Friday, March 29, 2013

David Friedman's quote of the month: Haidt on political discrimination

Apropos of the last post, David Friedman's "quote of the month" is also of some interest:
“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.” - Jonathan Haidt, quoted in this New York Times article.
When I read the quote on Friedman's page, I didn't immediately notice his reference to social psychologists and my first reaction was "I disagree with both the premise and the conclusion of this statement". Now that I see he is speaking just of social psychologists, I have to reign that in a little. Perhaps he is right about them - I don't know many social psychologists.

I am somewhat familiar with the literature on racial and gender disparities in the academy, though, and I do know that people who actually study this stuff don't think this at all. A major study in the early 1970s found that some of the gender gap was due to discrimination, but most work on the subject today doesn't really highlight discrimination as the source of disparities. I have a book review of an edited volume on the subject of black underrepresentation in the sciences coming out in the Journal of Negro Education - I'd have to revisit the book to say for sure, but I don't think any of the contributors raised the issue of discrimination in any substantial way. I'm currently working on a paper on gender disparities in the sciences. The subject of the paper is the extent to which these disparities pose a constraint on growth, but I'm of course reviewing the gender disparities literature and off the top of my head I can't think of a single study of the issue that suggests discrimination is the source of the problem. These analyses usually point to "pipeline" issues - explanations of why successively fewer minorities and women move on to higher levels of education to be considered for academic jobs. Work-life issues of course come up with women (you might call the incompatibility of some of these jobs with pressures of early motherhood "discrimination", but I'm not sure that's what Haidt has in mind here). Questions of adequate primary and secondary preparation obviously come up a lot with racial minorities. And in both cases there's questions of the impact of the lack of role models. But discrimination is the one thing that people seem to agree is not a deciding factor. You see some evidence in tenure decisions, if I recall, but it's by no means the dominant issue in this labor market.

Interestingly enough, when I clicked through to the New York Times article a lot of this research is quoted by the author of the article (not Haidt himself).

Larry Summers's comment on women in the sciences came up and Haidt had this to say: "“This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”". I think the backlash against Summers was overstated, but there are two things worth noting here: (1.) some of the harshest backlash again came from people that don't study this stuff, and (2.) the problem with Summers wasn't that he "blamed the victim" (although I guess he sort of did), but that he was spitballing on an issue he had no expertise in (did he really think nobody had thought of this possibility before?!) and which had already been investigated and rejected as a driving force.

So when Haidt says "our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation", take that with a big, fat grain of salt. Maybe his mind jumps to that. Maybe social psychologists' minds jump to that. Maybe the general public. But so what?

And now we come to political diversity in the academy. Now I've seen less work on this except for the Daniel Klein type stuff that just shows a disparity (as far as I know Klein has not produced any analysis tying this to discrimination). I have big doubts that this is really going on.

For starters, think about any job talk you've ever been to. I can only speak to job talks in economics departments and at the Urban Institute (mostly economists there, some public policy). I can't think of a single one that has offered me any clue as to the political background. Can you? I know the statistics (I read my Dan Klein!), so I could generate an expected value. But any given person is going to just be a guess. Something tells me the issue doesn't come up in the interviews either (I know no one ever asked me about it, and I've never asked anyone about it in the cases where I've interviewed a job candidate). So the idea that there is discrimination against libertarians and conservatives already is running into trouble with the smell test. How does anyone know?

You would only really know in an obvious way if the job applicant's politics comes out in their academic work. And of course such a person is going to be less likely to be hired - why would you hire someone with such poor research practice!

If it's that hard to pick out a conservative or libertarian relative to picking out a black guy or a woman (relatively easy, in my experience), and if we don't find discrimination as a hugely important factor in explaining racial and gender disparities, I seriously doubt it even registers for conservatives and libertarians. There are much better potential explanations out there. The first two here loom large as explanations of racial and gender disparities, the third and fourth are better at explaining specifically why conservatives and liberals are so outnumbered:

Pipeline issues: as with minorities and women, something is keeping conservatives and libertarians from progressing through the academic pipeline. As with minorities and women, this could be a combination environmental pressures and personal preferences, and of course preferences on these sorts of things are going to be endogenous. Women don't get told they can or should be scientists when they are young - conservatives don't get told they can or should study human evolution or the determinants of poverty and inequality when they are young, etc.

