Shut Up Or Else

The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. … A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. … The academic profession “has acquired such a strong reputation for liberalism and secularism that over the last 35 years few politically or religiously conservative students, but many liberal and secular ones, have formed the aspiration to become professors,” they write in the paper, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” That is especially true of their own field, sociology. … To Mr. Gross, accusations by conservatives of bias and student brainwashing are self-defeating. “The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism,” he said, “the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.”

More here.  “Shut up about this imbalance or it’ll be worse.”  Can you imagine a sociologist recommending this response to a huge imbalance elsewhere, say a [disapproved] gender, ethnic, or sexual preference imbalance among executives, top colleges, country clubs, or political offices?   But when it comes to imbalances in their own profession, …  HT Tyler.

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  • Cyan

    It’s not a recommendation — it’s a causal analysis (I mean that in the sense of Judea Pearl’s causality). One would think that if this is an accurate model, it can only help conservatives generate strategies to ameliorate liberal bias in academia.

    • Bill

      Yes, Cyan, reports like these are used to help raise funds for conservative centers and fellowships.

      Also, if you look at the data in the article and in the paper, 48 percent of academics described themselves as MODERATES. And, the paper upon which the article is based describes intellectual tolerance as one of the bases (along with lack of religous affiliation) as explaining the greater presence of liberals in academia than the general population.

      • Chris

        Self descriptions are useless, particularly labels like “moderate” and “centrist”. The academic sees Obama/Hillary in the news and a bunch of die hard commies in his department. Since his views like somewhere in between, he characterizes himself as a moderate. That doesn’t make it so.

        If you look at voting patterns, you don’t see 48% of academics voting McCain and 52% voting Obama.

      • Bill

        Responding to Chris.

        Thank you for prooving my point with your numbers from the last election.

        Per the paper, 48% of academics were moderates. The country as a whole, per your point, voted 53% Obama, 46% McCain. If you view the country as moderate, at 50%, then 48% academics describing themselves as moderates puts them in the middle. If you go to the paper that is the source of the article, the remainder described themselves as liberal or conservative–they weren’t afraid to use those terms to describe their own selves.

        What I think was interesting about the original post was that it missed the point: 48% of academics were moderates. Hard to make an argument that this 48% is intollerant, particularly when those in the study who self described themselves as liberal had the attributes of being more tollerant as intellectuals and open to new ideas than those who described themselves as conservatives. If anything, academics seem to be more open and tolerant, as a group, then the general society, based on these findings.

      • Chris

        Bill, you are completely dropping the “self described” from moderate. A self described moderate may or may not be moderate.

        More numbers from the study: nationally, in the humanities and social sciences, there are 7-9 professors registered as democrats for every 1 professor registered as a republican (it’s about 5:1 in academia as a whole).

        Also, you might have misread your numbers. I searched the paper for the number 48 to see what you are referring to in particular, all I found was the statement that 48% of professors are self-described liberal.

        If you have evidence that 48% of professors are moderate (as opposed to believing they are moderate), please post it.

    • Bill

      Responding to Chris,

      The presumption in your answer is that in the battle between McCain/Palin and Obama, that McCain/Palin was more moderate.

      Independents obviously disagreed.

      • Chris

        Bill, your answer makes no sense.

        Taking presidential elections as a barometer, the country as a whole lies at the point 0.53 x Obama + 0.46 x McCain. Do you really think 48% of academics hold views that are 0.53 x Obama + 0.46 x McCain?

        I’d be really curious to see stats on professors voting. Somehow I really doubt that the 48% moderates you speak of really voted 46% for McCain (or anything even close).

  • Robert Bloomfield

    If you want knee-jerk partisan comments, you are going the right way about this–on the basis of a single quote that wasn’t even in the academic paper, accuse those awful lib’ruls of telling people to shut up, supporting a double standard, and suggesting that an observation was a recommendation, which by my reading it wasn’t. Sp much for overcoming bias. I am looking forward to a high-traffic emotional thread in which no one learns much about anything, but everyone feels they did a good job of trashing the other side. Enjoy!

    When the thread dies down, if you want a thoughtful discussion on the same topic, you might write in more detail about the irony, which seems accurate to me, and compare and contrast with conservative versions of the same. For example, conservatives point to the irony that social safety nets can be self-defeating if they discourage self-reliant behavior (a staple of conservative thought on welfare), or even more a propos, that affirmative action can lead to self-defeating discrimination as people assume that recipients are less accomplished their peers. There are, of course, counterarguments.

    More, important, there are probably differences between the irony mentioned in the NYTimes article and the ones I have just mentioned, so no doubt the arguments and counterarguments vary in strength in ways that might yield some useful insights on policy. That could be a thoughtful, open and constructive discussion that might lead to some new useful policy recommendations, with only a modicum of partisan animus.

