Monday, March 23, 2015

Affirmative action for conservatives?



Yesterday it was my pleasure to hang out with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist working at NYU Stern. Many interesting things were discussed. Much yummy Japanese food was eaten.

One thing we briefly discussed was Haidt's complaint that social psychology has been hijacked by political interests. This is interesting, because a lot of people say that about economics, but in social psych the political types seem to have made much more headway (though politicization probably matters a lot less in social psych, because the fates of millions of jobs and trillions of dollars don't hinge on psych policies the way they hinge on economic policies).

Anyway, the question is what to do about it. Haidt recommends "affirmative action for conservatives":
I'd like us to set a goal for [the Society for Personality and Social Psychology] that we become 10% conservative by 2020. Yes, I am actually recommending affirmative action for conservatives. Set aside any moral arguments; my claim is that it would be good for us. 
Just Imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.
This is an interesting idea. But I have a couple of problems with it:

1. Unlike, say, race, political affiliation is a matter of choice. If we start giving preferential treatment to people who say they're conservative, won't people just pretend to be conservative in order to get a leg up in the brutal academic job market? Incentives matter.

2. Affirmative action type programs never perfectly cancel out bias. Instead, they partially counteract bias in some ways and create bias in others. If you start giving jobs preferentially to conservatives, it seems like you could end up with a lot of low-skill conservatives. Conservative researchers might be quietly ignored and disrespected, with the assumption that "he checked the box to get in". This is one of the big problems with race-based affirmative action, and it seems like it would work for political affiliation just as strongly.

3. What are "conservative" ideas anyway? In econ, "conservatives" (or "libertarians", as economic conservatives insist you call them) want to cut government intervention in the economy. In social psych, it seems like "conservative" means something totally different. What if the "conservative" ideas in a field just suck? Shouldn't we be afraid of permanently enshrining bad ideas?

Academia is about ideas. If you treat a package of ideas as if it were an identity group like race or gender, and offer it permanent shelter within academia, I feel like you're restricting the ability of ideas to improve.

But that leaves the question of how to fight against political hijacking of an academic field. Maybe the best way to do it is simply to fight ideas with ideas. If conservative ideas aren't getting enough play in social psych, start giving them play. Write some papers on conservative topics - if you're famous, who cares if no one publishes them, just post them as working papers on your website. Or start a blog, like Scott Sumner did in econ. Gather like-minded academics, using tools like the internet and human networks. Eventually, people will read your ideas and join your movement. If that group reaches critical mass, you can start new conventions, new societies, new journals, etc. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

In fact, this is exactly why academia has tenure in the first place. It's so you can speak out against consensus and not be afraid for your career. The system isn't broken - just use it!

58 comments:

  1. The problem is, before you get tenure you need to spend years kowtowing to the status quo and the political beliefs of journal reviewers, professors, tenure commitees, thesis opponents, etc. etc. By that time, your own political convictions may have been bogged down; or maybe you just get tired. Or even likelier: maybe you get sick of the bullshit and quit.

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    1. Additionally, what about those people who don't identify on the two-dimensional right-left political spectrum? Before I left academia, I'd been accused of being a radical conservative and a radical liberal by different people, both when discussing the same and different issues.

      I suppose a much happier situation would be when we assess ideas on their own merits instead of constantly fretting over what is the best ideological "fit" with whatever belief system you hold. Of course this will never happen, since human beings are horrible.

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  2. I don't doubt this point of view. I'm sure within this field he probably feels politically oppressed. But as Noah points out, there probably aren't a lot of people dying as a result as it can happen in economics.

    Social psychology is a strange beast. Some experts have decided that the only thing that matters is one-on-one relations, and the variations of those. These talk about dyads, they try to push different kinds of dyads on children, and the results are unknown to most.

    I think this subject is probably the most democratic in nature than all others. If most of us don't like the results, isn't the theory dead? Why not?

    This is an odd thing. I don't have an answer to this person. If he doesn't want to be a rebel for life, perhaps a different subject is in order?

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    1. Haidt probably does not consider himself either a conservative or oppressed.

      Consider research that has shown that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. Does the way one describes the result depend on one's views. Perhaps, it would be just as accurate to conclude research has shown that liberals are more reckless than conservatives. And, no, there are no completely neutral words for describing the results of this research.

      The keywords you want, if you want to know more, are "motivated social cognition". In addition to Haidt, John Jost is a leading scholar. A popular overview, in addition to Haidt's book, is Chris Mooney's The Republican Mind.

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  3. What exactly are the controversial topics in psychology that conservative and liberal psychologists might disagree on these days? Genuinely curious. I had a brief interest when I took a module years ago as an undergrad, then there was some controversy over psychology between genders.

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    1. "But it's politically unpopular.”

      I’m not sure what this means. How is IQ testing “politically unpopular”? How is it even a political issue?

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    2. "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker does a great job of getting to the root of the problem in social sciences.

      The starting axiom across many fields is the assumption that the tabula rasa model is correct. If the tabula rasa model is correct, then social scientists would be reasonable in their obsessions with racism, sexism, and so many other forms of bias as the root of difficulties for so many groups.

      But the tabula rasa model happens to be incorrect. Liberal academics cling to tabula rasa against overwhelming evidence because the world would appear more just and fair if it were true. However, the evidence is not on their side.

      Conservatives are better able to accept this fundamental reality and are therefore less likely to spin their wheels obsessing over differences that will always be with us. Perhaps we fear that these truth-seeing academics would become mean spirited bigots. Instead we should be optimistic that they could move social science on to more fruitful territory and where it could really make a positive difference rather than be stuck on what are essentially np complete problems.

      And yet to question tabula rasa is to risk being hounded out of polite company. Good luck to any young academic who dares to question the empirically false foundation of their field. For fun and giggles, try veering away from blank slatism in gender, even though there is a whole chromosome with tons of content on it that only one gender has. (Fun fact, that chomosome was discovered by a woman!)

      This makes it understandably difficult for the public to have respect for academics, especially in the social sciences.

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    3. This is a ludicrous strawman - no one that is credible rejects genetically differences. What reasonable people believe in is a complex mix of nature and nurture. The black and white notion of nature *vs* nurture is decades out of date.

      But the argument doesn't even make sense. You do not need an acceptance of a tabula rasa model to be concerned with addressing issues of sexism and racism. You simply need to reject the idea that genetic differences are 100% determinate of individual success, and the notion that discrimination has no social costs.

      Yeah, the one legged guy is never gonna be better at walking than the two legged man, but we can give him prosthetics nevertheless. There's no taboo that enforces tabula rasa, people just don't see the extremist position that nurture has no effect whatsoever as at all reasonable scientifically or consistent with how we act socially. Historically moves to address the race and gender gap has been very fruitful. That's why the US has a black president and women have the right to vote, with, surprise surprise, no apparent ill effects.

      You don't have to believe in tabula rasa to face that reality.

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    4. Daniel4:29 PM

      Harvard President Larry Summers hinted that genetics may have a part to play and that genetic differences were one of the factors that could result in disparities in numbers in the sciences.

      He was thrown out of Harvard. I wish my argument were a strawman, but in that instance a majority of Harvard faculty rejected genetic differences. His statement was hedged and couched in complexity. It did not matter.

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  4. In social psychology can two different researchers examine the same model and the same data and reach conclusions that differ merely because of their political views? I too wish I had some examples of how social psychology might be improved by an injection of practitioners who favor conservative political positions.

    In the sciences it’s hard to see how politics matters. Certainly political viewpoints can’t change the evidence in climate science or evolutionary biology. Yet a vast majority of scientists happen to be liberal, in numbers that differ greatly from the general population. Surely this isn’t because of political bias in the academic field.

    Maybe conservatives just self-select themselves out of academia because they tend to be more concerned about making money, so they just have preferences that lead the vast majority of them naturally into business oriented careers. Which makes me wonder: if affirmative action for social sciences and humanities departments were a good idea, would it also be a good idea for corporate boardrooms?

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    1. Race, sex, IQ yadda yadda have been and continue to be studied. They aren't this mysterious taboo you imagine. Unfortunately the answers for these topics are ambiguous and complex in a way that is unacceptable to conservatives.

      By 'why don't you study IQ', you people really mean 'why don't you accept completely the concept of IQ tests as an objective measure of intelligence, and also just stop the moment you see some kind of racial difference.' When actual researchers acknowledge these differences exist and then decide to go beyond that and try to *explain* these differences, refusing to assume without proof these differences are permanent and immutable, and refusing to simply ignore the very serious issues with IQ methodology that have appeared over time. (For example, the degree to which IQ tests are *trainable* is a fatal flaw with most naive comparisons.)

      The notion of conservative social science is fundamentally about turning the field into yet another propaganda outlet, and rejecting real academic questions. People go into research to ask questions, conservatives don't because they assume they already know all the answers.

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    2. Personal perspective: I was in an university department which the US republicans went to to commission research from. Everything went well, until we affirmed that we would publish even if we got a result that went against what they thought we would get. They immediately cancelled the project.

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    3. Daniel3:36 PM

      "Race, sex, IQ yadda yadda have been and continue to be studied. They aren't this mysterious taboo you imagine."

      LoL. Try telling that to James Watson, the discoverer of DNA and the greatest living biologist. He has a lot of free time these days.

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  5. I don't know much about social psychology, but I think that Dr. Smith makes a lot of sense with his point #1. How will one know that the candidate for conservative thinker is truly conservative? In every ideological movement there are division about who is truly pure enough. Every church has a holier than thou contingent. Further, in the sciences new ideas are the goal, the raison d'ĂȘtre, and yesterday's rebel becomes today's stodgy stuffed shirt defending old ideas.

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  6. You said:

    "What if the "conservative" ideas in a field just suck? Shouldn't we be afraid of permanently enshrining bad ideas?"

    I think this is accurate. Conservatives always whine about some sort of conspiracy and bias, but never once consider that maybe their model of the world is wrong. Given the overwhelming bias in the field, it's not unreasonable to assume the data and research lead them to become liberals. Doubtful they all entered the field being red-blooded, true blue, liberals.

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    1. Their ideas suck? Lol:
      http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/aug/1/liberal-majority-on-campus-yes-were-biased/

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    2. Interestingly enough the suck is very much concentrated in social sciences and humanities, the most objective sciences where the value of an idea is so easy to ascertain.

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  7. A more serious problem is even if there were stronger conservative scholarship, political conservatives would just ignore them or treat them like liberals anyway. No one cares for more of what they don't respect in the first place.

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    1. Yeah, so like if you appoint a conservative, and this guy, as a good scientist, does some research that ends up changing his position... What do you do? Do you sack him and replace him with a guy who held the original viewpoint?

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  8. dilbert dogbert12:45 PM

    This: "Academia is about ideas. If you treat a package of ideas as if it were an identity group like race or gender, and offer it permanent shelter within academia, I feel like you're restricting the ability of ideas to improve."
    Like a bad penny the name, John Yoo popped into the little pea brain. Is he a twofer?

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  9. For what it is worth, the trend towards "liberals" (noting that many libertarian economists call themselves by that term, invoking the older and accurate "classical liberals," which remains the meaning of the word in most other nations), in academia is somewhat recent. I think that certain disciplines, particularly sociology and probably its close relative, social psychology, have been dominated by "liberals" for a long time. But many others were not half a century ago or more, especially in the hard sciences and engineering, and even in some of the humanities.Why there has been this shift over time in those discplines is an important and interesting question not obviously answered in my mind, with recent studies arguing that "conservatives" are either narrow-minded or stupid not all that convincing to me, even as I see many such people who appear to be so.

    Barkley Rosser

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    1. Conservatism has changed. A Ronald Reagan clone wold not survive Republican primaries in 2016.

      Presumably, an academic is searching for objective reality - or as close to it as one can get in her/his chosen field. The modern conservative is not interested in that. All they want is confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Hence birtherism, creationism, science denial in general and climate change denial in particular. Remember the New Deal denialism of a few years back? And to this type of conservative, everyone who doesn't think and feel as they do is THE OTHER. This type of conservative has always been with us, as a minority. Now they have taken over a major political party.

