Neil Gross – Why Are Professors (and Scientists) So Liberal?

April 15, 2013

We’ve all heard the claim: Academia is liberal. And it indoctrinates students.

It kills their religious faith and basically—or at least, so the allegation goes—transforms them into unkempt, pot-smoking hippies.

As it turns out, this claim is precisely half true. Yes, academia is really liberal. But no, this has virtually nothing at all to do with ideological brainwashing.

That’s the provocative claim of a new book by Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia. It’s entitled Why Are Professors Liberal? And Why Do Conservatives Care? And basically, it’s a powerful data analysis to bandy about whenever Ted Cruz, or Rick Santorum, start talking about liberal academic indoctrination mills.

Neil Gross taught at the University of Southern California and Harvard University before joining the University of British Columbia faculty in 2008. Trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Ph.D., 2002), and holding a BA in Legal Studies from the University of California, Berkeley (1992), Gross has special interests in sociological theory, politics, the sociology of ideas and academic life, and the sociology of culture. He is the editor of Sociological Theory, a quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, April 15th, 2013, on the show this week, we talked to sociologist Neil Gross about his new book that asks, why are professors and scientists so liberal? 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. If you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and also on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. We’ve all heard the claim. Academia is liberal and it indoctrinates students. It kills their religious faith and basically or at least so goes the allegation, it transforms them into unkempt, pot smoking hippies. As it turns out, this claim is precisely half true. Yes, academia really is liberal. Yes. Scientists on average are liberal. But no, this has virtually nothing to do with ideological brainwashing. That’s the provocative claim of a new book by Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia. 

It’s entitled Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? And basically, it’s a powerful work of social science and data analysis that you can bandy about whenever Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum or anybody else starts talking about liberal academic indoctrination Mills. So with that, let’s hear from Neil Gross about why academe is liberal, but academia is not causing students to be more liberal. Neil Gross welcomed the point of inquiry. 

Thank you. A pleasure to be here. 

It’s a pleasure to have you. And I think your your book is already generating a lot of discussion. I think we’ll just amplify that. So I want to start out with the statistics here. You’ve done big surveys, the politics of professors and basically the upshot. I want you to unpack it for us. Conservatives are right. Academia is a pretty darn liberal place. 

Well, I think they’re right in the main, but that they think that their arguments are overstated and maybe some of the specifics. But, yeah, I mean, if you look at the data, about 60 percent of professors are liberal identifiers of one kind or another, although the proportion have really strongly liberal views is closer to 50 percent. And if you look at party, about half of professors are Democrats. Another third are independents. But here, Democratic leaders outnumber Republican voters by more than two to one. And we know that professors vote very Democratic in national elections. And in the book, I present evidence. This makes the professor right one of the most liberal occupations in the US. Although I hasten to add that, you know, there are other influential occupations like medicine and or the clergy that are that are as right leaning as the professoriate is left leaning. But I think where conservatives overstate their case is in imagining that that professor is overrun with with radicals, for example, as as Senator Ted Cruz has recently implied the other day on that show that something like nine or 10 percent of the professoriate considers itself to be on the on the far left on which is, you know, which is certainly not an overwhelming percentage. 

Right. But it also, you know, that’s almost similar to the number the NRA, which I think you said is 14 percent. So it’s about the same. 

Well, I mean, it is it is true that that is that is an occupation that you’re more open to folks on the far left, certainly, than many others are. 

Let’s do this by field. You often hear from conservatives that, oh, at least economists are conservative. But my understanding is that they’re not they’re just less liberal than like historians or social scientists. 

The general pattern is that the social sciences and humanities are the most left leaning. The natural sciences are the next most left leaning. And as you move toward more applied fields like like engineering or computer science, you start to get larger proportions of conservatives in business. Business, certainly. Yeah. Economists are less left leaning than than, you know, other social science, really several the other social sciences. But by no means is it an occupation in which in which conservatives dominate. 

To what extent is there a real significant change over time in this? Or has academia always been a liberal place? 

I mean, William F. Buckley was attacking it in 1951 for this. 

Absolutely. Well, I mean, there is change over time. I mean, if you look back at the history of the academic politics in the States, I mean, you do find that, you know, it shifts depending on what’s happening in in the political climate of the day. And it shifts depending on what kind of groups are are going into academe. Like what? But I think the racial groups or religious groups, men, women and so on. So there are changes over time. But what’s remarkable is that there’s also really a lot of stability. I mean, there’s there’s pretty clear evidence of academia beginning to be quite left leaning, dating back as far as the 1930s. And, you know, there certainly were pockets of of of academic leftism before that. But it’s really in the 30s that you start to see the kind of solidification of the political sympathies of the professor. So it does take back a long time. 

I want to remind our listeners that Neil Gross, his new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. 

So let’s talk about why you think the obvious answers don’t hold up. The obvious answers include liberals are just smarter and end on the conservative. And the obvious answer is, oh, academe is biased against us. You reject both of these? 

Well, I mean, I won’t be cautious in saying that I reject them. I mean, I try to look at a variety of different approaches in the book. And I think, you know, many have have some merit. And certainly when you’re trying to make something as complicated as the left leaning tendencies of a pretty heterogeneous group of people like my professors, institutions, types of fields, just give me lots of factors that play a role. Now, the evidence I look at in the book suggests, however, that that something like cognitive ability on or on the other side, something like discrimination, certainly aren’t the major factors at play here. 

OK, well, let’s go through. And then there are the reasons that I think you give a little more credence to. But you still say they’re not the main ones. And I want to I want to go through these because I think when people think, oh, I’m being subtle, I’m being clever, these are the ones they come up with. 

And again. I think you’re you’re kind of discounting them, so we got values. We got personality and we got something like education, which means that when you’re in the university, it liberalizes you because of what you learn there. I guess we can take let’s take some of those maybe in order. I don’t know. 

Sure. Well, I mean, we can start with values. I mean, you know, the two main claims here are that conservative students are more interested in making money and so they don’t want to become academics because they can’t get rich doing that. And then a kind of variant of this is the idea that conservatives don’t value science or scientific achievement. And, you know, if you look at the data on this, I mean, there are some differences between left and right and students, but it’s actually folks who don’t have a very strong political parties because we’re in the middle. The most interested in making money, at least in the studies that I’ve done. Those value differences. Right. Making just don’t do much to cut for the less the expenses. The professors, the science bit of it is also pretty interesting. I mean, I do think this by play some role. You know, obviously many folks on the right are a significant share of folks in the writer ah ah ah evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants and know a fair number of them certainly are biblical literalists who don’t believe in evolution. You know, and if you’re raised with such views that you’re not you know, you’re not going to go on to become an evolutionary biologist. So I think that that plays something of a role. But, you know, I try to suggest in the book that that probably doesn’t explain the bulk of the phenomenon, in part because, you know, even though that might keep you from going into into evolutionary biology, there’s no reason in principle that that should keep you from going into the humanities or even the social sciences. People are actually pretty good about holding logically incompatible views. And so, you know, I at least raised questions about whether these explanations hold water. 

But there is data that shows broader conservative distrust. You say this broad does conservative distrust of science, which would presumably they would associate signs with academia. Right. 

Yeah. I mean, I think there is certainly some distrust of science. I think we don’t really have much of a sense. We don’t. We don’t know with great certainty what that distrust entails. I mean, certainly there’s there’s suspicion about about the institutions of science. And, you know, again, there are there are doubts about about evolution. We certainly know that there are doubts about about climate change from the right. You know, whether this means a distrust of the scientific method of of notions of evidence and so on, or whether this is just skepticism about specific parts of what goes on inside the enterprise. I think that we just don’t have. We just don’t have great data. 

Well, I think it I think it’s basically they wouldn’t say they distrust the scientific enterprise, but they distrust the scientific institutions because they know they’re liberal. Right. 

Absolutely. No, I think that’s that’s a huge part of it. 

I think that’s absolutely right. And increasingly so. I mean, you know, certainly there’s there’s evidence showing that a conservative trust in sciences has declined over time. But it’s you know, really this is conservative trust in science as an institution, not necessarily trust in in science, per say. 

So the part of the book that I think is the most interesting and where, you know, I think you can make a case that this is the strongest maybe counter you will get to your explanation. But this is one that I think that you have the hardest time dismissing is personality difference. So let’s talk about that one a little bit. 

