Monday, March 07, 2005

Disparity Does Not Equal Discrimination

With the control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government along with their dominance of the corporate sphere, it's getting a little difficult for Republicans to maintain their status as an oppressed minority community. But since this myth is critical to modern conservative identity, they aren't going to give it up easily. In this context, the brewing jihad against academia starts to make a little more sense. By focusing on what is arguably the last bastion of American liberalism, conservatives can continue to portray themselves as noble Davids attempting to slay a tyrannical Goliath. Therefore, as they attempt to eliminate potential liberalization from college campuses, they can do so from a familiar rhetorical position.

Unfortunately for them, the arena of this conflict has necessitated the use of some unorthodox tactics, and the results have been quite amusing. The main charge (leveled by David Horowitz, Sean Hannity, and many, many others) is that the liberal-academic complex discriminates against conservative thinkers, leading to an oppression of conservative voices in higher education. On the one hand, conservatives must take special pleasure in using a traditionally liberal argument against what they perceive to be liberal interests. However, this joy prevents them from comprehending how ridiculously inept their efforts are. Let's take a look, shall we?

The most recent justification for the discrimination claim comes from a recent article by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western published in the Palo Alto Weekly.
We have conducted a scholarly study of voter registration and find that among Berkeley faculty the Republicans are outnumbered 10 to 1. At Stanford the ratio is 7.6 to 1. Lumping both together gives 9 to 1. Talk about a lack of diversity! If this were a gender, race or ethnic-background study it would be considered almost evidence of discrimination.
Where to begin...

Well first, I'm not sure how much you should be extrapolating from a study focused exclusively on two institutions situated in one of the most consistently liberal regions in America. It's quite possible that conservative intellectuals are less inclined to live in the San Francisco/Bay area and thus fewer apply for positions there. So, that's a problem.

But, this is where their miscomprehensions come sharply into focus. You see, for them, it's all about the numbers. Nationally, we break down about 50/50 between registered Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, they claim, any significant departure from this ratio is "almost evidence of discrimination." Todd Zywicki claims that "understates the case." If only that were true.

Consider the following preliminary research conducted by Aaron Swartz.
…my preliminary research has discovered some…shocking facts. I have found that only 1% of Stanford professors believe in telepathy (defined as “communication between minds without using the traditional five senses”), compared with 36% of the general population. And less than half a percent believe “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil”, compared with 49% of those outside the ivory tower. And while 25% of Americans believe in astrology (“the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives”), I could only find one Stanford professor who would agree.
As fun as it is to compare Republican ideology to telepathy, satanic possession, and astrology, that's not really the point. The real issue is that there are many possible reasons for differential representation in the academy. Discrimination isn't the only explanation.

For example, conservatives have a special affinity for the free market. Ergo, it is theoretically possible that they will tend toward careers in business (especially if you consider the financial incentives for doing so). Likewise, right-wing think tanks might have a tendency to draw conservative academics out of their ivory towers. Both these phenomena could potentially depress conservative representation in academia and neither is driven by discrimination. There are many other possibilities.

In truth, the above study tells us only that a discrepancy exists, not why. And if you are considering some sort of remedial action (which some are), the "why" of the discrepancy is pretty damn important.

Unless you're afraid of the answer. Case in point, David Horwitz. Chris of Mixing Memory recently suggested that we get to the bottom of the issue.
Since, to date, there is no study showing anything more than a disparity, I propose that we actually conduct a new study. In this study, we will do more than simply collect voting and political donation records, or hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. This information alone can only provide evidence of disparity, not discrimination. To do this, we need to rule out alternative explanations for the disparity. Thus, we will need to collect information about job applicants and faculty that is relevant to hiring and promotion. Thus, we should collect information related to publication, citation, teaching evaluations, ongoing research, etc., that hiring and promotion committees consider when making their decisions. Using this information, along with the relative number of liberal and conservative applicants, we can apply fairly simple statistical tools (e.g., regression analysis) to determine whether the ideological disparity that exists in American universities is a result of discrimination.
When Horwitz was presented with this suggestion, he referred to it as a "ridiculous exercise." When pressed further, he responded:
Don't be an asshole. If blacks were half the country and were outnumbered on faculties 10 to 1 all schools and even 30-1 on many you would have no trouble finding something amiss. Whoever proved by the way that faculties actually discriminated against women and blacks? The answer is no one. The Supreme Court has ruled that the absence of skin diversity (skin diversity!) IN ITSELF is harmful to education. So how much more powerful is this case.
Aside from the attitude and the astonishing ignorance revealed in that reply, what is he afraid of? What would be the problem with accumulating more data?

Of course, Horwitz is afraid that the results would indicate that the true reason for the discrepancy is scholarly inferiority. Frankly, if Horwitz's tendency to employ scientific methods only when convenient is in any way indicative of conservative academia at large, I'd say he's right to be afraid.

And this is what has always puzzled me about this issue. If my particular ideology was severely underrepresented in a population of the most highly educated individuals on earth, I'd want to keep that quiet. Sure, it could be that my ideology contradicts prevailing orthodoxy. But without a lot of convincing data to support my position, most people aren't going to believe that I'm being discriminated against. They are going to assume that I'm an idiot.

For my part, I'd love to see some actual research done. Honestly, discrimination probably plays a small, but significant role in the numbers seen above. I'm willing to face that and take appropriate steps to remedy it. But, I only want to fix what's broken. Ideological parity isn't a goal.

For me, that is. I can't speak for Horwitz, but I have my suspicions. If he were only interested in ending ideological discrimination, I can't help but feel that he would be more receptive to attempts to more fully describe the phenomenon. On the other hand, if he's really more concerned about getting conservatives ensconced at Berkeley…

Update: I neglected to hat tip Coturnix over at Science and Politics for uncovering the dustup between Horowitz and Chris of Mixed Memory. Thanks for the good work.
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