Academic Ignorance

When I was a senior at Michigan State University in 1961-1962, I became a research assistant in the School of Labor and Industrial Relations. The school invited graduate students from other countries to spend a few months there to get acquainted with the U.S. and labor issues in the U.S. One of the invitees was an Egyptian named Ahmed. Ahmed was a burly fellow with a shaved head and dark skin. At first glance, he could have passed for an American black.

Having grown up among lower-middle-class and lower-class whites, I knew the prevailing attitude toward blacks, which was — to put it simply — bigoted. The idea that Northerners were less bigoted than Southerners was laughable to me. It’s true that there were far more lynchings of blacks in the South than in the North, and it’s true that the South enforced segregation through Jim Crow laws. But most Northerners disliked blacks and avoided contact with them to the extent possible.

I said as much to Ahmed, as a warning, in the presence of a director of the school, who demurred. I daresay that the director, despite his academic knowledge of labor issues, probably had little contact with denizens of the lower classes, and such contact as he had probably was limited to fleeting exchanges with gas-station attendants, store clerks, and the like. I didn’t press my view, but I wasn’t dissuaded from it by the director’s protestations.

I mention this incident because I recently came into possession of the deed to the burial plots of my parents. The deed, which was issued by a Michigan cemetery in 1954, includes this provision:

No interment shall ever be made except for the remains of members of the white caucasian race.

Such covenants are no longer legal, but they reflect attitudes among white Northerners that probably haven’t changed much in 61 years — especially in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore. I remain steadfast in my view that racism was (and is) as deeply ingrained in Northerners as in Southerners, the attitudes of cosseted Northern elites to the contrary notwithstanding.

You’ll know that I’m right if you hail from the lower classes of the North or know a bit of history — which includes white vs. black riots and KKK activity in the North (see this and this, for example). It gives me no pleasure to be right, but I am offended by the ignorance of comfortable academics, who see the world as they think it ought to be, not as it is.

Today’s academics remain profoundly ignorant of the real world, just in different ways.

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Affirmative Action for Conservatives and Libertarians?

John Tierney’s recent column in The New York Times, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” points to a new variation on an old theme. The old theme is this:

Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences.

The new variation is played by Prof. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, who

polled his audience [at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference] 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.”

The alternate explanations include the canard that “liberals” are smarter than libertarians and conservatives, and that libertarians and conservatives tend to “select out” of academia mainly because they are doers rather than teachers. In fact, Tierney addresses this issue in 2004, in “Republicans Outnumbered in Academia, Studies Find,” where he quotes Daniel Klein:

“Screened out, expelled or self-sorted, [nonleftists] tend to land outside of academia because the crucial decisions – awarding tenure and promotions, choosing which papers get published – are made by colleagues hostile to their political views,” said Professor Klein, who classifies himself as a libertarian.

In any event, Haidt’s observations are hardly new. Tierney points to other evidence in his recent column, where he mentions Klein in passing. Klein merits more than passing mention, for he has written extensively on the subject of the left-wing bias in academia. (His C.V. is here.) This is from the Summary section of “Narrow Tent Democrats and Fringe Others: The Policy Views of Social Science Professors” (2004), co-authored by Charlotta Stern:

  • Democrats dominate the social sciences. Anthropology and sociology are the most lopsided, with D-to-R ratios upwards of 20 to 1, and economics is the least lopsided, about 3 to 1. Among professors up through age 70, the overall Democrat-to-Republican ratio is probably about 8 to 1.
  • The Democratic domination has increased significantly since 1970. Republicans are being eliminated….
  • The Democrats not only dominate, but they have a narrow tent. Whereas the Republicans usually have diversity on an issue, the Democrats very often have a party line. It is clear that there is significantly more diversity under the Republican tent….
  • We find strong evidence that Republican scholars are more likely to be sorted out of academia.
  • Voting D is significantly correlated with having Democratic parents, being employed in academia, being an anthropologist or sociologist, having statist policy views, and having a more recent degree….
  • Simple measures show that the libertarians are quite exceptional. The minimum of the dissimilarities between them and any other group is greater than the maximum of dissimilarity between any pair of other groups.

