Thursday, February 23, 2006

More on Bias In Academia

What's kind of crazy about the debate over bias in academia is that so much effort is expended arguing about it and so little effort is expended actually inquiring about it. I was thinking about this just now as I was not paying attention in the Faculty Senate meeting. As I've said repeatedly around these parts, what we face here is a question that it'd actually be fairly easy to answer.

(Let me make it clear that I'm pretty sure we're going to find bias, but I'll be pleased as hell if we don't. In fact, my expectations and my desires pretty much balance each other out in this case, so I'm about as objective as you can get in this matter.)

So, what are we worried about when we worry about academic bias? Well, I've heard some liberals focus on hiring and firing decisions, noting that people are rarely discriminated against in this regard for being conservative. I've only been part of a few hiring decisions, so my experience is fairly worthless here. Furthermore, my department is unusually level-headed. But just because there's not this kind of egregious bias doesn't mean there isn't any bias. What I'm more worried about--and what you should be worried about, too--is bias in the classroom. Yes, most of my colleagues are left-of-center. But as long as that doesn't show up in bad ways in the classroom, I don't care.

Some professors have reputations for pushing their political views in class; and, knowing the professors, I am inclined to believe that the reputations are accurate. I've had colleagues who couldn't go five minutes without going on a leftist tirade, and who explicitly said that they thought that it was their responsibility to "raise the consciousness" of their students. I've asked my students whether they ever felt that any of their intructors had pushed political views in class, and about half said that they did think this--though, oddly, many said that it was less common in college than it had been in high school. I can virtually guarantee you that it's not conservative views they're hearing in college. We basically don't have conservatives here. Furthermore, many programs--e.g. literary theory programs--are packed with people--postmodernists, poststructuralists, radical feminists, postcolonial theorists and suchlike--who have devoted their entire careers to articulating and defending positions that are inextricably associated with the intellectual and political left. If this does not come out in their teaching I'd be fairly well astounded.

Now, is any of this evidence sufficient to show that there's left-of-center bias in academia? Of course not. But it shows what anybody who's even vaguely objective and who's taught for more than a month can tell you: there's no doubt that there's prima facie reason to think there's a problem. What's needed is actual data. (Note that this is something one of our Anonymi was complaining about below...but his point seemed to be dangerously close to: you need data about this before you are justified in asserting that we need data about this. Which, of course, is silly. We already know enough to know that we need data.)

Whis why, once again, I'm going to point out that we need to figure out how to get the required data, and then we need to get it. Many conservatives seem to have no interest in this, because they are already convinced that there is a problem; many liberals, on the other hand, refuse to even consider the possibility that there might be a problem. But those of us who are genuinely interested in the truth can't be so dogmatic.

So how do we measure bias in academia? Well, that's a different subject for a different time. But it wouldn't be that hard. A few fast suggestions: for one thing we can survey students. There are obvious problems involved in that, but they're by no means insurmountable. People survey for much harder-to-detect things all the time. If an overwhelming number of students think that many of their professors push leftist views on them in class, then that's at least some reason for thinking that it's true. It would be even more effective to have observers sit in on classes. Profs might not like that, but if they're sure that they're not biased, why should they? I wouldn't have any problem with anybody watching any of my classes, because even though I sometimes discuss political issues I'm pretty damn good at keeping my own views out of it. And if I'm wrong about that I want to know. Of course if these were some kind of agents of Big Brother this would be unacceptable--but so long as they're only collecting data for a scientific study there should be no objections by anyone who is genuinely interested in knowing the answer to this question.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I have only anecdote to offer. One is that a recently-minted Ph.D. at my groupblog is writing under an assumed name because he fears that outing himself as a conservative will hurt his academic job prospects, as well as his career down the line.

The second concerns me more, that profs will tend to teach mostly what they agree with, and lack the enthusiasm to fairly present points of view uncongenial to their own.

Another of my co-bloggers, also a conservative (natch), defended one of the lefties who made David Horowitz' dangerous professors list. He is apparently an excellent and thought-provoking teacher.

On the other hand, the student body already had a grounding in conservative thought, which means they had familiarity with both sides of the coin.

Still, the course was "Jewish Philosophy," and would likely be the students' only exposure to that great body of religious and ethical thought.

