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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Statistical Analysis?  Don’t Want It.  We Prefer “Real Facts.”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/09/07 at 08:40 PM

I’ve seen this article by Mary Eberstadt roll across Phi Beta Cons twice this past week, so I can only conclude they really, really want people to read it.  Why?  To debunk it, obviously.  Who am I not to oblige?

In “Do Campuses Tilt Left?” Eberstadt attacks the conclusions of the American Federation of Teachers’ recent report “The ‘Faculty Bias’ Studies: Science or Propaganda?” The AFT paper analyzes eight studies purporting to show systemic liberal bias in higher education in order to determine whether or not they’re methodologically sound.  The conclusion?  They fail to meet minimum research standards.  In particular:

The studies were evaluated using five research principles that help to establish whether the authors are overgeneralizing based on limited or flawed collection and interpretation of data.  These principles help to differentiate anecdotal evidence that is hand-picked to support a particular point of view and systemic observation that leads to valid conclusions.

The emphasis is mine.  In my defense, I couldn’t help myself.  To refute the claim that these studies hand-pick anecdotal evidence to support a particular point, Eberstadt presents “a few examples from what could be a longer list,” all from the mouths of prominent movement conservatives:

“I watched with horror as the multicultural yahoos took over the humanities” (the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald).

“I’d been preaching freedom of speech, but I had to leave the academy for the world of policy think tanks before I’d ever get a chance to practice it” (Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow Stanley Kurtz, formerly of Berkeley, Chicago, and Harvard).

“Of course the vast majority of the faculty [at Harvard] were on the left” (Hoover Institution senior fellow and former Harvard professor Peter Berkowitz).

“Because I studied neither economics nor Straussian philosophy [at the University of Chicago], I never met a conservative professor, and I knew only one conservative student” (David Brooks).

Earlier in the article, Eberstadt wrote that “so perverse is [the AFT] report in conception and so quixotically oblivious to the inescapable facts, that it might easily be mistaken for a sendup [and] that some Swiftian wit had pulled off a brilliancy here.” To her bewilderment, I add my own—for an article so “quixotically oblivious” must have been written by a liberal satirizing a conservative.  How else to account for the fact that “Eberstadt” responds to the AFT’s criticism of studies relying on anecdotal evidence gathered without any control for bias by hand-picking four anecdotes from a forthcoming collection entitled Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys?

Since most people won’t read the study itself [.pdf], I’ll share Eberstadt’s analysis of its highlights.  Eberstadt balks at the study’s claim that “it is not possible with any precision to calculate a ratio of Democrats to Republicans at the sampled institutions.” Actually, Eberstadt cites it like this: “It is not possible with any precision to calculate a ratio of Democrats to Republicans at the sampled institutions.” Makes it seem like “It” is the first word in that sentence.  “It” isn’t.  The full sentence reads: “Given the low response rate, inadequate sampling and missing responses, it is not possible with any precision to calculate a ratio of Democrats to Republicans at the sampled institution with any precision, much less imply what might be the case for faculty members outside the sampling frame.” The first conveniently-elided clause gave the reasons for the AFT’s verdict; the second, the reason why further conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from those studies. 

After chuckling at the notion that “passing off personal opinions as facts is not science,” she praises the methodologies of “nonscientists” who gather “real facts”—like the ones she collected in Why I Turned Right—without noticing that doing so undermines the legitimacy of the very conclusions she defends.  (In principle, at least.) The cachet of these studies comes from the illusion they past scientific muster.  The obverse is instructive here: Eberstadt would never intentionally argue that she prefers to base her opinions on unverifiable facts, otherwise why include gestures to verifiability like giving “just a few examples from a much longer list” or noting that her anecdote is “just one among many stones one could kick to refute anyone who suggests” that faculty bias isn’t as pervasive as she claims.  In those two sentences, she appeals to the same standards she earlier derided, i.e. she would have the reader believe that a scientific survey—defined here as “counting”—would validate her tendentious conclusions.  In this respect, she resembles those Yankee fans who insist that because Derek Jeter opens the season eight-for-ten, he’ll hit .800 the remainder of it.  In sabermetric circles, we this wishcasting

Eberstadt may have more of a point—the AFT study notes that, in all likelihood, some disciplines are predominantly liberal—but until her and her fellow critics show me a study methodologically sound enough to earn a non-failing grade in Statistical Analysis 101, they’re merely wishcasting.


Both Eberstadt and the AFT suffer from bad faith here.  The former, as you point out, makes a lot out of very little evidence, while the latter pokes holes without investigating a truth we all hold to be self-evident: that English, Comp Lit, Women’s Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs are almost completely dominated by left-wing faculty. 

