Sean Carroll from The Preposterous Universe asked the question why academics tend to be left-wing. His answers (to be discussed at the end of this article) do not seem terribly deep to me: they're the kind of cheap stuff for the simple readers who need to be assured that their being left-wing is good enough for being a great people - but let's try to answer his question anyway, in a slightly more reasonable way. So why is the Academia so pre-dominantly left-wing?
First of all, the large concentration of left-wing scholars is especially the case of humanities and some social sciences. In some examples, it cannot be surprising. Some of the fields at these departments are left-wing almost by definition. For example, what can the political opinions of a professor of (feminist) gender studies look like? Many jobs - and probably many departments at many universities - have been deliberately created to support a certain type of political thinking and suppress the opposite type of thinking. Perhaps, the motivation may have been good in some cases, whatever it means. Therefore, the question "why there are so many people in some fields" may be reduced to the question "why were these departments created in the first place and why do the taxpayers and others continue to fund them?".
You might think that these fields could also attract right-wingers. But it's just true that the right-wingers will typically prefer a job that produces something useful, instead of a position in which they are fed by the society. This right-wing virtue, namely the habit to rely on himself or herself and his or her work as opposed to the work of others, together with the rather usual right-wing links to material values also explain why the percentage of conservatives among the scientists (and physicists in particular) as well as economics (especially business) and of course military tend to be higher than in philosophy, literature, and related fields, as a reader correctly and quickly pointed out.
Nevertheless, the proportion of the left-wing people is disproportionally high even among the natural scientists, at least in the U.S. (I was told that not so much in the U.K., for example). David Horowitz argues that it is partially a result of osmosis (or infection). I believe that there are other, perhaps more important reasons. But let me first look at one popular myth.
A myth: science is inherently left-wing
There unfortunately exist many left-wing scientists who believe that politics is correlated with science. More precisely, they believe that the more "liberal" a hypothesis is, the more likely it is correct. Well, this approach is not confined to the left wing. Many Christians believe that the more Christian a given conjecture is, the more likely it is right. The historical justification for the left-wing bias goes back to renaissance - although most of the educated people were believers in one way or another, the "heretics" were those who brought us some important paradigm shifts.
But if we forget about a few anecdotes from the 16th century, who is right? Is the scientific truth expected to come from the left wing, or the right wing? Incidentally, history does not paint a clear picture. Many key scientists have been Christians - like Isaac Newton - or hardcore conservatives - like Carl-Friedrich Gauss. The co-father of quantum mechanics (its most quantum version) and the father of the uncertainty principle Werner Heisenberg preferred NSDAP among the German political parties. John Wheeler has been a staunch supporter of the Star Wars, among many other things. I could continue for a long time, and trust me that historical statistics of the political opinions of physicists are very different from the statistics showing the underrepresentation of women. And of course, on the other hand, there are so many great left-wing scientists that I don't need to enumerate them.
Can we ask once again: is the truth in physics left-wing or right-wing?
The readers who know me well can guess what is my moderate opinion about these two approaches. Well, my opinion is balanced - these two approaches are equally unscientific. In fact, they're mirror images of each other. They are two different forms of religion - although for purely historical reasons, we usually use the word "religion" for one of these cases only. However: the truth in science does not care about politics. Scientific findings can often support the position of a liberal, but they can also support a position of a conservative. Whoever thinks that the right answer may be determined using the political key, is doing politics not science - and she or he is doing it in an unscientific way.
Let me mention one example of these beliefs from each side.
Many Christians believe that the Bible must be kind of correct, including its description of the origins of the Universe and the origin of species. The Universe was created 6,000 years ago and the species were constructed by God one by one. Be sure that 10 years ago or so, I had had some heated discussions about these topics and as you might guess, I was certainly not advocating creationism. ;-)
On the other hand, many left-wing people believe that biology must work in such a way that it strengthens the ideas of egalitarianism and political correctness. They believe that there can't be any correlations between the gender and the abilities to do various things. They believe that poverty is an artificial consequence of the Evil and that the natural state of affairs is the universal and uniform wealth. They believe that the global climate must be approaching a catastrophe because this also helps to show that capitalism and corporations are evil.
