An interesting discussion has been taking place in the blogosphere. It begins with recent studies showing that very few academics are conservative or Republican. (The ratio is about 15 to 1).
Paul Krugman’s op-ed in today’s New York Times suggests a few reasons for this imbalance, among them the influence of anti-evolution politics and the idea that “today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general.” It is not surprising that Krugman’s op-ed has not been received with unanimous approval.
On the Volokh Conspiracy, law professor Orin Kerr suggests that Krugman’s characterization of conservatives is inaccurate. However, professor Mark Kleiman disagrees with Kerr, arguing that: “Krugman doesn’t think you’re an religious fanatic or an obscurantist; he’s just explaining why so few people who think for a living share your willingness to vote for a party dominated by politicians who are religious fanatics or obscurantists, or who pretend to be that way to pander to those tendencies among the voters. ”
Kleiman’s read of Krugman’s piece is quite interesting. On the one hand, it addresses a major problem with Krugman’s piece, and allows for the existence of intelligent conservatives. However, Kleiman’s read results in a shift which undercuts Krugman’s initial argument.
The problem (and the possibility of more than one interpretation) arises because Krugman is playing fast and loose with terms. He starts off by discussing the lack of conservatives in general from the field of academia, and then he shifts and discusses certain anti-academic conservative politicians. There are two ways to read Krugman’s bifurcated reasoning; however, as we will see, each has serious problems.
The first possible read (and the way that Orin Kerr originally read the piece) is that conservatives are absent from academia because all conservatives share the mindset of those conservatives (Senator Inhofe, Dennis Baxley) who Krugman has quoted. Assuming that Krugman is right that those views are anti-academic (I know, that’s a loaded assumption, but go with it for a moment, because I think that even on its own terms Krugman’s argument doesn’t work), this argument can be phrased as “there are no conservatives in academia because all conservatives are neanderthals.”
This is a logically consistent argument, if true. If all conservatives are neanderthals, then it makes sense to keep them out of academia. However, it is an argument which is based on a factual assertion (all conservatives are neanderthals) and is subject to empirical critique. Orin Kerr unsurprisingly objects to this factual assertion; I think he’s on solid ground, and that the weight of the evidence suggests that the assertion “all conservatives are neanderthals” is factually inaccurate.
However, Kleiman points out that there is a second possible interpretation. The second interpretation can be phrased: “there are no conservatives in academia because some conservatives are neanderthals.” This interpretation avoids the empirical problems of the first option; we can clearly show that some conservatives are neanderthals, so the factual elements of this argument are met.
However, this interpretation, while more empirically sound, undercuts much of the rhetorical power of the first possible reading, and so it is less convincing as an argument. There is no explanation from Krugman or Kleiman why the fact that there are some neanderthals in the Republican party ought to result in there being such minimal conservative representation in academia.
Yes, academics may as a group be inclined to think that the political ideas of John Ashcroft or Roy Moore are wrong. But how exactly does the existence of Ashcroft or Moore translate to a more or less across the board lack of moderate, intelligent conservative scholars, if we concede that such scholars exist? (And recall that there is no shortage of nutcases in either major party; see, e.g., Cynthia McKinney).
Kleiman’s interpretation fails to explain why there are so few Orin Kerrs and Eugene Volokhs. It does not give a good reason why the mere existence of Ashcroft at the political level really by itself should translate into a 15-to-1 anti-Kerr ratio at the academic level. Kleiman’s interpretation, unlike the first possible interpretation, doesn’t give a good explanation of how we get from point A to point B. And so Kleiman’s read, while it solves one problem with Krugman’s piece (the empirical issue, since Kleiman’s read allows for the existence of non-neanderthal conservatives), merely creates another one. Either Krugman’s facts are wrong, or his logic is uncompelling. Either way, the editorial is unconvincing.
(Note — Cross posted on Tutissima Cassis).