Sure. Yeah, well, I mean, I think it’s I mean, look, it’s it’s foolish to deny that there are personality differences between people. And it’s certainly entirely plausible to think that this could play a role in political orientation and behavior. But I think the difficulty is that when you start trying to study personality outside the psychology lab and you’re using large scale survey data to study, you know, representative samples, you have to resort to fairly blunt measures of personality. And at least in the data that I’ve looked at, the numbers I’ve crunched for the book, you know, it’s not clear whether those measures are really getting at something like intrinsic personality differences or instead whether they’re getting it norms that have come to prevail in the different social world that people live in. So, for example, I discuss in the book I’m interested in abstraction. So, you know, one of the studies that I cite is a study with with Ethan Fossey and and Jimmy Freeth in which we used data from a big survey of of of adolescents and then followed them through several waves and tried to see who goes to graduate school. And there’s some measures in the survey about personality, including a measure that asks about how interested are you in, you know, in an abstraction. And it turns out that that’s a pretty big predictor of going to graduate school. If you march sit in abstraction, you’re more likely to go to graduate school. And that explains some of the differences in the propensity of liberals versus conservatives to go to graduate school. It’s really clear what that means. I mean, over the years, the right has taken a very strong stance against ideas that are supposed to be overly abstract, that are insufficiently applied or are not pragmatic, that are too speculative. So if you’re a young conservative and you grew up on this rhetoric, how do you develop that self concept of someone who’s deeply interested in abstraction and who would say a servant? Yes, I I’m interested in abstraction. Probably not. I mean, that’s clearly important part of how you act in the world, but some to label it as personalities to imply that there’s something intrinsic about it. I mean, there’s obviously, as you know, some evidence of the heritability of political views and personalities are a possible kind of mediating mechanism. So it’s not like intrinsic personality arguments are crazy, but it does seem important not to kind of bracket out the sociological interplay of social identity and collective identity norms and practices and all that. And when you start going down that road, I think the argument from political reputation begins to live up to the larger edges. 

We’ll get to those when as soon as I mean, it seems entirely possible to me that, you know, you have basically some sort of inherent difference in, let’s call it cognitive style, because, you know, liberals like abstraction. They don’t make up their minds as fast. They like nuance. Conservatives, you know, like things concrete. They make up their mind quicker. 

They’re more decisive. But then they could also that could be both inherent. But it could also be, of course, then the rhetoric of the movements and such reflect the inherent differences. And so it could be both. 

I mean, I think that that that possibility is something that we can’t entirely discount. I mean, you know, the most I can say with my data is that there are reasons to be suspicious, that this explains that the bulk of the phenomenon. But, you know, it’s not as though I don’t have any data to suggest that if they play no role at all. 

Well, let’s go to the your major explanation. It’s self selection. In other words, you know, people who are already liberal stay in academia. 

Yeah. I mean, I you know, basically events a claim that over the years, academe has developed a reputation for being a liberal, a bastion of liberalism. And with that reputation in place, if you’re a smart, young liberal and you go to college and you’re looking at different kinds of careers, you might have yourself, you think you know. Yeah, academia, I could really see myself doing that. And if you’re smart, young, liberal, a smart and conservative, you would likely think yourself. Now, that’s not for me, based largely on the reputation. Now, of course, there are some people on the left who go into academe for political purposes, but I’m really mostly not talking about that. I’m simply talking about the things you would consider, things that were on your horizon, the possibility. And so the argument is that in this way, academic liberalism has become kind of a self reproducing phenomenon. You know, many folks on the left have gone into higher education. That solidifies its reputation as a left wing field and then that further pulls more liberals in. 

Well, I think it’s I mean, the major consideration in favor of this view is probably that everyone does know. I think throughout our culture, everyone knows that academia is left leaning. So we. So in other words, it’s culturally shared understanding that wouldn’t wouldn’t be easily missed. Right. 

Right. I think that’s right. I think that’s right. And I mean, if you look at if you look at data on freshmen who are just starting out in college, I mean, you find differences in the aspiration to become a. Differences by politics. That pretty much mirrors those, are you actually seeing the professoriate? So I think people do know this. People know this from a pretty early age. They might not know a lot about the academic life. I think most people don’t. But I think they sense that academia’s left leaning is shared. And, you know, and in this respect, there’s a kind of interesting relationship between the question of why professors are liberal. And the question of why conservatives care. I mean, one of the ironies here is that the more folks on the right due to kind of Lambus the professoriate and argue against it. I mean, the more they do to reinforce this reputation of it as a as a bastion of liberals and which steers conservatives away. So, you know you know, in a way, it’s sort of counterproductive. The goal of increasing ideological diversity, which so many conservatives tout to take to continue to a particular academy as they do, which isn’t to say that conservatives can’t make a case that there ought to be changes. But but the language of the rhetoric around it certainly, I think has contributed to the political tilt of the professor. 

So how are they receiving your argument then? 

Because, I mean, I could say that you basically blow up one of the most prominent conservative claims, for instance, by somebody like Rick Santorum. And that’s the idea that going to college makes you liberals. So it’s an indoctrinating experience. I mean, what you’re saying is it’s not colleges make you liberal. It’s liberals make colleges. 

Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, there’s a fair amount of evidence on this that that’s that’s beginning to bubble up again. There’s no social science research on the on the other side as well. So it’s not like we can be definitive about this, but there’s increasing evidence that, yes, people who have college degrees do tend to be more liberal than people who don’t have college degrees. But when you actually unpack what’s going on, it turns out that the reason that they’re more liberal is because folks with more liberal views are more likely to go to college and and finish four year degrees. And, you know, evidence of a really strong effect of being in higher education on people’s political views is beginning to rise. It’s beginning to look at questionable. It’s not as though there’s no change. I mean, I think there’s some evidence, for example, that that going to college may promote tolerance through a variety of mechanisms, exposure to diverse others and so on. But certainly the idea that college indoctrinate students and gives them strong left leaning views, I think the evidence for that is it’s pretty weak. 

I would remind our listeners again that Neal Gross’s new book, Wired Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Is there any evidence about how religiosity fits into this? Does college make you less religious, for instance? And, you know, in does college make you more trusting of science? I could see how that would work because you actually take a lot of science classes and learn the method. 

Right. I don’t know the data about whether it makes you more trusting in science. I do know that. I mean, I don’t know whether the same kinds of studies that have looked at have Solecki into college have looked at the effect on trust in science. I mean, I do know that the evidence on religiosity suggests that it’s kind of comparable to politics. It doesn’t do as much as as as folks have thought for a while to secularized students. That is, there is some evidence that people fall away from religiosity during college. But people who don’t get a college far away from religiosity, too, there’s not a strong effective of going to college, at least according to a number of studies published recently. 

So, again, there will be self selection then with regard to religiosity, as I put it. 

I think there is that there is some evidence of that as well. 

OK. Well, let’s let’s go to the implications of those I mean, people who’ve been fighting publicly over this for decades because they view something as being at stake. So do you think the liberalism of academia threatens academia? 

Is it something that academia should be really worried about? I’ll just give one example that seems to suggest maybe they should. Lately, conservatives have wanted to cut funding for political science research. There was just the amendment from Tom Coburn, I think. I’m not sure exactly what its status is, but it’s trying to cut some of this funding. And I think it’s fair to say that that’s because of a perception of liberalism. So at least in part because of a perception of liberalism. So is that the kind of thing that you’re warning against? 

Well, you know, the book tries very hard to model, you know, social science, that’s not advocacy. And I try and hard in the book not to take a strong stand about it, about whether the liberals sort of good or bad. But, you know, I do think that there are implications to that perception that the professoriate is left leaning, which is very widely shared among conservatives. And I think you’ve you know, you’ve correctly identified at least some of those. I mean, yes, the Coburn amendment is a great example. You know, the effort to cut funds for the National Science Foundation’s political science program. But there are many others. I mean, you can think of attempts in Florida, for example, to eliminate anthropology programs at public universities. I mean, you know, you can think of efforts in in Texas to change the way that that funding is allocated for for Steve, Texas, at Austin and Texas A&M, for example, so that professors are rewarded for teaching less research. I mean, I think these are it’s not wrong to think of these as at least in part, politically motivated. And, yeah, I think the perception by that by the right that academe is left leaning are certainly factors into that. 

But the problem is, okay, that’s a problem. But the solution is, to me, entirely non apparent to I. And let me just tell you what I’m thinking here. There is is I guess I would colomer maybe sociologists of science or science policy expert named Dan Sara Watts. And he he wrote he made an argument about along these lines with respect to science, because we have polling data showing that American Association for the Advancement of Science members are very liberal. And the percentage that are Republicans is something tiny, like six percent. And so he’s saying that’s why, you know, scientists have all these problems with conservatives because they know you guys are liberal and not. My response was, okay. Yeah, but what are you going to do? Are the scientists going to convert? Are they going to change parties? It’s completely there’s what is the solution to that? 

