12 February 2011

Opinion as journalism in the NYT

The NYT has an opinion piece (although it's filed as news) decrying the ideological dominance of the social sciences by liberals. Fortunately for ivory tower liberals everywhere, the piece would be bad as opinion. It's truly awful as journalism. Let's begin where the article does:
“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”
People do often jump to discrimination as a default explanation for gender discrimination (particularly in graduate schools). However, as the article itself goes on to explain statistics demonstrate that the disproportionate number of men in graduate studies actually represents discrimination against the men, since women are, as compared to the percentage of applicants, overrepresented.

Haidt and NYT author Tierney use the default, unexamined idea to represent reality. This quote of Haidt means nothing if we are to put it in its proper context and say, "Our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation, and then after investigation we are able to discard it as junk." There may be something to the fact that our default explanation for ideological differences in the makeup of particular fields is not discrimination, but this is absolutely not evidence of discrimination. It might, after all, be that we are better able to intuit the actual cause of ideological selection than we are by gender selection. This possibility is at least as likely as what Tierney/Haidt have put forth with this quote.

The rhetorical sleight of hand does not end there though, here's another:
“I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”
The first part of this quote is completely anodyne. I doubt there are many people in America who have not at some point felt the need to stifle discussion of their political views among (some of) their work colleagues. Everyone has had a coworker who was unwilling do so and no one wants to be that guy.

The second part, of which I've bolded the most important part, is insidious. Due to the structure of this article, and this paragraph in particular it's not immediately clear who is being quoted here. Worse yet the student's statement is left to stand on its own, its implications saying what Tierney can't or won't say himself. To see why this is a problem consider a student making the same statement more directly, "I am certain of what the results of my research would be, and although I have not conducted this research, those results would disagree with the political slant of my superiors, thus rendering them unpublishable."

This statement, which we are left to take at face value, is not only accusing research publication of being ideologically biased, they're accusing it of being overtly and completely biased. This isn't a claim wherein someone says, "My findings would be relegated to a second tier journal." This is someone claiming outright that their work would never see the light of day, because of what it would find. That this goes unchallenged borders on the absurd since this student either needs to go back and take a class on what the scientific method is (n.b.: you don't generally know your conclusions with certainty before conducting a study) or the problems with publishing intimated here are so calamitous that we deserve an explanation.

Instead Tierney moves on to a discussion of studies carried out by other scientists (one must wonder if these scientists face the same restrictions on publication as the graduate student). Indeed we hear a couple names and are given these fancy statistics:
Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.
Rather than offer any novel insight on these findings, Tierney returns to Haidt for his copy (if you're starting to get the feeling this article ought to have appeared under the Opinion page with Haidt's byline, you're getting the gist).
“The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.”
Haidt, remarkably, gives us a plausible explanation for the abnormal distribution in the social sciences. Even though earlier he decried precisely these "alternate explanations." By now it's obvious what comes next. An unchallenged, unsupported assertion about the consequences of this disproportionality. Amazingly, no where in this article does anyone consider that these academics' views have changed since they got to where they are. The reader is left with the distinct impression (because it's the only one presented) that these institutions are selecting against conservatives and for liberals.

Other hypotheses (like the one that Haidt puts forth himself) go unremarked upon and still others, such as a possible liberalizing influence of social study itself, are completely ignored.

The article goes on to discuss Larry Summers and his January 2005 comments about gender inequality among elite university professorships. Here's Tierney on that:
Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”
Once again we get a quote that goes unremarked upon, even though it makes unsupportable assertions. The bold is mine. Larry Summers didn't step down as president of Harvard until February of 2006. A full 13 months after his comments. Incidentally during that same time Summers signed off on a controversial $28.5 million settlement involving a close personal friend and oversaw catastrophic losses in Harvard's endowment. But no, we are told he resigned because of a speech in which he mentioned three hypotheses, the most contentious of which has since been documented.

I understand that the NYT is viewed as a liberal organ and must occasionally self-flagellate in a paean to objectivity, but letting a self-professed ideologue write an op-ed and then calling it news because a reporter quoted him at length is a joke. I expect something like this from the Huffington Post, although it would piss me off even there. From the "the paper of record" it's lamentable and nauseating.

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