My point is that it turns out that the professor taught almost exclusively modern Jewish thinkers (including Bob Dylan, it seems), and little of the other 3000 years of Jewish philosophy.

No matter how much good he gave them, it seems to me they still got gypped.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, you claim there's a problem without even stating what it is. I'm certainly not going to claim there isn't a problem, but claiming that bias, in and of it self, is a problem is meaningless. People push their political views on people all the time. I know you live in academia, and are perhaps unaware of how things are out in the corporate world, but political bias is rampant. Not only that, but the fruit of your efforts is used by the corporation to back political causes and candidates.

Personally, because far more people are in corporations than academia, and they spend far more time in corporations than they ever will in school, this seems to me to be a far bigger problem - if there actually is a problem - than whatever equivalent exists in academia.

I don't see anyone jumping up and down trying to solve that.

But again, please lay out the qualitative aspects of what you think the problem actually is. I know you think that there is something intrinsically wrong with having more democrats than liberals, but other than some abstract argument for diversity, I can't for the life of me actually point to any problem which you are claiming we ignore at our peril.

The closest thing I've seen to qualitatively defining a problem that this bias might be causing is TVD's comment above, where the students are short changed in their educational experience because of the limitations in the curriculum. But even then, the concern that profs teach mostly what they agree with is hardly surprising and is clearly not a product of left or right bias - i.e. it's human nature that isn't going away in this century or the next.

Again, I'm begging you to just simply lay out the problems caused by what you identify as left wing bias in qualitative terms. Forget about even defining what "bias" is at this point and just focus on the effects you claim we ignore at our own peril.

Or not. It's your blog. But it is rather frustrating to keep hearing this without any explanation. It makes it darn hard to argue against because there's literally nothing there to argue against other than to discuss your own bias as to why you think there's a bias.

And that's hardly satisfying.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I've come to suspect that you don't even understand what you're asking for.

First you seemed to suggest that I didn't know what the problem was, now (supposing that you're the same Anonymous) you seems to be asking me to explain what bad effect the problem has, all the while pretending that you are asking the same thing.

Look, if you want to resist the conclusion, just tune this discussion out. But don't pretend that you are raising substantive problems.

But I simply cannot believe that you are asking the question "why is biased education bad?"

Look, if you were willing to be even minimally honest about this you could answer these questions yourself.

If you really, honestly can't I'll be happy to fill you in...but I just don't believe it.

Furthermore, I don't think you're even paying attention to what I write, since I explicitly said in the last post that I DON'T care whether or not there are more profs who are liberals. All I care about is what goes on in the classroom.

Finally, bias IS a problem in and of itself, independently of any other consequences. Why on Earth you would believe otherwise is beyond me. I wonder whether you'd be so obtuse on this issue if we were discussing conservative bias.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An example...

In a graduate level course in evolutionary theory, some applications of selectionist thinking to reproductive behavior were canvassed in readings and discussions. Among these were the tendency of male lions to kill the offspring of defeated rivals, and the use of sex to reinforce social cohesion among bonobos.

The prof made a point of voicing his opinion that the model of selection applied to the lions reflected the influence of "conservative" values (red in tooth and claw, etc) on evoultionary theory, while the model applied to the bonobos reflected the influence of "liberal" values (peaceful, not to say pleasurable, coexistence, etc).

In any case, on a midterm exam, students were asked to provide an illustration of natual selection applied to reproductive behavior. Those who used the example of the bonobos received full credit, while those who used the example of the lions had a couple points deducted -- this despite the fact that either answer was completely adequate as a response to the test question.

Although I wasn't taking the course for credit, and so didn't sit the exam myself, I later asked the prof to explain this difference in how answers were graded. He waffled a bit, but in the end let it slip that he thought the "liberal" approach to evolutionary theory was superior to the "conservative" approach, and thought it appropriate to try to inculcate this sensibility in the coming generation of biologists.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bias, in and of it self, is impossible to get rid of. We all have a bevy of biases and many of them are unconscious. For an interesting look at the unconscious biases relate to political leanings, see this article in the WaPo.

