Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Monday, February 18, 2002

You know, I was just going to stay away from this Ben Kepple guy's blog, but then Megan McArdle referred to him with respect to the Horowitz poll, and I was sucked back in (failing to get out of the Schwartzchild radius, I suppose). First, let me thank him for providing a link to the poll itself, and also for providing yet another chance to dissect what passes for thought in young, conservative circles. He summarizes the many postings on the subject (skipping mine, but that is understandable, since at the time I am sure he had never heard of me), and then he provides his thoughts on the subject, with the disclosure that he worked for Horowitz!! Perhaps others would simply have stopped there, but I couldn't resist reading more. Fortunately, he did not disappoint;
That experience, however, lets me say without fear that Mr Horowitz's poll is not "discovering" a new phenomenon, it is not suggesting it, it is not hinting that bias may exist in academia. For he knows -- as everyone does in their hearts -- that a fearsome political bias exists in academia.
Well, thank goodness we have the fearless Mr. Horowitz to tell us what we all already know in our hearts. That political bias in the incredibly powerful group of humanities faculty in academia is surely "fearsome." Well, why bother doing polls, since we already know the answer. Nevertheless, Mr. Horowitz is doing us all a service;
What his poll does is take the reality everyone knows about and tries to put it into the stark, black-and-white realm of statistics. Yes, Mr Ramachandran may argue that the sample size in Mr Horowitz's poll is too small. But when you look at the sky, and see it is blue, you don't need numbers to back up that fact.
I will mercifully excuse all(both) of my readers from class without explaining why the sky is blue (it doesn't just reflect the ocean!!), but simply point out that actually, you do need numbers for that fact, and, more to the point, they exist!! They also explain why it turns different colors at dawn or dusk, why rain falls, and all the other wonders of nature (we haven't discovered them all yet). But of course, we don't need numbers to back up facts that we already "know."
Besides, Mr Ramachandran, not apparently having access to the poll data itself, left out one key datum: the margin of error. In the poll, it is listed at eight percent. But even if you then skew the data so it points away from the idea that bias exists on campus, the numbers are too overwhelming to suggest otherwise. Say what you will about the poll; you cannot overcome that immense differential between town and gown.
Aside from the snappy line at the end, this is just a waste of space. The "margin of error" was actually discussed on Megan's site, and all agree that it is completely bogus, as many such things are. For the sake of brevity, I will simply encourage the interested reader to go to her page and read the whole thing. I also discussed the mathematical flaws in the poll several times previously on this site.
In this case, though, data are only needed to convince those who are too far removed from the situation to have read (or to accept) the mountain of anecdotal evidence that so clearly points to campus bias.
This sentence encapsulates everything that is wrong with this debate. There is no such thing as a mountain of anecdotal evidence! It is a meaningless statement. How many stories make up a "mountain"? Are all of these professors more liberal than Mr. Kepple (not too tough), or more liberal than the average joe? Do they fit in when the overall population is adjusted for education? Income? Any other of a hundred factors?
Look at the vast amounts of drivel which flow from our scholars masquerading as scholarship; look at the course offerings and syllabi of the academic ghettoes; look at the often-idiotic ramblings of the tenured elite. The rot is systemic and it is nearly universal; only at Grove City or Claremont McKenna or Rhodes or a handful of other colleges is a student regularly exposed to differing points of view. That's not to say a student can't learn on his own, as many do. Look at the legions of students who clutch Atlas Shrugged as their Bible and who can tell you with clarity that Hayek is far superior to Marx. But the vast majority of them did not learn about those things from their instructors.
First off, let me disclose that I took courses at CMC, as a student at Harvey Mudd College, so unlike Mr. Kepple I have personal experience there. The complexion of the faculty in various disciplines varies widely at any school, even at Claremont McKenna. I never noted any significant bias there or at any other school I attended (Univ. of Minnesota). That doesn't mean that there are not liberal, even leftist scholars out there. The great thing about the academy is that you cannot get fired for what you believe, or what you say, once you are tenured. This allows many different viewpoints to be expressed and heard. Now, clearly there is some dubious scholarship out there, but there is also a lot of great scholarship out there too. If you pay attention, you can hear debates going on in academia about all sorts of subjects, including many that Mr. Kepple might be interested in. But of course, that might take effort, whereas resting on your preconceived notions takes none. But all of this above is drivel, because he has no evidence to back up his claims. Like Horowitz, he simply "knows" it to be true. The sky is blue in my world, I wonder what color it is in his?
So what is to be done? Therein lies the problem. Conservative-minded students often want to become bond traders or lawyers or doctors or engineers; they don't want to pursue a scholarly life, known for being full of tripe and troubles. Those who do wish to enter into academia have a long and hard road ahead of them: years of eating soup, years of reading mindless academic journals, years of treading very very softly to gain tenure. It is not an easy thing to be a scholar.
I just think this is funny. I think he may actually have stumbled on something accurate here, that conservatism breeds a contempt for the academic lifestyle that self-selects them out of the pool. But then, why are they complaining about it? If they don't want to do it, then they can't bitch about it. The next passage is priceless;
I myself once had delusions I would someday enter the academy. However, I found to my dismay that I did not have the talent. That said, I must give at least a small amount of credit for my eventual choice of career to John V.A. Fine, the eminent scholar on the Balkans. Prof Fine had the unfortunate duty of grading my reports when I took his course on Eastern Christianity in my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. When I received one of them back, the good doctor had written in the margins, "You exaggerate and oversimplify."
I couldn't have said it better myself.