    Ah, but perhaps only liberal wussies would want that!

  • JGWeissman

    From the same article you quote:

    “Jobs can be typecast in different ways, said Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, who undertook the study. For instance, less than 6 percent of nurses today are men. Discrimination against male candidates may be a factor, but the primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a woman’s career, Mr. Gross said. That means not many men aspire to become nurses in the first place”

    It seems that these sociologists are willing to apply the same explanation to gender issues outside their own profession.

    • Chris

      Are they willing to apply this explanation to women in science or blacks in firefighting?

      That would be a fairer test of intellectual honesty, since one might argue that liberal academics only oppose discrimination against women and non-whites/asians.

  • TGGP

    The explanation sounds plausible, Robin, though I’d combine it with a correlation between political views and desired careers (typecasting doesn’t spring out of nowhere). Do you have an argument against it?

  • Robin Hanson

    Folks, I’m not saying the explanation is wrong, I’m saying there is no way sociologists would let themselves be quoted in the NYT saying:

    The irony is that the more gays complain about military hostility to gays, the more likely it will remain anti-gay.


    The irony is that the more blacks complain about not being admitted to country clubs, the more that clubs will keep them out.

    • Allan Crossman

      Those are non-analogous cases. The article is alleging that the image of professors as XYZ stops people who are not XYZ from wanting to join.

      Whereas in your two cases as you’ve given them, the problem is instead hostility from those who are XYZ.

    • Robert Bloomfield

      Well, this is the start of a more constructive discussion. I would start by noting that the irony arises in the original case because the lack of conservatives in academia is self-inflicted.

      Irony is lacking in the country club example, because (1) not complaining about explicit bias would not result in blacks attaining membership, and (2) complaining probably won’t reduce the likelihood that explicitly biased decisions by country clubs get changed.

      I am not sure I see the irony in the military case either, though that seems a bit more subtle. Again, the key difference is that there is institutional policy that is openly and explicitly biased against the minority group (in the military case, gays), which the researchers are arguing does NOT exist against conservatives in academia.

      On the other hand, there is an irony in the bullying aspect of the military’s unofficial stance. Conservatives who decry the liberal biases of academics do ironically make most academics even less interesting in engaging with conservatives, much like those who decry homophobia in the military probably become more annoyed with gay activists. But I am not sure I hear the sociologists saying “so don’t complain” in either setting.

    • diogenese

      robin, the line right before your quote is …

      He added that the gender-typing of a field like physics might also partly explain the dearth of women in it, another subject that has provoked heated disputes.

      • Robin Hanson

        Fair point, but I still doubt they’d go further, to the other examples I gave.

  • david

    Well, why not? They certainly don’t expect conservatives to start forming mass-action pressure groups to retake academia (that is, groups that actually succeed). The act of forming such groups is one of the features of, uh, liberalism.

    I mean, there are presumably two impacts of talking about a given imbalance. Some people get discouraged and move to anther career. Some people feel provoked by the imbalance to do something about it. Presumably liberals have more of the latter and less of the former.

    This may be an entirely rational response.

    This said, I once read an observation that unionisation is lowest in economics amongst academic staff – despite the fact that economists are presumably most familiar with the benefits of in-group support and so on. And, of course, economics remains a field that doesn’t require declarations of funding sources. Everyone is selfish and rent-seeking – except us! Sociology may not be alone in giving itself a pass.

    • Bill

      Actually, conservatives have taken action to fund chairs, studies, centers, foundations and the like. And, they usually precede their fundraising with studies claiming institutions are liberal, when in fact, the majority of professors claim to be moderate.

      • david

        Yes – conservatives, by and large, form alternate institutional paths (not necessarily academic!) and attempt to discredit the existing academic establishment. While there are universities founded with conservative goals in mind, these by and large do not attempt to propagate a conservative sociology (an intellectual framework which already exists, albeit small). No – the legitimacy of studying sociology is dismissed.

        On the other hand, when liberals believe that they are being unfairly locked out of an establishment, they generally try to retake it via summoning popular pressure. The fundamental legitimacy of the underlying institution seems given; mainstream liberals don’t work to promote alternatives to country clubs – they yell at the gates until the country club lets them in.

        I emphasize that both of these are generalizations, but I think this approximates reality decently.

        You don’t need to invoke dubious personality-politics links to see why this might be the case – one of the bases of liberal ideology is precisely an optimism about what the demos can accomplish via mass action.

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  • Bill

    Business has been funding conservative think tanks for years, underwriting studies, fellowships, blogs, and papers. When you look at the statistics, over 50% of professors describe themselves as moderate.

    How can you have a selection bias about 50% of professors describe themselves as moderate?

