studied subjects in which they have a particular interest would hold views that differ from those of laymen. If they didn’t, I’d be worried.

But the parody’s implicit argument also reveals the problem: a smug belief among many liberals that non-left-wing viewpoints are so manifestly wrong as to be comparable to belief in astrology and demon possession. Part of the reason leftists are so willing to dismiss non-left-wing views in this manner is that they rarely have to confront the many intelligent and well-informed people who hold them.

I’m sympathetic to Julian’s point that “whining on the right” about lack of intellectual diversity is not terribly useful. In general, it’s best to stop whining and focus on doing good research. Still, I think a couple of useful purposes are served by drawing attention to the left’s prevalence in academia.

First, it throws a spotlight on the hypocrisy of those who employ diversity-based rationales for affirmative action. If diversity were the real justification for affirmative action, then surely intellectual diversity – you know, the kind that actually stimulates debate and promotes learning in the university – would trump the mostly superficial diversity of race, creed, and sex any day of the week. (I’m not saying the latter forms of diversity aren’t important, but they’re nowhere near as important as intellectual differences for the purposes a university must serve.) If diversity were the true rationale, liberals would support affirmative action on the basis of ideology. The point is not to champion affirmative action for conservatives (and libertarians), but to force liberals to admit their true agenda.

Second, as Julian notes, “That the large majority of highly educated people paid to think about philosophy and economics every day think my political beliefs are nuts always struck me as a decent reason to maintain a certain modicum of humility about them, not to harumph at how benighted university faculty must be.” Correct – but what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If confronting opposing viewpoints creates humility, thereby inducing deeper thinking about one’s beliefs, then the quality of liberal thinking could be improved by a confrontation with non-liberal viewpoints. Perhaps liberal departments ought to start hiring conservatives and libertarians for their own good.

(I’ve written before about this topic here.)

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