It’s not exactly news that the American professoriate leans left—very far left, in fact, with well under a fifth of professors in social science and humanities departments identifying as conservative. This pattern, which is more pronounced at elite colleges, has grown even more pronounced in the last generation. And according to the results of a new survey published in Econ Journal Watch, it will likely grow even more pronounced still in the generation ahead.
The authors of the survey tallied the party registrations of professors of law, economics, history, journalism, and psychology at the top 40 U.S. News and World Report National Universities. They found that the overall ratio of registered Democrats to registered Republicans was 11.5 to 1, with some fields, like economics (4.5 to 1) exhibiting less of a tilt than history (33.5 to 1). But the most striking finding is that the few conservative professors are disproportionately nearing retirement. The younger crop of professors is even more Democrat-heavy than the cohort it is replacing, as the chart below shows. (While older people are more conservative than younger people overall, the population age gradient cannot account for the size of the difference demonstrated).
Many academics see findings like this and ask what the big deal is. So what if conservatives are disinclined from pursuing academic careers, and are growing more disinclined over time?
There are a number of answers. Populist right-wing outlets often cite this extreme disparity as suggestive of discrimination, or worry that a politicized faculty will not give students an objective education. There is some merit to both concerns, but in our view they are tangential to a third, more important problem: Namely, that a professoriate that shares many of the same moral and political assumptions will be less likely to scrutinize agreeable findings, less likely to pursue potentially disconfirming lines of inquiry, and ultimately produce a body of scholarship that is both less accurate and less relevant to the public it serves.
The University of Virginia professor Gerard Alexander expressed this idea clearly in an essay for the latest issue of National Affairs:
Scholars, like everyone else, are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to prefer and even seek out information or interpretations that conform to one’s pre-existing beliefs. Simply put, people find more plausible — and work harder to confirm — the conclusions they already favor, and greet less congenial conclusions with greater skepticism and scrutiny. Scholarly training tries to help academics combat confirmation bias, which is why professors can admire scholars who change their minds in the face of new evidence. But the bias is not abolished. Here as elsewhere, the best way of addressing the problem is to work with rather than against the grain of it. Confirmation bias has an upside: It motivates skepticism when one’s values and views are challenged. As a result, we should expect more rigor when scholars have differing views. This is what frequently happens on campus between, say, moderate liberals and progressives, and between scholars who emphasize economic factors versus cultural ones, as each side examines the other’s assumptions and findings with fine-toothed combs.
For the same reason we logically expect much less scrutiny of assumptions, views, and findings that are shared by left-of-center scholars, assumptions that distinguish them from conservatives. The scholars most likely to scrutinize those assumptions — conservatives of various types — are either missing or too few in number to offer a meaningful counterbalance. Because of this, a field of academic study can be characterized simultaneously by vigorous debate over some issues (the ones that left-of-center researchers disagree about) and a lack of debate over others (the assumptions shared by those scholars). The more that a given field of study is populated by scholars who share important underlying assumptions, the more likely will be the emergence of orthodoxies that go unexamined or at least under-examined. This allows error to arise, endure, and thrive.
In other words, as our friends at Heterodox Academy have argued tirelessly, there are strong theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that the political disparity in the humanities and social sciences is leading to poorer quality scholarship. And if nothing changes—if liberal and conservative intellectuals continue to balkanize into different universes—this decay is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.