Friday, 3 March 2017

A Lefty Academic Writes Leftily About Leftwing Groupthink.

If you read or listen to the rightwing media, by which I mean BBC Radio 4's Today show, the Times, the Mail and a range of other grubby outfits, you'll have heard about some research by one Noah Carl (currently studying for a PhD in sociology at Oxford) that reveals that universities are packed with left wingers.  

 Although I have a very busy schedule of indoctrination and brainwashing to get through today, I thought I'd have a look at this report to see whether it stands up to the kind of scrutiny everything I publish has to undergo, even when it doesn't get the attention of major news outlets. If you're interested in methodology, stick around. 

Firstly, the report is called 'Lackademia', though the URL is a little more blunt: it reads 'Left Wing Bias Paper'. Now this hurts, because some years ago I coined the term 'slackademics' to satirise the view that we teach for six weeks a year before bunking off to Siena or somewhere equally agreeable, where we quaff wine in-between organising attacks on Truth or Objectivity. I meant it as a joke, but unless the Adam Smith Institute (for it is they) are making a clever reference to Lacan's theory of desire being fuelled by a lack of being, then it looks like this thing is snide from the off. 

Who are the Adam Smith Institute? Well, it's a very, very rich think-tank funded by nobody knows whom because they won't tell us (though off the top of my head I'd guess: the Koch brothers, mining, pharmaceuticals, weapons, oil and tobacco firms). They dedicate themselves to campaigning against all government and regulations, believing that the state's only roles should be a) nuking foreigners and b) persecuting trades unionists. Sorry, they do have another role: to ensure that the actual Adam Smith spins perpetually in his grave as the Institute continues to abuse his name and ideas by wilfully distorting and extrapolating beyond anything he'd recognise as his own. 

Anyway… the ASI reckons that universities are stuffed with leftists and they want to know why. I must assume that this is the first in a series of papers, perhaps including 'Why Are So Many Bankers Rightwing?' and 'Why Are Conservatives Over-Represented In The Arms Trade?', though I may be being over-optimistic. For those of you too busy to trawl through the whole thing, the Executive Summary is probably enough: 


  • Individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia. 
  • Though relatively little information is available, evidence suggests that the overrepresentation of left-liberal views has increased since the 1960s. The proportion of academics who support the Conservatives may have declined by as much as 25 percentage points since 1964.
  • The left-liberal skew of British academia cannot be primarily explained by intelligence. The distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population.
  • The left-liberal skew may be partly explained by openness to experience; individuals who score highly on that personality trait tend to pursue intellectually stimulating careers like academia. And within the top 5% of IQ, openness to experience predicts support for left-wing parties.
  • Other plausible explanations for left-liberal overrepresentation include: social homophily and political typing; individual conformity; status inconsistency; and discrimination.
  • Ideological homogeneity within the academy may have had a number of adverse consequences: systematic biases in scholarship; curtailments of free speech on university campuses; and defunding of academic research by right-wing governments. 
  • Recommendations include: raising awareness; being alert to double standards; encouraging adversarial collaborations; and emphasizing the benefits of ideological heterogeneity within the academy. 
I quite like a report that admits at the very start of a sentence that 'relatively little information is available' then leaves merely a comma before using the phrase 'evidence suggests…'. Point 2 depends on Intelligence Quotient scores, as though IQ isn't thoroughly discredited as anything other than a measure of how people perform on IQ tests: Nisbett's Intelligence and How To Get It is pretty persuasive on how IQ is a function of various silent and/or unconscious social assumptions about what constitutes intelligence. I always did very badly on IQ tests, and also struggle with doors bearing PUSH and PULL stickers, yet here I am with my PhD, managing to string a sentence together. 

Now I have to say that I like the implication of points 2 and 3: that leftwing academics are simply more intelligent and outward-looking than those on the right. Sadly though, it's nonsense. The use of political parties as a proxy for 'conservative' and 'liberal-left' doesn't really work: there are some very-close-minded Stalinists identifying themselves with the left and some very open-minded conservatives (or so I hear: I don't get invited to those kinds of social events). But what's important is that the ASI is worried about campuses producing generations of leftwing graduates and academics who never hear or espouse a rightwing view. Which is funny because virtually every politician did the same course (PPE, Oxford) and there's no shortage of conservatives on any campus. What ASI have done is guess that they're all teaching humanities and decided to focus on that. Then it's a short step to deciding that all these lefties are throttling 'free speech'. 

OK, that's the executive summary: the version that the newspapers and R4 picked up because it makes a good headline. That's what Adam Smith Institute want. But I'm going to spoil their fun by reading the whole thing. First impressions: it's like a bought essay of the kind I'm all too familiar with. It's nicely proof-read and fluently written. There are even footnotes to make it look like real research, but there's a major gap between assertions and evidence. 

It starts with Orwell's attack on the 1930s' left's lack of patriotism (wow, a real 'hot take') and quotations from the Telegraph, the Spectator (James Delingpole, no less) and the Daily Mail bemoaning the leftist bias in universities: “Universities have become breeding grounds for intolerance where anyone challenging left-wing views is ‘shouted down’”. Let's just take a moment to remind ourselves that even Wikipedia has banned the Daily Mail as a reliable source. This is not a great beginning: I once read a student essay which took its definition of socialism from the BNP's website. It feels familiar. 

There's a quick definition of what 'left' and 'right' mean which is largely OK, before we're plunged into the 'evidence' for leftwing overrepresentation. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. 

Relatively little good evidence is available on the political views of British academics. Nonetheless, that which are available point to a sizable left-liberal skew. In April of 2015, the Times Higher Education (THE) ran an online poll open to anyone with a UK university email address, which asked respondents whom they intended to vote for in the upcoming election
That's not great: the 2015 poll was therefore open to all students and staff. It was, as this report fairly notes, 'self-selecting'. However, they continue to use it as evidence, despite admitting in the methodological appendix that 'The question posed by the THE poll (2015) was not stated explicitly in the write-up'. So: the Institute report relies on a self-selecting newspaper poll without being able to say for certain what the question was, and worse, what the response rate was in percentage terms or raw numbers. We learn that 46% of the respondents (probably) said they'd vote Labour but we don't know whether 50,000 people replied or 5. This is backed up by a paper by Halsey from…1992, which even the authors admit isn't an unproblematic thing to do:

Insofar as the question posed by Halsey (1992) was different to the one posed by the THE poll (2015), the two sets of figures are not directly comparable. 
Nonetheless, this paper decides that if there is a flaw with the THES poll, it's that
utilising the overall percentages understates the academy’s left-liberal skew 
for reasons which remain obscure to me. But for them it's fine: it gives them enough ammunition to confidently claim that
Relative to the outcome of the last general election then, British academia shows a considerable left-liberal skew. At least 50% of the general public voted for right- wing or conservative parties in 2015, compared to less than 12% of academics. 
Then the paper says this:
Interestingly, and consistent with evidence from the United States (Carl 2015b), left-liberal overrepresentation varies systematically across subject areas: the percentage of respondents supporting the Conservatives was highest in business and law (though still less than 20%), was low in the social sciences (at less than 10%), and was lowest of all in the humanities and arts (at less than 5%).
Now congratulations are due to Carl – who is cited repeatedly here and is, not coincidentally, the author of this piece –  for getting two papers into the same journal in a single year, both examining why intelligent people are leftwing. However, Carl 2015b doesn't have anything to say about British departmental differences in voting intentions, and nor does the THE poll, at least according to what's quoted in this report (and he doesn't give a link, an issue number or a page number). 

What Carl does do here is make a pretty table conflating Halsey's 1964-1989 political analysis with the figures derived from the THES even though he admits that the questions aren't the same (and without admitting that the THES poll isn't statistically significant or available for analysis). 



Are these percentages or raw numbers? Noah doesn't tell us but let's be charitable and assume that they are. He then provides a graph of the same dubious figures which fills up a little space, then repeats Halsey's 1992 table of far-left/left/right/far-right academic identifications without comment, and certainly without wondering whether definitions (and events) have changed anything in the ensuing 25 years. 