The “liberal versus conservative” formulation of American politics omits the libertarians from the landscape, yet the libertarian and conservative groups appear to be equal in size in the social disciplines (each cluster-group consisted of 35 individuals). If freedom is a core political value, then there is something very wrong with a formulation that omits the ideology most aligned with that value.

Well, freedom is not a core political value for most of today’s social-science academics, as Klein and Stern amply demonstrate. They underscore that point in a later paper, “Is There a Free-Market Economist in the House? The Policy Views of American Economics Association Members” (2007). It begins with this:

Political economists are in general quite suspicious of governmental intervention. They see in it inconveniences of all kinds–a diminution of individual liberty, energy, prudence, and experience, which constitute the most precious resources of any society. Hence, it often happens that they oppose this intervention.

Frederic Bastiat (1848)

IN 1848, BASTIAT’S STATEMENTS were probably true. Nowadays they are not. Here we present evidence from a survey of American Economic Association (AEA) members showing that a large majority of economists are either generally favorable to or mixed on government intervention, and hence cannot be regarded as supporters of free-market principles. Based on our finding, we suggest that about 8 percent of AEA members can be considered supporters of free-market principles, and that less than 3 percent may be called strong supporters.

Specifically:

IN MARCH AND APRIL 2003, 1,000 U.S. members of the American Economists Association were surveyed using a randomly generated list of members. The original survey and supporting documents are available online at a homepage devoted to the survey. (2) The AEA members returned 264 (nonblank) surveys….

In addition to the 18 specific public policy questions, there was the following question about voting behavior:

To which political party have the candidates you’ve voted for in the past ten years mostly belonged?

    []       []        []          []        --
Democratic  Green  Libertarian  Republican  other

Among the 264 respondents, 153 (58 percent) reported voting Democratic, and 61 (23 percent) reported voting Republican. The other 50 respondents either checked Green (2), Libertarian (7), gave miscellaneous responses (17), (4) or declined to answer the question (24). Since 90.9 percent of the respondents answered the question, we are confident about the partisanship information derived from this question. The data yields a Democrat to Republican ratio of about 2.5 to 1….

THE FORMAT OF THE 18 policy questions was in the form of a statement to which the respondents were asked to indicate their view. The question on tariffs can be used as an example:

Tariffs on imported goods to protect American industries and jobs:

  []        []        []         []       []        []
support   support  have mixed  oppose   oppose   Have no
strongly  mildly    feelings   mildly  strongly  opinion
  1         2          3         4        5

The numbers 1-5 did not appear in the survey. They show how we weighted each response when creating a mean response. The “5” value corresponds to strong support of free-market principles….

THE CUTPOINT FOR BEING a free-market supporter is 4.0 (“oppose mildly”)….

To be a free-market supporter is to take positions like those taken by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and Vernon Smith….

Economists as a group have a mean score of 2.64. That is, on average, over 18 forms of government activism that any real free-market person would tend to lean against, usually strongly, economists lean slightly in support of government activism. Even among the Republicans, the mean score is 3.20, indicating that the average Republican economist is “middle of the road” on concrete examples of government activism. The average Democratic economist tends to be mildly supportive of government activism. As we saw, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2.5 to 1. Thus, a large majority of AEA members are either interventionist or middle-of-the-road Democrats, and most of the residual are middle-of-the-road Republicans….

My score, which will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, is 4.67. Where did I go “wrong” — why not a perfect score of 5.0? With regard to question 16, which asks about “tighter rather than looser controls on immigration,” I strongly oppose unselective immigration on economic and social grounds, for reasons detailed here. Also, the answer to question 17, which asks about “military aid or presence abroad to promote democracy and the rule of law,” must take into account whether (in particular cases) such actions serve Americans’ long-run interests.

Klein and Stern offer an alternative analysis, in which they drop two questions that seem unrelated to free-market principles: the one about military aid or presence abroad, and one about monetary policy. Dropping those two questions has little effect on the results of their results; the average score barely rises, from 2.64 to 2.66. (My score drops from 4.67 to 4.44.) For the 16 issues, the mean score for self-identified Democrats was 2.34, as against 3.30 for self-identified Republicans. Although Republicans are, on average, “middle of the road” (according to Klein and Stern), the distribution of scores highlights the marked difference between Democrat and Republican economists:

Klein and Stern propose several answers to the question “Why so few free-market economists?” — none of which I find compelling. I offer two answers. First, relatively few academic economists self-identify as libertarians; the average score of those who did was 4.30. Second, libertarians aside, most persons who garner a Ph.D. in economics (i.e., most members of the AEA) go through a “hazing ritual,” which Arnold Kling describes:

One of the best incumbent-protection rackets going today is for mathematical theorists in economics departments. The top departments will not certify someone as being qualified to have an advanced degree without first subjecting the student to the most rigorous mathematical economic theory. The rationale for this is reminiscent of fraternity hazing. “We went through it, so should they.”

Mathematical hazing persists even though there are signs that the prestige of math is on the decline within the profession. The important Clark Medal, awarded to the most accomplished American economist under the age of 40, has not gone to a mathematical theorist since 1989.

One of the consequences of indoctrination in mathematical economics is that its practitioners come to believe, wrongly, in their understanding of and ability to predict economic phenomena. That leads them to the consequent belief that — if only they or like-minded persons were “in charge” — the economy could be fine-tuned, in the large and in the small. Fine-tuning in the small means, among other things, preventing or correcting so-called market failures, which are those market outcomes of which self-deluding “omniscient” economists disapprove.

This belief is, in fact, nothing more than a rationalization for a point of view that is prevalent on the left, and especially among “intellectuals.” In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell characterizes it as the “unconstrained vision.” Adherents of the unconstrained vision (the left) are wedded to the rhetoric of “ought to be” and its close relation, the Nirvana fallacy. They judge existing arrangements against unattainable standards of perfection (invented by themselves), and proclaim themselves to be on the side of all that is good because they would, by legal fiat, command the attainment of the good, despite its unattainaibility. Unsurprisingly, adherents of the unconstrained vision dominate academia, where it is de rigeur (especially among social scientists) to tailor the “truth” to fit one’s preconceptions about what ought to be.

One of the things that ought to be, of course, is equality of outcomes, regardless of the facts about racial and sexual disparities with respect to aptitudes. As Haidt says, “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.”

Which brings us to the question of affirmative action for conservatives (and here I include libertarians who are thought of as right-wingers by leftists). Greg Mankiw, in a post from 2007 about diversity in academia, observes:

If right-wingers are underrepresented in universities relative to the population and discriminated against by the left-wing majority, as Larry [Summers] suggests, should there be affirmative action for right-leaning academics? It seems that, on principle, those on the left (who favor affirmative action to promote diversity and correct past injustice) should endorse such a university policy, and those on the right (who more often oppose affirmative action) would be against.

Ilya Somin comments:

…In this excellent Econlog post, economist Bryan Caplan explained why ideological discrimination is more likely to flourish in academia than in most other employment markets. Even aside from discrimination, the ideological homogeneity of much of academia causes a variety of problems, such as reducing the diversity of ideas reflected in research, skewing teaching agendas, and generating the sorts of “groupthink” pathologies to which ideologically homogenous groups are prone.

However, whether or not [ideological] discrimination is the cause of the problem, affirmative action for conservative academics (or libertarian ones) is a poor solution. Among other things, it would require universities to define who counts as a “conservative” for affirmative action purpose, a task that they aren’t likely to do well. Affirmative action for conservatives would also give job candidates an incentive to engage in deception about their views in the hopes of gaining professional advancement. Moreover, conservative professors hired on an affirmative basis despite inferior qualifications would find it difficult to get their ideas taken seriously by colleagues and students. They might therefore be unable to make a meaningful contribution to academic debate – the very reason why we want to promote ideological diversity in hiring to begin with.

In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Related posts:
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
The Left
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Cost of Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
Race, Intelligence, and Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
Affirmative Action, One More Time
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
How to Combat Beauty-ism
Modeling Is Not Science
Physics Envy