Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix.😉

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.


That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
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.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?

No:

Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we 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. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 — link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Conservatives, Data matter, MSM nonsense, professoriat follies, Stupidity

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19 Comments on “Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Thomas Levenson, ScienceSeeker Feed. ScienceSeeker Feed said: Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition. http://dlvr.it/Gm37c […]


  2. Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

    It’s just incomprehensible that this doen’t make any difference to her audience. She very often links to papers that don’t support what she is saying and occassionally someone in comments points that out, but nobody seems to care except a few “emotional” liberals.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I’m sorry, but reading those quotes, I think you’re reading what you want to read – they all seem to back up her argument?

    • Tom Says:

      Seriously, dude? Could you give me some examples of where you think I have so badly misread the source?

      Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to chalk you down as another ‘bot.

      • Jonathan Says:

        I think you’re exactly right to say suggest that “one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light” and you’re really not doing that here.

        But, to be specific, the argument as I read it is that Republicans are in the minority in Academia – and that’s what the paper says! The fact that there’s also moderates as well as liberals doesn’t really defeat the point. Neither does the evidence that Conservatives don’t want to become academics defeat her point – again, that’s exactly what she argued, that in cases of cultural discrimination its hard to distinguish causes.

        I’m not whether she’s right or she’s wrong, but trying to say that she’s equating liberals with “racist scum” seems vastly unfair.

    • Tom Levenson Says:

      Jonathan:

      Give you credit for coming back. You are wrong, however in the way you frame McArdle’s argument. She doesn’t say that conservatives are in the minority in the academy; she says they are in a vanishingly small minority, so small that the only possible explanation is that they are the victims of a classic instance of dehumanizing disdain for the other, a directly analogue to racist bigotry.

      that’s why I quoted her at such length above. I wanted even her defenders to see clearly the sequence of her claims.

      The paper she cites in support of this does not say any of that, and specifically says that liberals in the academy are a plurality, not a majority. It goes on to present a detailed analysis that strongly suggests bigotry is not the cause of conservative apparent underepresentation in the universities. McArdle ignores all that, presumably as it does not support the myth she attempts here to advance.

      In the meantime, she does explicitly say “When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible. (her elipsis)

      That’s what I gloss as calling liberals racist scum.

      In other words, I present McArdle in her own words. I let her present the argument as she wishes to have it known. I then gloss it. Correctly, IMHO. I do not see the basis for your complaint.

      • Jonathan Says:

        Thanks Tom – but I still feel like you’re letting older feelings get in the way of a fair reading here.

        Going back to check her post again, she:

        * Doesn’t say “vanishingly small.” She says that Conservatives/Republicans are about 10% of academia, which is significantly statistically different from the population at the large

        * Gives a long list of unconscious biases that can create structural discrimination – sure she uses racism as an example, but you could have used misogyny or homophobia just as easily – which is her argument why the arguments of the paper don’t necessarily follow.

        I think its fair to say that pretty much everyone suffers from some structural biases, in the same way that we’re all susceptible to cognitive dissonance, fundamental attribution error or whatever. That doesn’t make us all racist scum.

        You can disagree whether structural discrimination is a significant factor in this case, but I really think you’re projecting a malicious intent which doesn’t exist.

    • Tom Levenson Says:

      Dear Jonathan,

      You have the wrong end of the stick here.

      First she explicitly uses the example of racism here — so I don’t understand your objection to my referencing that.

      Second she cites in the piece the number she derives from Haidt’s show of hands and comes up wiht a some hundreds to one number for liberals v. conservatives…which is polemical on her part, and is where I get my vanishingly small reference.

      Finally my post is about her deliberate misrepresentation of a source that explicitly seeks to debunk what it refers to as the “second wave” of liberal academy myths. She turns the sense of that paper’s argument on its head to defend a claim that is not fundamentally true.

      She’d done this before, as I refernce in links; she has a habit of misreading academic sources to the benefit of dubious arguments. I’m sorry if you don’t think that it’s appropriate in that contxt to impute motive. But that’s the way it is. She is a profoundly dishonest writer, and I will continue to document it when I can be bothered to check in with her depressing outputs. And by depressing, I mean, something that makes me bridle as a writer that someone else would so degrade a craft that deserves better.

      • Jonathan Says:

        Sorry Tom, but I still think you’re the one misrepresenting her here.

        She never says liberals are racist. She uses racism as a metaphor. I’m pretty sure everybody understands the difference.

        My quick skim reading of the paper doesn’t so much debunk myths, as that we need more data (isn’t that what she said?):

        “First, what are the social mechanisms and processes that account
        for the relative liberalism of the faculty, and in particular for the specific form of
        liberalism we find to be most prevalent, namely liberalism on sex, gender, and foreign
        policy combined with more center left views on socioeconomic matters and race? And
        what accounts for differences in political orientation across fields and institutions? We
        have reviewed some of the hypotheses offered by first wave researchers with regard to
        both questions, but efforts to test these hypotheses using empirical data have been
        extremely limited, and surely more robust explanations could be imagined. Second, what
        – if any – are the effects of professors’ politics on the knowledge they produce, the
        dynamics of knowledge growth, the structure of intellectual fields, and on student
        learning and socialization? Sociologists of knowledge have addressed some of these
        matters, but much more work remains to be done.”

        And as for referencing Haidt’s anecdote being polemical – the whole notion was his idea in the first place!

    • Tom Levenson Says:

      OK, I’m done. I don’t know why it is so hard for you to follow the basic sequence: MM says that racists use certain tropes to justify racism. Liberals use those tropes vis a vis conservatives in the academy, therefore the explanation of the lack of academics of conservative stripe is because liberals exclude them for biased reasons…i.e. behave as racists do to the disfavored group.

