When the Palace Courtiers Hate the Pursuit of Truth, What Should the Wizards Do?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Two weeks ago, I wrote a pair of posts (here and here) responding to a shameful op-ed column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof.  Kristof purported to argue that the world is being impoverished by the increasing unwillingness of American professors to engage in public policy debates, because they are supposedly too busy being irrelevant and egg-headed.  That, however, was merely a diversion.

In my second post, after I had dismissed the "cover story" of Kristof's column (the demonstrably false claim that professors are refusing to enter the public square), I noted that Kristof was doing nothing more than arguing that professors are too liberal.  The question was why he would devote his Sunday op-ed space to that argument.  "But if Kristof is a liberal (and most evidence suggests that he can be reasonably described as left of center), then what is the point of joining in what is usually the tired right-wing pastime of professor-bashing?  [A satisfying answer to that question] has to be able to explain why a liberal would attack a group of people whom he thinks are also liberal."

Upon further reflection, I am now surprised by how surprised I was by Kristof's column.  The answer to my question of liberal-on-liberal attacks is old news -- so old that people have some simple shorthands to describe the phenomenon.  This was, after all, merely Kristof's "Sister Souljah moment," his gleeful indulgence in "hippie punching."  As I put it, in response to a reader's comment on my first post, Kristof's op-ed amounted to nothing more than this: "Professors don't shade their views to protect political sensibilities, which makes me uncomfortable, because I've bought into the absurd notion of 'balance' that has ruined journalism."

This is, therefore, a very old debate.  Are professors too liberal, and if so, should anything be done about it?  Now that I have seen through Kristof's smokescreen (probably later than almost anyone else who read that op-ed, I concede), I will turn to a part of that argument that has long annoyed me.  In my second post linked above, I wrote: "Kristof appears to be saying that the way to assess the health of an academic field is to ask whether its practitioners line up with the current partisan make-up of the country.  When did that become a meaningful criterion for intellectual value?  Should biology departments also be concerned about political affiliations?"

In context, that was clearly a rhetorical question.  If the question in any academic field is how to maximize intellectual value, it would be strange indeed if there were even a rough overlap between the political attitudes of professors and the range of views represented on the U.S. political spectrum.  In fact, given that the current Republican Party so completely rejects what are often called Enlightenment values, it would be nearly impossible to imagine Republicans' attitudes being well represented in the quintessential Enlightenment institution that is the modern university.  Universities focus on evidence and reason, while the current Republican Party rejects evidence and reason whenever they get in the way of blind faith and predetermined views.

As a baseline prediction, therefore, one would imagine that even professors with personal attitudes that would generally count as conservative would be put off by today's Republicans.  And as I have recently argued, even people with conservative views can easily operate within the Democratic Party's broad range.  Moreover, if we take seriously the Econ 101 idea that people vote to protect their narrow financial interests, even a conservative professor would understand who supports her professional endeavors, and who is actively undermining the intellectual pursuits that make her work possible.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it does turn out that professors are more liberal than the public at large.  Publications like Inside Higher Ed regularly report with breathless enthusiasm on polls showing that professors are on average fairly liberal.  Although such stories generally carry slanderous quotes about, for example, how departments are skewed by "leftist groupthink," there is no proof that the generally more liberal views in academia are caused by "thought police."  I have certainly seen, in economics departments, how something that one could describe as groupthink can take over in ways that badly skew the field.  Of course, that skew is strongly to the right, even though the actual economic evidence strongly supports left-leaning views.

I am not saying, of course, that every department in every field is free of political bias.  I am saying, however, that the evidence that professors are more liberal than the population can be easily explained by self-selection into a non-faith-based endeavor, along with pure self-interest.  This conclusion is supported, moreover, by the finding that even supposedly apolitical departments are more liberal than the population at large.

For example, in the 2004 Presidential election, the voting population went 51-45 for Bush over Kerry (with 4% voting for other candidates).  According to a study of professors' votes in that election, social scientists (including the sociologists whom Kristof specifically attacks) went 81-18 for Kerry.  But science and math departments went 72-24 for Kerry, and even business/management departments split 49-49.  It is hard to imagine that there is a serious tendency toward uniform political views in hiring decisions among, say, physicists and chemists, that would explain why they voted 3-1 for the Democrat.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question from two weeks ago: "Should biology departments also be concerned about political affiliations?"  If the idea is that we should allow academic departments to hire the best candidates, and the best candidates (for various independent reasons) end up being more liberal than the population as a whole, who should care?  Especially given that there seems to be no evidence that college professors successfully impart any political viewpoints onto their students, it is not even plausible to complain that colleges are brainwashing impressionable youth, remaking America in their more-liberal image, as Republicans like Rick Santorum like to claim.

There is, however, a way in which my question is not rhetorical at all, which I have tried to capture in the (somewhat fanciful) title to this post.  In response to my earlier posts, a biology professor responded to me in an email, saying: "Given that basic (vice applied) research is invariably better funded by left-leaning politicians, unfortunately the answer is 'yes.'"  That is, bio departments must, as a matter of practical reality, worry about political affiliations.  The king's wizards ultimately serve at the pleasure of the king, and if the king and his lackeys decide that the wizards are displeasing, then there will be no more wizards -- or, more likely, the king will explicitly make political views part of the process for selecting future wizards.

So, if funding is ultimately a political game (notwithstanding the various protections currently existing in our system, all of which are politically tenuous), is it possible to please the king and his court without being nakedly political?  Can academics do anything, other than forcing themselves to change their research conclusions to please the politicians, that takes politics into account?

One possibility is to start explicitly playing the perceptions game.  I am a registered Democrat, but (as readers of this blog know) I am pretty disgusted by the Democrats.  I could register Republican, on the theory that they need to hear from an honest voice from within their ranks.  Or, I could simply register as an independent, or refuse to register at all.  If others followed my lead, the annual rankings that show that law schools have many more registered Democrats than Republicans would change.  Those annual rankings were never meaningful in the first place, so this gaming of the system would hardly feel as if it was disrupting the integrity of an honest inquiry.

Short of deliberate manipulation of politicized processes, however, is there anything that professors/universities can or should do to protect the funding that is essential to carrying out their socially valuable roles?  I honestly think that deliberately manipulating hiring decisions, to respond to dishonest calls for "intellectual diversity," would only make matters worse.  It would amount to a confession of something that is not true, because it would have to be framed as, "We are so sorry that our processes have systematically excluded qualified conservatives.  We'll start doing better now, by giving special consideration to people who are identifiable as conservatives."

That strikes me as an attempt to court favor by agreeing to corrupt the system.  It has no limit, because it is always possible for the anti-intellectuals to say that there need to be even more conservatives.  Then, when the conservatives gain a majority, they can engage in exactly the kind of ideological freeze-out that they complain of now.  Again, the contrast between economics and law is instructive.  When Chicago-school economists were able to do so, they simply took over the journals and the hiring processes, making it impossible to publish anything (and therefore to get hired) if one was not willing to work from the narrow set of conservative models that pass for "science" in that field.  Whatever else one might say about law schools, it is still quite easy to publish conservative arguments in the top journals.

In short, I think the American academy is essentially on the right track.  That is, we are trying to run an apolitical system within a political world.  There are plenty of departures from the ideal, of course, but the alternative -- giving up on the idea that we should try to judge merit on non-political grounds -- is far worse.