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Debunking a report on left wing groupthink using left wing groupthink

Following the Adam Smith Institute's appalling and sinister new report into so-called left wing bias in UK HE, Aidan Byrne bravely steps into the twisted world of the author in an attempt to unpick a report which has had so much media attention.
This article is more than 6 years old

Aidan Byrne works in higher education and Tweets and blogs as the Plashing Vole.

A new report from the Adam Smith Institute on so-called left-wing bias in academia has been making waves over the past week. It has already largely been written off in the sector as lazy, unevidenced, ideological puff, but I thought that it was necessary to look a little bit deeper at the report, and what it is trying to say.

First, the report is called Lackademia, though the URL is a little blunter: it reads “Left Wing Bias Paper”. This hurts, because some years ago I coined the term ‘slackademics’ to satirise the view that we teach for six weeks a year before bunking off to Siena, or somewhere equally agreeable, where we quaff wine in between organising attacks on Truth or Objectivity. I meant it as a joke, but unless the Adam Smith Institute (for it is they) are making a clever reference to Lacan’s theory of desire being fuelled by a lack of being, then it looks like this thing is snide from the off.

What is the Adam Smith Institute? Well, it’s a very rich think tank funded by nobody knows whom because they won’t tell us. A recent report by Transparify unveils some of its murky legal and financial arrangements but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. ASI dedicates itself to campaigning against all government and regulations, believing that the state’s only roles should be a) nuking foreigners and b) persecuting trades unionists. Sorry, it does have another role: to ensure that the eponymous Adam Smith spins perpetually in his grave as the Institute continues to abuse his name and ideas by wilfully distorting and extrapolating beyond anything he’d recognise as his own.

Calling out the lefties

ASI reckons that universities are stuffed with leftists, and they want to know why. For those of you too busy to trawl through the whole thing, the executive summary is probably enough:

  • Individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia.
  • Though relatively little information is available, evidence suggests that the overrepresentation of left-liberal views has increased since the 1960s. The proportion of academics who support the Conservatives may have declined by as much as 25 percentage points since 1964.
  • The left-liberal skew of British academia cannot be primarily explained by intelligence. The distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population.
  • The left-liberal skew may be partly explained by openness to experience; individuals who score highly on that personality trait tend to pursue intellectually stimulating careers like academia. And within the top 5% of IQ, openness to experience predicts support for left-wing parties.
  • Other plausible explanations for left-liberal overrepresentation include social homophily and political typing; individual conformity; status inconsistency; and discrimination.
  • Ideological homogeneity within the academy may have had a number of adverse consequences: systematic biases in scholarship; curtailments of free speech on university campuses; and defunding of academic research by right-wing governments.
  • Recommendations include: raising awareness; being alert to double standards; encouraging adversarial collaborations; and emphasising the benefits of ideological heterogeneity within the academy.

I quite like a report that admits at the very start of a sentence that “relatively little information is available” then leaves merely a comma before using the phrase “evidence suggests…”. Point 2 depends on Intelligence Quotient scores, as though IQ isn’t thoroughly discredited as anything other than a measure of how people perform on IQ tests: Nisbett’s Intelligence and How To Get It is pretty persuasive on how IQ is a function of various silent and/or unconscious social assumptions about what constitutes intelligence. I always did very badly on IQ tests, and also struggle with doors bearing PUSH and PULL stickers, yet here I am with my PhD, managing to string a sentence together.

Does it get better?

OK, that’s the executive summary. But I’m going to spoil the fun by reading the whole thing. First impressions: it’s like a bought essay of the kind I’m all too familiar with. It’s nicely proof-read and fluently written. There are even footnotes to make it look like real research, but there’s a major gap between assertions and evidence. Let’s hope that the author, Noah Carl, a doctoral candidate at Oxford’s Nuffield College, puts more rigour into his DPhil.

There is relatively little good evidence available on the political views of British academics. Nonetheless, that which are available point to a sizable left-liberal skew. In April of 2015, the Times Higher Education (THE) ran an online poll open to anyone with a UK university email address, which asked respondents whom they intended to vote for in the upcoming election. It was, as this report fairly notes, ‘self-selecting’. However, ASI continues to use it as evidence, despite admitting in the methodological appendix that “The question posed by the THE poll (2015) was not stated explicitly in the write-up”. So: the report relies on a self-selecting newspaper poll without being able to say for certain what the question was, and worse, what the response rate was in percentage terms or raw numbers. We learn that 46% of the respondents (probably) said they’d vote Labour but we don’t know whether 50,000 people replied, or 5.

