Blogospheric discussion of conservatives in academia: Krugman, Kerr, Kleiman

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).

13 comments for “Blogospheric discussion of conservatives in academia: Krugman, Kerr, Kleiman

  1. Jonathan Green
    April 5, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    Kaimi, I was hoping for a better introduction to the acrimonious discussion that’s about to follow than “um, there was this NYT editorial that wasn’t very good.” But since I have a totally below-the-belt comparison to Pol Pot that I’ve been itching to unload on someone, thanks for bringing up the topic. Also, you forgot to find a tenuous LDS hook, like the effect of liberal professors on mothers working outside the home, or something like that. Can anyone help Kaimi here?

  2. Kaimi
    April 5, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    Well, since you asked —

    We have discussed the liberal/conservative academic thing several times around here. Plus, I thought it migh be nice to let me express the feelings of my inner conservative every now and then. :)

    I’m going to cross-post this on Tutissima, however, now that I’ve gotten my pants fixed (and _that’s_ a long story, involving a treacherous door handle, a careless back pocket, and a bunch of navy-colored thread (all I could locate on short notice) being used to stitch up my charcoal-colored back pocket to the point where I can finally go out of my office without fear of violating a firm policy).

  3. Seth Rogers
    April 5, 2005 at 2:41 pm


    The LDS Church has had, at best, an uneasy truce with its own intellectuals. Why are religion and academia so antagonistic?

  4. Mark B.
    April 5, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    Blast it! I was secretly hoping that the repair of the trousers had something to do with that below the belt assault by Jonathan Green.

  5. April 5, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    I think the liberal/conservative disparity is the result of self-selection with moral/religious/values hostility being just one of many variables that contribute to individual decision-making. Education as a profession is generally not all that financially rewarding and therefore the benefit accrued from the sheer joy one derives from the art of teaching must outweigh the financial sacrifices one must make in order to pursue the profession. I would argue that conservatives tend to place a higher value on financial rewards than do liberals and therefore the self-selction occurs.

  6. HL Rogers
    April 5, 2005 at 3:35 pm

    Maybe it’s that once you get a decent education you realize that conservative beliefs are simply untenable.

  7. Matt Evans
    April 5, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    HL, good luck convincing Krugman and Kleiman that your beliefs in angels, prophets and priesthood blessings are tenable. Let us know how it goes. : )

  8. Mephisto
    April 5, 2005 at 3:51 pm

    HL- Harvard must provide the only decent education around then, since my alma mater law school failed to instill in me the belief that conservative beliefs are untenable.

    Of course, Brian Leiter thinks otherwise after what he would term the “Lawrence Van Dyke” fiasco over at the HLR.

  9. HL Rogers
    April 5, 2005 at 4:43 pm

    While a pretty funny jab it is also an interesting tie in. I have noticed that conservatives also (by and large) don’t find my belief in angels, gold plates, modern day prophets and priesthood blessings tenable for a whole different set of reasons (and sometimes the same reasons). This makes me grateful for the Church where we hold these beliefs so dearly and also allow for discourse both conservative and liberal.

  10. lyle
    April 5, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    Hm. Krugman. Isn’t that synonymous with “smokescreen” and “shift the topic”?

  11. Jonathan Green
    April 5, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Kaimi, I think I’ve found just the Mormon angle you’re looking for.

    Whatever one thinks of the controversy about affirmative action for conservative academics, what does it do for the job prospects of LDS Ph.D.’s and BYU graduates? Law and a few other fields might be different, but in the humanitities, it’s often impossible to predict someone’s politics from their scholarship. But if enough deans got the impression that the legislature was agitating for hiring more conservatives, maybe having BYU on your CV would become more of an asset, so that department heads could say to the dean, for example: “yeah, his scholarship is a bit old fashioned (wink, wink), but what do you expect from a BYU grad (wink, wink)?”

  12. April 6, 2005 at 12:06 am

    These statistics prove that Democrats are smarter. They realize that it’s so much easier to teach theory than to practice it in the real world. They leave the icky grunt work of acquiring real-world knowledge and experience to their intellectually inferior Republican brethren.

    In addition to gender and race (and more recently, sexual orientation), should affirmative action also apply to political persuasion?

  13. Derek
    April 6, 2005 at 12:18 am

    P.S. Jonathan, my apologies for plagiarizing your point about affirmative action. Your post was in the corner of my eye when I posted mine, and some signals must have gotten crossed.

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