Why Is Academia Liberal?

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGWhen I posted this originally (here and here) I quoted a much longer excerpt from the cited Chronicle article than what is deemed appropriate, so this time I urge you to actually go and read it first and then come back to read my response.

From Dr.Munger's blog, an interesting article: Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual By MARK BAUERLEIN, The Chronicle Review Volume 51, Issue 12, Page B6 (that link is now dead, but you can find a copy here):

Hmmmm, why was the poll conducted only in social science departments (e.g., sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, perhaps English...)? What was the point of the poll? To show that excessive pseudo-liberal post-modern straw-man actually exists? Sure it does, and it is excessive, pseudo-liberal, and post-modern, in other words it is not representative of liberalism in its pure form. Even in these departments, only an occasional member is really that far out.

How about business, accounting, economics and religion departments? Who says there are no conservatives in the academia? Hey, the Head of the political science department at Duke is a conservative - Dr.Munger himself!

So, one can argue that some fields of inquiry attract liberals, and others attract conservatives. Some areas are built on liberal foundations, others on conservatives foundations. So far, so good.

But, let's look at apolitical departments. How about math, natural sciences, engineering, agriculture, medicine? One's political views are not aired during the job interview, exposed in faculty meetings, do not show up in classroom teaching, do not get published in peer-reviewed journals. So, how come 90% of those faculty are also liberals/Democrats/Greens? Why are conservatives shunning these areas, or being shunned (if even recognized) by these departments? Is there something deeper going on here?

A couple of years ago I was talking to a post-doc in our department. We were talking about our research in general. I said that only about a quarter of my experiments work. She said: "You are a genius! That is a fantastic record". I said something about having a good advisor who doesn't let me do foolish stuff. Still, this shows what kind of person can survive in science: one with very thick skin, able to shrug, wash the dishes, go have a beer, and come back to the lab in the morning.

Academic life is extremely competitive (wouldn't that make it inherently more attractive to conservatives?). Landing a tenure-track position is very difficult. It is reserved for the best of the best. One has to be the super-expert in one's field. How does one become such a person?

Success in an academic field, especially in sciences, requires an exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic, and ability to see through the BS. One needs to be able to swiftly discard one's most cherished pet hypothesis at moment's notice when faced by the damned data that disprove it, data of one's own making at 4am. This happens every day, every week, throughout one's career, starting in grad school. It takes quite a high dose of honesty and ability for self-criticism to do so on a regular basis without getting frustrated enough to quit. A sense of humor is almost a requirement (as opposed to the common stereotype of a dour professor). Self-deprecation is a great survival tactic in such an endeavor.

So, why do people who survive such a painful training happen to be overwhelmingly liberal? Can it be, perhaps, because they employ the same brutal honesty and sharply-honed skills of critical analysis to politics? Can it be that their well-trained baloney-detection kit detects baloney in conservative ideology? Can it be that conservative thinking is just pure bad? Or at least out-dated? Can it be because conservative worldview is not based on empirical information, but on one's own bias inherited from one's parents, molded by one's early childhood environment? Can it be that liberal model passes these tests?

There is no equivalence between Creationism and Evolutionary biology. So, why is it assumed that there is equivalence between the conservative and liberal outlook? It is the same kind of comparison. One view is out-dated and based on faith, the other is modern and based on empirical information about the way this world works. Perhaps there are very few conservatives in the academia for the same reason there are very few Creationists in the academia. Universities want to teach students the best available scholarship, so why hire the sub-standard thinkers?

As far as diversity of opinion in the clasroom, there is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets. Conservative writings need to be studied at the University in order to understand the anti-elite forces in order to learn how to defeat them (or isolate and leave behind to die out a natural death). People like von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb need to be read by students in order to learn how to see through the deceptive rhetoric and destroy the argument, just like they need to know how to destroy arguments of Creationists.

How can we make sure that conservatives mis-educating our students in business, poli-sci, and economics departments get replaced by someone more up-to-date? Can the GOP tax-cutting madness, the Enron scandals, and the Bush electoral win be traced to the mis-education going on these departments?

That is what the University is for - the focal point of societal progress, the place where outdated ideas of the parent generation are replaced by modern fact-supported ideas of the intellectual elites. The modern University is the engine of progress. If it was not liberal, we might as well just have seminaries and take the country back to the Middle Ages and keep it there for centuries.

Am I an elitist to think this way? Sure I am, and proud of it. Elites are the avante-garde of society, the cutting edge of progress - why should one be ashamed of belonging to the elite or even of trying to join the elite? Why is this country so anti-elitist and anti-intellectual? It does not seem to be that way in Europe. What can we do to change that here? Perhaps the tragedy of the second Bush term will be a rude awakening for the country and the cause of final disgraceful downfall of the so-called "conservative" ideology.


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I was going to say, because honest academics have a low tolerance for obfuscation, and most academics are honest.

There is also a different definition of "conservative" depending on where you look. I voted "right" in France, which is still well left of where most of the Democrat party is in America, because I think the "left" propositions were unrealizable (and not very clear). I also consider myself "conservative" with respect to ecology - in that I believe in conservation of biodiversity - and with respect to conclusions after testing my hypotheses - in that I will need some serious proof to make me change my world view. Jettisoning hypotheses, as you have rightly pointed out, is just a tool and can and should be done anytime without such proof.

So I am a conservative liberal left-leaning independent thinker. I don't like the term "moderate" either.

Your post is a great example of the tragedy of liberal group think in academia. You have convinced yourself that you are so great because you view the world through a collectivist lens. By not having conservative and liberals members of the academy, the result is hubris and a lack of perspective about why someone may place value on different rights, responsibilities or liberties.

As conservative academic who has not come out of the closet to my colleagues, I would like to share my experience going through academia. As an undergrad, I was repeatedly subjected to liberal professors using their bully pulpit to push their pet political projects that were completely unrelated to the class at hand. Sometimes I would bite my tongue and say nothing. Other times I would respond. But in all cases, I wondered whether or not my grade was based on political leanings on the actual merit of my work.

Grad school was even worse. I was threatened with bodily harm and harm to my property when my supervisor found out my political values. This made for a miserable few years having to endure these threats. From this I learned that I was unwelcome in academia. Even though I had won prestigious national fellowship competitions and had manuscripts accepted in the best journals in my field, I was an evil conservative and not just unwanted, but despised.

This brings me to my current tenure track position. I have told no one anything about my politics. Other faculty assume that I am a liberal and asked me questions such as "Do you support Obama or Hillary?" They also are constantly mocking anyone who ever votes for a conservative candidate. I have to live this lie for 6 years before I come up for tenure. It is not easy to do so.

It's difficult to imagine how you think you're championing values of intellectual thought and honest debate in this post. By caricaturing "conservatives" and "liberals" so crudely, you're part of the problem, pal -- tribalism, disrespect, misunderstanding, and intolerance. What's the difference between your outlook and Anne Coulter's, other than the side you're taking?

By Sean Eddy (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

What's the difference between your outlook and Anne Coulter's, other than the side you're taking?

For starters, Ann Coulter believes there is no evidence for evolution .

Beyond that, I think coturnix's belief that the science section of academia is liberal is unsubstantiated. It appears liberal simply because America's conservative party - the Republicans - has been taken over by insane reactionaries.
Traditionally, a conservative was someone who endeavored to conserve the status quo. A liberal was someone who endeavored to change the status quo. Since any new scientific experiment might either support or reject the status quo - science is necessarily neutral. And, I suspect, so are most scientists. But ultimately, scientists believe in objective reality. Today's Republican leaders insist that they 'make their own reality'. They aren't out conserve the status quo - their goal is to create a new status quo, a radical re-imagining of a 'good old days' that never was. Anyone who accepts objective reality appears liberal by contrast.

Couldn't ask for a better illustration than Mike & Sean. Mike confesses a severe honesty deficit that he's prepared to maintain for another six years, in addition to who-knows-how-many years so far. Sean stands laser-straight between parallel mirrors pointing a finger of blame. Good job, guys.

By Matt Hussein Platte (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

Matt, I'm calling for less caricature. Coturnix's diatribe might have been provoked by some folks who call themselves "conservatives", but it is far from an honest consideration of any substantive ideas where reasonable people differ. For example, arguing that "liberals" are uniquely in possession of "sharply-honed skills of critical analysis" is just inflammatory schoolyard bullshit.

Most of my personal ideas about the reasonable role of government are probably best identified as "Republican" ideas -- but where Republican should be read as the party of Lincoln, not Bush. Still, coturnix's post pisses me off; he's tarring me and anyone who holds any "conservative" ideas with the same dehumanizing brush he wants to use on the folks who want to ban evolution or instill evangelistic beliefs in schools. People who demonize ~50% of the American population via propagandistic arguments about how they are "forces" that need to be "defeated", when they really mean to criticize certain ideas that have infiltrated the current party in power, throw away their credibility and become part of the problem, polarizing debate rather than furthering it, creating enemies rather than allies.

By Sean Eddy (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

This deliberately provocative post was designed, four years ago when it was written but also today, to make you think - if you do not like being painted like this, dissociate yourself from the party (GOP) and ideology (conservatism) that is accurately painted this way. If you don't like derision, why do you still side with the group that is rightfully derided for its disdain for Reality? Redeem yourself by leaving them and by helping defeat them at the polls.

The fact that I object to your simple stereotyping doesn't mean that I belong to one of your simple stereotypes.

By Sean Eddy (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

Back to the original ... as usual, and universal when a term like 'liberal' or 'conservative' turns up, I'd want to know how the terms were defined.

By most historical notions of the terms, I'm a conservative and my wife even more so. By current definitions -- the party of Reagan, Bush I, Bush II -- we're not. We see it more as them being radicals, betraying real conservatism. But, if they're conservative, then being in favor of learning, improving our understanding (of anything), communicating that and basing decisions on it, is now liberal.

In reasonable historical senses, science is neither liberal nor conservative. Reality just is. Whether you're going to make a liberal or conservative use of your knowledge of reality, the science working on understanding it is nonpartisan. And, formerly, there was interest from both parties in making those discoveries. Formerly, both parties thought that education was important, and the best education possible was important. One reason they both agreed on was because education was important for the democracy, and for the economic engine. After becoming educated, it was important that US science and engineering be among the best in the world, whether for national security or for the abstract goodness of knowing more rather than less.

Throughout my 'Politics' and "Ideology" categories of posts, I use the terms in psychological, not historical terms, as defined in some of those earlier posts. Thus, according to that scheme, the current GOP is the purest form of conservatism seen in at least a century.

Sean Eddy, voting with the simple stereotype aligns you with it. Question is, which simple stereotype is least offensive to you? If you keep voting in the clown Republicans who don't actually do what you think is consistent with your version of Republicanism, well, what do you do? Do you keep enabling them? Then the shoe fits...

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink