The Death Spiral of Academia

On March 1, Eric Kaufmann published a remarkably detailed and comprehensive study of bias in academia, Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.” Kaufmann’s writing is a product of Californias Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, a small think tank set up to do research forbidden in todays Academy. His research uncovering rampant leftist political bias in publication, employment, and promotion in the academy—and discrimination against anything right-of-center—qualifies as that kind of work.

In the academy, the free interchange of competing ideas creates knowledge through cooperation, disagreement, debate, and dissent. Kaufmann finds that the last three are severely suppressed and punished. This repression’s pervasiveness may be a death sentence for science, free inquiry, and the advancement of knowledge in our universities.

I am led to that dire conclusion because there doesnt appear to be any way for universities to prevent it. No solution can arise from within the academy, as it self-selects lifetime faculty that are largely left-wing, making promotion of dissidents highly unlikely. Kaufmann demonstrates profoundly systemic discrimination by leftist faculty against their colleagues who disagree with them politically.

It is important to note that Kaufmann concentrates primarily (but not exclusively) on the social sciences and humanities, in part because thats where most previous research applies. Data for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are not as common. There is no a priori reason to believe, however, that these fields are unaffected by systemic biases influencing entire institutions. Sure, one can make the argument that math is apolitical, but one cant say the same for the many branches of science that now have considerable and controversial policy implications. Even a casual reading of the educated” literature on environmental science and climatology reveals profound politicization.

Kaufmanns study is shocking in its depth, even to academics (like me) who have experienced for decades what he describes. He documents all aspects of an academic career, from advanced graduate study, to landing a faculty position, research funding, publication, and promotion. That normal career progression is all but derailed if a person expresses a scintilla of right-wing views in casual conversations, faculty meetings, public discourse, teaching, grant applications, submitted publications, or candidacy for academic promotion. 

He surveyed the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, using different criteria to determine markers for liberal versus conservative views. In the United States criteria revolved around Trump or Biden support, while in the UK it centered upon leave” or remain” support in the controversy over membership in the European Union. 

Kaufmann starts by discriminating between hard” and soft” authoritarianism. The former includes the direct use of university disciplinary procedures against dissenting academics, internally generated campaigns for ouster, or simply making life so uncomfortable that a scholar feels compelled to leave. More specifically, he defines it as being fired or threatened for ones views,” while the soft” version includes not being hired, promoted, awarded a grant, or published in a journal.”

There was some good news here, but it may be in the past tense. He found that most academics reject the hard’ version,” though he found an alarming order-of-magnitude increase in the number of reported cases in recent years. 

Even so, it is the soft version that has been more prevalent and is increasingly rampant.

Promotion is largely determined by a record of academic publication summarized by outside reviewers, who may number up to a dozen or so. This decision is especially critical in the sixth year of an academic appointment, when a candidate is either promoted from assistant to associate professor, the latter carrying an appointment without term (i.e. tenure”), or is terminated within a year. This review is an up or out,” which means denial of promotion is the end of employment at the candidates institution and its peers. For candidates denied by top-shelf schools, there usually remains the opportunity to play ball at a lower level. But who wants to be damaged goods playing for the Tennessee Smokies after six years in Wrigley Field?

One critical letter among the large number submitted is often sufficient to result in a denial. And, in highly politicized fields like my own (climate science) totally unsolicited letters from a big power in the field can appear out of the blue. (I heard you are considering Dr. Blow for tenure. Might I offer some commentary?”) If the writer is of sufficient status, thats a death sentence for the candidate and his heterodox views (pronoun and adjective explicitly chosen as a matter of probability).

Kaufmann writes that there will be, on average, 2-5 voices in the room [i.e. fellow faculty or review letters] discriminating against a right-wing candidate.” With regard to all-important academic publications, he finds that [a] paper is unlikely to be judged strictly on its merits since most journals require at least two referees plus an editor to take a look. This means there is a 60-90% chance of a right-wing paper being rated lower” (i.e. rejected), lowering the chances for promotion. 

There is already tremendous disparity between left- and right-leaning faculty, approximately 14 to 1 in the United States. Apparently this is for the social sciences and the humanities; Kaufmann indicates the number for STEM is 5.7 to 1, still an outrageous imbalance.

Kaufmann did find that discrimination by the Right against the Left is at about the same rate, but since there are so few on the Right, the disparity will continue to grow as the papers, promotions, and grant applications of the Right-leaning faculty are rejected by the ever-increasing proportion on the Left. Maybe academic discrimination is human nature, but diverting it entirely to one side of the political spectrum is a result of institutional hiring and retention choices.

Whats happening is a naked threat against the diversification of knowledge, with a future that looks even worse: Kaufmann finds that the youngest cohort on the academic ladder, Ph.D. students, are the most intolerant of the few faculty who are right-of-center. 82 percent of these students say they would in fact discriminate against right-leaning faculty in a decision on hiring, promotion, or grant applications. Kaufmann writes that In North America, 24% of all Ph.D. students would [downrate] a right-leaning paper…30% would mark a right-leaning promotion application lower, and 33% would rank a right-leaning grant application down.” 

But thats only the admitted” bias. Kaufman designed his surveys to also reveal hidden bias, which, he notes, approximately doubles the figures for admitted prejudice. Discrimination against conservatives by Ph.D. students then becomes 48 percent, 60 percent, and 66 percent, respectively. This from the up-and-coming members of the next generation of faculty.

This is an ominous sign, predicting that discrimination against the few remaining right-leaning faculty will become even worse. Universities might as well start to advertise positions with the caveat that right-of-center candidates expecting promotion need not apply.” 

Interestingly, the percentages for conservative discrimination against left-leaning faculty are the same with regard to hiring, but the Left discriminates slightly more than the Right in reviews of academic papers and grant applications and promotion decisions. Because hiring decisions largely rest with the faculty themselves, discrimination against conservatives is only going to continue increasing.

The Poisoning of Peer-Reviewed Literature

This climate is eroding free speech, with overt censorship by rejecting publication of results with real (or simply apparent) connection to right-of-center policies, as well as tremendous self-censorship, both in the classroom and in published academic papers. Scientists (including myself) will rationally submit papers that will not ruffle feathers, which itself has the obvious effect of reducing the disagreement often required for scientific progress. 

The result is a systematic poisoning of the peer-reviewed literature, which society accepts as its canon of knowledge. Fewer trends in the world of ideas could be more dangerous.

Publication of results showing anomalies in a paradigm (such as drifting continents in a paradigm of stationarity) is difficult enough without political bias. In the current milieu of todays highly politicized arenas, results that may indicate the paradigm is inaccurate will be systemically suppressed. 

For instance, it is somewhat easy to download upper atmospheric data from climate models that serve as the (only) basis for assessment of future climate in various literature compendia. These data reveal massive systematic over-predictions of warming in the last 40 years for the entire four-dimensional global tropics. Yet, getting that published in the scientific literature has proven nearly impossible. For whatever reason, it is viewed as a right-of-center finding and has been treated as such. 

The reigning paradigm is that these climate models supply reliable guidance for the future, but the implications of the global tropical error mean that they dont. Nonetheless, the literature compendia either don’t note this or downplay its implications.  Further, Kaufmann proves rampant discrimination against right-wing” labelled scientists when applying for federal funding. Its hard not to see how politically consequential this is. 

Climate Science: Self-Censorship?

My experience is that climate science is as systemically fraught as the social sciences and the humanities; indeed, in 2018 Mitchell Langbert found that the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans was 25:1 among environmental scientists, and 27:1 in the geosciences. 

In Kaufmann’s entire 195-page (single spaced) document, the word “climate” appears 195 times only to describe the social milieu that academic scientists experience. Only once does the subject of global warming come up—and in a way that renders critics of its current climate paradigm anachronistic:

…those who refuse to recognize the reality of political discrimination and chilling effects are not dissimilar to those who initially denied the leftist makeup of the professoriate (up to the 1990s), or who say that the earth is no warmer today than it was a century ago.

Well, the average surface temperature is certainly warmer now than it was around 1900. But there were two warming periods in the 20th century, and the first, from 1910-45, is unlikely to have been largely from carbon dioxide, as atmospheric concentrations at its initiation were barely—only a few parts per million—above where they were when the Industrial Revolution commenced. If that teeny change could kick off the half-degree (C) warming that ensued, current temperatures would be so hot that there would be little debate about imminent disaster. 

There is a legitimate discussion about long-term climate records. Almost all of the warming in U.S. history (which contains the best and most dense stations) is a result of “adjustments” and “homogenization” (love that word when applied to ostensibly independent data). So the true warming is actually unknown. While it is certainly a stretch to say earth’s temperature is the same as it was a century ago, it is not a stretch to say that surface temperature records have been badgered to overestimate that warming, which is easily confirmable by examining independent records from ascending weather balloons and orbiting satellites.

I stipulate that Kaufmann knew these problems besetting the “environmental issue of our time,” and that he chose to avoid conflict by conflating skeptics of an imminent apocalypse with those who deny left-wing bias in the academy. This was a clever dodge, but not a courageous one. He may have sensed that touching this rather prominent electrified rail would have fried his credibility, no matter how well-grounded his work is. 

