[Paleopsych] Krugman: An Academic Question
checker at panix.com
Tue Apr 5 17:36:16 UTC 2005
An Academic Question
Opinion column by Paul Krugman, New York Times, 5.4.5
It's a fact, documented by two recent studies, that registered
Republicans and self-proclaimed conservatives make up only a small
minority of professors at elite universities. But what should we
conclude from that?
Conservatives see it as compelling evidence of liberal bias in
university hiring and promotion. And they say that new "academic
freedom" laws will simply mitigate the effects of that bias, promoting
a diversity of views. But a closer look both at the universities and
at the motives of those who would police them suggests a quite
Claims that liberal bias keeps conservatives off college faculties
almost always focus on the humanities and social sciences, where
judgments about what constitutes good scholarship can seem subjective
to an outsider. But studies that find registered Republicans in the
minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as
rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as
in softer fields. Why?
One answer is self-selection - the same sort of self-selection that
leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military.
The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private
sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in
But there's also, crucially, a values issue. In the 1970's, even
Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican
Party was the "party of ideas." Today, even Republicans like
Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the "party of
Consider the statements of Dennis Baxley, a Florida legislator who has
sponsored a bill that - like similar bills introduced in almost a
dozen states - would give students who think that their conservative
views aren't respected the right to sue their professors. Mr. Baxley
says that he is taking on "leftists" struggling against "mainstream
society," professors who act as "dictators" and turn the classroom
into a "totalitarian niche." His prime example of academic
totalitarianism? When professors say that evolution is a fact.
In its April Fools' Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof
editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution
just because it's "the unifying concept for all of biology and one of
the greatest scientific ideas of all time," saying that "as editors,
we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence." And it
conceded that it had succumbed "to the easy mistake of thinking that
scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or
best-selling novelists do."
The editorial was titled "O.K., We Give Up." But it could just as well
have been called "Why So Few Scientists Are Republicans These Days."
Thirty years ago, attacks on science came mostly from the left; these
days, they come overwhelmingly from the right, and have the backing of
Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains
of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out."
Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting
the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax." And
conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael
Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.
Think of the message this sends: today's Republican Party -
increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be
determined by revelation, not research - doesn't respect science, or
scholarship in general. It shouldn't be surprising that scholars have
returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.
Conservatives should be worried by the alienation of the universities;
they should at least wonder if some of the fault lies not in the
professors, but in themselves. Instead, they're seeking a Lysenkoist
solution that would have politics determine courses' content.
And it wouldn't just be a matter of demanding that historians play
down the role of slavery in early America, or that economists give the
macroeconomic theories of Friedrich Hayek as much respect as those of
John Maynard Keynes. Soon, biology professors who don't give
creationism equal time with evolution and geology professors who
dismiss the view that the Earth is only 6,000 years old might face
If it got that far, universities would probably find ways to cope -
by, say, requiring that all entering students sign waivers. But
political pressure will nonetheless have a chilling effect on
scholarship. And that, of course, is its purpose.
E-mail: krugman at nytimes.com
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