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Saturday, February 14, 2004

UPDATE (3/7/04)

This post was the subject of an Instalanche on February 13, 2004. Glen posted more on the subject on March 6, and linked to his original post. As a result, I have gotten a sort of "echo instalanche." For those of you seeing this post for the first time, there is more on the matter here (responding to this article), here (responding to my very first (!) commenter) and here.


Brandon responds

This is the guy, a professor of philosophy at Duke, who said, "We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

The short version:

Brandon's points: First, his Mills reference was a joke now recognized to be not unfunny or untrue but "unappreciated in this context". He neither retracts the statement nor apologizes for having insulted half the population and throwing mud at his political opponents. Second, Brandon argues that, while the political views of the Duke Philosophy depatment are indeed well to the left of the general population, that could not be the result of any bias in hiring because of the demonstrably untrue "fact" that no job candidate's political views are known prior to hiring. Third, Brandon concludes from this that there must therefore be some set of traits or qualities of people on the left of the political spectrum which makes them good academics, but he can't tell us what those traits or qualities are. Fourth, Brandon thinks conservative Duke students should get over being called stupid by their professor and hone their political thinking, presumably into somthing along the lines of the political thinking of the professor. And fifth, instead of having to be insulted and discriminated against for the four years required to get an undergraduate degree, Brandon urges conservative students to continue the process for the rest of their lives by getting a doctorate and becoming professors of philosophy, where their careers can be limited based on their political views.

The long version (Brandon's statements are in bold):

... I am convinced that there is a large group of people in the country who are not at all interested in a calm rational discussion of the issues raised by the recent ad in The Chronicle taken out by the Duke Conservative Union.

That's true. There are such people, and Professor Brandon, you are one of them. Calm, rational discussion of the issues does not include characterizing your opponents as stupid.

... I accept the DCU's contention that the distribution of political views of Duke's faculty is significantly different from, and to the left of, the United States population as a whole. As a philosopher of science I see this phenomenon as worthy of exploration and explanation. I'll return to that shortly.

In my response to The Chronicle reporter I gave a quote from John Stuart Mill that I thought was quite funny. I now see that the humor is not much appreciated in this context. Furthermore, as a political philosopher Mill is a hero to both the left and the right. So, except to say that we should all read more Mill, I'll leave him out of this.

Was there an apology in there somewhere? Did he say the statement was untrue? No, just that the statement was a joke which was not (and could not be?) appreciated by the unenlightened neanderthals on the right.

... I think ... [there are philosophy courses where] ... the political leanings of the professor are exactly as relevant as those of your math professor. As a graduate student I was a teaching assistant in a logic course taught by a socialist. He used the textbook written by his colleague, a conservative Republican. If the teacher has been a Republican and the text written by a socialist I don't think the class would have been any different. But what about courses in philosophy of law, ethics and social and political philosophy? Here I accept that the course content might well be different were it taught by a conservative Republican vs. a liberal Democrat. Different, but not radically different.

Not radically different? Oh, please. In what courses taught by conservatives might Che Guevara and Fidel Castro be extolled as heroic figures? Name the courses taught by a conservative where the pharmaceutical industry is vilified for not giving away for free AIDS and other drugs that they spent millions, or even billions, to develop, test and bring to the market. Tell me where to take a course taught by a conservative in which capitalism is demonized as the root of all evil.

... There seems to be a widespread perception that professors reward students for agreeing with them and penalize those who disagree with them. That has certainly not been my experience; not as a student, nor a professor. Philosophers value good argumentation. If your professor is a Rawlsian and you offer a strong argument for preferring Nozick's position to Rawls' you will be rewarded. You don't need to agree with your professor in order to learn from him or her.

That's only partially true. You don't need to agree with the professor in order to learn from him. But you frequently do have to agree with the professor in order to get a good grade. In my college, the professors were, in general, fairly liberal (although not by today's standards) and the best of them could and did grade without politics in mind. But only the very best of them. I do not believe that was true of the majority. Even if I am wrong and it was true of each and every one of them, it would be an unusual student who expressed views diametrically opposed to those of his professor when said professor has publicly stated that those views (and the people who espouse them) are stupid. An application for your professor of the very ideas that he has indicated are stupid is generally not the best route to a high GPA.

So I agree with the DCU that conservative Duke students will in fact take a large number of their courses with a significant political content from professors whose politics differs from theirs. Why not see this as an opportunity to hone your political thinking rather than see it as an obstacle to the sort of education you want?

