Posted tagged ‘political balance’

Spoiling the party (redux)

March 7, 2017

A postscript to last week’s blog post

Hot on the heels of my comments last week came the publication of a ‘briefing paper’ by the Adam Smith Institute, claiming to have found evidence that ‘individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia’. This conclusion is based on some at best very arguable analysis, and an interesting riposte can be found in this post by anonymous blogger ‘Plashing Vole’.

Curiously the ‘briefing paper’ declares its author to be one Noah Carl, while elsewhere on the Adam Smith Institute’s website we are told it is Ben Southwood, head of research at the institute. No matter. Whoever it is, the author lost me right at the beginning, because he (assuming the author is male anyway) makes certain assumptions about how to identify where someone is on the left-right axis: assumptions which would place, say, France’s Marine Le Pen firmly on the left. And then at the end he lost me one last time by beginning the final sentence with the words ‘going forward’, an expression I would ideally like to see prohibited by law.

The key problem with the paper is that it draws conclusions from materials which would not pass muster in any decent piece of research. The main source used by the paper for its conclusions regarding party support amongst academics is a 2015 online poll open to anyone with a university email address. The author allows that this would include administrative and support staff; but of course it also includes students and, in the case of some universities, all alumni. While the poll was not uninteresting, you could not possibly use it to draw scholarly conclusions.

The analysis of this paper would not stand up to much scrutiny, and some of the passages are ludicrous (in particular that assessing the relevance of intelligence or IQ scores). For all that, in his conclusions (until he gets to the execrable ‘going forward’) he does make some valid points. The freedom of intellectual and philosophical thought that all academics must support – and which must absolutely rule out measures such as those proposed by Iowa States Senator Mark Chelgren (discussed in the last post) – should lead us all to seek to engage with views contrary to our own, and to treat them with a degree of respect. This is why ‘no-platform’ policies are unacceptable, and why an atmosphere in which dissent from received doctrine is discouraged should not be tolerated in a university. But then again, we must remember that in some disciplines, including areas in the social sciences (for example a number of economics departments), the received doctrine may not be leftwing at all.

The academy must always host an exchange of ideas, and must welcome ideas particularly when, to the majority, they are in fact most unwelcome.

Spoiling the party

February 28, 2017

Let us say that you are in a chemistry department in a reputable university and you are seeking to appoint a world class biochemist. You are part of an interview panel considering some really excellent academics, each with a global reputation. As you wind up the interview, will you ask them about their party political affiliation, indicating that their answer may affect the decision whether or not to appoint them?

I suspect that most of you reading this would not, definitely not. And yet, that is what State Senator Mark Chelgren from Iowa in the United States would have you do. The Senator has introduced a Bill in the state legislature that would require universities to act as follows:

‘A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of faculty belonging to the other political party.’

There is a fairly venerable tradition of conservative politicians and commentators arguing that universities are overwhelmingly populated by left-leaning liberals, a point recently reiterated by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. It is an issue that I have covered before in this blog. It is in fact far from proven that universities overall are dominated by liberals or socialist types, though sometimes certain departments may be. Almost all of the best known conservative economists, for example, were leading figures in university economics departments.

Senator Chelgren’s proposed Bill is of course unworkable unless we adopt the practice with which I opened this post. Doing so would however undermine any reasonable understanding of political freedom and democracy, and would do so for a cause that has very little evidence to back it. It is a proposal which, sadly, is in tune with the spirit of the times we are in. May it fail; and then, may we have little occasion to hear of the Senator again.