Then we reach Section 3: Intelligence As An Explanation for Left-Liberal Overrepresentation. I should say before I plunge in that I'm a literary scholar, rather than a sociologist or a biologist, so some of what follows is derived from other people who are experts. 

Essentially, Carl sets up a straw man by wondering out loud whether academics are leftwing because they're more intelligent. He cites American research as though conclusions about the political cultures of the US can be imported into a British context without question, and again cites himself to prove that while being clever can make you more social liberal, being clever ('cognitive ability') is positively associated with some rightwing economic beliefs. The suggestion appears to be that the cleverest people don't mind gays and dope-smoking as long as neither activity is being taxed. 

But how do we apply all this to Britain?
Unfortunately, there do not appear to have been any surveys of British academics asking about specific policy issues, either economic (e.g., nationalisation of industry) or social (e.g., immigration). 
 Well, we could do some research. Or we could do this: 
I calculated the distribution of party support for individuals within the top 5% of IQ4 , using data from the Understanding Society survey.  
I don't know anything about the Understanding Society survey other than that it seems legitimate and robust. Score one for Noah. I do know, however and as mentioned above, that IQ is a load of cobblers often promoted by rather unpleasant people who have a habit of moving from IQ scores to theories of racial difference, by which they almost always mean superiority. We'll see what happens as 'Lackademia' unfolds. For now though, Noah discovers that there are as many high-IQ Tories as there are in the general population, and slightly fewer Labour supporters. What he concludes is that Tories aren't being excluded from academia because they're stupid, but because they don't hold the right economic views. I'm starting to smell polemic, children. 

After another couple of exceedingly unhelpful graphs, we move on to a discussion of whether conservatives are rare on campus (despite having no serious evidence of this) because they're not open-minded. Carl concludes that Labour and Lib Dem supporters are more likely to be open-minded than Tories, but dismisses the survey's evidence that UKIPpers are more open-minded than Tories as 'sampling error'. Again, his graphs depend heavily on the problematic THE poll for which he lacks the raw figures and the actual questions. 

Section 5 is where it gets interesting. He asks whether conservatives are too incurious and inflexible to thrive in academia, citing himself to point out that mathematics and similar subjects lend themselves to a 'predilection for certainty'. Elsewhere he refers to science being 'objective':
It should be recognised, of course, that all the evidence of bias cited above is from the social sciences; the physical sciences and mathematics do not appear to have been a icted by ideological homogeneity in the same way. This is perhaps not sur- prising, however, given the objective nature of the physical sciences and mathemat- ics, as well as the obvious fact that the social sciences relate directly to the sphere with which politics itself is concerned, namely human behaviour and society.  
which means he's either missed the last century and the development of postmodernism and poststructuralism, or he just doesn't want to talk about them. Or, and this might just be the answer, he mistakes conservative scientific discourses for neutrality. On this point I'll just leave this here: more research is being done and more money is spent on male baldness than on malaria. Now tell me science is immune to social forces. 

There's a vague discussion about self-selection before Carl wonders whether academics are leftwing because they're paid so little: out of jealousy they start to develop levelling tendencies which they think of as egalitarianism. 
Fourth, the left-liberal leanings of academics may derive from a peculiarity of their social-class positions, namely that they receive low incomes relative to their advanced educational attainment and rich cultural capital (Gross, 2013). The closer that society gets to laissez-faire capitalism, the more status, power and in uence will be tied to individuals’ earnings and commercial achievements, and the less academics will earn relative to those in other occupations vying for social in influence (lawyers, doctors, managers etc.). Consequently, academics generally prefer policies that minimise differences in earnings across occupations, the better to safeguard their own influence. 
Is this true? Am I just a bitter purveyor of the politics of envy? There's no evidence, but Noah's just going to leave it there for you to think about. Meanwhile, he's going to selectively use American research to demonstrate that leftist academics discriminate against conservatives in the hiring process (he's not interested in other research about hiring processes, such as racial and gender biases), nor is he going to mention that hiring is largely a function of managers, not academics). 

