Ideological Bullying and Political Selection in Academia

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In my recent discussion of ideological homogeneity in academia, I pointed out that Jonathan Haidt and the folks at Heterodox Academy share some rather poignant concerns about the sharp leftward shift in ideology in academia, particularly in the social sciences.

As a glutton for punishment, I, as an economically centrist, socially slightly right-of-center white man, am set to join the fray. My father had an interesting experience in his Marriage and Family Therapy doctoral program in the early 2000s. At the time, he wasn’t a young semi-professional fresh out of an undergraduate or master’s degree. He was inching into his 50s and had already raised 6 children to responsible adulthood, with 4 more left at home. Yet despite his life experience and intellect, the ideological bullying he endured while at Purdue left a deep impression, one which I either consciously or subconsciously noticed and internalized.

One thing I have always admired about economics is a certain sense of emotional distance that comes in studying in the “dismal science.” Economists aren’t typically afraid to calculate the statistical value of a human life, measure the deterrent effect of capital punishment, or even talk about the tradeoffs for end-of-life care. Very rarely have I seen an assignment of blame, insensitivity, or other socially unwelcome labels thrown at researchers for the questions they ask (my experience with Dr. Galster’s comments notwithstanding). But I expect that will change as “safe spaces” and student comfort intrude more and more into the academic research and teaching of faculty. I wonder if that kind of emotional distance can be maintained in the face of ideological sameness and a sense of newfound moral consensus–implying that some questions are not worth asking because they are morally repugnant to the predominant group. Off the top of my head, a few come to mind: the root social determinants of homosexuality, the comorbidity of gender dysphoria and other mental illnesses and their contribution to high transgender suicide, the contribution of the intersection of family structure and poverty to persistent crime or low intergenerational mobility, the correlation between moral conscience and the functioning of markets, or measuring (with the intent of repealing) poorly-functioning anti-poverty policies.

If questioning what has become the cultural value set of sexual or social ethics predominant in academia (though noticeably not congruent with the rest of society) becomes unpalatable, then we lose the ability to dissent–a core component of science.

One deep question that I have had since that time is this: how did such an imbalance occur?

Allow me to share a few brief thoughts:

  1. Marriage and family: socially conservative people tend to marry younger and therefore have a more immediate need for consistent income. Academia takes a long time to enter–4 years of undergrad followed by 4-5 years in a PhD program at the bare minimum just to really get started, followed by a career that may not have the most glamorous of pay. Not many people can support a family on a graduate stipend or accumulate debt for a career that may not have the greatest income relative to what they could accomplish as someone with their abilities. Given the large disparity in political balance between academia and business, it is quite probable that more conservatives simply decided that they wanted to focus on making money to support their families, not out of a desire for money or greed, but out of a desire to provide.
  2. Values: conservatives tend to value market-based activities and work as virtues. They may see starting a business or rising in the ranks as a way of providing others with a means to thrive–similar to the way that liberals may see social safety nets as a virtue. It’s the “teach a man to fish” principle that may lead to personal investments in market activities rather than research, which have varying levels of social value and may even be net negatives if you incorporate the opportunity cost of pointless research.
  3. Hostility: in a recent math class I took at George Washington University, I was expecting to be talking about vectors, the intersection of curves, and the volume of spheroids in multidimensional space. While I did receive that, I also got a lecture at least once a week on a range of topics: the idiocy of Ben Carson, that none of the Republican presidential candidates believe in Evolution (to which he heartily laughed and said that fact alone precluded them from office, all while not defining what he meant by ‘evolution’ or how it may or may not be a factor in the religious interpretation of the candidates), or even a convoluted explanation of how Republican ideology somehow caused the financial crisis. If, in the course of studying something that is supposed to be dispassionate like mathematics, a student is inundated with nebulous attacks on his/her value system, how could we possibly expect a chilling effect to be absent in more controversial subjects? If you yell a point of view long enough from a tall enough tower, even well delivered and true criticism from a much smaller tower or from the ground may remain unheard.
  4. Blatant discrimination: when equally qualified candidates for a job submit their resume (or an identical resume), conservative political affiliation can tip the scale away from getting an interview. As Haidt, et al put it:”Inbar and Lammers (2012) found that most social psychologists who responded to their survey were willing to explicitly state that they would discriminate against conservatives. Their survey posed the question: “If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?” Of the 237 liberals, only 42 (18%) chose the lowest scale point, “not at all.” In other words, 82% admitted that they would be at least a little bit prejudiced against a conservative candidate, and 43% chose the midpoint (“somewhat”) or above. In contrast, the majority of moderates (67%) and conservatives (83%) chose the lowest scale point (“not at all”)….

Conservative graduate students and assistant professors are behaving rationally when they keep their political identities hidden, and when they avoid voicing the dissenting opinions that could be of such great benefit to the field. Moderate and libertarian students may be suffering the same fate.”

Heterodox Academy has some other explanations as well, including differences in interest and the effects of education on political ideology. On political ideologies in education, they note:

“Many may view education as “enlightening” and believe that an enlightened view comports with liberal politics. There is little evidence that education causes students to become more liberal. Instead, several longitudinal studies following tens of thousands of college students for many years have concluded that political socialization in college occurs primarily as a function of one’s peers, not education per se (Astin, 1993; Dey, 1997).”

Part of me is nervous to be entering that kind of environment. The other part of me feels a responsibility to enter it.

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