Some Social Science that Fails to Score

Steve Balch

Last October we commented on a “working paper” delivered at a Harvard symposium by Professors Neil Gross and Solon Simmons entitled The Social and Political Views of American Professors. Its basic contention was that the claims circulated by folks like ourselves that the academy was dominated by the Left were exaggerated. We replied that their study actually confirmed the conclusions of many earlier ones that the asymmetries of academic viewpoint were rather stark. We also directed attention to what seemed to us to be a particularly glaring instance of data manipulation, about which we’ve yet to receive a response from the authors.

Professor Simmons (unaccompanied by Gross) now enters the lists again, this time with an article published in the on-line journal, The Forum. Entitled Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution, and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy, it also presents itself as an effort to clarify polemical confusions with a dose of sophisticated social science. The article draws on the same database as did the paper, a 2006 survey of the professoriate Simmons conducted with Gross. Using a technique called “latent variable models,” Simmons divides his faculty respondents into four analytic clusters labeled the “politically correct”, “moderately correct,” “politically incorrect,” and “non-committal” (the last, apparently, consisting of professors choosing the “Don’t know” or “No opinion” option on many of Gross’ and Simmons’ attitudinal questions”).

Inside Higher Education, which made the article’s appearance a lead story, hyped the findings, announcing that they may “challenge assumptions all around.” With a few exceptions, they’re much more likely to provoke a yawn. The shock, IHE informs us, to “those who deny that there is an identifiable group of PC professors” will be “that it exists and matters.” (Earth to IHE: If deniers of such a modest proposition actually exist somewhere in the academy, they won’t be shocked at all since they’ve been speaking with forked tongues). For PC critics, on the other hand, the news is somewhat harder. On repairing to The Forum, they’ll learn that politically correct professors don’t view the role of politics in hiring “very differently” from the others, aren’t more biased and intolerant, and that “a critical mass of politically incorrect professors is doing quite well in securing jobs at the most prestigious universities.” Well, not quite.

First off, Simmons identifies political correctness and incorrectness based on answers to questions that revolve largely around issues of discrimination, identity, and diversity, leaving out economic policy, foreign policy, and political partisanship. The degree to which Simmons’ “politically correct” are coextensive with the campus Left, or the “politically incorrect” with conservatives – the more conventional reference for these terms – is thus not at all clear, especially in the latter case. (Simmons’ himself admits that these dimensions are distinct). Moreover, Simmons provides no specific data about how the professors in each of the four groups differ in their average responses to the questions in his analysis. The most damaging criticism leveled at Simmons first paper with Gross, was that the group they called “middle-of-the-roaders” were in fact left-of-center on most issues, making their claim to have found a strong group of academic moderates misleading. Without more data than this article provides, it’s hard to say whether or not the same confusions exist here. (Simmons says the additional data wasn’t included because of space limitations and promises to provide them on request. We’d be pleased to see them.)

Moreover, the questions used to get at attitudes on hiring discrimination are simply not up to the job. The first reads, “the views of an academic job candidate on national politics should NOT (capitals in the original) play a role in whether he or she is hired.” The percentage spread in the responses among the members of each group on this item is small, and for all of them, overall agreement with the statement is very pronounced - the politically correct, in fact, proving a bit more affirming than the politically incorrect. But this is an immensely leading question, not only being one about which most academics know precisely the answer they should give, but one that doesn’t catch the self-justifications most often employed in turning down the politically incorrect. The chit chat in a disapproving search committee is far less likely to be that he or she is a Republican, than that he or she isn’t theoretically à la mode, likely to work well with a diverse student body, or sometimes, quite flatly, bright enough to make the grade. Political intolerance often comes arrayed in the slightly less odious garb of intellectual parochialism.

The second question, whether “the goal of campus diversity should include fostering diversity of political views among faculty members,” also has significant ambiguity problems. Simmons reports once more that the politically correct are slightly ahead of the politically incorrect in their percentage of affirmative answers –though one wonders how their endorsement of fostering political diversity squares with their rejection of taking a job candidate’s views of national politics into account. Another difficulty, however, is just what respondents understand by a “diversity of political views.”

In his discussion of this item Simmons observes that “one would assume that most of the respondents would be aware that political diversity on campus is often used as a code for the inclusion of conservative views.” Perhaps. And it would be heartening if true. But I’m skeptical. After all, if such could be assumed, the responses to this question, and the one before it, would indicate that extremity of viewpoint is positively associated with tolerance of opponents, or at least irrelevant to it, a powerfully counterintuitive idea. Other interpretations are certainly available. Many radicals, for instance, believe that taken as a whole, the university is an extension of corporate capitalism and, accordingly, may understand the political diversity problem as an insufficiency of countervailing progressives. Proponents of identity politics can also have a finely grained perception of the leftward end of the ideological spectrum, dividing it closely into multiple niches of ethnicity, gender, and theoretical preference, and possessing an appetite for filling in all of them not easily satisfied. For these, a lack of political diversity may pertain to just those varieties that are at the “cutting edge”. Of course there is no  perfect question that gets at such complex phenomena. Yet it would have been far more useful to have simply asked about diversity hiring for conservatives. And this Simmons and Gross did not do.

Simmons also infers a surprising degree of academic tolerance among the politically correct from their responses to questions on whether or not universities should be able to exclude professors who either “join radical organizations like the Communist Party” or “defend the actions of Islamic militants.” On both counts, the politically incorrect are more likely to think they should be able to so than the politically correct. But is this tolerance or merely looking after, to speak loosely, one’s own? Accompanying questions about firing racists or creationists might have shed better light on this, but they are nowhere to be found.  

The data on the ability of the politically incorrect to make careers is even less convincing, and its interpretation sometimes verges on the risible. According to Simmons’ figures, the percentages of the non-politically correct in the academy are hardly negligible, 18% at “Top-Fifty Schools” (the low for institutional types) and 33.1% at “Four Year Schools” (the high). But since we don’t have a full description of what the attitudes of the “politically incorrect” are – they certainly can’t be assumed from what Simmons tells us all to be genuine conservatives – the significance of this isn’t particularly clear. Simmons’ data also reveal that when politically incorrect faculty are found at top schools they tend disproportionately to be “stars,” that is to say, have especially strong publication records compared with their institutional peers. To the extent that Simmons’ “politically incorrect” are conservatives, this would support a finding by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, that conservatives don’t do as well professionally as they might otherwise be expected to given their scholarly records. That is to say, they have to do more to advance to the same levels than their liberal colleagues. Simmons acknowledges this as a possible explanation, but then goes on to offer what he evidently believes is an equally reasonable competing hypothesis, to wit: “the top schools somehow set aside set aside slots for the right kind of non-PC thinker.” This brings to mind the first of two Brit historical anecdotes that I’ll use in closing this review. At the height of his fame a man greeted the Duke of Wellington on a London street with the words “you’re Mr. Smith, I believe.” To which the Iron Duke shot back, “If you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything.”

(A second apologetic interpretation follows Simmons’ report that the politically correct are least likely to oppose the airing of personal opinions on controversial matters in the classroom. He comments that they “seem to feel that it is important to mark one’s own view so that the students can triangulate between the facts presented by the teacher and the norms that filter the presentation of those facts”. That’s kind. But it’s not the sort of explanation William of Ockham would suggest)          

I don’t want to dismiss this study out of hand. Taken with a grain of salt, Simmons’ findings have some interest. Yet one does get a sense of a certain straining to circumvent the obvious, marshalling a complicated apparatus of methodology, tangential data, and some rather ditzy hypotheses, to obscure what anyone with a passing experience of academe must know about the ideological tenor of university life. John Wilkes, the ugly but eloquent eighteenth century English radical, once boasted that he could seduce any women if given a half hour to talk away his face. Wilkes was a formidably witty charmer. This kind of social science is much less likely to score.


  John Wilkes: Could talk away his face in only a half hour. Social science is sometimes less successful.

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