      So, yes - they are either narrow minded or stupid, or alternatively simply pandering to those who are.

      Fundamentally, they are at best indifferent to the truth.

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    2. Sorry, what about liberal obsessions such as GMO's, green revolution in Africa, vaccines and actually the perfect example of the New Deal, which had nothing to do with the recovery from the great depression?

      Again, conservatives are so indifferent to the truth, especially in the humanities, where the truth is so obvious.

      I like your scientific bigotry.

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    3. Krzys,

      I agree that current liberals are irrationaly anti-GMO and vaccines (although some conservatives are also anti-vaccines). But on the anti-New Dealism, most of those making the case have ended up falling on their faces with completely silly argumens. That stuff is a joke on the level of creationism.

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  10. Anonymous3:57 AM

    Why does Noah Smith keep calling gold a bubble? Is it an arrogant belief that because he has a Phd in economics, therefore he is smarter than the market?

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    1. Whether you've got a PhD or not, you can notice that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it may be a duck. If you observe traders operating on the "greater fool" model, you've got a duck, no matter how high prices are right now.

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    2. Gold peaked 4 years ago, and is currently at about 2/3 of peak value. The dollar is strong and getting stronger. You think gold has a bright future short to medium term?

      You don't need a PhD in anything to observe these facts.

      There has been a series of bubbles in this century. Commodities peaked in '08.

      There's nothing arrogant about it.

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    3. Is the belief here that Noah is not smarter than the market, because no one is? So it's impossible to declare *any* asset a bubble?

      Plainly many people think gold is overvalued. If people didn't, why are they trying so hard to *sell* gold to people?

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  11. To compare the fact conservative self select out of academia to the history of oppression and segregation is obscene. There would need to be evidence of deliberate discrimination. If there were you'd hearing it. Iy's like they're not already.

    Also, when someone says put morality aside, red flag.

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    1. Evidence you say:
      http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/social-psychology-biased-republicans

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  12. Anonymous7:05 AM

    The irony is that conservatives are against affirmative action for anyone else. It's a principle that they simply don't believe in... unless we're talking about a job that they want.

    I keep forgetting that the only real oppression that exists in the US is against white males! Republicans aren't against affirmative action in principle - they just think that those black women who own everything shouldn't be the ones to benefit!

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    1. Haidt is not a conservative. Oops!

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  13. Anonymous7:25 AM

    Also should add that the linked article shows that Haidt is really talking about *partisan* conservatives, as in Republicans, not conservatives in any other sense of the word.

    Considering the various anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-education positions that Republicans hold, it's not that hard to imagine that voluntarily labeling oneself as a Republican might make others think that you're not a very rational person (I believe that one can be both intelligent and irrational - not in the economic sense - so this isn't about IQ or performance in schoolwork), that you're not someone who lets the facts speak for themselves, and that your "gut" (as we so often heard during the Bush years) knows more than any of those point-headed intellectuals out there.

    Another way to look at it is that maybe we'd see more Republicans in research and education if Republicans didn't believe that school teachers and college professors were destroying America.

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  14. The link does a good job illustrating that hidden bias exists. Given that, an affirmative action proposal, while problematic, at least is an attempt to address the problem. Noah's assertion that the system is fine does not address the problem.

    It seems to be a very human problem. Humans simply are not objective. The most biased person is likely the one that thinks they are objective! The goal should be to minimize subjectivity in the system. Blind review is one way to reduce subjectivity.

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  15. Daniel9:36 AM

    I agree. Affirmative action for conservatives would not work. Instead the solution is ridicule. American academia needs to be ridiculed for being intellectually inferior by far to its own towering past, intellectually inferior to the levels of the world, and intellectually inferior even to the low American average.

    American academia is intellectually inferior not due to literal intellectual deficits but because it fears honest discussion and open debate on innumerable topics. When faculty are forced under enormous pressure by their own peers to recant statements that are simple statements of fact, we must act what American academia really resembles.

    Those who would smear Republicans as "anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-education" have their facts wrong. Republicans score as more scientifically knowledgeable than Democrats on average based on the United States General Social Survey (GSS). I am politically joined with neither side, but this worth noting:

    http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2011/03/republicans-are-more-scientifically.html

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    1. Fails to correct for income or educational levels. Yawn.

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    2. Daniel10:26 AM

      If Republicans are more scientifically literate because they are better educated, wouldn't that support my point?

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    3. It would in fact not. Academic selection is not a matter of randomly picking from the general population of Americans. Instead, academic placement candidates are picked out of people who have attained a certain level of tertiary education. This is a much smaller, and not representative subset of the overall population.

      If university educated republicans are more stupid than university educated democrats, it doesn't matter one slight bit that there's a lot more democrat voters who will never afford to go to university than republicans. The democrats would simply be more able candidates.

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    4. Daniel12:13 PM

      @Fangz -- Your biases are extreme. I think you have demonstrated Haidt's points amply.

      I've got plenty of additional points to make but this exchange appears to be regressing. "More stupid?"

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    5. I'm sorry, I pointed out a very basic statistical point about why general population survey results without correction for income or educational level is meaningless in this context of recruitment into academia, and all you come back with is a moaning about ~bias~, and a laser eye focus on my use of the word 'more stupid' in a hypothetical example?

      This is extremely standard Simpsons' paradox stuff. It's maths, not politics, and no you don't get to pick a conservative to give you a different more convenient answer.

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    6. Daniel1:16 PM

      Actually my comment about the GSS was in response to Anonymous @ 7:25 AM, who was ignorantly reciting incorrect stereotypes about Republicans in the broad population.

      It is true that I do not have data regarding the scientific competency of conservatives and liberals seeking entry into academia specifically, but neither do you.

      That said, your theory that conservatives seeking entry into academia are so 'stupid' is unlikely considering that conservatives in the greater population are, on average, more scientifically knowledgable.

      It is good that I am engaged in this discussion virtually, so as not to be covered in spittle.

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    7. It's not unlikely at all. There are abundant examples of Simpson's paradox in the literature. *The article you linked to actually links to a guy who did the corrections and found that all those differences were no longer statistically significant after correction for background.* Oh except for belief in evolution, where republicans did substantially worse. So plainly you just saw the title and decided to not investigate further. I'll leave the reader to infer whether this is ~bias~ or not.

      In any case, anti-science/anti-intellectual/anti-education etc positions refer to not in fact belief in astrology, but to a large number of anti-scientific and anti-educational policy positions espoused by republican politicians. For example, cuts in science funding and putting people like Inhofe in charge of anything except his stationery cupboard.

      But whatever, you have steadfastly refused to engage with the intellectual content of any arguments and directed only insults at me. I'm sure that in your mind you have made a great case for partisan discourse, but I have had enough.

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    8. Daniel3:24 PM

      Yes, let's engage on content. ;-)

      "Oh except for belief in evolution, where republicans did substantially worse. "

      The left scores a zero on evolution, almost across the board. People of the left insists that they believe in evolution when asked, but they are blank slatists almost without exception. Spare me the preening on evolution when the left tries, convicts and excommunicates for heresy anyone who follows its implications. Such as the discoverer of DNA, the greatest living biologist.

      Ah, Inhofe and Climate Change. I can only laugh. I don't have a strong opinion on it one way or the other, but climate scientists brought this on themselves. Michael Mann's infamous hockey stick fraud and his subsequent efforts to silence those who criticized his fraud using lawfare have been a riot, but atrocious PR for his field. The poor chap now can't even find a friend to file a single supporting brief in his case. If you place a data fabricator at the center of your field and your support dries up, should you be surprised?

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    9. Wow, you are ignorant.

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    10. Daniel4:11 PM

      Can you point to any part of the last comment that is incorrect? Be specific please.

      Mann, a longtime spokesman on Climate Change, finds himself in the crosshairs of the of the right wing extremists at the ACLU, the Washington Post, NBC News, the LA Times among others in his court case. The fraud occurred in the misrepresentation of historical climate data. Among other things he made the widely documented Medieval Warm Period vanish using dubious tree ring data (dubious because tree rings may reflect moisture more than temperature). Then when the tree ring data showed cooling in recent times he dropped it and spliced other data to his graph. A little fraud in science wouldn't be such a big story if it hadn't been used so centrally in IPCC efforts to educate the public, and if Mann didn't take to suing his critics.

