Saturday, December 11, 2004

Johnathan Chait, writing in the LA Times, makes an argument that I've been trying to make here in bits and pieces:

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans among professors at leading universities. Conservatives gleefully seized upon this to once again flagellate academia for its liberal bias.

Am I the only person who fails to understand why conservatives see this finding as vindication? After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?

Conservatives have a ready answer. The only reason faculties lean so far to the left is that deans, administrators and entire university cultures systematically discriminate against conservatives.

They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. Mostly, they assume that the leftward tilt is prima facie evidence of anti-conservative discrimination. (Yet, when liberals hold up minority underrepresentation at some institutions as proof of discrimination, conservatives are justifiably skeptical.)

Conservative pundit George Will recently tied the dearth of conservative professors to the quasi-Marxist outlook in African American studies, women's studies and cultural studies... this no doubt makes things hard on prospective conservative academics, not to mention mainstream liberal ones...

...but the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. The studies showing that academics prefer Democrats to Republicans also show that this preference holds in hard sciences as well as social sciences. Are we to believe that higher education has fallen prey to trendy multiculturalist engineering, or that physics departments everywhere suppress conservative quantum theorists?
Chait then goes on to speculate about possible causes. Most of his column is quite good but I have one small quibble. Chait proposes a possible explanation:

Republicans don't particularly want to be professors. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.
Generally speaking, tenured jobs at top universities (Caltech, Stanford, MIT) in science/engineering are far better than private sector jobs by any criterion, including money. That these universities show the same leftward tilt disproves the "private sector as a giant vaccum that sucks out all the conservatives" argument.

Also: the high-tech enclaves in the U.S., e.g Silicon Valley, Austin, TX, Route 128 in MA, are the most reliably Democratic areas of the country, giving lie to the notion that private industry engineers and scientists are significantly less likely to be Democrats.

Update: Rich at Beef Always Wins provides a critique. See the comments below for my response.


At 11:17 PM, Blogger angela said...

maybe engineering profs make money, but someone greatly into being independently wealthy who cant do math the way you can is more likely to just get a ba and then go to the private sector rather than going to grad school in the humanities.

At 1:35 AM, Blogger alex said...

I don't dispute this, but this argument is supposed to explain why conservatives don't dominate the sciences...

At 7:54 AM, Blogger angela said...


At 1:40 PM, Blogger Wittysexkitten said...

Having this debate on a much milder scale in relation to home schooling over at Beef Always Wins and I linked to your observations/LA Times Article. Thanks!

At 5:03 AM, Blogger ~rich said...

gotta say that's a pretty condescending argument man...check out my rebuttal over at
I linked to this post...

At 7:11 AM, Blogger alex said...


Thanks for the link, but you have missed the central point of my post. Which is, the prevalence of liberals in academia holds as much in science and engineering as it does in humanities. Therefore, any explanations you offer for this phenomenon have to apply to the hard sciences as well. The standard conservative explanation - discrimination on the part of liberals - or your explanation, idealism on the part of liberal academics, cannot explain the lack of conservatives in the sciences - there is no reason to think scientists working in universities are any more idealistic than those working in research labs, and there is no good way to clearly identify the conservatives in the science for the purposes of discrimination. Finally, as I mentioned at the end of my post, the available voting data seems to indicate that scientists in industry are no less liberal than scientists in academia.

You seem to infer that I said conservatives are stupid, or that it follows from the arguments in my post. It does not.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CalTech, Harvard, and MIT are representative of nothing. No one goes into academia assuming they will end up at the top 3 or 4 schools.

So if the jobs at those places are better than the private sector (something you claim but provide no evidence for) this doesn't mean anything.

The valid comparison is what the average academic job in, say, engineering or biology is like, and how does that compare to an average career in the private sector.

And I suspect on those grounds you'll find substantial differences. The average academic teaches 6 courses a year, conducts labs, is pressured to constantly bring in research dollars, and is paid in the mid 5 figures.

Now is that *really* better than private sector employment?

I'm not sure why the natural sciences are more Democratic than the country at large, but I suspect it is the same reason that journalists are more Democratic, editors and publishers are more Republican, the military is more Republican, and actors and actresses are more Democratic.

The most likely reason is self-selection. Unless you can come up with a better explanation, I'm unconvinced.

At 9:23 PM, Blogger alex said...

1. My argument does not require that people go into academia expecting to end up at one of the best schools. Rather, my argument makes the following implicit assumption: that the causes of liberal domination of MIT and Caltech are the same as the causes of liberal domination elsewhere in academia.

This is a very reasonable assumption. Consider its opposite: that something entirely different is going on at top engineering schools but producing the exact same result!

2. You write that you suspect a substantial difference between the positions of professor & someone who works in private industry. Well, there is no need to suspect, because hard data is available here. For engineering, profs earn an average (scroll down) of ~$84k; engineers in private industry earn less.

On a side note, US research universities rarely require more than 4 courses a year these days.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger alex said...

By the way, the reason I did not conduct this analysis in the first place - comparing average industrial salary to average prof salary - is that I believe it actually proves nothing. Most profs are extremely bright, and would earn much higher than average in industry; so one can't infer anything by noting that academics earn more than engineers. However, since you requesed it, there it is in my comment above.

For these reasons, it makes sense to focus on top schools: profs at top schools generally earn _more_ than they would have in private industry. Liberal domination of _these_ schools helps us rule out the conservative-leave-for-private-market argument.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the assumption implicit here is that liberal overabundance at top schools has the same causes as liberal overabundance at other schools.


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