Here's a well-worn explanation for why there are few conservatives in academia: It's not because they're "stupid" or anti-science, it's that liberals--perhaps inexplicitly or unintentionally--tend to exclude or marginalize them. This was message of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who recently delivered a speech recounted by John Tierney in a widely-debated New York Times article. To make his point, Haidt informally polled the approximately 1,000 attendees at the psychologist's conference where he was speaking and found just three conservatives.
The psychologist noted that if the conference was another large institution, say a large corporation, and only three out of 1,000 members were women or minorities, "our minds [would] jump to discrimination as the explanation." Why is it that, as Haidt put it, "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"?
Haidt went on to suggest a new goal for academia: "a membership that's 10 percent conservative by 2020."
But is it fair to equate ideology with race? Not everyone thinks so: "This is a really, really bad analogy," Paul Krugman wrote in response, explaining that a person chooses an ideology but has no control over gender or race traits. Krugman then poses this question: "Biologists, physicists, and chemists are all predominantly liberal; does this reflect discrimination, or the tendency of people who actually know science to reject a political tendency that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?"
Yet in defense of Haidt's theory, The Atlantic's Megan McArdle saw an "intriguing" equivalency in how liberals and conservatives discriminate. When confronted with discrimination charges in say, hiring practices, conservatives are "reluctant" to say that minorities are "often victims" of bias. "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."
Conversely, McArdle writes, academic liberals then assume the traditional stance of conservatives: "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."
Jonathan Haidt (himself a liberal atheist) tries to clarify why this stance-switching occurs in the proposal for his forthcoming book (via Reason). He argues:
Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.
... If liberals could only step out of their righteous bubble, they'd be able to solve these riddles, which at present befuddle their thinking and curse their projects...