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.
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?
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.