Monday, 29 September 2003

Hiring bias in academe

Henry Farrell, Daniel Drezner, David Adesnik, The Invisible Adjunct, Erin O‘Connor and Jacob Levy (whew—did I get everyone?) are among those discussing David Brooks’ latest NYT op-ed on the alleged liberal bias of the academy, particularly in its hiring practices. (I previously blogged about this topic back when Horowitz was making his splash but can’t be bothered to search for the post. Oh, well.)

I think Jacob Levy is onto something when he writes:

What we do is also: research. It’s always been pretty clear to me that there are people who have the reputation of subordinating their research to an ideological mission, and doing bad research as a result.

I think the danger for a lot of scholars—on the left and the right—is that they will fall into this trap. However, it’s a much more deadly one for rightist scholars than leftist ones; I can recall a particular gathering at which one particular political science faculty member was fawning over Michael Bellesiles’ then-new (and then-undiscredited) Arming America; one suspects my colleagues were not quite so entralled by John Lott’s (also-then-undiscredited) More Guns, Less Crime. In the medium-to-long term, Bellesiles is likely to resurface relatively unscathed somewhere in second-tier academia, while Lott will be most fortunate if he ever sees a room with students in it again in his life. Of course, neither of these men are political scientists (just as well, I suppose, since that means we don’t have to disavow them).

I’ve been relatively fortunate in my career to fall in with faculty who, if they don’t share my political beliefs, can at least accept that they are legitimate and sincerely-held. I think it’s also the case that in more empirically-oriented parts of the social sciences, ideological differences don’t matter as much as what the data can tell us, provided we are honest researchers. After all, Johannes Kepler started out believing—as his mentor, Tycho Brahe did—that the Earth was the center of the universe, but ended up producing the laws of planetary motion for our sun-centered system that astronomers still use today.

The epitome of good science is a willingness to revise—and if necessary, reject—your preconceived notions if the evidence cannot support them. In the end, that is the only ideology that should matter.