A Response to the Best Arguments That Academic Discrimination Doesn’t Exist

By Graham Peterson

Fabio Rojas is generous and clever, and his review of the Duarte et al. paper on academic discrimination lays out some of the best arguments that academic discrimination doesn’t exist.  I’m going to take them down here, and explore my alternative in a different post.

Sociologists might be overwhelmingly liberal because we deal with lots of research that have social implications.

The causal arrow goes in the opposite direction.  Interest in disaffected populations began because of, e.g., Durkheim’s thesis that opposition to outsiders reveals the mechanics of the insiders, or e.g., Merton’s thesis that black crime revealed a problem with modernity’s rapid normative shifts.

Interest in disaffected populations was originally aimed at a generalized interest in the construction of the social.  Now we study them because we’re trying to undo oppression, or as the second to last banner of the ASA stated, “Interrogating Inequality.”

Early twentieth century sociologists were cautiously optimistic about modernity and capitalism — and politically, were justifying and trying to understand social democracy, bureaucracy, capitalism, urbanity — not radical politics of oppression starting with Rousseau, detouring at Marx, and ending with Bourdieu.

It is not the case that sociology’s theories are inherently radical and, whoops, therefore we attract radicals.

How would people possibly know the party preference of mathematicians?

Superficial tastes that otherwise seem to have no semiotic connection to political values end up strongly correlated to those values nevertheless.  Fashions, senses of humor, type of car, are easily observable in a hiring process (which drives discrimination) and in longer-run training (which drives selective homophily).

They cover a number of studies showing that liberals admit they would discriminate, while others do not, [but] my hypothesis that overly zealous academic liberals are simply more motivated to admit personal fault, which means they deviate from the socially desirable answer at much, much higher rates.

This is wishful.  The idea here is that lefties are disproportionately interested in personal growth through psychological self evaluation, and that they are always checking prejudicial biases.  But no.  Lefties are interested in checking their privilege when it comes to disaffected groups, not conservatives.

Lefties admit to discriminating against conservatives because there’s nothing embarrassing to “admit.”  Protecting themselves and their friends from dirty-pool conservatism is a proud moral duty.  This is why when we survey people on whether or not they’ve raped a woman or would discriminate against conservatives, we use the definitions of rape and discrimination in the prompt instead of calling it rape and discrimination.

Rapists do not believe rape is rape; it is a deserved reprisal and/or sex they are entitled to.  Discriminators do not believe discrimination is discrimination; it is deserved selection based on presumed population characteristics, like “black people don’t work hard,” or “conservatives are dogmatic.”

One point that is never brought up is that liberal disciplines become noticeably more conservative if they try hard enough. For example, it is my impression that economics used to be dominated by Keynesians up until about 1960 or so.

This is correct, and incorrect.

Correct, Milton Friedman was openly maligned way before he had a national stage.  Rose Friedman told Deirdre at a cocktail party, after Milton had gotten his Nobel, “I would trade all this for some respect for Milton early in his career.”  The Chicago School of economics is named after just one university, and the Virginia School of political economy the same way, because the people who got them together formed defensive coalitions in otherwise hostile climates.

But the success of conservatives and libertarians in economics is not an example of a discipline “trying hard enough.”  Economists routinely and abusively malign one another for their politics.  Right leaning economists have carved out the space they have because they got on board with a vector of ideological homogeneity that is much more important to economists — mathematical theory and statistical methods.

Liberals tend to dominate in areas that are low paying [like academics] and focus on issues like education, learning, care giving, and culture. These include the arts, entertainment, academia, K-12 teaching, nursing, social work, and science. Once you add some high income, conservatives start appearing in large numbers (e.g., the Dem/GOP is way different for doctors vs. nurses; artists vs. art managers; lawyering vs. other humanities oriented work; physical science vs. engineering).

This is a compelling argument that I have never heard.  But it lacks economics.  What Fabio often calls “helping” professions are often low skill professions for which there is a lot of competition, or which are valued really highly at the margin, but consumed in enormous amounts.  This is the water/diamond paradox – we value water more than diamonds but because we consume so much water and marginal utility diminishes, water costs less than diamonds.

The fact that helping professions pay less is not a result of the fact that we don’t value helping.  We value helping a lot, and that’s why we consume so much helping, which is why its price is low.  The idea that helping provides people a compensating differential in which they are willing to give up wages lacks empirical demonstration (but is a nice story sociologists might tell themselves to validate themselves) and is, once again, normatively biased against “non-helping” professions.

Is there any evidence other than Enron documentaries about evil capitalists that people in “non-helping” professions do not seek the same personal transcendence, and meaning that “helpers” do?  No.  Are paper towels and petroleum helpful, and do people who work in those industries experience the same camaraderie and productive influence other people do?  Yes.

Anyway, academics is only low paying in certain disciplines, and pays extremely well in others.  Chemistry graduate students at U of C make something like $40,000 a year.  We make $25,000.  UIC Economics, a department ranked about 60th, hired two economists before I left at $100,000 a piece.  And at the top of any discipline, academics pays some of the highest wages in the world.

Fabio’s points are well taken and extremely thoughtful.  Voices like his are needed in this debate.  But he is wrong.

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