This is backed up by a paper by Halsey… from 1992, which even the author admits isn’t an unproblematic thing to do: “Insofar as the question posed by Halsey (1992) was different to the one posed by the THE poll (2015), the two sets of figures are not directly comparable.” Nonetheless, this paper decides that if there is a flaw with the THE poll, it’s that utilising the overall percentages understates the academy’s left-liberal skew for reasons which remain obscure to me. But for them it’s fine: it gives them enough ammunition to confidently claim that relative to the outcome of the last general election then, British academia shows a considerable left-liberal skew.

Then we reach Section 3: Intelligence As An Explanation for Left-Liberal Overrepresentation. I should say before I plunge in that I’m a literary scholar, rather than a sociologist or a biologist, so some of what follows is derived from other people who are experts.

Essentially, Carl sets up a straw man by wondering out loud whether academics are leftwing because they’re more intelligent. He cites American research as though conclusions about the political cultures of the US can be imported into a British context without question, and again cites himself to prove that while being clever can make you more socially liberal, being clever (‘cognitive ability’) is positively associated with rightwing economic beliefs.

The suggestion appears to be that the cleverest people don’t mind gays and dope-smoking as long as neither activity is being taxed.

But how do we apply all this to Britain?

Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been any surveys of British academics asking about specific policy issues, either economic (e.g., nationalisation of industry) or social (e.g., immigration). Well, we could do some research. Or we could do this: “To see whether intelligence contributes to explaining the left-liberal skew of party support among academics, I calculated the distribution of party support for individuals within the top 5% of IQ, using data from the Understanding Society survey.”

I don’t know anything about the Understanding Society survey other than that it seems legitimate and robust. Score one for Carl. I do know, however, that IQ is a load of cobblers often promoted by rather unpleasant people who have a habit of moving from IQ scores to theories of racial difference, by which they almost always mean superiority. We’ll see what happens as ‘Lackademia’ unfolds. For now though, Carl discovers that there are as many high-IQ Tories as there are in the general population and slightly fewer Labour supporters. What he concludes is that Tories aren’t being excluded from academia because they’re stupid, but because they don’t hold the right economic views.

The whiff of polemic is strong.

After another couple of exceedingly unhelpful graphs, we move on to a discussion of whether conservatives are rare on campus (despite having no serious evidence of this) because they’re not open-minded. Carl concludes that Labour and Lib Dem supporters are more likely to be open-minded than Tories, but dismisses the survey’s evidence that UKIP supporters are more open-minded than Tories as ‘sampling error’. Again, his graphs depend heavily on the problematic THE poll for which he lacks the raw figures and the actual questions.

Section 5 is where it gets interesting.

“It should be recognised, of course, that all the evidence of bias cited above is from the social sciences; the physical sciences and mathematics do not appear to have been afflicted by ideological homogeneity in the same way. This is perhaps not surprising, however, given the objective nature of the physical sciences and mathematics, as well as the obvious fact that the social sciences relate directly to the sphere with which politics itself is concerned, namely human behaviour and society.”

This means he’s either missed the last century and the development of postmodernism and poststructuralism, or he just doesn’t want to talk about them. Or, and this might just be the answer, he mistakes conservative scientific discourses for neutrality. On this point I’ll just leave this here: more research is being done, and more money is spent on male baldness than on malaria. Now tell me science is immune to social forces.

There’s a vague discussion about self-selection before Carl wonders whether academics are left wing because they’re paid so little: out of jealousy they start to develop levelling tendencies which they think of as egalitarianism: “academics generally prefer policies that minimise differences in earnings across occupations, the better to safeguard their own influence.”

Is this true? Am I just a bitter purveyor of the politics of envy? There’s no evidence, but Carl’s just going to leave it there for you to think about. Meanwhile, he’s going to selectively use American research to demonstrate that leftist academics discriminate against conservatives in the hiring process (he’s not interested in other research about hiring processes, such as racial and gender biases), nor is he going to mention that hiring is largely a function of managers, not academics).

It gets worse

If you’re still with me, I can only apologise: We’re only just getting to the meat of this study, and this is where the amusement I got from picking holes in Carl’s paper comes to a juddering halt. I am officially sounding the Jim Crow Klaxon. The next section of Carl’s paper addresses the consequences of his unproven claims. It starts unpromisingly with a citation of Roger Scruton back in 1985, just after the Salisbury Review published Honeyford’s academically unjustifiable attack on multiculturalism.