As to the assertion that I can cull through your posts on the subject and answer the questions myself, I must confess that I have been following you for quite some time and still haven't found any actual assertions of damages. In your last comment, you claim that bias is a problem in and of itself. Certainly, in the abstract, I agree with you. That's why there are protocols and processes in science which attempt to correct for these biases. But then, some biases in a teacher are the very things that make them such wonderful teachers. I've had teachers who were rabid libertarians and those who were mild Marxists. Listening to my old philosophy teacher rant on about the various political ills in the world was something I actually looked forward to in my college days (oh, and BTW, he was a conservative).

So, again, I'm just asking for some qualitative description of the damage. Is it affecting their education quality as TVD suggested? Is it causing students to reject liberalism and driving them into the loving arms of conservatives? What? What damage does a pushing political view in class actually do?

I'm sorry your frustrated with my insistence of an explanation, but it does seem that if you're going to grab a big stick and start beating up liberals for this damage they're allowing to continue and darkly warn them that they ignore at their peril, as you did in the last post, I think you at least owe them a clear explanation of what you think is the problem. If you can't lay it out in a few sentences or a post, but instead call me an idiot for not seeing the obviousness of the problem....well, it doesn't seem like you have much of an issue if that is the case.

And think of the advantage of clearly laying it out in one post. You can put the link on your front page and whenever bumbling idiots like me ask for it, you can point the post and move on.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob, I think you should get in contact with Horowitz as you seem to have a verifiable problem with liberal bias in the class room.

I do think you're the only person I've ever heard of who actually has a verifiable case of such.

This is precisely the kind of qualitative damage that I was requesting from WS.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I personally think you could get rid of any real or perceived bias on college campuses by paying professors $500k and up, but what the hell do I know. At any rate, here's some funny sarcasm from Miracle Max:

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous -
I wouldn't want to encourage Horowitz.

My example is from more than a decade ago, and hardly verifiable.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Well, you seem to have settled on the "what's the harm?" question as opposed to your previous questions, so we can focus on that one.

But along the way you make one of the most elementary mistakes people make when discussing this stuff. You claim that bias is hard to get rid of. But that's false. We get rid of bias all the time--that's what judges are for, for example. Having no special relationship to either party, they can be impartial. Now, you might mean that people can't be PERFECTLY objective. That may or may not be true, but it isn't relevant. Perfect objectivity is not demanded or required. What we need for most tasks is just *sufficienty objectivity*. Nobody's asking profs to be perfectly objective, but every sane person recognizes that they must be at least reasonably objective. No reasonable person thinks it's o.k. for a prof to go in to class and, e.g., just propound his own theory while instantly dismissing all objections.

O.k., now, as for the "what's the harm?" question: the most obvious harm is that non-objective profs are not passing on knowledge, but mere bias. If you think that one of the primary goals of education is to pass on knowledge, then the problem is obvious. Second, students constitute a captive audience, and cannot be required to accept indoctrination in order to get university credit. Moral issues aside, they're paying for it. They'll have to learn all sorts of things they may not want to learn, but only so long as those things are in the ballpark so far as the relevant subject matter is concerned.

Look, seriously, man, ask yourself this question:

If there were *prima facie* (though non-conclusive) reason to worry that colleges had a pervasive conservative bias would you be making arguments of this kind?

And remember: despite what you claim, I'm in no way bashing liberals. I'm only saying that there is clear prima facie reason to collect data on this issue.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think I've been asking "what's the harm" primarily all along. I have raised other points such as a clear political definition - not just someone to the left of Joe Lieberman. That was Elton's point - i.e. viewed in the larger scope of the actual political spectrum, liberals in the form of the vast, vast bulk of democrats are pretty much right smack in the center. And thus, you're complaints seem to be that there's a dearth of those biased to the right rather than there's a plethora of those biased to the left.

As to the question I should be asking myself, I live in a world where there isn't just a prima facie case for conservative bias, it's an established fact that no one bothers to debate. That world is called corporate America, and since I'm high enough up the ladder to be in the executive circles, I'm surrounded by nothing but big money conservatives. It permeates corporate life.

And quite frankly, the overwhelming conservative bias in the corporate world is greeted with precisely the same arguments I've been making - i.e. Where's the harm? Or more appropriately, "Who cares?"

So if I see the same questions coming back from me about a system which is far more pervasive than academia, not to mention has a far bigger effect on people, but flipped conservative for liberal, why on earth do you think I'd care about the same thing happening in colleges?

