Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palin: Professor of Freedom?

Every now and then we read allegations that colleges and universities exhibit a significant bias toward liberal and progressive viewpoints, resulting in a lack of academic diversity and a consequent inability to provide students with a wide range of opinions on critical issues of the day.

So I wasn't surprised when Richard E. Redding, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, in his October 25, 2010 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (p. A15), cited statistics indicating that "on average, liberal professors outnumber conservatives and libertarians by about 8 to 1, with the imbalance being much greater at elite institutions."

Redding concludes that "our colleges and universities [are] unimaginative places" and strongly implies that these institutions deliberately exclude and disrespect "a wide range of political ideas."

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll grant Redding's statistics. What I won't grant is his "reasoning" or his conclusion.

Let's stop for a moment and think about what the job requirements are for being an academician. First, one must normally have a doctorate. In order to earn such a degree, one must demonstrate (among other things) critical thinking skills and the ability to articulate an original research project in a comprehensive, rigorous, and intellectually consistent dissertation.

I don't know as much about critical thinking skills as I would like to. But I strongly suspect that articulating one's position using ill-defined name calling and broad over-generalizations does not qualify. Nor does ignoring well-established facts. Nor does a string of nicely alliterated words necessarily constitute a persuasive, well-reasoned argument, regardless of how clever the writing. On the other hand, intellectual consistency would be a virtue.

I have close friends who are conservative, intelligent, and articulate. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Witness George Will's recent comment (2/21/10) on global warming -- which is established beyond a doubt as a factual and potentially catastrophic, largely man-made phenomenon -- accusing scientists of "trying to stampede the world into a spasm of prophylactic statism." Is this argument worthy of academic circles?

Examine, if you will, the statement made on Fox News several months ago by one of George W. Bush's former press aides that no terrorist attack occurred in this country during that President's tenure. Talk about "political Alzheimer's disease" -- this one tops the charts. And this clearly fallacious comment was not even challenged by the Fox News anchors who witnessed it! Do they all deserve academic appointments?

I once encountered California State Senator Bob Dutton at the airport. Since we have a passing acquaintance due to my professional position, we had a brief conversation. In less than two minutes (literally), he was blaming Democrats for every political problem under the sun. (I didn't have the guts to disagree -- I just rolled my eyes and kept my mouth shut.) Would Dutton's statement conceivably be considered an over-generalization? Might it indicate the lack of ability to think in nuances? Is he qualified for an academic position at an "elite" university?

Redding claims that he values innovative solutions, creativity, and quality decision-making. Most conservatives and libertarians probably value them as well. Why, then, does the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce spend millions of dollars backing political candidates who then devote their careers to protecting the self-interests of existing businesses? Don't they believe in the capitalist dream -- the power of creative thinking and entrepreneurship to guide them through challenging and changing times without the help of the government? Where is the intellectual consistency?

Finally, Redding can't help using a buzzword from conservative circles intended to be derogatory -- the word "elite" -- without bothering to define it. While his transgression is minor compared to Sarah Palin and others who promulgate "freedom" in the broadest possible terms without giving the word a microsecond of intellectual analysis, he is nevertheless typical of the political ilk rapidly gaining a frightening constituency in this country.

Occam's razor -- a philosophical and decision-making principle of long standing -- suggests that, when theories compete to explain a known phenomenon, it is best to select the one that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question. In other words, keep it as simple as possible.

In accordance with Occam's razor, I suggest that it is not necessary to postulate bias against conservatives as the reason for the preponderance of liberals in academia. The simpler answer is that conservatives (with exceptions! I don't want to over-generalize!) are less able (or at least less inclined) to engage in critical thinking worthy of an academic environment. People who are unwilling to think carefully, consider all known facts, and construct intellectually consistent arguments don't deserve academic positions. Maybe that's why they don't get them.

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