Scruton thinks that editing the Review led to him being black-balled from academia: he doesn’t seem to think that writing an awful lot of its articles under a range of pseudonyms displayed a lack of integrity. But this is mere throat-clearing. The true purpose of Lacakademia becomes clear. It isn’t really about the sociological curiosity of imbalanced political views amongst academics. It is about academic rejection of theories of racial superiority. There’s a swipe at climate science, then a sustained critique of sociology’s use of the term ‘white privilege’.

The term erroneously implies that whites are advantaged relative to all other groups. Whereas in fact, Asian Americans are more advantaged than whites along with a number of important sociological dimensions: they have higher average incomes, better educational outcomes, and a lower likelihood of crime victimisation. This is of course localised and unnuanced, which is no surprise. A white male author from a country governed by a white male billionaire, taking money from a élite, white think-tank in a country ruled by white conservatives is only ever going to claim that he’s actually from a persecuted minority.

He then attacks sociologists in particular for their discourse which casts conservative views of society as constricting rather than structured, then castigates them for their “angry expostulation”, which is pretty rich coming from someone who started his reports with Daily Mail quotations. Economics departments too are up to no good: their textbooks have too much to say about market failure and too little about government failure.

And then, dear readers, we are back to the thorny issue of race. Carl talks of “witch-hunts” despite the only recent witch-hunt was the terrifying Professor Watchlist in the US, which invited students to add their professors’ names to a database of liberal subversives. What it boils down to is this: the sociologists have been nasty to the eugenicists and racial superiority theorists, in particular, Charles Murray. E. O. Wilson and Lawrence Summers. Murray used IQ (hello again) to postulate in The Bell Curve that Asians are intellectually superior to whites, with black and Latino people (yes, all these categories are used homogeneously) at the bottom of the heap, because genetics. Not history, experience, class, economics, racism, poverty. Bad genes.

What are the consequences of these nasty close-minded leftwing sociologists (even though Carl’s already suggested they’re actually more open-minded than conservatives)? Well, it’s a dystopian vision of hell:

“In a working paper titled ‘A social science without sacred values’, Winegard and Winegard (2016) go as far to suggest that a substantial number of academic social scientists have become “paranoid egalitarian meliorists”: individuals who espouse a narrative in which society progresses ever closer toward a state of natural equality (between the genders, classes, races etc.), and who are hypersensitive to any scholarship that might threaten the intellectual foundations of this narrative.”

Godless social scientists are leading us into a state of class, race and gender equality. The bastards. And while I’m at it, let’s recall that this unpublished working paper isn’t peer reviewed, while the other paper by this duo cited is a rather bitter defence of Evolutionary Psychology against the perception that it’s a crank theory indebted to, well, Nazis and anyone who discounts social and environmental factors in favour of biology. Hello again, racial superiority theory.

After that, it’s downhill to the argument that campus homogeneity leads to the end of free speech because universities have free speech codes and sometimes give trigger warnings. On both sides of the Atlantic, lecturers have begun issuing so-called trigger warnings before they discuss potentially upsetting material.

UK universities are compelled by the government to have rules about these things. I know because I’m a university governor and contributed to writing those rules. The current government equates freedom of speech to Letting Islamic Terrorists Recruit: British universities have done rather well to resist this implication. Personally, I’m in favour of some basic restrictions: the right seems to be arguing that if someone shouts ‘Fire’, then I check the facts and say ‘Don’t listen to him, there isn’t a fire’, I’m an enemy of free speech.

As to trigger warnings: I teach literature. I teach material that represents and explores deeply distressing subjects in graphic ways. I’ve never once decided not to teach these things, but because I know there are people in the class who have suffered some of the experiences discussed, I make sure we talk about them in a supportive environment.

And worse again

Any paper that uses the word ‘reportedly’, and relies on the Daily Mail for evidence, is a paper that’s less interested in what actually happened, and more interested in garnering – as it did – outraged headlines in papers like, well, the Daily Mail. Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves that even Wikipedia has banned the Daily Mail as a reliable source.

