Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Afternoon at Lafayette College

Professor Brandon Van Dyck and his student Abdul invited me to speak at Lafayette College as part of their Mill lecture series.   About fifty students and several faculty members attended my talk, and students both in favor of and opposed to political correctness were in the room and spoke reasonably and frankly.   It is to  Lafayette’s credit that it has allowed Professor Van Dyck to initiate the program, although I am told that some of the faculty have attacked it.  One of the points that Professor Van Dyck and others made during the discussion is that some professors at Lafayette have criticized the program and its speakers without attending any of the lectures.        

My topic covered a combination of the Langbert, Quain, and Klein article “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,”  which appeared in Econ Journal Watch last year, as well as some recent findings on which I’ve been working.  The recent findings concern liberal arts colleges, which I’m starting to conclude have more variance in their partisanship than do research institutions but for the most part are as one sided as the social science departments of research institutions.

I found it gratifying to meet a number of conservative students at Lafayette who question the left orientation of their education, but I found it even more gratifying that several left-oriented students attended the talk and were willing to debate with me and with Professor Van Dyck.

Students who defended colleges’ left orientation raised these points:

                1. In research on faculty voter registration, nearly half the population is either not registered or not affiliated with a party, so nonresponse threatens the validity of the Langbert, Quain, and Klein findings.

                2. Students who protested Charles Murray’s appearance and other conservative speakers’ appearances at Middlebury College and elsewhere have the right to protest their institutions’ allowing such speakers to appear because the institutions are private, and the students have the right to see that their tuition money is used in ways of which they approve.  Moreover, Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve is racist.

                3. The one-sidedness of faculty voter registration does not matter because left-oriented professors can fairly depict both sides.

                4. Republicans are often opposed to science, and many question the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Nonregistration as a Threat to Validity

First, although the research I’m doing is archival and not survey based, the problem of nonregistration parallels that of survey nonresponse. 

As this article by the American Academy of Political and Social Science says, nonresponse threatens the validity of most social science survey work. As I pointed out to the student,   left-oriented observers raise this issue with respect to this research more frequently than they do with studies done byNeil Gross, studies done to support left-oriented positions, or neutral studies, such as those of the US Census.  I have never heard a news reporter comment on the nonresponse rate for the unemployment statistic survey, which in most years is four or five times greater than the unemployment rate.  The nonresgistration rate in our research is less than the proportion that we have found to be registered.

That said, since all social science survey research is threatened by nonresponse, it is important to triangulate or to find multiple methods of measuring the same variable.  Studies of the left orientation of faculty have included opinion surveys, which of course also suffer from nonresponse but a different kind of nonresponse.  As well, both opinion surveys and voter registration studies of faculty political affiliation are being done on multiple kinds of samples.  The different forms of studies do not find appreciably different results. 

As results from different kinds of studies and from different kinds of samples accumulate, the results become more certain and better understood.  My point is that virtually no survey work ever done does not suffer from nonresponse, and nonresponse is important only if it correlates with the findings. If there is no correlation between nonresponse and partisan affiliation, then nonresponse has no importance to the study.  If there is a correlation that is strong enough to change the findings, then we may fairly ask why the findings do not appreciably change when different populations are surveyed and different methods are used.

Charles Murray

With respect to the second point, which concerns Charles Murray’s not being allowed to speak, colleges should be forums for open debate.  They are not ideological or political advocacy organizations that permit only one viewpoint.  The left protested the McCarthyism of conservative politicians because McCarthyism did not permit the views of communists to be openly expressed. It is telling that now left academics and students advocate that views of conservatives should not be allowed to be openly expressed. 

Religious institutions that permit only one religion to be advocated openly state that the religion is fundamental to their mission, but secular colleges do not claim to be political advocacy organizations in part because Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code predicates institutional tax exemption on not engaging in lobbying or ideological advocacy.  Political organizations are not entitled to tax exemptions.  Hence, if students wish to claim that their institutions are at root political advocacy organizations, they will need to pony up the difference in tuition cost between exempt and nonexempt institutions.

More importantly, the purpose of universities should be to teach citizenship, rational debate, and learning rather than closed minded advocacy.  If Middlebury and other colleges teach advocacy instead, then public support for them should be revisited.

I read Herrnstein and Murray twenty years ago. I do not recall any racist claims in their book, although I was once called to the carpet of a departmental chair because of a student’s claim that Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals is racist. (I recount the incident here.) My recollection of Herrnstein and Murray is that they make the general point that IQ is important to a wide range of public policy issues.  In my own field, human resource management, IQ has been repeatedly shown to be a valid predictor of job performance.  

Merriam-Webster defines bigot as follows:

A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.
Although the racial variety is the most common application, one can be a bigot in a variety of ways, and students who, in the face of science, violently object to well-reasoned, scientifically supported findings because of obstinate commitment to their own prejudices are themselves bigots. Middlebury and all other educational institutions should encourage students to think scientifically and reasonably and to abhor bigotry of all kinds.

Teaching Both Sides

With respect to the third point, the ability of faculty to teach both sides of a question, I have worked in higher education for 26 years, and I have never had a departmental colleague who could give a fair exegesis of libertarian economic theories like those of Hayek and von Mises.  I have no doubt that many economists can, but many cannot.  The same is true of classical liberal ideas. The most influential economic writer was Adam Smith, but I have repeatedly heard his statement, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,” misinterpreted to mean that Smith supported economic regulation.  The statement is made at the end of a chapter in Wealth of Nations that criticizes gilds and argues that regulation does not work.

A good example of the incompetence of many left-oriented academics with respect to (Lockean) liberal thinkers is a book I reviewed in 2012 for Frontpagemag, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Robin misunderstands, misconstrues, and appears not to have read the von Mises material that he claims to critique.  If a left-oriented professor like Robin who claims to be able to write a book on conservatism botches his understanding of von Mises, I doubt that many left faculty can do a good job. 

Global Warming

With respect to the last point, I am not enough of an expert in geology to comment on climate change, but I did say that the claim that “science is settled” is profoundly anti science.  As Popper points out in his Logic of Scientific Discovery, theories are never proven; they are only disproven or falsified. As I pointed out to the student who raised this point, those in the church who believed that the science was settled imprisoned Galileo.  The politicization of science, as the Democrats have done with respect to global warming theory, is more profoundly anti science than the doubts raised by global warming skeptics.  
One of the few professors in the room was a science professor who rejoined that he was a global warming denier.  He said that the evidence is not nearly strong enough to have policy implications. Amen.