      That’s what she says, explicitly, in the passage quoted above. It’s part of her tactical armory as well: to project evil intention onto her opponents so as to preemptively discredit counter arguments. In addition, as I document in detail and you refuse to engage, she does so while invoking literature that does not say what she says it does.

      Your quote of one passage from the intorduction to the piece is a similarly selective quote, omitting as it does, among much else, the damning discussion of second wave sociology that the authors identify as polemical attempts to paint the academy as biased against the right.

      The paper then, as I extensively document above, say many affirmative things, all of which run counter to McArdle’s claims. The lead author then, as I make reference to and quote, extends this work and identifies several sources for the distribution of political views in the academy — a fact which McArdle simply denies and you ignore.

      This is a textbook case of bad faith argumentation packaged in earnestness.

      I’m done here.

      • Jonathan Says:

        Okay, if you insist…

        “OK, I’m done. I don’t know why it is so hard for you to follow the basic sequence: MM says that racists use certain tropes to justify racism. Liberals use those tropes vis a vis conservatives in the academy, therefore the explanation of the lack of academics of conservative stripe is because liberals exclude them for biased reasons…i.e. behave as racists do to the disfavored group.”

        a) Jonathan Haidt said it to start, not MM
        b) Structural bias is broader than racism
        c) And well documented in all sorts of cases, not just made up ad hoc…

        “That’s what she says, explicitly, in the passage quoted above. It’s part of her tactical armory as well: to project evil intention onto her opponents so as to preemptively discredit counter arguments.”

        Saying someone might be biased isn’t saying the same thing as saying they’re evil. This is just behavioural psychology 101, no?

        “In addition, as I document in detail and you refuse to engage, she does so while invoking literature that does not say what she says it does.”

        By “refuse to engage”, you mean reading through and then quoting the conclusion which says a) what she said it did and b) the opposite of what you said it did.

        “Your quote of one passage from the intorduction to the piece is a similarly selective quote, omitting as it does, among much else, the damning discussion of second wave sociology that the authors identify as polemical attempts to paint the academy as biased against the right.”

        Its from the conclusion, actually. And the paper says that there’s not enough evidence to address the issues of the so-called second wave.

        “The paper then, as I extensively document above, say many affirmative things, all of which run counter to McArdle’s claims.”

        You haven’t actually documented any claims that paper makes counter to MM.

        ” The lead author then, as I make reference to and quote, extends this work and identifies several sources for the distribution of political views in the academy — a fact which McArdle simply denies and you ignore.”

        That paper, by contrast, does have some differing explanations – but none that are particularly fatal to a suggestion that there’s some structural bias present.

        Indeed, they suggest:

        “. For example,
        we suggested that elite institutions employ more liberal professors than nonelite schools
        because the former select for individuals who are seen to fully embody societal images of
        the academic role. We do not think this selection process usually takes the form of a
        direct vetting of political belief, but the precise nature of the intersubjective evaluations
        involved, the ways in which judgments of academic excellence may be tacitly linked to
        politics, and the embedding of such judgments in a variety of organizational contexts and
        exigencies, merits close study.”

        Which as far as I can, tell is again, what MM said.

  4. sparky Says:

    But the bottom line doesn’t change: obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.

    Yes, but–what if the publication is more interested in numbers–readers, eyeballs, profit–than in accuracy? Murdoch has proven that it’s possible to make a spectacular amount of money, and develop the power to keep that money, by slip-shod work that conforms to readers’ expectations. Here, you seem to believe that the Atlantic cares. I don’t–I think they are concerned with survival and profitability, and if MM brings the eyeballs and the $, well, who cares what she says? This is the reason I think you are wasting your time with her non-eminence. The people who read her want to be confirmed in their thinking. Tearing her non-arguments apart isn’t going to change their minds because their minds are attuned to “I like the way this sounds” not gee, why would someone publish something so crappily constructed. Put another way, it makes much more sense (to me) to take apart a David Brooks piece, because that’s published to a different audience.

    • Tom Says:

      You could very well be right. David Brooks eviscerations are on tap.

    • Tom Says:

      That said, I have it on good authority that there is some reputational concern over at the Atlantic, so perhaps this isn’t entirely a waste of time.


      • People have been warning her for a very long time that her errors were so obvious that they would damage her reputation. Going by their lack of action, The Atlantic seemed to think that that could not happen.

        They could easily solve this problem by giving her an assistant to check her facts and redo her math. Her conclusions will always be the same anyway.

    • Bob Says:

      The problem is really breaking the circle of wagons she has in her commentariat. Most reasonable people have given up posting entirely in her comments section leaving only nutters that confirm what she wants to believe, that a) liberals are crazy b) she’s always right and that magical libertarian charity exists when you eliminate social programs… among other things.

      I suspect if someone serious posted a line by line fisking/debunking on her site for every post she made, she’d have another meltdown about she’s a very serious person because she comes from a very intimidating family of academics.

      • Tom Says:

        Not to mention rapid banning

      • Bob Says:

        To be fair, she tends to only ban if people start with ad hominem. Being snide, rude and condescending to people is a-ok there.

        I stopped reading her for a glorious 2-3 years because I couldn’t deal with her incompetence, and come back to find her a) having a job at The Atlantic b) a large list of bloggers that debunk her regularly including Sadly No, Balloon Juice, Susan of Texas, Krugman, alicublog, Delong, etc.

        I assumed she wouldn’t be upwardly mobile while being so incompetent, but that was a mistake.


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