Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Academia — hotbed of liberal bias? Or conservative isolation?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says yes, and, if Michael Shermer is Twittering about this — AND getting info wrong ... the 6-1 ratio is among general faculty, not social scientists! with Shermer thereby bringing his rush-job Tweeting into question — it's going to spread to Palinista land by tomorrow afternoon.

The reality? Probably a bit different.

First, upon what in-depth research did he make this observation?
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.
Let's now enumerate all that's wrong with this.

First, political labels are notoriously imprecise among the American populace. Among the 40 percent that label themselves conservatives, many favor more moderate political positions. Prime example: Tea Party grandmas and grandpas telling the government to keep its hands off their Medicare.

Second, short of a position-by-position poll, both among the general public and among academia, there's no telling how you can label people's positions consistently.

Related to that is this:
The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They’ve independently found that 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.
Is "liberal" 100 percent correlative to "Democrat" and "conservative" to "Republican"? Assuming they're not, how close is the relationship? Do we even know? Are people using a party label for a political stance label?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is a high degree of correlation and that Haidt's observations reflect that, let's ask why this ratio exists.

In a sentence? Christian fundamentalism and evolution. In other words, many Christians are not going to go to mainstream universities, especially top-tier ones, in the hard sciences. (Remember, Shermer, the 6:1 ratio was for general faculty, not just social sciences.)

In a second sentence? Alternative takes on the social sciences.

Especially for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, the mainstream psychological take on things from gay marriage to what is appropriate child discipline are going to keep conservative Xns away from those disciplines at mainstream universities, too.

In a third sentence? It's the political wars.

With the Federalist Society, the best entree is a JD at a non-mainstream school, like Regent University's law school. Places like that are starting their own political science and public policy graduate schools in more numbers, too, for similar reasons

If Haidt went to private colleges, what would he find there?

As I Tweeted Shermer:
What if Haidt went to Xn colleges? Would you be shocked/offended at 6:1 conservative ratio?
I wouldn't be shocked, myself. And I'm not shocked.

I am a bit shocked, though honestly, not at all surprised, at the cheapness of Micheal Shermer's thought.

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