The question is whether this truth matters.  That’s what neither addresses.  Stanley Fish recently addressed it, arguing that the political identity of a professor only matters if that professor is advocating, rather than analyzing, ideas.  And, he argues, no professor should be advocating ideas.  Thus for Fish, right-wing demands for “intellectual diversity” programs would only increase the amount of advocacy by “giving voice” to lefties *and* righties.  Instead, all professors, no matter their actual politics, should return to their pedagogical mission: to teach the critical understanding and analysis of ideas. 

ACTA misreads Fish (displaying their typical inability to understand anyone to the left of Ayn Rand) at http://www.goactablog.org

By on 04/10/07 at 09:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe there are more people who are left wing in universities because left wingers are smarter?

Joking apart, I am so glad we don’t have all these cultural wars.

By on 04/10/07 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Business school faculty lean right.  I wonder why business schools are always invisible in these discussions?  I can only conclude business is not that important or influential.

By on 04/10/07 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther is right to point out the weakness of the Eberstadt and the AFT pieces. Eberstadt’s is a quick and easy push for the liberal bias angle, and it adds nothing to the issue.

AFT’s survey asks for strict scientific method out of some studies that made little claim for it. Of course, some of the conservative/libertarian angles were anecdotal, and they cherry-picked courses out of the catalog. But, in their defense, they are struggling to get a fix on a difficult and evolving situation, the ideological climate on the campus. Anecdotes alone don’t prove anything, but if they accumulate past a certain point, they can’t just be ignored. And, I would say, the presence of a single tendentious, indoctrination course (liberal, conservative, progressive, or libertarian) in the roster says something rotten about the system that let it through.

Yes, the tallies of voter registration and campaign contributions are crude, and they don’t clearly indicate what goes on in college classrooms. But the outright rejection of them by campus dwellers doesn’t clarify anything. And there are other measures that may be taken, such as the debates and votes by professional organizations regarding controversial public matters. What does it mean when the MLA Delegate Assembly yields votes higher than 19-to-1 proportion on matters that are of wide disagreement in public life? Why is there so much uniformity on campus on debatable topics such as affirmative action, abortion, multiculturalism, and separation of church and state?

I presume few people would deny that condition. The Business school faculty I’ve encountered (yes, an anecdotal point) are a mix of free market types, libertarians, and classic liberals, with a few “social responsibility” folks in the mix. Libertarians are, of course, hard left on social matters, and old-style liberals are often cultural populists, not cultural elitists.

Even if we accept the right-leaning business school, it doesn’t compare to the left leaning humanities, “studies” programs, ed schools, softer social sciences, schools of social work, campus life programs, and the administration. There, the circulation of ideas is degraded, and it explains one reason why in the off-campus cultural life of this country the humanities profs don’t count a whit.

This is not to say that conservative/libertarian personnel should be pushed onto the students. That’s a bad idea in any form. But if professors don’t recognize the stultifying intellectual atmosphere, if they spend their time criticizing the worst specimens of “liberal bias” arguments, the issue won’t go away.

By on 04/11/07 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark: There is no issue. Liberals go into English because they find English sympatico.  Engineers are heavily conservative/libertarian because the same mix of personality traits that make you want to be an engineer make you conservative or libertarian.  Not many Marxists go on to be business school professors.

Movement conservatives attack liberals in the arts because they are in the business of attacking any rival power base to the conservative movement.  The end goal is the purge of liberals from public life.  These are the same people who attacked the CIA as full of liberals.  They are using you.

By on 04/11/07 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All I can say, Walt, is that if any evidence came forward that right-wingers are trying to “purge” liberals from the campus, every critic of liberal bias I know would go over to the other side. I have no doubt that if you had right-of-center people enjoying a similar dominance in the university, they would act in precisely the same smug, groupthink ways that left-of-center people currently do. This is not a political process. It’s a social process, a group psychology in any deliberative body that is accountable only to itself.

That said, I come back to the issue not of personnel but of the curriculum. If we had a curriculum that gave a fuller measure of attention to serious libertarian/conservative texts and ideas, then it makes no difference what the ideological make-up of the faculty is. But until the parochialism of the campus is broken, until teachers start reading and teaching outside their narrow channels, until we get a little more Hayek and Burke to go along with Foucault and Rorty, a little more talk about tradition and taste to go along with revolution and identity, the humanities classroom will remain marginal and irrelevant.

By on 04/12/07 at 07:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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