Conservative Science: Yur Doon It Rong
DougJ and Tim F. have both weighed in on the John Tierney – Megan McCardle “Why are universities so mean to conservatives?” whimper. DougJ is at once gobsmacked and confirmed in his view of the cluelessness of the “argument” advanced, while Tim F. sees much less here than meets his perhaps-jaundiced eye.
Me? I can’t quite agree with Tim’s sense of the pithlessness of this latest attempt to demand equal treatment for principled young earthers amongst the ravings of all those Foucoultvian mathmeticians.*
I’m more with DougJ, as to me, Tierney and McArdle are firing one more shot at the whole idea of authoritative knowledge as a source of influence in civil society. Partly, this is just self interest: the more folks like McArdle can devalue the status of expert knowledge, the less they have to fear of correction by those who, in fact, both know and understand more than they do.
But beyond the goal of reducing personal embarrassment, the more that the independent authority of scholars and scientists can be diminished, the easier it becomes for ever more risible statements to take on the status of holy writ. After all, we all know that progressive taxes infallibly drive away the rich…Right?
That said (and there’s more to be done with a detailed fisking of both Tiernery and McCardle, which I may yet attempt) here I just want to point out that Tierney undercuts the entire farrago with one injudicious anecdote.
His source, Jonathan Haidt, a U. VA social psychologist, made the central claim that Tierney takes up and McArdle then amplifies. Haidt claims that the political orientation of the members of his field is so overwhelmingly liberal that only discrimination can account for that distribution. His proof? A show of hands at a conference.** Other than that, the only other Haidt evidence Tierney references comes from an email from an allegedly victimized student:
“I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”
O. K. class. What does this complainant get wrong?
I’ll give you a hint. Look again at this sentence:
Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished.
That is: this student says that he or she is “certain” that her/his results would break consensus, and hence, inevitably, would languish in conspiratorially enforced obscurity.
Uh, kid. Listen up: When you already know what your research will reveal, what does that tell you?
It ain’t research.
You have no knowledge to “contribute to the knowledge base” if the conclusions you propose to add to our collective store of human wisdom is what you already know by some process other than the “research” you propose.
Note that Haidt’s anonymous disappointed ideologue tells us of his/her intention to respond to her/his field’s stunning lack of awe at this proposal by picking up his/her marbles and going home.
Which is another way of saying that this student found it impossible to do the actual hard work of science: construct testable hypotheses, and experiments in which the results may in fact confound your expectations. If you won’t do that, you can’t make it science … and Hey, Presto! another conservative is discriminated against.
This is, of course, exactly the problem we face in trying to get our political discourse to respond to what we do actually know about the world.
So, to cycle back to the beginning of this post, I agree with Tim that the overt attack on the “liberal” academy has faded a bit since the haute crazoid days of 2002 and 2003.
But this drip, drip, drip of suggestion that somehow everything we know or discover about the world is tinged by partisan contingency does enormous damage, more so by far, IMHO, than any transparent direct assault on the academy
All of which is why it remains vital to remind folks over and over again that one big reason modern American conservatives have such trouble in so much of the academy is because reality possesses that well known liberal bias.
*No, really. Here’s McCardle, verbatim: “No, I’m not saying you have to hire a Young Earth Creationist to be a biology professor, but I don’t see why it should matter in a professor of Mathematics or Sociology.” That she doesn’t see the problem here is a precise representation of why conservatives of the McArdle stripe have a hard time in the academy. The notion that bodies of knowledge contain worldviews doesn’t seem to penetrate her consciousness. In plain language: it’s really hard to do empirical research or construct complicated proofs in a wide range of fields if you have a deep commitment to something that denies a mountain of physical evidence and logical argument. By way of analogy: you slouch your whole life (towards Bethlehem?) it becomes increasingly difficult to stand up straight. Same things go with habits of mind.
The shorter: you can’t hide the crazy forever, and when it emerges, it makes your colleagues (justifiably) nervous about anything you say.
**Yup, really. I might guess that Haidt has done some real research on this point, but Tierney doesn’t let one know. All he draws upon is Haidt’s account of his own speech. Which, in journalistic terms, is the tell. Tierney misleading (one might say, actually deceptively) cites some studies, but at no point does anyone but Haidt speak, and no time does either Tierney or his subject offer anything but assertions. Which is to say –this isn’t journalism; as a bit of advocacy (that’s the polite word) it would be properly situated at the Corner, and not The New York Times.
Images: Raphael, School of Athens, 1505.
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