Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Political bias in academia, revisited yet again

Lots of people who should know better seem to be excited about this silly John Tierney article on this Jonathan Haidt presentation about political bias in the academy.

Haidt has taken things that surely by now everyone knows about politics and the academy-- e.g. that the professoriate leans left compared to the American populace as a whole-- and dressed them up in various bits of metaphor and jargon. Some of the metaphors are good ones; I like the magnet image. But they're metaphors, not evidence. Throw in what on usenet we once would have called ObLarrysummers, and the cute fact that it's social psychologists in the audience-- people who think of thesmelves as good at analyzing patterns of bias!-- and we're done. We have a just-so story about the evolution of taboos around topics having to do with race and gender straight out of the political correctness wars circa 1992, retold in a way that emphasizes what's supposed to be clear as soon as one says "taboo"-- that there's something magical and superstitious rather than rational about it.

But here's what we don't have:
1) Any meaningful new evidence about the political imbalance in the academy.
2) Any meaningful evidence at all of bias.
3) Any attempt whatsoever to sort out the competing explanations for the political imbalance that are the heart of any serious conversation on the topic.

Stipulating that the academy skews left compared with a random population sample (which is what Haidt's facially meaningless phrase "statistically impossible lack of diversity" actually means), we are always faced with the question of why. Random population samples are, after all, not something one usually comes across in daily life; even professional opinion pollsters trying to get such samples have real trouble doing so, because, e.g., the people who own landline phones, as opposed to no phones or only cell phones, aren't a random population draw, and if you survey using the phone book you'll get a skewed sample.

The common explanations:

1) Initial self-selection. Different careers reflect different mindsets and values, and the sorting into those careers early in means that there's no reason to expect them to look like random population draws. No one is surprised when the military skews right or the Peace Corps skews left. There's probably some sorting as between, say, those who go into business or finance of various kinds out of college and those who pursue PhDs. This point can be put in a value-neutral way, or said with whatever sanctimonious inflection one likes. "Conservatives are practical, and practical people go into business, while head-in-the-cloud unrealistic people want to go into an ivory tower." "Liberals believe in critical thought and reasoning, so they are naturally attracted to careers that value it; conservatives don't like having their assumptions questioned, so they naturally turn away from intellectual careers." Note that one has to go through another round of this in order to think about why any one discipline is politically skewed: economists, engineers, philosophers, and literary theorists are plausibly different groups of people to begin with, and they sort themselves out accordingly.

2) Selection and screening mechanisms. The favorite sanctimonious left-wing explanation for why there aren't conservatives in the academy is that the academy's various hurdles, from grad school admission onward, screen for intelligence, and conservatives are less intelligent people.

3) Change over time. The second-favorite sanctimonious left-wing explanation is that academics, who might start out with no real political views at all, are influenced by evidence and argument, and these favor movement toward the left, or at least toward a point farther left than the American median. Sometimes this is distinctively about the post-2001 years, but sometimes not. Common symptoms of this argument are the mindless repetition of John Stuart Mill's comments about conservatives being stupid or Lionel Trilling's "irritable mental gestures." Equally uninteresting is something like this: university professors, with their tenure and their taxpayer-funded salaries become left-wing because they resent their dependence on hard-working productive people who have real jobs; they spend their whole lives cut off from and failing to learn about markets, competition, and business, so what do you expect?

4) Bias-- whether unintended (the hostile environment "locker room talk" Haidt discusses) or intended ("don't tenure him, he's a Republican."). These are meaningfully different from each other, but both are problematic.

Sorting these out requires hard longitudinal work. When, in the decades from freshman year of college to tenure, does the political skew get introduced? Are conservatives disinclined to enter a given discipline at all, maybe just because they're disproportionately more interested in other things? Trying to enter the discipline but failing because they're not smart enough? Entering the discipline but becoming more left-wing over time? Trying to enter but dropping out because they're discouraged by groupthink? Or trying to enter but being kept out by overt bias? The answer may be "some of each," of course, and the dynamics may feed on each other-- but that's a hypothesis in its own right.

A slice-of-time show of hands at an academic conference in response to the question "who here is a conservative?" does absolutely nothing to sort any of this out. Neither does a google search on the phrases "liberal social psychologist" and "conservative social psychologist." Those two data only show what we already knew: the professoriate skews left. The two solicited anonymous e-mails complaining about uncomfortable environments provide anecdotal support for "unintended bias," but, well, not very much. And the cute fact that the presentation is being offered to social psychologists who study the emergence of bias in groups has some nice rhetorical effect in the room, but still doesn't add any insight.

I freely admit that sorting these questions of causation out is extremely hard. But anyone who claims to be talking about this subject and doesn't even acknowledge them, to say nothing of trying to solve them, hasn't added to our knowledge, and certainly hasn't provided any reason for supporters of the bias hypotheses to run around claiming vindication. The fact that the presentation (note: not an article, not a paper, a power point presentation at a conference) got a NYT write-up from a sympathetic columnist doesn't make it any more of a contribution to our knowledge.