The other week Megan McArdle wrote a post about political bias in academia, inspired by this anecdote about psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.
This post generated a record number of comments, many of them explaining reasons why this disproportion among academics was the result of something other than academia being a hostile environment for conservatives, which McArdle summarizes in a followup post as follows:
* Smart people are almost always liberal
* Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait
* Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor
* Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals
* Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re more interested in something else (money, the military)
* Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re anti-intellectual
* Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors
Well, as you can see, there’s an obvious lack of bias among the academics responding…
The follow-up post is quite long, and among other things does a good job of noting the ways in which bias could result in an increasingly liberal academy without people consciously saying, “That guy’s a conservative, we better refuse to give him tenure.” One of the ones that particularly struck me was:
Hidden tripwires Usually the dominant group doesn’t even realize they are there. For example, the low pay (and increasing reliance on unpaid internships for entree) of journalism often excludes people who don’t have, at the minimum, a family that could take them in and help cover the bills if disaster struck. It’s not surprising that the profession is so predominantly white and affluent even though everyone talks a lot about diversity.
Now, I’ve done my share of thinking about academia over the years. Going on in History or Classics had a certain appeal to me. But aside from the standard worries of “I’d be surrounding myself with a whole lot of people who would strongly dislike me for being Catholic and conservative,” the thing which made going into academia completely out of the question for me was that I planned to get married immediately after getting my BA and wanted to be able to support a family in the short term. One thing that was very, very clear to me, watching the friends I had who were in grad school or struggling to find tenure track positions, is that trying to make it in academia didn’t fit well with getting married and having children young. So I made a pragmatic call which I don’t regret: It was simply a much safer bet going into the business world than trying to make of go of it in academia, given our marriage and family plans. I would imagine that many others, in like circumstances, would do the same.
How does this relate to political bias in academia?
Well, there’s a two-way relationship between lifestyle and politics. On the one had, people who are conservative and people who are religious are two groups that tend to marry and have more than the average number of children. If you’re both conservative and religious, it’s even more so.
On the flip side, different lifestyles end up reinforcing different political interests. If you’re single and you move around frequently and have somewhat interrupted employment and use public transportation a lot and rely on the availability of grant and research money — you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally progressive political agenda. If you are working in the private sector and struggling to buy a home and pay your taxes and have your kids educated in a way that you are comfortable with — you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally conservative political agenda.
And, of course, this becomes self-reinforcing after a while. Once this (and other) selection factors and biases have resulted in the academy becoming populated mainly by strongly progressive people who plan to marry late and have few if any kids, there aren’t a whole lot of people to complain about the fact that the process of trying to make it in academia is heavily biased against people who don’t plan to marry late and have few if any kids. In fact, deviating from that norm starts to make it look like you’re someone who isn’t very serious about academia. And since you can count of people who are serious about academia, people whom you would want in your department, not to mind the kind of treatment that keeps them from feeling like they can marry and have kids while will in their 20s, you can of course allow it to get a little bit more extreme. Which will in turn make academia that much more unattractive to people who don’t want to follow the dominant cultural lifestyle of that profession.