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    11. chirp chirp, go the crickets, fangz

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  16. Frankly, it isn't a bad idea. One of the main reasons diversity matters is because it brings other perspectives to the table that enable you to better challenge ideas. You certainly get a variety of perspectives from demographic diversity, but to pass up on such a major source of diverse opinion as politics seems silly.

    I heard a rumor that a couple of the top law schools are starting to treat conservatism as a diversity factor in admissions. I'm not sure if that is true, but I think it would probably be a good idea. Most the top law schools have literally only a handful of conservative students these days.

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    1. I actually prefer the alternative, let sociology and the others make themselves as irrelevant as they wish to be.
      Maybe if racial affirmative action had some evidence to validate itself, I might have some faith in conservative affirmative action.
      It is also silly to think that having some token of someone's idea of conservative orthodoxy means ideological diversity. That is checklist diversity, and is meaningless to actual intellectual growth.

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  17. Mike Toreno3:53 PM

    " In econ, "conservatives" (or "libertarians", as economic conservatives insist you call them) want to cut government intervention in the economy. "

    That's not true. They want government to favor those they define as Übermenschen. They are not in the least opposed to massive government intervention in the economy - for example privatization, the transfer of government resources to private entities, followed by government payments to the private entities to run functions performed by the resources.

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    1. Privatization is just government intervention; hilarious parody of a deranged progressive there Mike.

      And I am sorry you cannot comprehend the difference between a conservative and a libertarian.

      If you weren't an ideological hack, you would care more about the cost and quality of the service than about whether your deity or the private sector performed it.

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    2. Mike Toreno7:14 AM

      There isn't any difference between a conservative and a libertarian. There isn't actually any such thing as a libertarian, actually. Privatization isn't the performing of a service by a private entity, privatization is the transfer of government functions to a private entity that is being paid by the government. For example, Blackwater, paid by the government to provide security for the United States Army (seriously?) And private prisons.

      Oh, and I forgot the example that demonstrates perhaps more than any other that Noah is living in Retarded Bizarro World. Banking. The essence of banking in the United States is the operation of institutions by persons who shoulder none of the risks for the decisions they make with respect to their institutions. Banking management makes decisions calculated to show illusory profits, they collect payment based on the illusory profits, and when the institution goes bankrupt as a result of the decisions, the government bears the cost of the bankruptcy.

      Noah, you really teach economics? And a school pays you money to do this? Why?

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  18. Anonymous4:38 PM

    B b but.... I was "Born That Way"..

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  19. Scientific and academic cliques are hard to fight. Especially with affirmative action, which introduces perverse incentives. The best solution is just to defund the fields dominated by ideology. Let the liberals (and conservatives) form their schools of social research and move around in their self-referential universe. Just, don't give them public money for "science".

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  20. Thanks Noah,

    This is an excellent post on why affirmative action is a bad idea in general.

    Noah, why the cheap shot at libertarians?
    If they are economically conservative, but disagree with conservatives on everything else, then they are libertarians.
    I am sure you would object to being called a communist for having positions that overlap with actual communists.

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  21. 4. conservatives won't choose social science, there is no money in it. Instead, they will choose economics or financial engineering.

    Actually, economics and finance are only second choices. They would only go into those fields if they cannot get jobs eating babies at Goldman Sachs.

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  22. Kudos to Noah for a helpful analysis of affirmative action

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  23. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Social sciences is the March Madness of victimhood, except that every year more teams compete. The presence of conservatives unhelpfully noticing things would ruin the safe spaces the teams need to compete.

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  24. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Why do we even have to know what political party or ideology a professor subscribes to? No ideology or poliitcal party has a monopoly on the truth, and as a substitute for market competition it is a good thing for political parties to periodically exchange places as a minority party. Professors that wear their politics on their sleeves, or force some form of ideological conformity on their students are demonstrating their inability to think on the higher level that is expected of them.

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