You claim there's a prima facie reason to "worry". All you have is a prima facie case that there's bias. I don't see where the "worry" comes in. It's like the corporate world. I have more than a prima facie case that the bias exists. I just don't have any evidence that it really means anything.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

That was Elton's point - i.e. viewed in the larger scope of the actual political spectrum, liberals in the form of the vast, vast bulk of democrats are pretty much right smack in the center.

There is a difference between "liberal" and "left." I'm sure you know what it is, but if you don't, you are proof that the system is failing.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, A, you've got my respect for surviving in the corporate world...but I still don't think I agree with you.

First, the fact that the corporate world is MORE biased to the right than academia is to the left is (a) one I wouldn't question and (b) not relevant. Just because they're a bunch of idiots doesn't mean that we should be idiots on the other end of the spectrum. Though it might mean that we should point out that they are idiots.

And, again, all we CAN have is a prima facie reason at this point. WHen we're asking "should we research this?" we'll NEVER have more than a prima facie case. You can't complain that there's no research supporting the position when we're at the point of asking whether we should do research. There'll NEVER be research at that point. A prima facie case is all that's possible or needed at this point in inquiry.

Let's make sure we're not arguing about nothing: are you saying that it would be a waste of time to do serious research on the question of bias in academia? B/c that's what it sounds like to me.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"First, the fact that the corporate world is MORE biased to the right than academia is to the left is (a) one I wouldn't question and (b) not relevant. Just because they're a bunch of idiots doesn't mean that we should be idiots on the other end of the spectrum. Though it might mean that we should point out that they are idiots."


I would quibble with this one statement of yours. You seem to believe that a person who is either very right or left on the ideological spectrum is necessarily an *idiot*. I wouldn't go so far.

In fact, sometimes I think that it's more of an issue by issue question anyway, at least for the egocentric reason that I find myself pretty far along the spectrum on various issues, even though overall I consider myself pretty firmly left of center.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston, I'm not saying it's a waste of time to do serious research. What I have been consistently saying is that you have to be very precise in your political definitions.

TVD above has kindly pointed out that there's a difference between liberals and the left (thanks!). You still haven't addressed Elton's point regarding the pretty much undisputed fact that America's Democratic Party - and the vast, vast bulk of those who identify with it - are right smack dab in the center of the political spectrum. That they happen to be the "left" in this country is an artifact of how far to the right we are compared to the rest of the world. If you're going to seriously measure "bias", then you absolutely must face up to this. So far, you've casually brushed it aside.

I believe you also have to show the damage. Something like people's grades are being affected, their quality of education is seriously compromised, etc. Considering that the U.S. educational system is considered to be the best in the world, and has been the best in the world for quite some time, I fear you're in an uphill battle here. I think the best you can argue is that it can be better than it is.

You believe that bias, intrinsically, is bad, bad, bad. The evidence of our educational system is that it has been nothing but good, good, good. I understand that this is a matter of faith with you, and that you consider me a first class idiot because I don't agree with the premise that bias in education is bad. But unless you can show how this is damaging the educational system, you're just spitting into the wind.

And wrt the corporate world, I was trying to draw an analogy, not to make the case that because the corporate world is conservative, the academic world should be liberal. The analogy I was trying to make was the argument of damage. Again, in the corporate world, one can not argue that there is overwhelming conservative bias. And because the US corporate world is pretty much the most successful on the planet (and of all time, I might add) one has an uphill battle trying to prove that this undeniable bias has caused any damage. The best I can do is attempt to prove capitalism as practiced in America can be better than it currently is.

Please note, this is exactly the same argument I'm laying out for your theory that bias is damaging academia. American academia is wildly successful and you have a rather uphill battle to prove that the bias is causing some major damage that we "ignore at our peril".

Finally, I'm certainly not an expert in the skill sets needed to develop the studies and experiments needed to do this exploration you're suggesting. However, I have worked with a number of cognitive psychologists in the pursuit of my business who do know how to do such things. And I urge you to hook up with someone like this so that you can get on a firm footing here. There's a common mistake that highly educated people make in believing that their skills in one discipline transfer to other disciplines. I have no doubt that you're a fantastic philosopher. However, I doubt this skill makes you even a middling sociologist or provides the necessary skills to formulate good surveys or experiments in this area.

If you're really serious about this, it would probably considerably help your cause to link up people who have these skills.

11:43 AM  

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