But don't worry: he's got solid evidence. Well, he's got a paper which found that 82% of the conservative academics surveyed felt that there's a hostile climate for their views. This isn't, obviously, proof of employment discrimination because 100% of the respondents had academic jobs. Still, 82% is a massive number. We should all be Very Concerned Indeed that 82% of conservative academics feel persecuted. 

What's that you say? Raw numbers? Well, if you insist. 
82% of the 17 conservative respondents felt there was a hostile climate towards their political beliefs within the field, compared to just 7% of the 266 liberal respondents. 
So that's 14 conservatives in one particular field – social psychologists – cowering in their offices in fear of their lives. How many of the liberals feel persecuted? Alas, space restrictions don't permit Carl to dwell on it, but then again, nor does the original paper as far as I can make out (though I'm pretty poor on statistical analysis and remain open to correction). Noah does cite a supporting study, but one review suggests that both papers concentrate on the conservative/liberal divide when what the findings actually reveal is that academics are too ready to discriminate against their colleagues across the field. Some of the evidence just doesn't bear the weight of implication. I'm disturbed by this finding:

Similarly, almost a third of the sociologists interviewed by Yancey (2011) stated that they would disfavour hiring a Republican, while a comparable fraction said they would look favorably upon a prospective candidate’s membership of the ACLU (a socially liberally non-profit organization). 
But I'm reassured by the knowledge that the hiring process wouldn't allow any discussion of this to occur. 

If you're still with me, I can only apologise: we're only just getting to the meat of this study, and this is where the amusement I got from picking holes in Noah's paper comes to a juddering halt. I am officially sounding the Jim Crow Klaxon. The next section of Carl's paper addresses the consequences of his unproved claims. It starts unpromisingly with a citation of Roger Scruton back in 1985, just after the Salisbury Review published Honeyford's academically unjustifiable attack off multiculturalism. Scruton thinks that editing the Review led to him being black-balled from academia: he doesn't seem to think that writing an awful lot of its articles under a range of pseudonyms displayed a lack of integrity. But this is mere throat-clearing. The true purpose of Lacakademia becomes clear. It isn't really about the sociological curiosity of imbalanced political views amongst academics. It is about academic rejection of theories of racial superiority. There's a swipe at climate science, then a sustained critique of sociology's use of the term 'white privilege'. 

the term erroneously implies that whites are advantaged relative to all other groups. Whereas in actual fact, Asian Americans are more advantaged than whites along a number of important sociological dimensions: they have higher average incomes, better educational outcomes, and a lower likelihood of crime victimisation. 
This is of course localised and unnuanced, which is no surprise. A white male author from a country governed by a white male billionaire, taking money from an élite, white think-tank in a country ruled by white conservatives is only ever going to claim that he's actually from a persecuted minority. Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose

He then attacks sociologists in particular for their discourse which casts conservative views of society as constricting rather than structured, then castigates them for their 'angry expostulation', which is pretty rich from someone who started his reports with Daily Mail quotations. Economics departments too are up to no good: their text books have too much to say about market failure and too little about government failure (never mind that the global economy was crushed by banking corporate failure). 

And then, dear readers, we are back to the thorny issue of Race. Carl talks of 'witch-hunts' despite the only recent witch-hunt was the terrifying Professor Watchlist in the US, which invited students to add their professors' names to a database of subversives. What it boils down to is this: the sociologists have been nasty to the Eugenicists and Racial Superiority theorists, in particular Charles Murray. E. O. Wilson and Lawrence Summers. Murray used IQ (hello again) to postulate in The Bell Curve that Asians are intellectually superior to whites, with black and Latino people (yes, all these categories are used homogeneously) at the bottom of the heap, because Genetics. Not history, experience, class, economics, racism, poverty. Bad Genes. (As Roger McCarthy pointed out, another reference is to Helmuth Nyborg's outraged (and outrageous) defence of eugenics.

