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Five explanations of political divide in the academy

melian          23 October 2015 08:10 AM


In the second half of the 20th century the left captured a solid majority among professional academics in virtually all western countries. However, the size of this majority varies a lot across different disciplines. For instance, while among the US anthropologists the ratio between Democrats and Republicans exceeds 30:1, among engineers it drops below 3:1. In general, supporters of the right-wing parties are much more likely to be found in the STEM fields than in humanities or social sciences.

A number of different explanations may be suggested to explain this trend:

  1. “Truth has a liberal bias.” Experts in the fields directly connected to politics (history and social sciences) are much more likely to recognize faults in the right-wing policies.

  2. “Truth has a non-liberal bias.” STEM fields have much more rigorous standards which makes STEM experts more likely to recognize faults in the left-wing policies.

  3. “Persecution.” Researchers in the fields not connected to politics (STEM) do not need to show support for a particular political ideology in order to get their papers published.

  4. “Economic interest.” Academics in STEM fields find it a lot easier to find high-salaried positions in the private sector which makes them more sympathetic to business interests and more hostile to progressive taxation.

  5. “Idealism.” Right-wingers are less attracted to the more idealistic pursuits (such as humanities and social sciences).


Which (if any) of the above explanations do you think is the true one?




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Alice 3 November 2015 04:17 PM
70%

Would you count climatology as a STEM subject? If so, it would be interesting to see what's the divide there.


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is4junk 23 October 2015 01:25 PM
68%

I wonder if there is a large positive correlation between the amount of rigor in a academic field and the percentage of right-wing folks teaching it. Too bad we don't have a way to measure rigor.

The next closest thing would be starting median salary of graduates. Fivethiryeight put together a list. By chance is your political party by discipline data organized the same way?

https://github.com/fivethirtyeight/data/blob/master/college-majors/recent-grads.csv

As for the 1-5 explanations. I think there is some merit in 2-5.


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melian 23 October 2015 03:07 PM
73%

Fivethiryeight put together a list.

How accurate is this data? Do people with degrees in nursing really earn more than with degrees in finance or pharmacology?

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is4junk 23 October 2015 03:38 PM
69%

Hard to say if the data is accurate. A lot depends what average people do with their degree. My take is it is the later for both these examples.

pharmacology: pharmacist or guy who gives product samples to doctors
finance: hedge fund manager or excel jockey for large corporate quarterly report

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-economic-guide-to-picking-a-college-major/

This is the relevant footnote on the data

All figures in this article, except where otherwise noted, are based on American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample files for 2010 through 2012. “Recent” graduates are those under age 28 (roughly within five years of graduation on a normal schedule). Earnings figures are based on people employed full-time (35 hours or more), year-round (50 weeks or more) with positive earnings; except where noted, earnings also exclude those who are in school or who
... read more


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Benito 30 October 2015 03:08 AM
68%

Surely one proxy for rigour is how hard the field is (in terms of maths)?

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Benito 30 October 2015 03:07 AM
67%

To reduce the effort required for someone to find evidence to sift between the hypotheses, here's some basic things to research that could help a fair bit.

Data on: how political beliefs change as professors shift in fields, between harder and softer sciences, and natural sciences and political sciences. At what point does the inference work - can you find someone's political beliefs early on in life, then predict their area of academia, or do you always learn the area of academia first?

Point 4 could be tested by looking for a correlation between size of pay discrepancy between academia and the private sector and which academic area one is in.


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melian 30 October 2015 08:04 AM
75%

Data on: how political beliefs change as professors shift in fields, between harder and softer sciences, and natural sciences and political sciences.

There are quite a few people who moved between related fields (for example, Keynes moved from math to economics), but I can’t recall anyone who permanently moved from hard to soft sciences and vice versa. Feynman made a brief incursion into soft sciences but quickly quit concluding that soft sciences were a cargo cult. If nevertheless one does find enough data on people who made such transitions, it seems likely that such people would be highly atypical. So any conclusions based on this group might not apply to most of their colleagues.


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Benito 30 October 2015 10:59 AM
67%

Like, Robin Hanson went from Philosophy tp Physics to AI to Economins, where he's stuck around. And I'm fairly confident he doesn't identify politically, and doesn't have opinions on most politicised issues.

Make of that lesson what you will. ;^)

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gogog00 29 October 2015 10:37 PM
66%

I would say 3,4 and 5 all have merit, with 4 less of a factor than people assume.

3 definitely has an impact. Falling in line with the ideological majority will most certainly aid in an academic career.

BUT the above doesn't explain why leftist ideologies are so *universal across countries* among professors in the social sciences

which is why 5, I believe, is the strongest case. There is most likely some hidden neurological/psychological innate correlation between seeking certain types of careers and having a certain type of ideology


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melian 30 October 2015 08:15 AM
73%

If idealism is the best explanation, how would one explain that there were a lot more right-wing professors in humanities and social sciences in the past?


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gogog00 30 October 2015 11:10 AM
68%

Do you have the numbers on the exact percentages? Would be interesting to look at.

I'm fairly certain that if you look historically, left-wingers will be over-represented in academia fairly consistently throughout most societies. In my opinion, the only explanation to this can be the Idealism point.

Taking your word on the fact that this relationship has strengthened recently, that could potentially be the effect of the other two factors coming into play. Sociology would be a good example where conforming to the dominant ideology is necessary to get ahead. Thus, even starting with a slight left bias will create a feedback loop, which over time would strengthen this bias.

Might also be interesting to dig into how tenure, and other such incentives have changed over time.


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ChristianKl 24 October 2015 11:26 AM
61%

Which (if any) of the above explanations do you think is the true one?
That's obviously the wrong question. Issues like this don't have a single reason.


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melian 25 October 2015 09:36 AM
73%

While every social issue has multiple causes affecting it, one factor is often more important than all others.

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ChristianKl 27 October 2015 02:49 PM
67%

Keith Stanovich who's an professor of Applied Psychology and who's developing the Rationality Quotient wrote a book titled "How To Think Straight About Psychology". It has a chapter on why that's a wrong model for thinking about the world while at the same time the average layman follows that model.

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