27 February 2004

More Questions of Character

Paul Myers, over at Pharyngula, offers an interesting perspective on the purported "left-wing bias" in university faculty. He concludes that

The reason that you won't find many Republicans in biology classrooms is that this current crop [of Republicans] has successfully alienated anyone who knows anything about the subject. It's really that simple. And short of fielding Republican candidates who actually support preserving and studying the biological world, you aren't going to find a majority of biologists voting Republican.

"This Is Never Going to End… But Once More Into the Breach" (22 Feb 04). As someone with a foot in all four academic regions—an AB in chemistry for the Natural Sciences, an AB (and a whole lot more) in English for the Humanities, a JD for the Social Sciences, and a minor in CS and substantial professional experience for Applied Technology (aka Engineering)—I think there is a more fundamental reason that universities will, as a population, always seem more "liberal" than perhaps society as a whole.

By definition, universities and their faculty are devoted to the advance of knowledge. This certainly includes providing a base of existing knowledge to students, and studying that existing knowledge itself for further insights; but it is not limited to intensive navel-gazing in the modern university (cf., e.g., Jonathan Swift, "The Battle of the Books"). By its nature, this selects a population—not all individuals by any means; just as with evolution, these factors don't operate to transform individuals, but to transform population characteristics over time—that shares three general traits.

  1. Devotion to evidence over doctrine. Although this is obviously true in the Natural Sciences (at least since the formal development of the scientific method) and in Applied Technology, it is also true for the other two regions. The key is what we mean by "evidence." In the Social Sciences—at least outside of economics—the current trend is to based theories upon intensive statistical analysis of populations. The "dismal science" still lags behind, because undergraduates learn exactly the gross national product of Upper Lower Slobbovia about evidence; but that is starting to change as "behavioral economics" begins to get a foothold in the undergraduate curriculum. In the Humanities, the problem is that what scholars consider "evidence" is not what laypeople tend to think of as "evidence." Nonetheless, the mindset is there. Almost by definition, and certainly by inclination, political conservatism tends to value doctrine over individual circumstances.
  2. Recognition of outliers as legitimate. Conservatism, by its nature, deemphasizes individualismus for "social stability." (This is really a chicken-and-egg problem; walls can be undermined by insufficient attention to the quality of the bricks as easily as insufficient attention to how they interlock.) On the other hand, almost all academic work involves either inductive or deductive consideration of instances that are at the margin of present knowledge. Both the development of quantum physics and the development of postmodern approaches to literature stem from precisely such inquiries. In academic life, one cannot dismiss an outlier; one must either explain the outlier or justify excluding it from the field. Either approach, though, accepts the existence, and hence legitimacy, of the outlier. Now look at politics, and consider just how many things outside the field of immediate vision get ignored on a daily basis—and particularly so when principles such as "least acceptable excursion" are applied at the system, and not individual, level.
  3. Acceptance of the possibility of error. By its nature, academic approaches beseech themselves to consider the possibility that they may be wrong. (No, smartass, the egotism of many academics themselves is not a counterexample; even when bowing down to doctrine about the orbit of young academics around academic monoliths, the monoliths still move over time.) The fact that every single academic field as taught to undergraduates in 2004 is different from that in 1904—and probably even than in 1954—demonstrates that. It is not just "changes in fashion"; a significant part of academic work beyond the freshman year in college involves implicit and ofter explicit contrast of the instructor's approach with historical approaches to the same or similar material. This also links back to the first point. Even in the most hidebound, authority-ridden fields (such as law and pre-20th-century English literature), argument from authority declines in force over time after the authority is no longer current.

There is certainly a place for conservatives in academia. In an evolutionary sense, they are actually necessary, as new "doctrine" that cannot withstand a conservative attack is mere hypothesis, not theory or fact. However, the mindset necessary to advance knowledge is population-skewed toward what we now, in this country anyway, call "liberal."