He often speaks of “self-censorship” among academics. Did he do the same on climate to protect his work from the type of attacks he so wonderfully documents?

Why not raise it? Because doing so would provoke a Twitter storm or a cancellation of a faculty position at one of the worlds premier institutions? Unfortunately, Kaufmanns own data indicate this may very well be true! So, in “Academic Freedom in Crisis, mums the word on climate change.

A practical example of the consequences of this intolerance is instructive. For whatever reason, scientists who view modern warming as harmless, or even beneficial, are viewed as right-wing. If they let this so-called “lukewarm” hypothesis be known in graduate school, its unlikely they will ever be hired into the academy. Upon hiring, if they express this view at faculty meetings they will be pigeonholed, greatly diminishing chances for promotion.

Further, revealing a “lukewarm” perspective in a research grant application would be extremely risky. Kaufmanns results suggest “close to two-thirds likelihood that each reviewer of a right-leaning grant application will engage in political discrimination.” 

The alternative is to avoid hot-button issues and concentrate on nugatory research. Consistent with Kaufmann’s findings, I did that for my first decade in the academy. The Dean told me it was great; I thought it was terrible, overfit, and irrelevant. Kaufmann predicts that this kind of self-censorship or research dilution must be common among those who differ from the dictated left-wing orthodoxy. 

This is perhaps most obvious in studies of gender/sexuality and, of course, the holy trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

There is surely research in the publication stream today demonstrating the benefits of increasing permutations of the gender tree and the obvious salutary effects of the assertion of white fragility, however data-free and self-contradicting Robin DiAngelos seminal scribblings might be. Be also assured that anyone foolish enough to have submitted an academic counter-argument has already been rejected.

Self-censorship applies to what one says to colleagues as well as to what kind of research is attempted. According to Kaufmann, 70% in the U.S. say there is a hostile climate for their beliefs in their departments and a similar number report self-censoring in teaching and research.” 

Kaufmann concludes:

Discrimination leads to self-censorship, curbing the freedom to investigate and debate ideas that is the lifeblood of a properly functioning academy. With just 10-20% of Trump- and Leave-supporting academics in the social sciences and humanities willing to air their political beliefs, the views of half the electorate are effectively being silenced, limiting the kinds of conversations that are needed for mutual understanding.

What Is to Be Done?

The erosion of the academy is stark and obvious. The implications are clear. The opportunity costs to society of handicapping, slowing, or (in some areas) even preventing publication of new knowledge can only be staggering, prompting the obvious question: What is to be done?

Kaufmann details two approaches. 

One is essentially libertarian and logically positivist. Good ideas—tolerance, academic freedom, and a true ideological diversity with real impact on the future composition of the faculty will prevail. Good ideas of the future will drive out the bad ones of today.

Thats wishful thinking. University faculty—after a six-year period, during which the right-of-center preferentially leave or are fired upon promotion review—are permanent, lifetime employees who choose new hires, whether at the untenured or tenured level. Kaufmann shows who they do not choose, which implies who they do. Like begets like, and people dont often reinvent their philosophy from Left to Right, especially when Left is preferentially rewarded.

Kaufmanns other approach is what he calls interventionist.” He gives an example of state or federal executive or legislative bodies mandating that universities prioritize academic freedom first, with all other goals and programs subservient to that. On the insightful British video podcast Triggernometry he noted that the UK government under Boris Johnson has instituted some reforms that could help break the ideological uniformity of the academy.

Thats the UK. Its not the United States. No president could successfully order universities to hire and promote more Right-leaning faculty. Nor could he or she order faculty to affirmatively review right-of-center journal submissions and grant proposals, or to selectively promote such individuals.

Increasing the number of right-of-center hires might slightly dilute the hegemony of the left-of-center faculty, but the mathematics is obvious—it will not replace it.

This is depressing, for it seems the death spiral of American academia is inevitable. Our problems are structural and intractable. Because the university faculty are empowered to dictate who the practitioners are and what products are permitted in the canon of knowledge, they will retain that corrupt absolute power. Self-selection by the faculty ensures an increasingly leftward tilt, not just in the social sciences and humanities; the infection has even reached STEM. The crisis also ensures increasing political intolerance. It encourages de facto and direct suppression of academic free speech. It promotes the heinous stain of self-censorship that causes any faculty who might disagree to remain quiet—until they can no longer speak.

 

About Patrick J. Michaels

Patrick J. Michaels was a Research Professor of Environmental Sciences at University of Virginia for thirty years, and is the author of Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy (2019, Cato Books). He is Senior Fellow at the CO2 Coalition in Arlington, VA and the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C..

Photo: Getty Images

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