Carl adds to the abject stupidity by citing Spiked as evidence for his opposition to no-platforming. If you don’t know Spiked, it’s an outpost of the former Revolutionary Communist Party. It uses a variety of front organisations to propagate a radical libertarian-capitalist agenda which opposes government action against, for example, racism, climate change and child pornography. Once you’re reduced to citing this crew as evidence, you’re down the rabbit hole, and there’s no coming back.

What’s missing from any of this is the absence of any contextual analysis. What about universities as institutions, existing within, contributing to, and being influenced by neoliberalising discourses? What of the shift in the UK to student fees, to managerial over-reach, to the employability agenda? What about diversity between universities and regions? Or about social and cultural factors beyond individual psychology? Nothing. Instead, what we have is a nasty attempt to rehabilitate eugenics disguised as a defence of freedom of speech. It’s bad enough that Noah Carl was paid to produce this stuff: it’s worse that the media didn’t spot it.

One last thing: the Adam Smith Institute’s commercial spin-off was in the papers recently too: banned from UK government contracts for, err, corrupt and dishonest practices. Perhaps they need staff from a wider range of ethical positions to prevent this kind of thing happening? Just a thought.

This article is an edited version of the original which appeared on the Plashing Vole blog.

4 responses to “Debunking a report on left wing groupthink using left wing groupthink

  1. Adam Smith International in the news at the same time because it potentially ‘duped’ MPs (according to Daily Mail and others) about its international aid contracts and managing directors stepped down pro tem. Could the report be a dead cat released only to Times and Telegraph in advance to divert attention from the former ? Just asking, including whether we should breathe new life into this dubious ‘research’ and ‘conclusions’.

  2. There are worse alternatives….

    Letter to Western Daily Press, Bristol

    Dear Editor

    In response to Robert Readman’s trumpeting of the Adam Smith Institute and its report on universities (WDP Letters 11 March) one has to ask, by whom is this organisation, and others like it such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, ‘respected’? The answer is: only by those who fund them, and having been to a university which owes its existence to such think tanks, Buckingham, I would be against our other universities going the same way.

    I went to Sidcot, the Quaker school in North Somerset, which I have to thank for teaching me to hate political correctness before I knew it had a name and social justice warriors before anyone knew what to call them, given that the place was awash with loony-left tree-hugging, kaftan-wearing sociology-studying peaceniks, so thought that Buckingham, being ‘independent’ would be a place where freedom of speech and thought would be cherished. How wrong I was!

    Sadly, it was the equivalent of going from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which people were made too afraid to express their thoughts openly and books were banned, to a Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people had no thoughts to express in the first place and there was no need to burn books as no one wanted to read them anyway. Much as I loathe the idea of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’, at least it’s a backhanded compliment.

    And while I may intensely dislike left-wing academics who poison the minds of their students with their beliefs, at least they want them to be passed on to a new generation, and I can respect them for that, unlike the right-wing academics who taught me who made no effort to tell me and others about what they believed in and why we should embrace it. They didn’t even teach us what the word ‘libertarianism’ meant.

    Recently left wing students were described in a Spectator article as ‘Stepford students’, although with their arresting eyes and telepathic powers, they were more like the Children in the The Midwich Cuckoos. If anyone resembled the women in The Stepford Wives it was the students at Buckingham; attractive, pleasant, but robotic, with few intellectual pursuits, expressing bafflement as to why this should be a source of concern.

    My greatest fear is not a university campus in which the likes of Katie Hopkins and Julie Bindel are screamed at, shouted down or not allowed to speak at all, but one in which students, escpecially foreign ones, are so insulated from British public life that they do not even know who these people are, assuming that they bother turning up to a debate in the first place. That is the kind of university Buckingham was, and what these free market think tanks want.

    Freedom of speech and thought works both ways: yes, the left must accept that it is necessary, and even beneficial, to be exposed to views and beliefs that affront and anger you, and not be cocooned in a safe space, all wrapped in cotton wool, but the right must also accept that it should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and reduce universities to bland businesses in which students are merely customers.


    Ken Westmoreland

  3. “IQ is a load of cobblers”

    Sorry, but you’re just a straight up liar on the question of IQ, another ideological far leftist who believes what he wants to believe.

    IQ has the best predictive power of an measure ever developed in the social sciences. EVER. If it is worthless then the entire field is.

    As for the rest, all you do is evade and dodge and try to muddy the waters, you never really refute the central premise that leftists are massively over represented in academia. All you make is snarky “wow just wow” one liners that you seem to think are arguments.

    “lol, fucking white men, amirite?”

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