Inadequate preparation: This is a big problem for racial minorities. It is very hard to get minority professors when the primary education that most minority children pass through is so broken. This is not to say everything is peachy once you get to the post-secondary level: it's not. But if your flow into the post-secondary level is limited in the first place that poses a real problem. This might be a problem for conservatives too if conservatives come from places with weaker academic preparation. If you just think of an electoral map, they do seem to well represented in places where the school systems are worse.

Conservatives and libertarians might be dumber: Notice "might" be. And this isn't blaming the victim, it's sympathizing with the victim. It appears to be less of a problem with libertarians than with conservatives. As with claims about the abilities of women and minorities, this needs to be thoroughly investigated before it's just accepted, but the point is that there is an inherent plausibility to this where there is an inherent implausibility to thinking that there are such differences for women and minorities. You choose to be a conservative or libertarian. You select into those groups. You evaluate arguments and make assessments. You don't choose to be a woman, and you don't choose to be a racial minority. Even people that switch sexes arguably don't "choose" that - they're making a correction to align with a reality that they never chose. So why wouldn't intelligence influence ideological or political affiliation - something you choose? Shouldn't intelligence influence things where we make evaluations and choices? I'm not saying it's a determinate factor. Value systems come in as well (equally smart people with different values are going to align differently politically), but because you actually select into political viewpoints in a way that you don't select into sex or race or sexual orientation, the determinants of that selection process ought to also be considered as potential legitimate determinants of success in academia.

Conservatives and libertarians aren't underrepresented in academia - they are changed by academia: This again has to do with the fact that you select into political ideologies in a way that you don't select into race or sex. The thinning of the conservative/libertarian ranks as you move down the academic pipeline might say something about what understanding more about the world does to a person's political ideology. You can see this process historically too: as we as a species learn more about our world, we as a species get more "progressive" as the term is understood today. The scientific revolution seems to be closely related to the emergence of liberalism and the industrial revolution, after all. It fits my story - I was conservative in high school, was a libertarian that dropped all the stuff I didn't like about conservatism when I moved into college, and as I learned more and more economics I became much less libertarian (some people may become more libertarian, but they probably have different starting points). I'm not sure what I am now, but I don't think I'm a conservative or libertarian.

Don't get bent out of shape if you're a libertarian or conservative. There are always idiosyncratic forces acting on any given case. No one is calling you dumb. You have to step back and think of the problem more generally:

1. Is discrimination a major determinant of the lack of women and racial minorities in academia? The answer seems to be "no" - it's a bigger issue in other labor markets but doesn't seem to be in this one.

2. Sex and race are much more visible than political ideology. Is it plausible that a less visible trait is more likely to be discriminated against than a more visible trait? My suspicion is "no".

3. You can select into and out of political ideology in a way that you can't select into and out of sex and race. Are these selection effects relevant for considering the difference between sex and race discrimination and ideological discrimination? I can't imagine how the answer is not "yes".


  1. Daniel,

    Should universities have hired Nazis, following the publication of Mein Kampf? All Nazis were self-selected, after all?

    What principled distinction can you make between a Nazi and current American Libertarians, Conservatives, or members of the Tea Party?

    I would suggest there is no distinction. All are attempting through propaganda, lies, and mendacity to create an anti-democratic faction that can win one election, once, with the intent to then impose anti-democratic principles as far as possible with the power gained.

    1. I'm not sure I follow the first part. Are you saying Nazism was defensible after the publication of Mein Kampf? I'd disagree. I suppose it's plausible perhaps to say that in the 1920s a thoughtful fascist might deserve a university position. But a thoughtful fascist and a Nazi are two different things. And a thoughtful fascist in 1920 is different from a thoughtful fascist in 1930, or 1940, or 1950. Pretty soon the term gets to be an oxymoron, and that's the whole point.

      As I've said at a couple points, I'm not suggesting this is a strategy to get a perfect department every time. And obviously a hire is going to only be as good as the evaluations of a community making a hire.