    And, look at the conservative category in the data: doctors and dentists (well, guess their income level). Guess the income level for professors. Did anyone control for income level? (Of course those who earn more are likely to be more conservative than those who earn less.)

    As to police and firemen, which score high on conservative, civil service preferences for former military favor conservative selections for that category. Do you want to eliminate that bias in selection?

    • Greg Conen

      Because academics (like most people) compare their politics to that of their peers. So the 50% of academics who self-describe as moderates are moderates for academia. Analysis of their actual political views reveals that they are, in fact, generally left of the American public in general. The paper cites numerous sources to that effect.

      • Bill


        If you read the paper, you would find that the study uses standards for measure across all groups.

        If you say that everything is self-referential to your own group, then you can’t argue anything from the study….that doctors and dentists are more conservative than the general population…well, do you think that doctors and dentists are even more conservative because they are self referential to their group?

        The irony is that 48 percent of academics described themselves as moderates. The remainder is between conservative and liberal, with liberal beating conservatives in the remainder category.

        It is hard to say that academia is the liberal bastion blocking others when the largest group within it describes itself as moderate.

      • Greg Conen

        To be clear, people self-identify based on comparisons with their peer group, hence the 50% of academics self-identifying as moderate.

        Other techniques of identifying political opinions can compare people to other standards.

  • Matt

    This seems most analogous to the idea of “Stereotype Threat”, where sociologists who are proponents of the idea do indeed say that talking about an imbalance without stressing that it is only contingent rather than inevitable and inherent will cause the stereotype to increasingly become the reality.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a vector of unconscious bias behind the development of this idea, i.e. on a “If Conservatives acknowledge the role of stereotypes in their own underrepresentation in field X, then it will be easy to sell them on this to explain other forms of underrepresentation” kind of tip.

  • Ryan

    Presumably, the conservatives believe they arebeing systematically kept out of the universities. So the quotes Robin gave for comparison regarding other institutions would still seem to be valid.

    I’m sure there is no official policy like that, but then again the same could be said for most cases where institutional discrimination is claimed.

    • Dan

      Nope conservatives don’t like universities and academia… the only discrimination is that the institution doesn’t bent to their will and ideology.

  • TGGP

    Allan Crossman, some conservatives believe that academia is hostile to them. If there were more conservatives in academia, presumably fewer would believe that. So it could be argued that the cases are analogous.

    How can you have a selection bias about 50% of professors describe themselves as moderate?
    If that’s smaller than the portion of the general population that describes themselves in that way. Furthermore, people probably call themselves “moderate” relative to their surroundings. Many Europeans say the Democratic Party would be considered center-right in their countries. Also, the study does consider income (relative to education) a factor.

    diogenes has Hanson dead-to-rights with just the sort of quote he claimed they wouldn’t give.

    “Stereotype threat” may an artifact of publication bias.

    • Bill

      Saying that professors who call themselves moderate are really liberal is not an answer. Either you take the study for what it is, or you don’t. Either moderate means the same for one group or it doesn’t, and you do not offer any evidence that the term has a different meaning for any group.

      • Robin Hanson

        Studies like that that look at who votes Republican or Democrat don’t have a “moderate” middle; the portion who vote Democrat is very large.

  • George Weinberg

    So did the debate with Mencius happen? How did it go?

  • richard silliker

    What a way to keep those liberals out of the corporate boardrooms. Put the focus somewhere else and those silly liberals will go there. We all know they, the liberals, are sheep and herd together and unlike the conservatives, who boldly go where none have gone before, lack the true grit to get the job done. Besides they really don’t teach you anything of value in school and the real lessons are learned in the wide open spaces . Yahoo!!!!! another liberal study?

  • Josh

    There is another good reason for conservatives to point out that academia is overwhelmingly liberal/left, and that is to point out that what academics say should be taken with a grain of salt. If academia overhelmingly approves of something (or disapproves), the fact of the overwhelming leftward political slant of academia should be taken into account when deciding what to make of the academic consensus. With respect to this goal, it is not self-defeating for conservatives to point out the reality of it.

  • Bill

    Interesting that if you actually look at the study, here is what accounts for the difference:

    43 percent of the gap, and that the most important
    factors are advanced education, the disparity between professors’ educational levels and
    their incomes, the fact that a higher proportion of professors than non-professors have no
    religious affiliation or are Jews or non-theologically conservative Protestants, and
    intellectualism operationalized as tolerance for controversial ideas (not of a liberal

    Intellectualism operationalizing as tolerance qualifies you as a liberal.

    Probably does.

  • psychologist

    The humanities and Sociology are, I believe, pretty actively hostile toward social conservatism and economic liberalism. All of the [blank] Studies are explicitly left of center disciplines, which is completely unnecessary. A non-ideological version of these classes would be fascinating.