The obvious question that a balanced person like me and many readers of mine may ask is: which of these two approaches is more incorrect? As I have indicated, they are comparably flawed. Is one of them more obviously wrong than the other?
Actually, I believe that the concept of evolution is a pretty difficult one (but an important one). Darwin's theory has been one of the greatest paradigm shifts in science and it was a highly non-trivial one. After millenia of ignorance in which people did not realize the relations between the different forms of life and their history, a new picture had emerged. In order to appreciate the depth and inevitability of Darwin's conclusions, one must take the long history of our planet very seriously - those billions of years in which life evolved - and perhaps also some observations about the structural similarities between the different life forms must be appreciated. It's not that easy and I am confident that many people only believe this stuff because someone else has been very successful in influencing them. In other words, the fact that 50% of Americans have not understood evolution is not much more shocking than the ignorance of most Americans about special relativity.
And yes, I think that it should be easier to understand that there are and there must be identifiable differences between male and female brains and their way of thinking. One does not have to follow hundreds of the experiments that improved our understanding of the brain - and also revealed various differences. Some amount of everyday experience and common sense is enough. Moreover, everyone who appreciates evolution must also know that the males and females have been trained for (slightly?) different activities by millions of years of evolution and natural selection, and it's therefore not reasonable to expect that they should have identical anatomy and/or abilities - and the experiments indeed show that there are many differences.
In my opinion, it should be easier to swallow such an insight that contradicts some egalitarian prejudices than it is to understand how can we share a common ancestry with our dogs and other pets. And there are many similarly political sensitive questions in social science - like economics. It seems obvious that the opinion about the elementary questions such as "where does wealth come from" is much more irrational among the people who strongly hold various left-wing beliefs. Many of these people believe that the people have always been naturally rich, and it was capitalism and imperialism that made some people poor. ;-) (Just to be sure: people were originally born/evolved poor and they had to struggle against cruel Nature to survive; they only became richer once the work and the concentration of capital became profitable and beneficial.) Well, yes, this kind of misunderstanding about the very basic things how the world worked and works seems more unscientific and more silly to me than a misunderstanding about the relations between DNA of plants and humans.
OK. Finally I want to say that it may often be really difficult to be a right-wing person in a society dominated by left-wingers. (Especially if the lunetic with the "bby" anonymous e-mail address keeps on sending these completely weird e-mails about me to the whole Harvard University.) Many people - and probably most people - around are great, but the rest is enough for the feeling of safety to evaporate. There are just too many left-wing people in the society who have totalitarian inclinations (like "bby"). It's not unexpected. Various left-wing assumptions are patently false and one needs to impose a certain degree of terror to keep these beliefs and principles alive and powerful. If everyone is free, be sure that the anti-capitalist and egalitarian dogmas will be proved false. One must use some social engineering - and power to make inconvenient people silent - to achieve certain goals.
This has been demonstrated in the recent outrageous events during the "Summers controversy". The majority of the FAS faculty decided that the Harvard's president does not even have the right to consider some ideas - whose relevance is incidentally completely obvious - not even at private conferences. Some of Summers' critics are the very same people who believe that the Church is the only force that wants to prevent the humankind from learning the truth about biology, the people and the society.
Finally, let me respond to particular comments by Sean Carroll and Paul Krugman.
- Paul Krugman states the obvious: one reason why academics tend to be liberals is that modern conservatism has become increasingly anti-reason and anti-intellectual.
- Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out."
- Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax."
- And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.
- The tendency of academics to be liberal runs much deeper than a reaction against the current wave of know-nothingism in the Republican party. ...
- In the truest sense of the word, to be "conservative" is to cherish certain established verities, while a good academic is always questioning accepted ideas, and approaching alternatives in a spirit of open-mindedness.
Incidentally, this difference between reality and words is another point that especially the left-wing people often misunderstand. For example, many of them believe that we will encounter a lot of progress if we are "progressive" - even though the obvious main goal of "progressivism" is to return the society to the stinky and flawed 19th century ideas of Marxism.
- That's why you'll always find universities to be mostly liberal, even in the hard sciences (where even the most paranoid conservatives don't think that faculty are hired on the basis of their political views).
- None of the legislation that David Horowitz tries to get passed will ever change that.
Except for the Reference Frame.