      I'm just making the simple point that what we're interested in is not a diversity of viewpoints, or but a diversity of defensible viewpoints.

      That's not all that crazy is it?

      And certainly "defensible" is going to be a matter of degree.

      Everything after your first paragraph is sheer paranoia and there's not much more to be said than that.

    2. My point was much more literal.

      For libertarians and conservatives, mere publication of a book that makes the NYTimes best seller list (Beck, etc.) is evidence of legitimacy. So Nazism was legitimate according to libertarians and conservatives, post publication, as are birthers, etc. And, claiming legitimacy, they claim their identities deserve consideration.

      Now, you have a choice. How can you put libertarians and conservatives on a college faculty but exclude Nazis? Or, to be more pointed, What about a constitutional scholar who advocated the repeal of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment and a return to slavery.

      What filter are you using?

      The point of the model is to make you confront the problem of filters. By what filters does one exclude people who have self-selected an identity?

      There is nothing bona fide about either libertarians and conservatives. This becomes very clear when that start pushing property ahead of civil rights or wanting to go back to state election of Senators.

      Both groups have merely self selected an identify exactly for the reasons outlined: to gain political power by any means available to be as anti-democratic as possible, once in power. This has been the libertarian and conservative model since Goldwater/Nixon.

  2. This is a big problem for racial minorities. It is very hard to get minority professors when the primary education that most minority children pass through is so broken.

    There is a giant distinction between Asians and Blacks. It's needlessly sloppy to apply the term "minorities" to Asians when Asians have better academic outcomes than majority Whites.

    1. Right, but I never mentioned Asians. "Minority" is often understood in the context of the discussion. It's often lumped in with whites for things like this unless of course you're specifically interested in pulling it out.

    2. "Disadvantaged minorities" can be cumbersome to drag around. I don't think anyone is confused by the abbreviated version.

      They're hardly even considered a separate group any more like they used to be, but you can include Jews under this issue too.

    3. They're hardly even considered a separate group any more like they used to be, but you can include Jews under this issue too.

      To figure out whether anti-minority bias is responsible for worse outcomes, we should recognize those minority groups whose outcomes are better than whites. "You're white now" doesn't tell us anything.

      To include Jews in this issue is a terrible idea. Jews are only 2.2% of US population, but outclass gentiles in almost all of academe. As an economist, this should be obvious to you:

  3. One thing that is strange about the claim is that conservatives are over-represented in Congress and especially the Senate, not under-represented.

    1. As for academia, I do rather think that conservatives are discriminated against in the humanities.

    2. For quite some time there has been a concerted effort in academia that I have been aware of, to advance diversity and empower minorities. That is a liberal project, and has resulted in a club in which conservatives feel uncomfortable and do not wish to join. It is not like they would be welcome, either.

  4. where there is an inherent implausibility to thinking that there are such differences for women and minorities.


  5. "I can't think of a single one that has offered me any clue as to the political background. Can you? "

    The process of hiring someone involves a lot more than a job talk--typically the candidate has dinner with faculty members, members get recommendations for him from other scholars, they look at his c.v. All of that provides lots of opportunities to discover someone's political views, unless he goes to quite a lot of trouble to conceal them.

    As it happens, the conversation that set off a blog post of mine that you recently commented on came out of a job talk--for a prospective dean, who would also be a faculty member--in which one of the faculty members asking questions of the candidate commented in passing that of course we were all in favor of diversity, by which he obviously meant racial (et. al.) diversity. I think several of our dean candidates have made a point of how much they approved of how diverse (same sense) our school was.

    1. Right that's why I mention interviews too (I don't know - I've interviewed candidates over food). I feel like it would be odd for politics to come into the conversation, but perhaps that's not always the case.

      Your example is interesting. I wouldn't have thought "we were all in favor of diversity" raises many red flags. Aren't we all in favor of diversity? Of course I know we aren't all in favor if you take society broadly, but in an academic setting it seems odd that there can't be statements of that sort of common purpose.

      Would it be OK to say that "we're all in favor of educating students"? Or would that raise these concerns too?

      I guess I'm just not understanding what the issue is.