Right. And I think that in the case of political science, at least, I mean, I think these you know, the problem has been exacerbated by the sense that Democrats have been able to use the findings of black science, but also psychology, for example, impo very effectively in their in their recent campaigns in a way that the GOP hasn’t. It’s not just the perception that that that these fields are are left leaning, but the perception that they’re really significantly contributing to the success of the Democrats. I think that factors into it, too. You know you know, I don’t know what the solution is. Yeah. I think the case could be made that scientists and social scientists ought to do more to make clear the ways in which their politics don’t influence their research. But, you know, whether that be effective or not or whether that’s a good thing or not is is not entirely clear to me. So I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that unless we do some more to kind of shore up this problem, whether it’s just a problem of optics, how the academy appears or whether it’s more deep, a deep seated problem, I think that they’re just going to this will continue to be part of higher education’s woes for the coming years. I mean, you know, I should add, you know, the big problem is higher education from the standpoint of most, most most people, it is really cost that’s public. I think it’s probably true for you large politicians as well. So, you know, the politics behind me aren’t aren’t front and center in anyone’s mind. But I think they, you know, contribute to the general sense that things are things are awry with higher education. And I think that creates opportunities for it, for folks in the right who you to want to use the economic downturn and the current problems that people are facing the country, too, as an opportunity to trim back programs and departments with which they with which they disagree politically. 

Yeah, I mean, I think cost problems and political problems are deadly combination for academia. Well, I don’t know the solution either. I think that expecting political conversions in academia is not very likely. I guess what I would suggest, and I don’t know if it would work, is I would suggest, first of all, not denying the obvious, but I mean, it seems to me that there’s an argument that conservatives ought to accept. Not that I’m saying they will, especially because they’ll be coming from liberals. But it would be the argument that, you know, this is tradition. Folks like academia is a liberal place. If you haven’t noticed already, people have been noticing for decades. And don’t conservatives respect tradition? It’s also a tradition that the military is conservative and liberals have accepted that for a long time. And you got your sectors. We have ours. That’s how society works. That’s human nature. Don’t you guys like human nature? I mean, isn’t that what you want to preserve? 

Yeah. I mean, I you know, I don’t know whether that would be an effective one politically. I mean, I think from the standpoint of of at least some number of folks on the right. I mean, the argument would be that by those standards, we ought not to change much, that we ought to let the status quo just just just continue. And in every field and, you know, I think that would be an argument that certainly Progressive’s wouldn’t want to make, certainly not that I would want to make. You know, I think that, you know, if there is a solution to be found here, it’s it’s probably in getting institutions of higher education, disciplinary societies and so on to do a better job explaining to people what they’re actually doing and in and in making clear that the non politicized value of their of their contributions to society. I mean, I think that more work along those lines would would probably help to reduce the blood, let some of these criticisms at least a little bit. I think that’s probably the most realistic solution. 

You know, I think that if you can the problem is that not all of academia can do this is as well as some parts, if you can show that your research has an economic benefit. Or I mean, the sciences are very good at this. They can at least show with really good data that funding basic research drives economic growth in science and engineering. That’s that’s convincing his convincing to a conservative. But some of the other disciplines do not do not really have as good of an argument there. 

Well, I think that’s right. I mean, I think there are you know, there are plenty of conservatives who believe in in the great books, for example, in classical literature and and certainly in teaching history. So I think that, you know, people are are are perhaps open to persuasion. I mean, I think the idea would be that if you could demonstrate the ways in which different fields of study you produce, again, kind of non politicized benefits for society, I mean, I think that would be at least more of a winning argument that’s currently being made, although whether it would would resolve these kinds of problems or not is it’s very hard to say. 

I just I still am stuck on the fact, though, that I’ve never heard a liberal say maybe I’m maybe I just haven’t noticed Nora Hurley liberals say, you know, darn it, we need the the military to be more liberal. 

You know, the military is too right wing and we really need equality and we need less bias against Lou. And do this. The same argument made because I don’t really feel. I think it’s just more accepted. 

Yeah. I haven’t heard it. I mean, there is an interesting argument you made, though, about, you know, what would happen if more folks, more work, more young folks who were left leaning went into fields other than academe. I mean, of course, not all go into academe, other folks who go into service work on advocacy and so on. But what if more people who were know pretty strongly left leaning went into business with corporate America government self differently? I mean, it’s at least. Interesting question. 

No, definitely. I think that that may be happening more than the military. 

Yes, I think that’s right. Although I should say that. Yeah, go ask the military. I do think the evidence on this is that officers are strongly right leaning. 

I think there’s there’s more political diversity among enlisted personnel. And one might imagine, given, you know, what one’s life what what drives one, two to enlist? 

Well, thermate. 

Well, I think I think it’s fascinating. I mean, my only frustration is like, what with the what are we going to do? Question. 

It’s just really hard to see a way, a way out, even as this rift becomes more damaging in the current context with things like threats of funding of political science. But it’s it’s very thought provoking. So. Neil, thanks so much for being with us on Port Macquarie. Thanks, Chris. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join the discussion about today’s show. You can visit us at point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of inquiries produced by Atomizing and AMR’s New York music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney