Unbiasing Academia

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I'm not surprised that John Tierney's new article on Jonathan Haidt has gotten a lot of attention from conservatives; it involves a liberal academic telling them something they already know: that academia discriminates against them.

He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a "tribal-moral community" united by "sacred values" that hinder research and damage their credibility -- and blind them to the hostile climate they've created for non-liberals.

"Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation," said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. "But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations."

In blog years, this is an age-old argument.  I find it particularly intriguing because it completely reverses the standard argument about discrimination.  Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias--despite numerical underrepresentation and some fairly compelling studies showing that hiring is not race or gender blind.  Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.

Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination--structural or personal--suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything.  Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don't really want to go into management because they're much happier without all the responsibility.  Conservatives are too stupid to become academics; they aren't open new ideas; they're too aggressive and hierarchical; they don't care about ideas, just money.  In other words, it's not our fault that they're not worthy. 

Besides, liberals suddenly argue, we shouldn't look for every sub-population to mirror the composition of the population at large; just as Greeks gravitated towards diners in 1980s New York, and the small market business was dominated by kKoreans, liberals are attracted to academia, and conservatives to, well, some other profession.  Today Paul Krugman writes:

Every once in a while you get stories like this one, about the underrepresentation of conservatives in academics, that treat ideological divides as being somehow equivalent to racial differences. This is a really, really bad analogy.

And it's not just the fact that you can choose your ideology, but not your race. Ideologies have a real effect on overall life outlook, which has a direct impact on job choices. Military officers are much more conservative than the population at large; so? (And funny how you don't see opinion pieces screaming "bias" and demanding an effort to redress the imbalance.)

I have no idea what distinction one is supposed to make between beliefs and something you "can't change".  Could Paul Krugman become a devout Baptist and a supply sider tomorrow, if the financial incentives were right?  I devoutly hope not.  I presume that Paul Krugman holds the beliefs he does because they are his best guess at what is true, and that he could no more change his beliefs than he could change his native language.  It is easier (in most cases) to pretend different ideas than a different race--but we rightly think that it was horrific to force blacks to "pass" as a condition of being treated like a full human being.  That era imposed terrible costs on those who passed, and a cost to society, in the form of lost diversity.

Beyond that, the comparison to the military doesn't really work.   When you click the link, you don't find a military that's wildly more conservative than the public at large.  Surveys regularly find that around 80% of professors vote mostly Democratic, where somewhere around 45% of American voters lean Democratic; and 9% of professors vote mostly Republican, while about 45% of Americans lean that way.   In the latest Gallup poll, about 28% of voters directly identify with each party in the latest survey, though historically Democrats have been about 5-7 points higher.

By contrast, in the military, according to Krugman's link, 41% of the troops identify as Republicans (down from 62% just seven years ago), while 32% identify as independent, and presumably, 27% identify as Democrats.

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.

Professors might rightly rejoinder that no one's demanding that the Southern Baptist Conference start recruiting liberals to balance things out.  I'm not sure this is quite true, actually, as there are quite a lot of liberal baptists attached to the American Baptist conference, and probably even some within the Southern conference who would like to move it to the left.  But certainly, I don't know many professors who are demanding some sort of liberal baptist affirmative action.

On the other hand, I don't actually know many conservatives who want quotas for conservatives, either--I'm sure they're out there, but even David Horowitz didn't go that far. Most of the people I talk to think, like James Joyner, that this may be a problem without a solution.  It is just my impression, but 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".  Haidt notes that his correspondence with conservative students (anonymously) "reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s":

He quoted -- anonymously -- from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal. "I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work," one student wrote. "Given what I've read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not."
Beyond that, mostly they would like academics to be conscious of the bias, and try to counter it where possible.  As the quote above suggests, this isn't just for the benefit of conservatives, either.  Just as excluding blacks and women from academia by tacit agreement allowed for a certain amount of wrong-headed groupthink, so does excluding people with different political views.  No, I'm not saying you have to hire a Young Earth Creationist to be a biology professor, but I don't see why it should matter in a professor of Mathematics or Sociology.

Trying to be more conscious of one's own bias, and even to attempt to work against it, should not be such a hard task for people as brilliant, open-minded, and committed to equality and social justice as I keep hearing that liberal academics are.  So it doesn't really seem like so much to ask.

Update: A commenter points out that I misread Paul Krugman; he was referring only to officers.   According to the Huffington Post on the same survey "These Military Times survey results show that support for the Republican Party among senior members of the Army, the group most likely to identify as Republican, declined significantly between 2004 and 2006 before leveling off at about 49% in 2007. Also interesting is that the data show no corresponding change in support for the Democratic Party." So a skew of about 66%--but still not nearly as large as the skew in academia, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans something like five to one.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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