Academic Political Bias

Browsing my local (Burke VA) public library recently I found the new books section prominently displaying three books complaining that universities are biased against political conservatives: Indoctrination U., Brainwashed, and Shadow University

As I have reported before, they do seem to have a valid, if overstated, complaint: academics in top schools who teach politics-related topics are far more Democratic than Republican, and this does visibly influence their teaching and research.   

Of course these facts do not imply academics are biased; perhaps their political tendencies mainly result from their expert knowledge.  But surely most ordinary people do not have enough evidence to evaluate this claim one way or the other, and most political conservatives are unlikely to grant academics the benefit of the doubt on this. 

It is possible that the US public will get upset enough about this apparent bias to insist on some more formal academic political neutrality, similar to the way American colonists were upset enough about European state non-neutrality on religion to insist on a formal "religious freedom" here in the US.   Nevertheless, it is far from obvious that much will happen here; most societies tolerate lots of apparent biases without doing much about them.   

Added: TGGP points us to some nice tables breaking this down by discipline. 

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    For clarification, in this post you’re calling the academy “apparently biased” because it doesn’t mirror the political distribution of the American general population?

  • http://thepokerclub.wordpress.com Sandeep Prakash

    Robin,
    I would hope that nothing of the “formal academic political neutrality” sort happens here. I suspect the apparent democratic bias is in actuality a great variety that gets dumbed down when shoved into an empirical analysis. (Imagine a nerdy laodicean post-doc providing anything but a ‘yes’ answer to “do you agree that we should have a min. wage?”) In fact, we should warn against any scheme of incentives that attempts to adjust the perceived distribution. We should not compromise market forces in education that creates the heterogeneity that we unintentionally seek to destroy when over-estimating the capabilities of our empirical tool-kit.

    Sandeep

  • Bob Unwin

    Lots of students at elite schools aren’t influenced much by their professors, either because of arrogance or because of lack of interest in academics. These people might be slightly more influenced by their peers. So one should also ask about the political views of elite college students.

    Also, people are influenced at various stages in their lives. Is there any data on how political views are affected by parents vs. college vs. work place? Some elite work places are surely more conservative than elite collges, e.g. finance, high-level management, consulting, corporate law. And lots of elite-college grads end up in these careers:
    http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=519172.

  • http://ryanholiday.net Ryan Holiday

    The problem isn’t so much their political beliefs directly influencing their teaching–a Poli Sci teacher explaining how great FDR was through a liberal lens–but in their social beliefs impacting what facts they choose to except. As far as most Women’s and Ethnic Studies departments go evolutionary psychology doesn’t even exist. The current generation of college professors were school with many basic assumptions that have been widely disproved at this point but have yet to be reflected in the curriculum. Many of the beliefs that were necessary to counteract like segregation, sexism in the workplace, etc ended up being a little extreme intellectually.

    And then they are scared to admit this, thinking it will roll back all the “advancements” they credit themselves for making.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Hopefully, yes, and that political affiliation seems to affect hiring and publication.

    Bob, yes academia isn’t the only political influence in society.

  • Carl Shulman

    Robin, why not compare academics to advanced degree holders, as Bryan Caplan does?

  • Richb01

    Could it not be that Academians are just too smart to be conservative?

  • TGGP

    Razib at Gene Expression compiled a bunch of studies on the political/party leanings of academia in a post here. The comments section got pretty ugly.

  • http://jey.kottalam.net Jey Kottalam

    “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
    Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner

  • Bruce G Charlton

    The problem is that there are some academic subjects where the bias in built-into the subject matter.

    For example, in the early 1990s I studied sociology in the UK as part of training for Public Health medicine, and read quite a number of textbooks, and published a few papers and book chapters. It was blindingly obvious that the subject (as taught in the UK) was built upon socialist assumptions and socialist moral distinctions – the bias wasn’t so much in the teachers (although it was there too) but in the way the subject had evolved. Naturally, this meant that pretty-much only socialistic people got into the subject.

    Of course sociology as such isn’t intrinsically socialist – for example I knew quite a gang of conservative sociologists associated with the Social Affairs Unit (a think tank) and the Liberty Fund. Also, I would rank Niklas Luhmann (a German sociologist) as one of the greatest intellectual geniuses of the 20th century – and he was no kind of socialist (he was a pro-modernizer).

    So – if US parents don’t want their children indoctrinated with socialist/ leftist values and perspectives, they will simply need to avoid certain subjects: eg. most of the humanities, most social sciences, any subject with ‘studies’ in its name — indeed it would be safest to focus on the natural sciences, math, and economics. And there are plenty of other good reasons for doing this.

    Four years is too long a period of life to spend at college unless you comes out of it with some cognitive skills you lacked when you went in. Sadly, many people opt to do this, and to spend the time of developing their moral self-regard by studying courses in political correctness – and at vast expense.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Belief as attire and belief as cheer seems appropriate here (both of the “academics” and of the “critics”. Also a term/concept I think I’ve coined “gentrification of the moral high ground”, and a concept that I’ve mentioned before in the comments of this blog, the idea that a dialectic may be the best way to privilege two parties, teams, or conceptional frameworks for the nontransparent goal of subordinating other parties, teams, or conceptional frameworks.

    For example here, it would be individuals, affinity groups, or political beliefs that either don’t fit into “liberal” or “conservative”, or that are subordinated/intrinsically lack archetypal power within the liberal vs. conservative dialectical framwork. This critique could probably be reduced to “liberal vs. conservative are falsely limited options for political representation within the academy”.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Hmmm. So, if we are going to impose some kind of political neutrality on academics,
    how about on other professions. Anybody worried about the tendency of military officers to be Republicans (unless they belong to an ethnic minority)?

  • Martin

    The problem with the idea that there’s a hiring bias in the academy that favors liberals is that there would, therefore, have to be lots of unemployed conservative professors (or post docs, or recent graduates). I see no evidence of this. People also complain that there aren’t enough women in physics, but physics departments would love to hire them. There just aren’t any applying. Likewise, I think that *getting a graduate education*, being in that environment, tends to mold the political views of future professors to be more liberal. So most applicants are liberal, and on average they get the jobs.

    “It is possible that the US public will get upset enough about this apparent bias to insist on some more formal academic political neutrality”

    Given what I just said, THAT would be hiring bias.

  • TGGP

    Hmmm. So, if we are going to impose some kind of political neutrality on academics,
    I think David Horowitz has proposed something like that, but I hope nobody here has!

    how about on other professions. Anybody worried about the tendency of military officers to be Republicans (unless they belong to an ethnic minority)?
    The political orientation of the military can be very important. It has been a force opposing communism in latin america and islamism in the middle east (turkey and pakistan leap to mind). There has not been a coup in the United States and I think the possibility of one happening in the near future is laughable. Ron Paul will serve three Presidential terms before that. While the military does not get to push around our own citizenry much (I’m ignoring foreigners here because I’m not one), domestic law enforcement agencies do. Mencius Moldbug has claimed many of them were once “red government” like the military (especially officer corps) but have been captured by “blue government” sometime after the sixties, and that it was their efforts back then that resulted in victory for the hippies and black power but defeat for klansmen.

  • TGGP

    The problem with the idea that there’s a hiring bias in the academy that favors liberals is that there would, therefore, have to be lots of unemployed conservative professors (or post docs, or recent graduates).
    I think Daniel Klein’s paper shows the percentage of liberals among economists is higher within academia than outside. I think the same explanation can be used: liberals like academia, conservatives prefer other sectors. It is a self-selecting process and we shouldn’t expect equal proportions.