In other words, being exposed to Professor Brandon's politics is an opportunity to discard your stupid political beliefs in favor of the more intelligent ones advocated by ... Professor Brandon! How could conservatives have been so blind? On a more serious note, since we are talking about "political thinking" and, at least according to Brandon, not about course content, why is Professor Brandon suggesting that this is a one way street? Why should Brandon not welcome this opportunity to hone his political thinking, rather than dismissing those who don't agree with him as stupid?

Finally, let me go over what I did and did not say. The DCU seems to believe that the difference in the politics of the faculty vs. the population as a whole is due to hiring bias. The claim is that we liberals only want to hire other liberals. The process for hiring faculty in our university is largely decentralized. The hiring units in universities are departments, not the administration. I did not presume to speak for other departments, but I did categorically deny that there was any such bias in the hiring practices of Duke's philosophy department.

I don't doubt that Brandon denied the charge of hiring bias, but despite that denial, his Mills quote establishes beyond any doubt the contempt in which he holds conservatives, thus making the denial completely meaningless. Think of his statement as applied to minority candidates, instead of conservatives:

We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as the Grand Wizard of the KKK said, stupid people are generally black, then there are lots of blacks we will never hire.

Would you believe someone who said that and followed it by denying that there was no racial discrimination in his hiring policies? I wouldn't.

None of us would want such a bias to be there...

Is that because liberals are too smart to entertain any bias with respect to those stupid conservatives?

... , and in virtually all cases there is no mechanism for it to be there. Typically, we know nothing about the candidates' politics until after they are hired.

Wrong. Just wrong. To do its job correctly, the hiring committee will have read the candidate's published works. It will know the institutions where the candidate worked and studied. The committee will have heard the candidate speak. It will have communicated with the candidate's thesis advisor and/or department chair. Any one of those things will provide a strong indication of the candidate's political beliefs, if not an outright statement of them.

... The serious and interesting issue is how do we explain the surplus of liberals in academia. If we rule out the hiring bias hypothesis, what's left?

But Brandon has not provided a reason to rule out the hiring bias hypothesis, other than the patently false claim that it could not happen because the people doing the hiring are blissfully unaware of the political leanings of the candidates prior to hiring.

The phenomenon could be due to the political indoctrination of new hires. But given the independent nature of most academics this is not at all credible.

Post hiring political indoctrination is Brandon's straw man, easily rebutted. The issue here is not political indoctrination of new hires, but political bias in selecting those new hires.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the only viable hypothesis left is something like the following: There is a statistical association between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views. Said another way, a larger proportion of academics are likely to be liberal, but certainly not all, and this may also vary by field and subfield because of the nature of knowledge, learning and the advancement of knowledge in that field. But, stated this way the hypothesis still remains incredibly vague. What qualities, what traits are we talking about? What causal relations underlie these statistical associations? These questions are worth exploring, but I think the hypothesis is right headed.

Obviously, there is a strong correlation between one's politics and one's academic standing and advancement in some fields. I agree with Brandon that the real question is why such a correlation exists. Assuming that this is the natural order of things is, to say the least, unhelpful. And that is all that Professor Brandon does by hypothesizing the existence of a relationship between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views. I keep waiting for him to tell me which traits and qualities of leftists are naturally selected for in the academic world, other than left leaning politics. But of course, he doesn't. And I think he can't, because they don't exist.

If conservative Duke students object to being taught by liberal professors, there is not much they can do about it in the short term.

I don't think Conservative Duke students were objecting to being taught by liberal professors. I think they were objecting to the hypocrisy of liberal professors who demand diversity based on skin color but uniformity of political thought. I think they were objecting to the disdain with which they were treated by liberal professors. I think they were objecting to the offhand dismissal of their political ideology as stupid by liberal professors.

But over the longer haul they could change the political landscape of leading research universities. Study hard, do well in school, go on to get a Ph.D. and get yourself a job teaching at a university.

Where your prospects for advancement will, by Brandon's own admission, be limited based on your stupid political views. Right. Only masochists need apply. Can you imagine the reaction this little bit of smug condescension would get if it had been directed at a minority student?

But if you do you might find that political indoctrination is not really what animates academic life.

As noted above, political indoctrination is a straw man, easily dismissed by Brandon. Political bias in hiring is the issue, here, which results in gross underrepresentation of conservatives in academia. Other than a wholly unsupported denial, Brandon has said nothing to refute the existence of that bias.
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