Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Revised Standards

Given how down I was on Megan McArdle's terrible previous article on potential anti-conservative bias, I thought it only fair to note that her follow-up is actually a lot better, to start with at least.

Most of what she writes in the first half of the article is entirely fair.  She's right that bias does not have to be intentional, and she's certainly right that there's little point in arguing "I know I'm not biased because I've looked into my heart".  I'm sure (though I haven't checked) that there were plenty of weak arguments put forward in response to her previous post.

But - and you knew there was one coming - the problem is she is fighting the weak arguments.  The stronger one - that this is a complex issue that needs a rigorous and intelligent approach - is left entirely unconsidered.  She even references this issue with regard to the Republican/conservative conflation, and then just bats it aside as though it's obviously stupid.

It isn't. Moreover, it's central to the point.  McArdle talks at length about the possibility that conservatives might feel out of place in academia but never makes the logical inference that this means a public display of hands is a stupid way to test the proportion of conservatives.  What exactly will be shown?  That there aren't very many conservatives?  That they are made to feel uncomfortable by their fellows? Or that they feel uncomfortable for other reasons (i.e. they already believe what Haidt claims he's proved).  The issue here isn't whether bias is a complex subject - it clearly is.  It's why McArdle can believe the problem is complex but the diagnosis is simple.

This is particularly galling when she starts throwing around the ubiquitous 40% conservative vs 20% liberal statistic around.  This statistic is also  determined by self-identification.  So what's happening here? There are only two options.  Either the conservative proportion of academics really is only 20%, and none of them are afraid to acknowledge themselves as such - a strange truth if they really are the victims of bias - or there are more than 20% but some won't fess up.  In that case, why would we automatically assume that no-one in the general population is suffering from the reverse problem.  Whatever else you want to say about the general political climate in the US, it is unquestionably less friendly to liberals than it is to conservatives.  I don't want to argue that invalidates the 40% value - though I don't trust it mainly because self-identification isn't really a good test of political and philosophical positions - but it needs to be considered at the very least. Otherwise McArdle is compensating for a lack of depth in her approach by pretending what little information she has is beyond reproach.

She then writes:
So while in theory, it's true that you can't simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you've identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn't because of bias, but because the people they've excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ's . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
This is exceptionally lazy (though perhaps emotionally understandable).  Having spent the first two thirds of the article arguing that we cannot ever fall into the trap of suggesting that part of a group represent the whole of a group, McArdle then argues that the (subjective) weaknesses of some of her detractor's arguments suggests we're all a bunch of bigoted conservative haters.  I haven't read the comments she refers to.  Some might indeed be spectacularly ugly.  I have no problem with the idea that there exist liberal academics who can't tell the difference between Glenn Beck and Daniel Larison.  But then let's not forget it was McArdle herself who argued Republican is synonymous with conservative. It might be a little late to start getting pissy about generalisations, much as I agree with her in this case.

But this is just kind of thing McArdle does.  When a generalisation proves her point, she's happy to use it, only to argue that the people who take up her generalisation are demonstrating bias when they throw it back at her.  Once again , anyone unable to consider the possibility that the contemporary Republican party - second only to the Spanish Inquisition of it's hatred of science and logic - might not have a great deal of support within universities is quite simply an idiot.
This also brings up another good point. If McArdle wants to argue Republican=conservative, then here's a question: how much of the disparity is because academics distrust conservatives, and how much is because conservatives distrust academics?  Again, this is a massively complicated issue, and needs to be studied as such.  We certainly need better than this:
..it's also not because academia simply weeds out illogical people who can't handle the scientific method.  Professors are overwhelmingly pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, anti-military, and in favor of redistribution and regulation programs.  These aren't a matter of logic and scientific evidence; they're value judgements.  
By this point McArdle is completely off the reason wagon. None of the above are just value judgements.  That comes into it, sure, but there's plenty of room inside each subject  for rational debate, which McArdle ignores.  She's once again treating the simplicity of a label as though the position it describes is equally simple. To take the case of abortion, the a priori value you put on the life of a foetus might be independent of reasoning (though I wouldn't want to claim that was definitely true), but your progression from that point is either logical or it's not.  The method by which you compare your value judgement for the foetus with your value judgement regarding the importance of not telling a woman what she can and can't do with her own body is logical or it's not.  And as Scott Lemieux demonstrates in this post, it is simply impossible to hold logical positions on all of this and still be "pro-life" in the way the term is understood in America.  Once more, McArdle is conveniently forgetting that words have meanings whenever it suits her.
None of which is to say I agree with the suggestion that this explains the disparity - it's just that McArdle's logic for dismissing the argument is incorrect.
McArdle gamely struggles on:
Excluding conservatives means that academia is losing the trust of the more conservative members of society.  Academics are incredulous and angry about this--the way that many whites are when they hear rumors are spreading in the black community that AIDS was deliberately created and released by the government to destroy them. But the mistrust of the government in the black community is not crazy--not after things like the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment.  
McArdle returns again to the "Conservatives don't like academics" point and once again fails to notice the possibility that she may be looking at a symptom and not a cause.  If I had to pinpoint a time at which the tendency for the right to ignore or denigrate intellectual opinion in America kicked off, it would be during Nixon's administration, which is what McArdle's own interpretation of her sources would seem to back up.  The independent variable (assuming we can trust McArdle to know what that is) remains very much unidentified.  We'll leave aside how distasteful and inappropriate it is to compare academics being bullish in the face of anti-intellectual resistance to the deliberate failure to treat black people for syphilis in order to conduct medical experiments on the sufferers.
Speaking of McArdle's sources, actually, I'd just like to quote three things from the first three pages of the Gross/Simmons paper she links to:
  1. [P]rofessors “represent a negative case to the traditional equation of high socioeconomic status and political conservatism” (Finkelstein 1984:169);
  2. [A]n unfortunate tendency became evident: increasingly, those social scientists who turned their attention to professors and their politics, and employed the tools of survey research, had as their goal simply to highlight the liberalism of the professoriate in order to provide support for conservatives urging the reform of American colleges and universities. Indeed, the last decade in particular has witnessed a concerted mobilization on the part of conservative activists, think tanks, foundations, and some professors aimed at challenging so-called
    “liberal hegemony” in higher education (Doumani 2006; Messer-Davidow 1993; Slaughter 1988; Wilson 1995), and much recent research on faculty political views – what we term second wave research to contrast with the first wave work of Lazarsfeld, Lipset, and others – has been beholden to this agenda;
  3. [W]e show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical.
This is the paper McArdle offers as "what evidence [she has]", a paper that notes that academia is remarkable precisely because it seems to invert conservative dominance everywhere else at that level of socioeconomic class (strange how that doesn't seem to be on the radar), and notes further that much of the research in this area is beholden to the very agenda McArdle is (consciously or not) pushing.  She's allegeding liberal self-reinforcement whilst referencing a paper which claims to have found evidence that the exact opposite is true. Either she didn't even get through the first three pages, or she did and ignored completely the fact that it cast doubt on her premises.

Which, once again, demonstrates rather well why McArdle shouldn't be allowed a keyboard.  It wasn't enough to make the reasonable point that some of the arguments against her position were silly. She had to move on to pulling arguments out of the clear blue sky and hoping no-one had the time to check whether she was right.

How unfortunate for her I've been waiting for an email for a few hours...

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