Friday, January 13, 2006

The nonsensical idea of removing bias from academia

I got an email today from David Horowitz with a link to the posting in his blog linked from the title above. The email was in response to my previous article on news from Inside Higher Ed about hearings into the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" in Pennsylvania; his posting was in response to the Inside Higher Ed article itself. In it, he says that the claims of his retraction of evidence supporting his position have been exaggerated. He also states that he was only questioned for 2 minutes "of the eight hours or so of testimony", which makes his role seem minor indeed. However, later in the article he mentions in passing that he had an hour-long presentation; in other words, he took up 1/8 of the entire testimony time. Not minor at all. He says nothing about the quotes in which he disparages the need for factual information: that fictional accounts are just as useful as facts in support of his position.

And what is his position? In Horowitz's own words:

...my agenda with the Academic Bill of Rights is not to attack "leftwing bias" as my critics claim, but to take politics out of the classroom whether the politics comes from the left or the right.
In this article, I would like to make the argument that the idea of removing bias from academia is fundamentally misguided and indeed nonsensical.

Let me argue by way of analogy with the state of affairs in my own field, computer science. Consider the representation of different operating systems in computers in use in CS departments versus the "outside world". Outside CS departments, somewhere around 90% of computer run Microsoft Windows. I don't know what the percentage is in CS, but it's almost certainly much less (and, even if it weren't, for purposes of this analogy, it won't hurt to assume that that is true). Let's assume that this is evidence for "OS bias" in academia, and that Microsoft or its supporters were to protest this, demanding that students used to running Windows at home not be indoctrinated into other OSes and furthermore that action be taken to remedy this bias, perhaps by monitoring CS department purchasing decisions to remove bias. This is equivalent to the idea of eliminating political bias from academia (many CS folks actually term this a "religious," rather than "political," issue). I would argue that there are two ways of looking at this "OS bias":
  1. The bias arises from technical reasons. In other words, the academic CS environment is fundamentally different than the IT environment outside academia, and thus requires a different mix of OSes. Under this explanation, Windows isn't as appropriate for dominant use within CS departments by dint of certain of its features and thus is used less than it is outside. This is equivalent to saying in the political arena something like, "the anti-intellectual nature of modern American conservatism is not as compatible with academic pursuits as non-academic ones, naturally leading to fewer academics being conservatives." (And I would hypothesize that, if you compared the positions on specific issues among self-identified conservatives in and out of academia, you'd find that the academics have significantly different views than the non-academics.)
  2. The bias arises for social reasons. This argument says that CS faculty are, in general, more knowledgeable about technical matters than people outside of CS departments generally are, and as a result choose Windows less frequently. It's not that the CS environment is different, it's that those with less expertise choose their OS for non-technical reasons (reasons not connected with the characteristics of the OS itself). From the point of view of competing OSes, CS faculty make better, more informed and thoughtful choices, leading to a different mix. This is equivalent to the argument that political bias in academia reflects better education, expertise, and more thought: Political Science, History, etc. faculty are making better political choices than people who have less knowledge and time to think about the issues.
So, which is it? Are there differences in the political mix in and out of academia because conservatism has made itself incompatible with academia? Or is it because, given time to think about issues, education of historical and other contexts, and training in critical thinking, academics by and large see that the emperor has no clothes?

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1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. It should be obvious to anyone who "lives" in a university.

    Plus, it leads to a dangerous state of affairs if you start controlling what professors can or cannot say.

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