      This seems quite different from noting "I'm an anarchist but I often hold my nose and vote for whoever the LP puts up". That would be really odd for someone to note in a job talk or an interview, wouldn't it?

    2. I don't think "we're all in favor of educating students" would raise such concerns. But "diversity" in the academic context is a euphemism for affirmative action--it means preferring a black student or hire over a white one if their qualifications are anywhere close to equal. That's entirely clear in the academic world--I don't think anyone involved could honestly deny that schools that are concerned with their diversity behave that way. For one thing, US News and World Report, whose ranking of law schools is large determinant of where students apply, includes diversity in that sense in its calculation.

      I don't see any good moral justification for such a policy. There would be an educational justification if you were preferring a black from a background radically different from that of the faculty and other students--say someone who had worked his way up from inner city poverty--and thus was likely to have quite different ideas and information from the others. But in practice, the black student who gets into a good law school is much more likely to be the child of a black physician or lawyer, or perhaps two of them—and there are already people with that background in the school, some of them black.

      And I think the consequences may well be bad for the admitted student as well as the rejected one, since it means that he is in a school where he is near the bottom of the class and likely to do worse than in the school he would have ended up in without the preferences. That argument was made publicly by a law school professor a few years back, and not only was he fiercely attacked, his critics blocked his attempt to get access to the data needed to check whether the conjecture was correct--which suggests what they actually believed that data would show.

  6. Nice post. My journey was from an uncomfortable conservative (not comfortable with their social policies) to being educated by liberals (BA, MA, to MBA). One of the benefits of being exposed to liberal arguments was that it made me question a lot of my conservative views. In the process, though, I began to question the liberal arguments as well, which I also found lacking. I progressed to a more libertarian view of the world after spending five years overseas and learning several languages. Linguistics and cultural phenomena were my biggest influences. Also, dealing with immigration directly in both Europe and the US changed a lot of my views, as well as dealing with the awful German bureaucracy and seeing the way it treated my East European wife. Ultimately, just being comfortable with ambiguity and a multivariate world is what drove me more toward libertarianism than towards "progressivism," although I think progressives are more comfortable with those things than conservatives. I don't think the liberal (more classical) and libertarian views are that far from each other on most things. The only difference I can see is the role of government to meet what are essentially similar goals. For example, while recognizing, quite correctly, regulatory capture as a huge problem, we would only differ in the response to the problem, and sometimes not. I will also admit that I am biased again anything that sounds "left" because I studied the Soviet Union and Russia. I know others have a different reaction, but I thought I'd mention that bias in my thought. Also, being married to someone who experienced the Soviet system doesn't help my cause. I still question my libertarian views and am constantly amending them as new evidence enters. I read your blog, Delong's, Krugman's, Boudreaux's, Sumner's, Murphy's, and a few more to keep a well-rounded view. My bias is in favor of the most information and opinions possible. I always find value in all of them and even commonalities.

  7. ~The thinning of the conservative/libertarian ranks as you move down the academic pipeline might say something about what understanding more about the world does to a person's political ideology.~

    Or, you're seeing an example of groupthink in action. Go along to get along as they say.

    You'd have to have a fair amount of courage to stick out through all the slings, arrows and lack of funding you'd be subjected to in other words. So you either get on the band wagon or you go do something else.

  8. I'm contemplating sending you an email detailing my own experience. I'm uncomfortable writing about it in the comments. Suffice it to say that I am very uncomfortable expressing the full extent of my political philosophy due to explicit statements made in my presence by faculty. This is of course only anecdotal, so it does not speak to any general pattern, but it does speak to actuality and not mere possibility.

  9. On the general question of academic orthodoxy and its potential effect on people who disagree with it, you might be interested in a post I just put up on my blog quoting a commenter who gave a list of propositions, all or almost all false, which it would be imprudent for someone who wanted an academic career to publicly disagree with.

    I'm curious as to Daniel's response to my final question in the post. Is he willing either to defend the truth of the statements or to deny that, in many parts of the academic world, publicly disagreeing with them would be risky? If not, is that a good reason for him to revise his views on why there are so few conservatives or libertarians in some academic fields?


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