    Psychology, in my experience, is somewhat biased against conservatives. For example, there is a personality trait in Social Psych. called “right-wing authoritarianism”. They never created a “left-wing authoritarianism”, so they could probably drop the “right-wing” description and just call it “authoritarianism”. But, of course, they didn’t. One might consider Evolutionary Psychology to be a “conservative” branch of psych, because it rejects the old liberal idea of the blank slate assumed in Soc. Psych. It also posits that there likely are significant mental differences between men and women, which is rejected by much of modern left-wing ideology, which sees gender as totally socially constructed.

    • tut

      They never created a “left-wing authoritarianism”…

      Left Wing Authoritarians have a philosopher or ideologist as their authority, while RWAs use the traditional authorities in their society.

      …which sees gender as totally socially constructed.

      Gender is by definition socially constructed. Sex on the other hand is biological.

  • Dan

    Cons don’t want to be professors or academia, they are an incompatible out group and enemy towards right-wing values / ideology. This is about elimination-ism not exclusion or discrimination.
    What is so difficult to understand regarding anti-intellectualism?

  • bgreen

    fascinating to see the different roles played in the comments of this article. many rather wooden and cliched, sadly too many for any intelligent observations to be made.

    watch the movie “the experiment”. its a film version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. if you don’t know what it is shame on you and i also suggest milgram’s work too.

  • Singularity7337

    People may be confused by terminology. Liberalism is often referred to as “right wing”. Libertarianism is “left wing”.

  • Lorenzo

    Discussions like this get bogged down in political labeling (often of a “boo-hiss!” and “hurrah!” variety) very quickly.

    Across the developed world, there is a clear tendency for academe to be socially liberal, economically collectivist, secularist, internationalist, multiculturalist. But what has characterised academic opinion has changed over time. The Nazis, for example, found academe something of a pushover (see Claudia Koonz’s excellent The Nazi Conscience). Nationalism, racism and imperialism all had much support in the academy during their high periods.

    Moreover, the tendency of those whose sense of identity is based on their intellect/cognitive capacity/knowledge, but whose income is isolated from commercial activity, to have anti-commercial attitudes is very longstanding. From Plato, to Chinese mandarins, to medieval clerics to modern humanities academics, the notion that one is morally superior if one is not involved in “vulgar commerce” is a repeated pattern.

    The common feature I would suggest is various forms of elitism. Either the sense of being an elite against one’s wider society (the current tendency) or the sense being an elite with and of one’s society that is itself superior (the C19th and early C20th view, the Chinese mandarinate view). If the latter view loses academic cred, then the former becomes the alternative elitism.

    After all, if one invests (or intends to invest) all that effort in cognitive skills and knowledge, there has to be some payoff. A sense of moral superiority is a payoff and one, moreover, that one can (to add to its charms) share with one’s colleagues in a “club” of shared (indeed mutually-reinforcing) virtue.

    Academic economists tend to not conform entirely to the pattern since the presumptions of common rationality, and that one studies markets so it is a bit hard to feel morally superior for not being a “vulgar profit-seeker”, both rather get in the way.

  • Ryan Vann

    Chris is spot on about the follies of self identification; anyone who has actually taken one of these sociology courses is surely familiar with garbage studies conducted in conjunction with polls about drinking habits, and the conflicting results of said studies.

  • gimli4thewest

    A good way to investigate liberal (or other types of) bias in institutions is to examine questions asked to candidates in the interview process. Questions such as, “What have you done in the past year to promote minority rights?” would give us insight into the criteria for hiring.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    “Can you imagine a sociologist recommending this response to a huge imbalance elsewhere, say a [disapproved] gender, ethnic, or sexual preference imbalance among executives, top colleges, country clubs, or political offices? But when it comes to imbalances in their own profession, … HT Tyler.”

    This whole narrative strain is white guy identity politics, rather than good epistemological inquiry, IMO. The whole thing (“liberal” sociologists + people who compare the lack of “conservative” professors with the lack of black female mathematicians) presents itself as a type of pageant to me. It’s ultimate accomplishment, as far as I can tell, is a distraction of attention from people doing better but less identity-pandering social epistemology (people like perhaps Professor Bostrom).

  • Floodplain

    If a professor teaches a subject with the point of helping students discover truth, It shouldn’t matter what normative political view he/she has, as they are irrelevant to finding the truth and expressing it descriptively.

    Physics and chemistry don’t change based on subjective interpretations — they either work or don’t, and so should economics, psychology etc.. Either Why should any science, social or not be different?

    If the basic ideas of a field do change based on the political views of the teacher, then that is a statement about the rigorousness of the field or its department, and not an issue with the personalities of the lecturers. For instance, why is it that one worries so much about bias from an English prof being an ideologue, while no one cares if a physics prof is.