Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Academic Bias

Megan McArdle dares to comment on bias in academia:

Unbiasing Academia

In other words, a professor is almost twice as likely to support the Democratic party as a member of the general population, and about 80% less likely to support the GOP. By contrast, a military officer is about 40% more likely to identify as a Republican as someone in the general population, and about as likely to identify as a Democrat. In fact, the only profession I could find that skews 80% towards Republicans is Southern Baptist ministers. I suspect both professors and ministers would resent the comparison.


I think what conservatives want most of all is simply recognition that they are being shut out. It is a double indignity to be discriminated against, and then be told unctuously that your group's underrepresentation is proof that almost none of you are as good as "us".

And What Does Bias Look Like?

...the other problem with excluding conservatives: it makes scholarship worse. Unless we assume what to many liberals is "proven" by their predominance in academia--that conservative ideas have no merit--leaving conservatives out means that important viewpoints are excluded. We are never the best interrogators of our ideas. It requires motivated critics to lay bare our hidden assumptions, our misreading of the data, our factual inaccuracies. No matter how scrupulously honest you try to be, you are no substitute for an irritated opponent thinking, "That can't possibly be right!"

If you build a group with the same assumptions, you can all too easily go wrong.

Moreover, as Haidt points out, that group develops sacred taboos that can't be violated. If facts threaten the sacred space, facts get jettisoned. Think of the creationist museum--or Larry Summers getting attacked by a swarm of angry critics for suggesting that it was possible that inborn differences in the distribution of intelligence might explain why men--who have a higher observed variance in math ability--are more likely to be found in the sciences.

Now, Summers could be wrong---as I say, I am inherently suspicious of narratives that offer neat explanations for why the dominant position of one group can't be changed. But the critics did not rush to explain why this was unlikely to be right. They furiously rushed to punish him for having said it. They were angry about sexism, not science.

Yet one more reason why I am suspicious that liberals' unshakeable commitment to scientific rigor is what forces them to exclude conservatives tainted by association with creationism.

I don't say this to denigrate liberals--obviously, conservatives have their taboos too. But it's healthier if different groups, with different taboos, all have a place in the quest for truth. Monoculture is as unhealthy for ideas as it is for agriculture.

Eugene Volokh observes:

I am regularly astounded by the number of otherwise-intelligent academics I encounter who are completely ignorant of alternative views. It’s not that they’ve considered and rejected conservative or libertarian arguments. It’s that they fail to understand them, if they are familiar with them at all. This post by Mark Kleiman is a good example, in that it puts forward a laughable caricature of libertarian and originalist constitutional thought that would have been discredited with but a moment’s investigation into the question (as I noted here, and Pejman Yousefzadeh discussed here). To Prof. Kleiman’s credit, he backed off (a little) when other took the time to respond, but that a prominent, thoughtful academic would post something like this as an ostensibly thoughtful critique of right-leaning ideas says quite a bit about the state of much academic discourse.

No comments: