The Diversity that Dare Not Speak Its Name

 This is a guest post by Dave Frame. Many thanks to him for contributing!

 

Over the last few years, researchers have pointed out a dimension along which there is an extraordinary lack of diversity in the academic social sciences and humanities.[1] And the response from social scientists has been striking. Usually, statistics like these trigger strident calls to reflect diversity and address systematic bias; in this case – political bias – everyone just smiles and winks. But on what basis should political diversity not matter, given how highly academics prize diversity in regards to gender, ethnicity, religion dis/ability and so on?

 

One obvious response[2] is that politics is chosen and ethnicity and gender are not. But ethnic, religion and cultural affiliations are at least partly chosen, and we insist on sensitivity towards these important forms of human diversity. The fact an aspect of identity is chosen is not, in itself, an argument against sensitivity to the resulting diversity, except in the unusual case that a person’s choice is somehow illegitimate.

Another answer draws on the theoretical underpinning of social science disciplines. Since much of sociology (for instance) draws on theory from the political left, it’s unsurprising that conservatives choose not to pursue careers in sociology.

But when feminists have pointed out that the theoretical underpinnings of academic work are gendered, it’s been considered unacceptable to shrug and say “that’s why there aren’t many women here, then.” Just the opposite: it’s seen as a reason for change.

A further response is that the bias may be the result of more general psychological relationships between cognition and politics: conservatives don’t become academics because they’re hostile to new ideas/don’t care as much about other people as leftists.

These are sweeping claims predicated on fairly limited evidence regarding relationships between cognition and politics. Regardless of whether or not there is a nugget of truth in these speculations, it seems relevant that hostility to new ideas doesn’t stop conservatives from becoming academic engineers, lawyers or economists, or government policy analysts or members of think tanks (all of whom traffic in ideas relevant to other people’s welfare). Neither does caring less” preclude the significant levels of private philanthropy we see among conservatives. So why should either stop them becoming sociologists? Furthermore, most on the academic left completely reject similar arguments in the case of, for instance, women occupying senior positions in private sector companies, black people entering academia, or students from disadvantaged backgrounds (including racial minorities) entering tertiary education. Ask Larry Summers.

In any case, when we encounter the levels of under-representation Cardiff and Klein present or which Jonathan Haidt discusses we usually start looking for amplification mechanisms of some sort – social processes that act to exacerbate bias. One possible mechanism could be a sort of Schelling tipping argument[3] which would interpret the observed macro-scale bias as an unintended consequence of fairly weak individual preferences for fellow travellers.

What’s interesting about Schelling’s model is that it explains a socially undesirable outcome (racial segregation of American cities) via individual preferences through private transactions (buying and selling houses), without recourse to allegations of nefarious motives or swivel-eyed paranoia: sometimes bad outcomes at a macro level arise from perfectly defensible private behaviour at the individual level.[4]

But even this sort of fairly benign causal account is not a normative justification. It would only amount to a justification if we buy the libertarian argument that distributional outcomes are uninteresting as long as long as individuals are behaving justly. This would seem a strange move for leftist academics. In the absence of such a move, though, the observed distributional bias in the social sciences and humanities would seem still to require justification.

A final answer, which tends to come out after a pint or two, is occasionally offered: if you educate intelligent people about politics they don’t become conservatives. (Just as you don’t find innumerate people in maths departments or young earth creationists in geology departments, so you don’t find conservatives in the social sciences. QED.)

But this is palpably false (as well as insulting): there are loads of well-educated, intelligent conservatives working as policy experts and analysts in the public sector, in think tanks, in business circles, in the arts, the sciences and other facets of public life. The academic social science sector is the entity with the massive diversity problem. My point is just that this statistical bias lacks any obvious normative justification: why we should treat it differently from all those other diversity issues that universities have grappled with over the last few decades?

I suspect the reason for the smile-and-wink response is that academics feel threatened. It’s hard to be inclusive of diversity when that diversity threatens your dominance. Just as embracing racial diversity was stressful and difficult for many white people brought up in the Jim Crow era American South, I don’t expect modern leftist academics would find it easy to embrace political diversity in their own institutions since it amounts to yielding (some) power to people with whom they feel little in common. It’s easier to smile and wink and explain it away.

But this easy, lazy political bigotry stores up bad institutional karma. People tolerate elites because elites bring something useful to society. Where significant minorities correctly perceive elites/universities to be failing, utterly, to represent their perspectives they develop a legitimate grievance with the elites in question. And in such a case they can and should (and, I hope, will) deploy an approach much, and rightly, loved by leftist academics: ask you to justify your bias or remove it.

 

Dave Frame is Professor of Climate Change at Victoria University of Wellington and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. He has a PhD in physics, an undergraduate degree in philosophy and has worked as a government policy analyst and academic. He regards himself as a political moderate, and voted for Labour in the last UK election.

 


[1] Christopher F. Cardiff and Daniel B. Klein, “Faculty Partisan Affiliations: A Voter Registration Study”, Critical Review 17 (2005), nos. 3–4. ISSN 0891-3811, 237-255. Daniel B. Klein, Charlotta Stern, and Andrew Western. Klein, Daniel B. and Stern, Charlotta, “How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities? Survey Evidence from Six Fields”, Academic Questions Winter 2004-05, Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 40-52. See also John Tierney’s article on Jonathan Haidt’s work, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within”, New York Times, February 7, 2011, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08tier.html?_r=3&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha210.

[2] These responses, and my responses to them, are culled from various conversations over the last few years. Thanks especially to Matt Sharp for some fruitful sparring here on practicalethics which has helped clarify my thoughts, and to Nadira Faulmueller for suggesting this post. Readers should note that I’m compressing arguments for brevity, and that this is lossy compression. Apologies for the bits I have thrown away.

[3] Thomas C. Schelling (1969). “Models of segregation”, American Economic Review, 1969, 59(2), 488-493.

[4] Though an aggravating factor in the academic situation would be that academics’ behaviour isn’t entirely private, since they choose (i.e. hire and promote (or not)) their “neighbours”.

 

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18 Responses to The Diversity that Dare Not Speak Its Name

  • Thomas says:

    One core concept of liberal humanism is that there is moral and even perhaps spiritual value in the improvement of humankind. This improvement, to humanists, takes place through cooperation and altruism rather than through the survival of the fittest.

    So I think you’re asking the wrong question: not why are so many academics also liberals, but why are so many teachers also liberals? And the answer is that education is important to liberals. They make sacrifices for it, give money to it, devote their lives to it. I think if you got an honest answer out of people and you weren’t drinking, that answer might be “if you believe that politics should best be undertaken through education, you are probably a liberal already.”

    We don’t try to make sure that there are an equal number of liberal and conservative pastors, either, or balance out the political ideologies on Wall Street. People who care most about tradition, or competition, are drawn to those industries and they have a huge amount of control over them. That’s a much better comparison than racial and ethnic diversity (and please, do some comment moderation on the four comments above: they do an injustice to your article).

    • Dave Frame says:

      But education is also important to conservatives. For one thing, plenty of conservatives pay a lot of money for their children’s education; for another, banking communities, lawyers and other sorts of commercial professions are all highly skilled (hence the high pay). These require education, obviously. It’s pretty clear that graduates as a whole don’t share the political bias we see in social science and humanities faculties, since highly educated electorates display a range of political affiliations (here in NZ the most highly educated electorate has flirted with a quasi-libertarian party, for instance). So I don’t think I buy the idea that leftists necessarily value education more highly – though it’s possible they see it as a more valuable career.

      But I take your cental point to be “if you believe that politics should best be undertaken through education, you are probably a liberal already”. Maybe that’s empirically true. But it strikes me as as a variant of the Schelling argument I made above, and is kind of question-begging as a piece of justification. Imagine most people who enter career X does so to advance political cause Y. But if the emergent property of this us that pretty much no X represent -Y, then it’s not obvious that society as a whole will find this a very well justified distribution. Imagine X is police and Y is right-wing political causes. It’s not obvious that society as a whole would be comfortable with the idea of an overwhelmingly politically partisan police force. Even if this were the emergent distribution from lots of individuals making individually defensible career decisions, it’s not clear that the public good is served by having an important institution that completely fails to reflect its society. In return for public funds/support we usually want public institutions to reflect important varieties of diversity; why does this argument not apply to universities’ social science/humanities divisions? In other words, the emergent distribution is not obviously justified even if the individuals’ motivation is.

      Interesting comparison with Wall St/conservative pastors: (1) these are private entities, and calls for diversity are usually loudest in the public sector, where there is a strong prima facie case that institutions should resemble the societies who fund them and whom they serve; (2) there have long been complaints abut the lack of eg gender diversity on Wall St, and most private sector companies are, these days, very sensitive to these issues. [Plus, I think if you go to your local financial centre and chat to bankers you'll find a far more diverse crowd (in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion - and I suspect politics*) than you will in your local university staff club. [Certainly a striking feature of the City of London; perhaps less so in less cosmopolitan cities.]

      *Most the bankers I know are confirmed Guardian-readers, but note that the bar here is low – it wouldn’t take anything like high levels of political diversity to outperform university social science/humanities – 15% lefties in banking would be way more than enough.

  • Michael T says:

    You can’t get an undergraduate degree without spending years of your life, tens of thousands of pounds, and a whole lot of effort learning the orthodox ideas in a field. Who would go to such cost to learn ideas they thought were nonsense?

    It’s fairly reasonable that you can’t become an academic without an undergraduate degree, but you take these two concepts together and we find ourselves where we are.

  • Phillip K says:

    Surely this is no different to the underrepresentation of religious people among scientists: academics are, by and large, intelligent and sensitive enough to realise that conservatism and reactionarism are simply wrong?

    • Dave Frame says:

      Phillip K wrote: “Surely this is no different to the underrepresentation of religious people among scientists: academics are, by and large, intelligent and sensitive enough to realise that conservatism and reactionarism are simply wrong?”

      I tried to address this in my final response above. If the issue is (1) public legitmacy, I think this sort of argument fails completely since it won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already buy it: no non-left-winger will be convinced that the observed left-wing bias in academia is justified because left-wing=good; right-wing=bad. And, in the population at large we see lots of (intelligent, well-educated sensitive) people of the right, who will obviously regard this sort of argument as (a) breath-takingly arrogant; (b) peremptory, in the sense that it seems to close down any space for debate; (c) directly analogous to the sorts of grand generalisations which academics fiercely resist when used by anyone else. If instead the argument is simply (2) “left wing politics is good, right wing politics is bad, and academics are intelligent and sensitive enough to know the difference”, then I think you need to explain either why other smart, humane people (think tank employees, academic engineers and economists, government policy analysts, business people, etc – ie folks who do exhibit political diversity) arrive at different conclusions, or why these people aren’t “intelligent and sensitive”.

      I can imagine a justification on Foucauldian grounds – to the effect that, sure, there’s no non-circular way of choosing your politics, but I’m going to use the rule that I’ll always back the underdog/subvert the dominant social paradigms/etc. But then I think, given the observed degree of political orthodoxy on campus, the idea of “dominant social paradigm” is really quite problematic, since the dominant social paradigms that an academic sociologist experiences include a fairly huge dollop of political homogeneity (if it’s subversion you want then having left:right ratios of >40:1 doesn’t look promising to me, since monocultures tend not to be very dynamic). [Plus, if this "underdog first" rule is acceptable, why not other rules such as "I'm going to look out for the mode of the distribution" or "I'm going to look to improve the lot of the worst off person over time" or other such rules? In the absence of any social consultation/conversation about these roles, what legitimacy could they have?]

      • Phillip K says:

        I agree it doesn’t help in the case of public legitimacy. My response, glib as it was, only offers an explanation of why things are they way they are. It may come across as arrogant, but that doesn’t stop it being right; I think Richard Dawkins is arrogant, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking he’s right when it comes to matters of fact. I don’t mean to shut down debate, but if I come across as such that’s because I’ve already thought a lot about it and have only posted my conclusions, not the way I reached them. I probably find generalisations more acceptable than most academics, and I think so long as we recognise that there are by definition always exceptions to generalisations, and make sure the case under discussion isn’t an exception, they can still be useful.

        As for point #2, of course the argument isn’t that simple, extremism and absolutism on either side being just as bad as the golden mean fallacy; but granting the generalisation, I’d explain that think-tank employees are usually selected for their adherence to a particular orthodoxy in the first place; engineers and economists have a different sort of intelligence that doesn’t necessarily carry over to politics and ethics (although it can); business people and analysts have vested interests.

        I’m not sure I understand your second paragraph. If you’re saying we should always question things and give the benefit of the doubt to the underdog, then I agree; but I’m already satisfied with the answer to the question, and so there’s little doubt the benefit of which to give. If you’re saying there’s a danger of academia becoming homogeneous and concerned with its own orthodoxy, you may be right; but I think (I hope) an institution that tends that way will be shooting itself in the foot, and more inclusive, dynamic institutions will outcompete it. I don’t think there’s particular dangers of that in my field when academics like Jan Narveson and Nick Tonti-Filippini are still widely read; and just because I think the prevalence of left-wing politics in academia is because it’s inherently better doesn’t mean I think we ought to get rid of them. The best thinker in the world needs a devil’s advocate, and (to use your example of engineers and economists) just because people are mistaken about X doesn’t mean they’re going to be less intelligent about Y.

        In philosophy, at least, avoiding poisonous political debates means we can all get down to the issues that actually interest us, that don’t have any clear answers, politically controversial or otherwise. I wouldn’t be able to make the arguments I see as important in reproductive ethics, such as whether it’s morally permissible to deliberately have a disabled child or one you won’t be able to care for, if I were constantly being sidetracked by issues like the permissibility of contraception or single parenthood that I consider resolved.

        • Dave Frame says:

          It’s much more specific than I really want to be, since we’re discussing the specifics of the claim that the bias is justified because if you educate “intelligent and sensitive” people about politics, they don’t become conservatives… but (1) economists are much more split on politics than other social scientists; (2) politics/policy is heavily conditioned on economic issues (especially if you start considering issues of the dynamics of people’s welfare). And, building on the centrality of economics, a conservative economist could just as easily reply about the rest of the social sciences that your expertise – though fine for technical issues here and there – “doesn’t necessarily carry over to politics”. I know lots of economists (and policy experts) who feel just that way, and I don’t see why I should I should believe humanities/soc sci academics when they, in effect, tell me that policy experts don’t know as much about politics/policy as, say, historians and English scholars.

          • Phillip K says:

            In the case of economics, though, there are data showing that liberal economic policies are better and more stable for most people; laissez-faire economics, while it can grant fabulous wealth to some, leads to inequality and instability in the general case. One could very well be a socially conservative economist; but to advocate economic conservatism itself, one must value freedom so far above wellbeing, and individuality so far above success, that no increase in the latter could ever justify the smallest reduction in the former; not to mention valuing one’s principles over measurable results. There are plenty who do think like this, but in so doing they create economic principles to support their conservatism, rather than concluding conservatism from economic data; I don’t think I need to explain how this violates some fundamental principles of research that apply equally in academia and economics.

            I think the prevalence (if there really is one in terms of numbers rather than in terms of who gets airtime) of conservative economists is that, rather perversely, there is a market for them among those with vested interests. Anything I’ve heard against liberal economic policy, even from economists, has been arguing from conservative principles, rather than economic ones.

            There’s politics and there’s policy. History and sociology can tell us a lot about politics, but less about policy. Economics (including historical economic analysis here) can tell us a lot about policy, but almost nothing about politics.

            I’m more ruminating here than trying to argue; more trying to make my own position clear than trying to shoot down any other. Thanks for replying.

            • Dave Frame says:

              Not sure I agree with some of this – the trade-off between freedom and overall well-being is obviously one in which there are a huge array of potential positions one can take (and can then play out in policy issues in a large range of ways). I prefer the idea of freedom as non-domination to that of freedom as non-interference, but the bar I’d set at which I’d say we have achieved non-domination would be lower than the level at which socialists would set it, for instance. A conservative might agree, and think that there are moral obligations towards charity/voluntary/faith-based provision of the resources to meet that non-domination condition (rather than the state). So I think the space is a whole heap richer than you portray it above (ie the bit about “to advocate economic conservatism itself, one must value freedom so far above wellbeing, and individuality so far above success, that no increase in the latter could ever justify the smallest reduction in the former” doesn’t strike me as obviously true).

              But can I just ask you where the discrimination bar is for you on this one? What would count as unfair bias against conservatives on campus? I’m guessing that you’d rule out violence? But I’m guessing you’d think humiliation/disdain is ok? [Based on the comments you made about conservatives not being "intelligent and sensitive" enough to understand politics, and your eagerness to see politically heterodox political classes outside academia as second-rate, intellectually irrelevant (engineers and economists) or intellectually bankrupt (think tanks).] What would it take for you to think that there *was* an unacceptable level of political bias on campus?

              • Phillip K says:

                It is of course much richer than I present it; I simplify and in simplifying neglect much nuance. What I’m labelling as “economic conservatism” is more extreme than you take it to be, if only because I seldom see anyone falling in between the extreme of applying principles in the face of data and the norm of deriving principles from data. The only useful discussions of economic issues that have a political bent to them are ones that ignore the politics — ones that, for example, ignore moralisms about how much welfare the poor deserve in favour of discovering whether a particular form of welfare meets a particular goal.

                You’re simply mistaken in your guess about what I’d count as unfair bias, however. Of course I’d rule out violence, but bullying in any form is never OK in my book. Just because somebody’s wrong doesn’t make it OK to humiliate them; even the most reactionary ideologue I’m inclined to see as simply mistaken, not evil, unless he actually does or advocates something evil, which most of them don’t. Disdain for ideas — so long as it’s based on a genuine appraisal of the idea’s merits — can be warranted, but it’s a (regrettably common) mistake to turn that into disdain for the person who has the idea. In my initial post I said “conservatism and reactionarism are simply wrong”, not “conservatives are idiots and reactionaries are evil”. For me to see an unacceptable level of political bias on campus, I’d have to see this sort of bullying or ridicule going on. And of course I don’t doubt that it does happen in some faculties; but the mere presence of an unusual proportion of left-wing thinkers in academia doesn’t mean that it will, and I haven’t seen it in my department. The group that seems to cop the most flak on my campus, for that matter, is the extreme-left Socialist Alternative chapter — some see them as Dirty Commies, and the “real socialists” complain that they give socialism a bad name.

                In any case, I think the left/right dichotomy (or any political dichotomy) is too simplistic to be of much use. Any grouping that includes both Barack Obama and Karl Marx is going to be useless as an explanatory or categorising device. For my own part, I find myself agreeing with “right-wing” ideas more than occasionally, and disagreeing with “left-wing” ones even more frequently; and of course the number one reason I got into philosophy and ethics is the joy of debate and of bouncing ideas off people who will intellectually pick them apart, which you can’t get in an environment where agreement and orthodoxy are the norm. My original point remains, though; the relative absence of political conservatives in humanities departments is as unsurprising as the relative absence of young-earth creationists in biology departments or global-warming deniers in environmental studies; such ideas simply don’t survive contact with the facts. I’m an example of that myself, for that matter; as an undergrad I started out quite conservative on certain issues, because I hadn’t thought critically about them; I was convinced not by a hostile academic environment (hostility never convinces anyone; it can only silence them) but by a welcoming, open, intellectual one which encouraged me to analyse ideas on their own merits.

                I don’t see engineers and economists as intellectually second-rate or irrelevant, although I can see how you could have understood me so. They just specialise in different areas. Just as you wouldn’t ask a philosopher to design a suspension bridge or a tariff scheme, so you wouldn’t ask an engineer to peer-review a paper for a sociology journal. Think-tanks are another matter, but even then “intellectually bankrupt” is too loaded a phrase for me to assent to — I’d prefer to just say that most think-tanks exist to support a particular orthodoxy.

                • Dave Frame says:

                  Phillip K wrote: “In any case, I think the left/right dichotomy (or any political dichotomy) is too simplistic to be of much use. Any grouping that includes both Barack Obama and Karl Marx is going to be useless as an explanatory or categorising device. For my own part, I find myself agreeing with “right-wing” ideas more than occasionally, and disagreeing with “left-wing” ones even more frequently”

                  Completely agree. One of the issues I’ve always had with politics in representative democracies is how blunt is the instrument at our disposal. We get a very coarse choice between broad political camps. It’s hard to express any sort of issue-by-issue subtlety, which is usually where the real action is. And issue by issue, good ideas can bubble up from across the political spectrum.

  • Nancy Peters says:

    Dave Frame wrote “Where significant minorities correctly perceive elites/universities to be failing, utterly, to represent their perspectives they develop a legitimate grievance with the elites in question.”

    This must be particularly noticeable in Dave’s branch of academia? How politically diverse are Climate Change departments I wonder? (And I ask as a typically left-leaning student of social sciences who finds climate change arguments hard to understand but is prepared to believe that we should be responding to it).

    • Dave Frame says:

      Nancy Peters wrote: “This must be particularly noticeable in Dave’s branch of academia? How politically diverse are Climate Change departments I wonder?”

      I wouldn’t claim to know the political preferences of my *scientific* colleagues. In fact I find it pleasantly surprising how little we talk about politics. But I do think there are some significant bias issues in some of the *social science* associated with climate change, and I’m not alone there – I’ve heard several (fairly senior) policy makers in a couple of countries complain that climate change social science doesn’t deliver the degree of policy-relevance they’re after. “Not fit for purpose” was the grumpy, rumbling judgment from one senior policy guy regarding one of the world’s bigger attempts at marshalling social science in aid of climate poliucy development. I don’t want to derail the thread, but I will share one example, which is symptomatic of how I think the disconnect between many social science academics and real world policy/politics is unconstructive… every year or so I find myself in a symposium of some sort about how to deal with climate change. Academic #1 stands before us and offers some sort of completely unprecedented, politically dead-in-the-water, economically insane, not obviously fair way of dealing with climate change such as personal carbon allowances. Academic #2 gets up and says something along the lines of “I think the problem here is that you’re not being radical enough.” I usually try to leave at that point, or play games on my phone, or contemplate the brevity of life.

  • Jonathan Haidt says:

    Thank you Dave!

    One of the most common responses I’ve gotten to my talk is: “There’s no hostile climate, it’s just that conservatives are too dumb to succeed in academe.” Well, now we know that there is a hostile climate, which might even include overt discrimination.
    Many resources are here:
    http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/postpartisan.html
    and especially this paper:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2002636

    • Dave Frame says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for taking the time to post – terrific to have you here! There must be some fascinating parallels between this and other sorts of systematic bias. I find it fascinating how people cannot countenance the idea that they might be showing quite strong signs of discrimination and bias – often these things can be clear as day to everyone else but opaque to the person in question.

      I appreciate I’m very much an interloper here – obviously I don’t have any new data*. My interest is more normative, really: it’s obvious to me that the bias is real and has costs, not the least of which is that it alienates soc sci and humanities folks from real world policy (which has to deal with the interests – hence voting, consumption, and investment patterns – of real world people). So is there anything that could *justify* the bias? Is there some ethical defence for it? I haven’t heard a good one yet. [I'd love to see a survey of views on that!]

      *Though I do have a theoretical suggestion – has anyone looked at the Schelling model as an explanation for the (apparently) increasing political balkanisation in (eg) US political classes? It’s consistent with the idea of an intensification of the bias over time, and with the extraordinary levels of homogeneity you report. Don’t know how you’d test it, though… maybe faculty by faculty, to get at some of the geography of it.

      Anyway, thanks very much for taking the time to post. I’m really struck by your work here; it’s as striking as the insouciance with which universities seem to have received it.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    The lack of political diversity does seem to be a problem for certain research programs. But, I think the characterization of the situation as “lazy, political bigotry” is quite unfair. Here’s an alternative explanation to the phenomenon that liberals are bothered by race/gender disparities but not political: the political views are taken to be incorrect or mistakes, whereas there is nothing incorrect or mistaken about membership in a given race or gender.

    This is not adverting to choice, per the first response, nor justifying the disparity by arguing that intelligence leads to liberalism, per the last response. Rather, it points to a difference in kind between race/gender and politics. Interestingly, this would also group politics with religion; atheists will view theists as making mistakes (and vice-versa), potentially moral ones when moral ideas are derived from particular religious precepts. But this fits what I’ve observed (at least in philosophy) – just as academics are not bothered by disproportionate liberalism in academia, they’re not bothered by disproportionate atheism.

    So, does the (alleged) fact that membership in some group is a mistake or some view is wrong justify the disparity? It probably can’t completely do that, but I think it removes some of the bite. We prize freedom of speech, but also think it’s fine to reject candidates from jobs because their arguments or research are wrong-headed. So I don’t think there’s a particular problem vis-à-vis conservatives being wronged because their views are unpopular and hence find it difficult to get jobs. (But maybe this is an easier argument to make in philosophy, esp. moral/political philosophy, where one’s political views are often germane to the argument in question; maybe in social sciences, where such views should be independent of the research being done, the differential hiring is more clearly wrongful.)

    But as has been pointed out, the consequential problem remains: political disparity leads to a skewed research program and potentially biased results. We need fruitful disagreement to make progress in any field; insofar as one source of disagreement or critique, conservativism, is lacking in academia, then some area of discussion or research is not going to be as fruitfully pursued as it could be. (but we have to be careful here – I take it that racists/homophobic people are also underrepresented, thus limiting defenses of racism/homophobia in the literature, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Maybe there’s a standard of reasonableness or openness that needs to be deployed)

    What’s the solution? Affirmative action’s probably not a good idea here; that only makes sense, imho, when the benefitted group is generally disadvantaged (then again, if there’s good evidence that political leaning is, in itself, making a candidate less hirable – as I think has been shown for race – this will become more tenable. Has there been a study on this? Could put conservative vs. liberal associations on CV, see if academics are more likely to hire the liberals). Funding is an alternative method; people have been chafing at conservative groups’ pumping money into universities to get them to do more pro-libertarian/Randian research, but maybe we should be more amenable to these efforts. Or maybe we should adopt the softer approach, one that seems to have favor as a way to deal with gender disparities in academia these days – being aware of our biases, pointing out when others act in a biased manner, proactively recruiting members of the minority group, etc.

    • Dave Frame says:

      “just as academics are not bothered by disproportionate liberalism in academia, they’re not bothered by disproportionate atheism.”

      But they aren’t the only stakeholders. Nor does the fact that they can rationally defend bias on a certain metric terminate the conversation: a police force may be satisfied – on Bayesian and cost-effectiveness grounds – with their stop & search practices targeting certain minorities which are over-represented in criminal statistics, but it doesn’t mean that other sections of society (ep the minorities in question!) will be cool with those practices. There are many metrics we could use to determine whether or not a bias matters; just asking people who hold a bias if they’re cool with it doesn’t seem like the last word in most settings, and I don’t see why it should be in this case.

      “Or maybe we should adopt the softer approach, one that seems to have favor as a way to deal with gender disparities in academia these days – being aware of our biases, pointing out when others act in a biased manner, proactively recruiting members of the minority group, etc.”

      This is kind of where I’m at. One example: I’ve got academic friends who join groups like “I hate the Tories” on facebook, where they occasionally “like” some truly venomous posts (wishing various people dead, abusing the PM’s children, etc), and I guess I’d like them to reflect on how jarring that can be for others. Academics would think twice about joining groups called “I hate the X” (X=a religion; pick a few and see how it works for you…). I think we’d all regard that as very dodgy territory. The obvious point being that even if you reject, heartily, the foundational beliefs of religion X it’s pretty obvious that venomous abuse of people who self-identify as members of X is completely uncalled for. From what I’ve seen and heard in my time in academia, we’re a long way from being as mature in our approach to politics. [One justification I've heard is "This is just part of politics it's always incredibly spiteful and rough & tumble; look at the UK political cartoons of the 18th century, or the US politics of the 19th century." Sure... but we don't use 18th/19th century behaviour as benchmarks of acceptability in all these other areas of diversity, do we..?]

      I’m not a particular fan of affirmative action programs, since I think they’re kind of blunt tools that benefit a few without dealing with underlying structural issues, so I’m not really drawn to the idea of affirmative action for conservatives. I kind of agree with you that the obvious first step is just the old “walk a mile in Tory shoes” – just try to imagine how you’d feel if you were just the same as you – just as intelligent, just as sensitive and thoughful and moral – but happened to be persuaded by some version of conservative politics. If you can’t imagine being intelligent, sensitive AND conservative, then you just need to try harder.

  • George Watson says:

    Professor Frame,

    a) I just want to say that I admire your well balanced and non-”screetchy” blog.

    b) My experiences within Academia has led me to believe that on the whole, most Academics have very little real experience
    of what the “Common Person” has to endure in their day to day life. Those in the Humanities and Social Sciences seem to have
    the least understanding.

    c) The less understanding you have the more likely you are to believe in “idealistic ideas” that are impossible to achieve in society.
    And the more likely you are to blame those who adamantly question/oppose your views.

    d) The most intolerant people I have ever met are Academics. I have met many people who have biases but those biases are usually
    due to a lack of experience. When highly educated people ,who lack no opportunity to go out and mingle with the people they
    so strongly despise, fail to do so and thus utterly dismiss their opponents as: “fools, idiots, wholly and fully dumb…” – one can wonder
    to whom blame should be apportioned.

    e) I have found the Engineers and Scientists I have worked with to be far more intelligent than the Humanists, and far more capable
    of understanding a report in Sociology than most Sociologists – they just do not have a professional interest in the least scientific
    of the “ologies”.

    f) To dismiss someone thoughtful beliefs – whether they be in God or in the Free Market or in Individualism – as being antiquated -
    ” We just know better nowadays” – is to repudiate the study of any past knowledge.

    h) In the Category of ” Quam parva sapientia regitur mundus…”
    William F. Buckley is once said:
    Better to have a Congress filled with the first 500 people named in the Boston Phone Book than the first 500 names in the Harvard Directory.
    Common Sense, far more than Academic theories postulated and promulgated by second rate minds [ In there anything worse than
    followers of Derrida/Foucault/Heidegger who have a second rate minds but think they are the 2nd coming(s) of Husserl ?], is what should
    be followed in Public Debates about basic human issues.

    i) I don’t think anyone preens themselves in the mirror of intellectual vanity more than Academics in the Humanities yet, sadly, no one
    has less of a right/cause to do so then they do.

    k) If I am harsh in my judgements it is only because of the harm I have seen unwise Academics do to young students and to society at large.
    In the mid 1960′s after all the Sociologists and Political Science types testified for hours upon hours in front of Congress while it was drawing
    up the laws and regulations to govern the “Great Society” an old African American minister was given five minutes to speak
    and he said: ” Whatever you to do help the less fortunate and those who have only had a life full of troubles, do not forget that
    we help ourselves most when we hold our selves responsible for all that we chose to do. Do not give people money just because they
    are poor, do not give more money to a young mother simply because she has had another child – no, teach them that they must
    become even harder working for the handout the government intends to give them, and force them, if they will not choose to
    do so themselves, to become fully responsible for all that they bring upon themselves – otherwise you will destroy the noble spirit
    of an entire generation and their children and grandchildren to come in ways that poverty never could.

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