Friday, March 04, 2005

My Exchange With David Horowitz

I recently emailed David Horowitz with my offer to help conduct a study attempting to show that the disparity between the number of liberal and conservative faculty members in American universities was due to bias or discrimination, rather than other factors. I figured that since Horowitz has been claimingthat this disparity is due to discrimination, despite the lack of any objective evidence for this (he, like some others, incorrectly believes that disparity is prima facie evidence of discrimination), he would be excited at the possibility of using widely used methodologies to produce such evidence. Much to my surprise (what font should I use for sarcasm?), he was not interested. In reply to my offer, he wrote:
Look, this is a ridiculous exercise. Only the blind can't see there is bias. I've been invited to speak on 250 campuses but only once by a professor (whom I knew and asked to invite me) and three times by administrators. You think they'd hire me?
No, I don't, but it's easy to see why from that short response alone. His utter disdain for scholarly standards (in this case, the same statistical methods used by economists to prove racial discrimination, e.g. in this paper) would make professors hesitant to invite him to speak, much less to want to hire him. Perhaps he finds scholarly standards so useless because they're associated with scholars, who are mostly liberals?

I responded to Horowitz, noting that his dismissal of an attempt to find objective evidence of discrimination is probably why no one would hire him. I also reminded him that courts do not accept disparity alone, no matter how large it may be, as evidence of discrimination, particularly in cases involving remedial measures like those Horowitz has proposed. I wrote:
You can't be serious. If you are, then it's no surprise that no one would hire you. Such an anecdotal account (even a dozen such anecdotal accounts) hardly constitutes objective evidence that would meet the scholarly standards of any institution.

However, since the courts demand such studies from people alleging discrimination in other contexts, I'm surprised that you would be so dismissive of an attempt to gather objective evidence of discrimination that meets judicial standards.
Here is what he had to say to that:
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.
Yes, my proposing, and even offering to help conduct the first scholarly study of the causes of the liberal-conservative disparity makes me an asshole. The rest of that email demonstrates his failure to understand the very problem that he has spent so much time discussing. It is true that, in general, diversity benefits education. However, there are two important points that Horowitz is apparently unable to grasp. First, not all diversity is good. If ideas, like those Horowitz has expressed in these emails, do not meet rigorous scholarly standards, then including them in an individual's education is most likely harmful. It may simply be that many conservative scholarship is inferior.

Second, even if conservative scholarship is not generally inferior (I don't want to imply that it is; I'm agnostic on that point), in order to know how to remedy the disparity between liberals and conservatives in academia, we have to know what has caused it. Horowitz is operating under the assumption that discrimination is to blame, but if this is not the case, then remedial measures designed to counteract discrimination will be ineffective, and perhaps even harmful to education. For instance, it may be that conservative the conservative intellectuals who attempt to go into academia publish less, receive less favorable teacher evaluations, or are otherwise inferior on some dimension or dimensions relevant to success in academia. If this is the case, then remedial measures should be aimed at these factors specifically. Most likely, the disparity is due to a variety of factors, and until someone actually does the empirical research, we will not know how best to remedy it. I can't help but feeling that Horowitz's lack of interest in such research demonstrates a lack of genuine interest in diversity, as well, since his own reasoning cannot lead to productive measures to increase it.


Justin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Justin said...

Chris, I think you're an extremely reasonable guy, but at leat a little off-base on this one. Horowitz is a gadfly, and I don't agree with his behavior (calling you an a------ is inexcusable based on the discourse you've presented). But:

1) Some of the studies used to provide the additional justification for bias beyond disparity are laughable. On the "absence of skin diversity" being harmful, I think Horowitz was referring to Grutter v. Bollinger, which adopts a study making (an only slightly more sophisticated version of) that claim as its basis. The mere fact that the study was cited in the process of upholding UM's law school's discrimination program is not adequate to establish it as reliable to its critics.

2) Despite believing that you don't mean to be condescending, I can't help but feel that the laundry list of things that might be wrong with conservative grad students (worse evals, less publishing, etc.) is a restatement of a thesis you just claimed agnosticism on, i.e., that conservative scholarship is inferior. It's not at all obvious to me that there is anything about conservative thought that should make these reasonable pre-experiment hypotheses, at least no more so than a similar assumption about liberal thought. I realize that given the present distribution of academic leanings, they still merit examination. But I think this distracts from other issues you'll have a harder time measuring that nevertheless play a real role -- the fact that hiring committees are picking the people they'll socialize with as much as scholars (a point I think is originally due to John Holbo), the inevitable political discussions that pop up during merely social situations, the gross abuses of departmental mailing lists to enforce ideological purity...I could go on, but I'll save it for my own blog (where I have previously avoided this topic, but won't any longer).

On the most charitable reading, I think Horowitz's response to you is grounded in part in a (unwarranted in your case) suspicion that you only made such an offer because you're sure the numbers will come out in your favor. The presumption of bad faith on his part is unfair, but there are enough examples out there of academics who have been happy to pronounce on their certainty in the outcome of such a study that I can see why he might be inclined to assume someone he doesn't know and hasn't read is likely to be one more of the same.

But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see the results of such a study, if for no other reason than that I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. Despite possessing a mere master's, and no Ph.D., I'd even be willing to collaborate on it.

--Semantic Compositions

Chris said...

I'm sorry if it appears that I was endorsing any belief that conservative thought produces inferior grad students. I certainly didn't. I firmly believe that conservative intellectuals can be as intelligent and scholarly as liberal intellectuals. My hypothesis about the cause of the disparity is a bit complex. I think there are several factors. They include:
1. A culture of liberalism in universities. This almost certainly leads to some discrimination, particularly in departments within which conservative ideas have direct bearing on scholarship.
2. As a result of that culture of liberalism, an anti-academia attitude among many conservative intellectuals. In my mind, people like Horowitz do nothing but perpetuate this.
3. As a result of 1 and 2, conservatives who go into academia tend to be less motivated to work towards academic careers.
4. As a result of 1 and 2, conservatives who go into academia tend not to be the cream of the crop of conservative intellectuals. Conservative intellectuals who are more likely to be able to meet the demands of an academic career take career paths that they (correctly, in part) see as providing more oppurtunity for success and impact. This means that conservatives who do go into academia will be likely to publish less, get worse teacher evaluations, etc., because they're not the best that conservativism has to offer.

I don't mean to imply, with 4, that no really strong conservative intellectuals go into academia. This is obviously false. However, I would bet that the conservatives who go into academia are drawn from further to the left on the curve of their intellectual community.

While this is my theory, I'm perfectly open to other explanations, and as a scientist, I'll await the data before making any firm conclusion. Since both conservatives like Horowitz and many liberals have already made up their minds, without having the relevant data, I think actually going out and collecting that data is important.

The good thing about doing the sort of disparity study that I am proposing is that if you can quantify (even as dummy variables) the factors that can't be considered discrimination, then you can determine the effect of discrimination, including the sorts of discrimination you describe (picking people with whom they'll socialize, the effects of impromptu political discussions, etc.).

Unfortunately, my PhD is not in sociology, and I have no specialization in the sociology of academic communities. That means that I will probably miss some potentially relevant variables in putting together a model. The data would be relatively easy (though expensive) to collect, once we decided what we need to measure and exactly how we should measure it (publication data and teaching evals are easy, but there may be other factors that are more difficult to quantify).

Brandon said...

This is not a subject I know much about; but I've always wondered why people don't consider the possibility that at least a significant part of the disparity is due simply to conservatives tending to do other things. I'm not sure that it would have to be motivated by anti-academia attitudes, rather than just a preference for other things (for instance, in some places it doesn't seem uncommon for bright young conservatives to go with deliberate directness into becoming pastors, general practitioners, engineers, or the like - i.e., into career positions outside of academia; it would be interesting to see if this sort of thing is just occasional or more general). One doesn't need a dislike of academia in order to be unmotivated to work in academia; one just needs different priorities, and for all we know it might be this that's really setting up the disparity, with any anti-academia basis being an incidental result. For all we know -- which is why we need to have studies like the one you suggest, which actually take the trouble to do a little testing of various plausible hypotheses like yours. In any case, it would be more interesting than most of the discussion on this issue.

NickM said...

It would seem to me that self-selection has a lot to do with whether conservatives go into academia or not. I would guess that a vast majority of bank presidents, for example, are conservatives. Is political discrimination by corporate boards the cause of this disparity? Maybe some of it, but probably not much. Self-selection probably has a lot more to do with it: people interested and qualified to preside over a bank have a certain set of interests, traits and skills that are more likely to be manifested in people with a conservative outlook, or people with conservative outlooks might be more likely to develop the skills and make the personal choices needed to become successful in banking. That this is the case is just common sense.

So if conservatives stay away from careers in academia, why not look to the most obvious solution - what it pays? Academia is notorious for offering good pay only after years if not decades of working for crap. A conservative who is academically inclined would probably be far better off working for one of the many well-funded conservative think-tanks, which are probably another big reason that conservatives do not have much presence in academia. It seems to me that if Horowitz is interested in getting more conservatives into academia, he should look to a more market-based approach to this problem, and start agitating for better pay for teaching assistants and associate professors, rather than for "fairer" hiring practices.

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