14 December 2016

Why the populists are right about academic elites

By Josef Montag

It would be an understatement to say that this has been a year of surprises. Neither Brexit nor Trump were, according to the experts and the pollsters, supposed to happen. Even the prediction markets, which tend to out-perform other sources, were taken by surprise.

The night before the referendum, Britain was 75 per cent likely to stay in the EU. The night before the American election, Donald Trump only had a 10 per cent chance of being president.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the populists’ ability to overcome traditional Left-Right boundaries was the major factor that enabled them to tilt the popular vote in their favour. They were able to persuade people that they were “telling it as it is”, rather than peddling “politically correct lies” like the “elites”.

While this may not be the entire explanation for their success; there is no doubt that recent populist movements have been enabled by the elites. One major problem, as I see it, is the vast scarcity of intellectual diversity in our universities – the centres of scholarship and thinking.

A recent survey found that 75 per cent of Yale undergraduate students believe that their university does not provide a welcoming environment for conservative students. More strikingly, from the 11.86 per cent of respondents who self-describe as conservative – itself an astonishingly low proportion – almost 95 per cent stated that Yale does not welcome their opinion.

This pattern is matched by the intellectual diversity of universities – or rather the lack of it.

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One highly cited study found that fewer than 5 per cent of social science and humanities professors in the US are conservative, and only 2 per cent of English professors are Republicans.

Another survey, in 2012, of social psychologists in academia, found that only 6 per cent self-identify as conservative. The same study found that many social psychologists said that they would discriminate against conservatives when reviewing articles or in their hiring decisions.

This should not be surprising. Another recent experimental study found that political partisans in the US, Republicans as well as Democrats, discriminate against opposing partisans. Moreover, politics-based discrimination appeared to be more severe than that on racial or gender grounds.

These imbalances are probably less of an issue for the natural sciences, where ideas and findings rarely carry a political message and verification processes are more objective. But things are quite different in social sciences – the very fields whose main aim is to advance our understanding of society and its complexities.

In order to serve its role in society, academia requires mechanisms that protect it against capture by a political monoculture, however well-intentioned. Yet the findings above suggest that those mechanisms are flawed.

This is troublesome for a number of reasons.

First, the fact that academia is dominated by members of one political tribe, coupled with known psychological biases,  may produce bad science. If holding a particular political philosophy makes it easier to succeed (to publish, to be cited, to get hired, to get tenure), it means that research produced by academics who share this philosophy may be subject to less rigorous scrutiny than research that is not politically aligned with the university mainstream.

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In that case, the existing body of social science research is not only likely to be biased, but also polluted by bad science.

Second, the experience of discrimination, the limited access to mentors who can support their intellectual development, and even the lack of rigorous criticism of their worldview – which is instead likely to be dismissed as backward, immoral or unscientific – are factors inclined to harm the intellectual development of those of a conservative persuasion.

As a consequence, academia is unlikely to be attractive for these people, distorting both the kind of people who remain in universities and the kind of people who choose to leave them.

Third, and perhaps most important, this lack of diversity in academia may result in the frequent appearance of “scientific” consensuses driven by politics rather than science. The major problem with this is not that these consensuses may be politically biased. Rather it is that their high frequency and insufficient scrutiny may lead people, including the elite, into believing that more is known about society than is really the case: witness this year’s excitements.

In short, when the populists claim that elites are detached from “real life”, they may actually have a point. Boundaries between science and politics, which in social sciences have never been waterproof, have become more fluid.

Experts have become harder to distinguish from political activists. For many people then everything becomes just an opinion. Truth ceases to exist, facts don’t matter anymore. Gut feelings supercede reason.

This is a dangerous mix.

Rather than a year of surprises, let us hope 2016 is instead seen as a year of wake-up calls.

Dr Josef Montag is an Assistant Professor at the International School of Economics at the Kazakh-British Technical University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.