What are the consequences of these nasty close-minded leftwing sociologists (even though Carl's already suggested they're actually more open-minded than conservatives)? Well, it's a dystopian vision of hell:

‘A social science without sacred values’, Winegard and Winegard (2016) go as far to suggest that a substantial number of academic social scientists have become “paranoid egalitarian meliorists”: individuals who espouse a narrative in which society progresses ever closer toward a state of natural equality (between the genders, classes, races etc.), 
Godless social scientists leading us into a state of class, race and gender equality.  The bastards. (And while I'm at it, Winegard and Winegard (2016) is an unpublished working paper, i.e. not peer-reviewed, while the other paper by this duo cited is a rather bitter defence of Evolutionary Psychology against the perception that it's a crank theory indebted to, well, Nazis and anyone who discounts social and environmental factors in favour of biology. Hello again, racial superiority theory. 

After that, it's downhill to the argument that campus homogeneity leads to the end of free speech, because universities have free speech 'codes' and sometimes give 'trigger warnings'. 


On both sides of the Atlantic, lecturers have begun issuing so-called trigger warnings before they discuss potentially upsetting material. Reportedly, law students at the University of Oxford were warned that they might find the content of lectures about sexual offences distressing, and were given the opportunity to leave beforehand (Daily Mail 2016).  

'Reportedly'! This is just embarrassing. UK universities are compelled by government to have rules about these things. I know because I'm a university governor and contributed to writing those rules. The current government equates freedom of speech to Letting Islamic Terrorists Recruit: British universities have done rather well to resist this implication. Personally, I'm in favour of some basic restrictions: the right seems to be arguing that if someone shouts 'Fire', then I check the facts and say 'Don't listen to him, there isn't a fire', I'm an enemy of free speech. As to 'Trigger Warnings: I teach literature. I teach material that represents and explores deeply distressing subjects in graphic ways. I've never once decided not to teach these things, but because I know there are people in the class who have suffered some of the experiences discussed, I make sure we talk about them in a supportive environment. 

However: any paper that uses the word 'reportedly' and relies on the Daily Mail for evidence is a paper that's less interested in what actually happened, and more interested in garnering – as it did – outraged headlines in papers like, well, the Daily Mail. Carl adds to the abject stupidity by citing Spiked Online as evidence for his opposition to no-platforming. If you don't know Spiked, it's an outpost of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, a tiny groupuscule that as Living Marxism accused ITN of faking evidence of Serbian death camps, then devoted itself to publishing pro-industry propaganda under a variety of pseudonyms. It uses a variety of front organisations to propagate a radical libertarian-captialist agenda which opposes government action against, for example, racism, climate change and child pornography. Once you're reduced to citing this disgusting crew as evidence, you're down the rabbit hole and there's no coming back. 
What's missing from any of this is the absence of any contextual analysis. What about universities as institutions, existing within, contributing to and being influenced by neoliberalising discourses? What of the shift in the UK to student fees, to managerial over-reach, to the Employability Agenda? What about diversity between universities and regions? Or about social and cultural factors beyond individual psychology? Nothing. 

Instead, what we have is a nasty attempt to rehabilitate eugenics disguised as a defence of freedom of speech. It's bad enough that Noah Carl was paid to produce this stuff: it's worse that the media didn't spot it. 

One last thing: the Adam Smith Institute's commercial spin-off was in the paper yesterday too: banned from Uk government contracts for, er, corrupt and dishonest practices. Perhaps they need staff from a wider range of ethical positions to prevent this kind of thing happening? Just a thought. 

3 comments:

David said...

You: ...' as though IQ isn't thoroughly discredited as anything other than a measure of how people perform on IQ tests.

From your own link to the NYT:

'Nisbett himself proceeds with due caution. He grants that I.Q. tests ... measure something real'

Liz Morrish said...

If Conservatives have lost a lot of ground since 1964, perhaps this is because they have tracked severely to the right and abandoned consensus politics. I certainly have no experience of right wing positions, or any political positions, being shouted down. It is actually quite difficult to get students to debate at all, or challenge taken-for-granted positions of class, race, linguistic and gender provilege. From my experience, it is those students who do challenge these who are made to feel uncomfortable by their peers.

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