Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Research, political allegiance, and views towards colleges and universities

The lead headline of the recent survey on attitudes towards institutions in the US ( was the difference in attitudes between the major political parties. Most Democrats (72%) believe colleges and universities are a positive influence, and most Republicans (58%) believe that they are negative, and this represents a big change from 2010 (only seven years ago), when both Republicans and Democrats shared roughly similar views (a majority of both groups thought colleges/universities positive—58%R/65%D—and very few had a negative view—32%R/22%D).  
While the article reporting the study talks about how the views of the groups have changed, I wonder whether that change represent the changes of views of individuals—did people stop believing that colleges are a positive influence—or does that change represent a process of people changing political allegiance with respect to the values that they place on education and research?
It goes without saying that those who are Republican and those who are Democrat are not the same today as in 2010. Some people may have switched party allegiance. All those who were 11 to 17 years of age in 2010 have now become eligible voters. Many who were alive in 2010 are no longer alive today.  The population surveyed recently is not the same as previously, and the study itself did not use the same respondents. 
In any event, I wonder to what extent different dynamics contributed to this change.  Was it changes in attitudes towards colleges/universities? Or was it changes in attitudes towards political parties?

Because the overall proportion of Americans who view colleges/universities as a negative influence has remained approximately the same (I can’t find numbers on this for 2010 in the report, but it does say “Little change in overall public views”), I’m inclined to think that changing political allegiance probably has a lot to do with it, on the premise that it’s easier to change political party affiliation than to change fundamental beliefs.  If you believe in colleges and universities, and you see one political party hostile to them, and another supportive of them, you have a reason to switch parties. If you believe that colleges and universities are a problem, you are similarly motivated to switch.
Republicans often complain about the liberal bias of colleges and college professors, and use that to discredit the work of scholars.  I wonder whether that “liberal bias” is not at least partly the result of Republican policies and positions. 
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a scholar who is intensely focused on his/her research. This is a fairly stereotypical view of a scholar, I think.  Let’s assume that this professor does not have previously fixed political affiliation, but rather is focused on the results of his/her research: he or she believes only what the research analyses show.  This professor is then put into a world where one party is constantly attacking the validity of his/her work, and the other party supports it.  Which party will this professor affiliate with? And if one party fights to cut budgets for research and education, and another party fights to increase research and education budgets, which party will that professor affiliate with?

Which comes first the affiliation to a political party or the adherence to some ideal? Which is more important to a person: beliefs about the nature of the world, or allegiance to a political party?
I am an academic. I work with academics and have for most of my life.  Like any group of people, there is diversity in the group, and group generalizations are dangerous, and liable to fail. Nonetheless, I would argue that academics are primarily interested in the search for understanding, and in sharing their insights with the rest of the world.  
I have often heard Republicans argue that because university professors are Democrats, their research is not to be trusted.  This is, on one level, the ad hominem fallacy: the truth of statements does not depend on the speaker.  If someone says “the earth is round,” the truth of the claim is independent of the speaker—it matters nothing whether this was stated by a Democrat or a Republican (or anyone else).  
Research ought to be critiqued. It ought to be challenged. Its premises, methods, analyses, and conclusions should be examined. Research absolutely needs to be examined for biases. And research based on falsified data should be rejected. But the identity of the researcher is not in itself reason to reject research: even the boy who cried wolf was telling the truth in the end. The veracity of research is not dependent on the author, but on the research itself. 
A researcher who has dedicated a larger part of his or her life to research is likely to have a strong allegiance to that research.  Which is more likely? That the person who has dedicated life to research would change political party? Or that they would falsify research to support a political agenda? I would guess that the former is more common than the latter.  Perhaps this is a naively optimistic view of human nature, but the scholars I have known have seemed more interested in the search for truth than in political concerns, and their political allegiances have followed the dictates of their understanding of the world, rather than their understanding of the world following their political allegiances.

I wrote most of this yesterday, before I read recent news about political commentator Joe Scarborough (, who announced that he was changing his political party affiliation from Republican to Independent.  Scarborough is not an academic, but as a major media presence, he is part of another institution (the news media) that is viewed vastly differently by Republicans (negatively) and Democrats (positively). I’m not going to try to guess at Scarborough’s full motivation, but a question to ask is: is this change in party allegiance due to Scarborough changing the principles that he held as a Republican elected member of the US House of Representatives? Or is the change in allegiance due to changes in the party with which he was previously affiliated? Or is it due to specific hostility of the Republican party to any member of the media who ever criticizes anything GOP?  Scarborough and his fiancĂ©e were recently insulted on Twitter by a prominent member of the GOP. Does such an attack motivate changes in allegiance?  And similarly, would a university professor change political allegiance because politicians attacking researchers and universities?

I can’t speak for all academics, but personally, I make decisions based on my understanding of the world.  For example, I believe the US will be stronger if people choose to buy American-made goods, even if they’re more expensive. As a result of that belief, I often buy American-made goods, despite their higher cost.  For example, I believe that burning fossil fuels is bad—from the immediate impact of local smog, to the global impact of anthropogenic climate change—so I drive little, take public transportation, ride my bike, and generally act in ways that will hopefully reduce my carbon footprint. I’m deeply invested in trying to learn, to pursue “truth,” whatever that may be, and this, too, shapes my decisions.
My political allegiance flows from my beliefs, not vice versa.  I am registered in the Green Party and generally vote for Green candidates because the Green party generally shares the same environmental values that I do. I don’t always vote for Greens, because not all Greens match my concerns. My interest in preserving the environment drives my allegiance to the Greens. It is not my allegiance to the Greens that leads me to be an environmentalist.

The Republican party takes many positions that run contrary to academic consensus (e.g., on climate change), which is a simple explanation for why Republicans view colleges and universities negatively. But looking a little deeper, where does the causality run? Do we want to say that Republicans take their views because they want to contradict academics? Do we want to say that academics are taking their positions to contradict Republicans? Or do we just want to say that people have beliefs about the world that lead them to affiliate with specific political parties?
In observing the partisan difference in views towards colleges and universities, I imagine that the main factor in creating this partisan difference is people increasingly aligning themselves with the party that agrees with their beliefs. And as the positions taken by the political parties become increasingly polarized, the sorting process speeds up. The more that the Republicans attack colleges and universities, the more that people who dislike colleges and universities will align with Republicans, and the more that those affiliated with colleges and universities will reject Republicans. In the case of Joe Scarborough, perhaps Republican attacks on the news media (an institution of which he is part, and one like academia, that is ideally dedicated to non-partisan discovery of the truth) contributed to his decision to change his party affiliation, and as a result, the Republican party has fewer pro-media members (which is the shift reflected in the survey: fewer Republicans support the media/academia than in 2010).

I think this sorting is unfortunate, because I think that academics are generally trying to find common ground. The very idea of objectivity is that some things are equally true for everyone.  Even theories that acknowledge that knowledge is not objective, still strive for some shared ground—something beyond solipsism.  If we can’t find common agreement on understanding the world, then it’s impossible to find agreement on policy.  

We need models of how the world works to make policy. We want these models to be accurate. The models should precede the policies. Policies should follow the models. And we should be willing to learn! Researchers challenge accepted knowledge, and if they provide good reason to believe that old models are wrong, we should look for policies that respond to the new knowledge.

No comments: