Thursday, February 12, 2004

Taking on a Life of its Own

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the issues raised in the post below. A point was brought up on the Larry Elder Show in Los Angeles. He was interviewing Steven Miller, a freshman at Duke University who had made a name for himself by bringing incidents of anti-conservative bias at Santa Monica High School to media attention. Steven was involved with the initial study and letter that lead to the article and quote below. Larry suggested that a similar study of the faculties of the hard science departments would give lie to the Philosophy Chair's assertion that liberals would naturally be disproportionately represented due to inherently greater intelligence. If true, then there would be a similar disproportion of liberal science and engineering professors. If not true, then the representation would be more similar to the population at large.

In my own personal experience, professors of physical sciences and engineering aren't too different from the rest of the community. I think that what may be at work here, obviously without recourse to any hard data, is the fundamental difference between physical sciences and social sciences. At the level of academic achievement represented by professors and PhD's, one's intelligence and smartness is shown by being correct.

In the physical sciences one may propose a theory and then perform experiments that isolate the effect one wishes to observe. If the data support the hypothesis, then one can make a claim as to being correct. If another scientist wishes to test the results, he/she may then duplicate the experiment and either verify or disprove the results. Another situation is where an experiment is needed, but not all of the extraneous influences can be controlled. Medical experiments are a clear example of this, the experimenter can not isolate their subjects for long enough so that differences in environment, diet, and other impacts of different lives can be removed. For these cases, large numbers of subjects need to be studied and statistically valid trends are sought. These tests also include a similar group, called the control group, not receiving the influence (drug, diet, etc.) that is being tested. That way, statistically valid can be determined by the difference in the two groups. In this case, methodology is much more important and is often the source of much controversy.

Regardless of constraints, the physical sciences demand that all theories be measured up against the world. Physical science can be said to have recourse to external validation.

Social sciences do not have that option. One can not go out and create new historical data. Archaeology may find new data, but the only hope for proving a historical theory is to discover artifacts that have survived. Sociology may come up with theories as to why things happened, but the field is short on control groups. When society covers everyone, who is left to show what would have happened otherwise? The only recourse is to consensus. Do the other smart people in your field agree that your theory has merit?

I'm tempted to read the quote more as the assumption that the intelligent person would choose the liberal viewpoint because it is self-obviously correct. However, if correctness is a matter of consensus, then the process of determining correctness becomes inherently political. What is correct is what the faculty believes to be correct. The selection process for joining the faculty is meant to determine who is the best suited, the most intelligent person available. Intelligence, for a professor, is determined by being correct. Correct as determined by the faculty. Therefore, intelligence is determined by the faculty. If the candidate has written papers that the faculty does not agree with, it is therefore incorrect and the candidate has failed to prove intelligence to the degree that another candidate who has written papers that the faculty does agree with. It then follows that the second candidate will be judged as more capable for the job than the first.

The tendency for social sciences, in which correctness is determined by consensus, thus falls into a self-reinforcing cycle. After a few repetitions, it is no wonder that we see so many faculties dominated by single viewpoints. When it comes to topics like Philosophy, Sociology, and Political Science, those viewpoints would be impossible to separate from party affiliation.

Update: First time around I mistakenly cited the professor as being the History Chair. That has been corrected to Philosophy Chair.

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