Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Oooh, catty 

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber link) reports a slanging match between four faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and the authors of this article that I wrote about a few months back (along with a slew of other academics -- follow that link to their pieces as well.) The critique (available here with free registration) argues some of the points I made as well, that there's a potential self-selection bias in the estimates. They argue three points for why conservatives tend to teach at lower-ranking institutions: that conservatives don't like living in cities; that conservative academics prefer to work in the South, where fewer elite universities exist (don't tell Duke!); and that conservatives don't like academia. The last point is made a little too forcefully for my taste. (edited to remove references and one quote)

Third, many conservatives may deliberately choose not to seek employment at top-tier research universities because they object, on philosophical grounds, to one of the fundamental tenets undergirding such institutions: the scientific method. As a great deal of scholarship has demonstrated, party identification and voting behavior are now driven much more by religio-cultural predispositions than by fiscal attitudes or orientations toward the New Deal. Furthermore, cultural conservatism, as revealed in antipathy toward gay rights, the women�s movement, and abortion rights (among other things), has been shown to stem in large part from an embrace of Christian fundamentalism as a dominant worldview. Fundamentalism, by definition, is an absolutist, "faith-based" allegiance to a particular dogma, the veracity of which is considered beyond question or argument. Such worldviews are (again, by definition)
antithetical to the philosophy of science, which promotes reason and evidence as the determinants of truth. Challenging entrenched dogma is the essence of science. Indeed, many scholars consider this distinction � between "faith-based" reasoning and "scientific reasoning" � to be the essential dichotomy underlying the so-called "culture war" between "red" and "blue" Americans in the 21st century. ... In other words, the faith-based reasoning of Christian fundamentalism (and by extension, of most socio-cultural conservatives) is essentially incompatible with the mission of contemporary research universities.6 So, in sum, we are suggesting that the relationships RLN identify might be a spurious function of self-selection based on a fundamentalist antipathy toward the scientific method and other approaches to revealed "truth" � precisely the business of "top-tier" research universities. We suspect that because of this, many fundamentalist academics (who also happen to identify as conservatives and "practicing Christians") prefer to work in institutions emphasizing teaching or research less reliant on the scientific method.
And as if that wasn't enough to be sure you got the point, they included this footnote 6:
It should be noted that we are not suggesting that fundamentalist Christians have less intellectual acumen than non-fundamentalist Christians or non-Christians. We merely note that fundamentalism is, by definition, anti-intellectual in the scientific sense.
No wonder they title their article "Hide the Republicans, the Christians and the Women." That sounds like a request rather than a command.

The critique pulls some other stunts, for example arguing that Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte should have shown that conservative articles were being denied publication by top journals, since that would be how conservatives would try to advance. There's no consideration of how the heck you could measure that. They also try to argue that one doesn't know the political views of new PhDs, so that there can be no discrimination. The latter critique is rubbish, as RLN make clear in their reply.
If we try to surmount the difficulty of imagining how a candidate�s ideology can sometimes be discerned, we might examine her CV, her publications, the reputations of her advisors, references, and granting agencies. Increasingly, personal information can also be gleaned by examining her blog or personal web sites and by Googling her to pick up any stray comment that wandered into the Internet. There are also "lifestyle" cues that are associated with liberal cosmopolitans, on one hand, and cultural conservatives, on the other, down to the make of car one drives, the clothing one wears, and one�s use of language. Such factors often lead to inferences about attitudes and behavior.
To give one personal example: I titled my dissertation "Three Essays in the Political Economy of Inflation." This was in the early 1980s, when use of the words "political economy" often connoted a socialist framework of analysis. Sure enough, I was interviewed by schools that had faculty with that mindset. (The program I came from was small enough that the fact that there were no socialist economists on campus went unnoticed.) Being a conservative vegetarian also creates some confusion. So signals aren't perfect -- but it's difficult to imagine people aren't looking for signals, like this fellow.

One major problem for the critique is that the original authors did not release their data, since they are still using it for analysis. That seems fair, since they invested in its creation and are entitled to the fruits of their efforts. The Forum, an online publication of Berkeley Electronic Press, is designed to sit midway between Harper's and the American Political Science Review. At some publications data used is required to be posted for replication and experimentation. That RLN did not publish in one of those places pretty much takes away the complaint that the Pitt authors have. And much of their criticism is of the type of "well, it could be that this result is wrong, or that result is inconclusive." They have nothing but questions and a predisposition not to accept that academic bias exists.

As to the critique of self-selection, I'm willing to withhold any firmer judgment on this paper until I see a paper where selection bias is more systematically tested. But it's not so much the criticism itself that is troubling but the language. In the Chronicle article, Prof. Rothman says to the reporter:
The whole critique is based on a lot of nasty statements. I thought they did themselves dirty by calling us names, being sarcastic, and making snide remarks.
That's a pretty harsh statement, but the paragraph and footnote I cited is simply an example of the condescencion with which conservatives are treated by the Pittsburgh authors.

UPDATE (8/10): Linda Seebach emails me to say she made some similar points a couple of weeks ago. I particularly like this paragraph.

Look, I lived in Northfield, Minn., home of St. Olaf and Carleton colleges for 27 years. I knew scores of faculty members there, and I never met anybody who objected to "the scientific method," not even in church. St. Olaf in particular is among the nation's leading producers of Ph.D.s in mathematics and science.

In their rebuttal, RLN also point out that nowadays, objections to the scientific method are far more likely to be found on the left, not the right.