Response to Aidan Byrne on British Academia

Aidan Byrne of the Plashing Vole blog has written an article criticising the report I wrote for the Adam Smith Institute about the political views of British academics. 

Most of the first half of his article concerns the figures I cited from the THE poll and A.H. Halsey’s book. Since I have already responded to a separate critique of that aspect of my report, I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that, even if the figures from the THE poll are off, they are unlikely to be off by enough to alter the conclusion that the British academy has a sizable left-liberal skew. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Byrne purports to speak for the entire academy in censuring my report:

A new report from the Adam Smith Institute on so-called left-wing bias in academia has been making waves over the past week. It has already largely been written off in the sector as lazy, unevidenced, ideological puff [emphasis added]

That “the sector” could already have “written off” my report as “ideological puff” would be rather surprising if there were a substantial number of conservative or right-wing academics. Here, Byrne implicitly admits that the British academy has a left-liberal skew.

Before getting to Byrne’s other substantive criticisms, it is necessary to make a few corrections. First, I am not affiliated to the Adam Smith Institute, other than via having written this report for them. Pace Byrne, the ASI’s funding sources are therefore completely irrelevant. I was simply asked by my friend Ben Southwood, the ASI’s head of research, to write a paper on a germane topic that interested me. Second, Byrne claims, “It’s bad enough that Noah Carl was paid to produce this stuff”. This is completely false; I was not paid anything to write the report. Third, Bryne describes me as a “white male author from a country governed by a white male billionaire”. Technically, this is true, since I am half-American. But I do live in the UK, which is currently governed by a white female non-billionaire.

Back to Byrne’s substantive criticisms. First, he completely misrepresents scholarly opinion on the subject of IQ, writing:

Point 2 depends on Intelligence Quotient scores, as though IQ isn’t thoroughly discredited as anything other than a measure of how people perform on IQ tests

And later in the article, he writes:

IQ is a load of cobblers often promoted by rather unpleasant people who have a habit of moving from IQ scores to theories of racial difference, by which they almost always mean superiority

Contra Byrne, IQ is one of the most valid, reliable and predictive variables in all of social science. It has not been thoroughly discredited. Rather, it has been continuously excoriated by scholars who view it as a threat to left-wing objectives. As Steven Pinker notes in his book The Blank Slate, these scholars are guilty of what’s known as the moralistic fallacy: “It would be bad if human intelligence could be quantified using a single number; therefore it cannot”. Three excellent overviews of intelligence research are: Arthur Jensen’s The g Factor, Ian Deary’s Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction, and Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All that Matters. Indeed, Byrne cites Richard Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It as if this were the final word on the subject. Yet that book has itself been subject to sustained criticism: by Rushton & Jensen in the Open Psychology Journal, as well as by James Lee in Personality and Individual Differences.

Second, Byrne accuses me of attacking a straw man by “by wondering out loud whether academics are left-wing because they’re more intelligent”. Yet I cited several previous studies that have entertained precisely this hypothesis (please see pp. 6–7 of my report).

Third, Byrne erects his own straw man, suggesting that––by discussing the so-called status inconsistency hypothesis––I was accusing left-wing academics of being “bitter purveyors” of the “politics of envy”. To quote myself:

the left-liberal leanings of academics may derive from a peculiarity of their social-class positions, namely that they receive low incomes relative to their advanced educational attainment and rich cultural capital

I should note that I did not originate this hypothesis. Rather, it goes back to the work of Erving Goffman, Alwin Gouldner and Pierre Bourdieu. Byrne goes on to claim, “There’s no evidence, but Carl’s just going to leave it there for you to think about.” Once again––contra Byrne––I cited the work of Neil Gross, who found that a measure of status inconsistency made a modest contribution to explaining the liberal views of American professors.

Fourth, Byrne subtly accuses me of racism a number of times. In fact, he mentions “the Nazis”, “Jim Crow” or “racial superiority” an impressive seven times during the course of his ~2,800 word article. Then, about two thirds of the way down, he rather bluntly states:

The true purpose of Lacakademia becomes clear. It isn’t really about the sociological curiosity of imbalanced political views amongst academics. It is about academic rejection of theories of racial superiority.

I would assure Byrne that I am not a racist, but I very much doubt that such an assurance would convince him, given his evident talent for reading racist motives into scholarship. However, in order to assuage any concern the reader might have that I am a fulminating, hood-wearing, cross-burning member of the KKK, I will note that the only sentence of my report in which race differences were mentioned simply stated:

When Charles Murray published his book the ‘The Bell Curve’, which, in one chapter discussed studies of race differences in intelligence, he was roundly excoriated for allegedly trying to demonstrate that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, an accusation that is 15 still levelled at him 20 years later [link added]

Fifth, Byrne includes the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers in his line-up of “racial superiority theorists”. I should point out to Byrne that he has the wrong ‘ism’ here: Summers was accused of sexism not racism, as I note on p. 14 of the report.

Sixth, Byrne claims that I failed to provide “any contextual analysis”. Indeed, he asks “What of the shift in the UK to student fees, to managerial over-reach, to the employability agenda?” Once again––contra Byrne––I explicitly discussed the issue of student fees, writing:

Because they now have to pay hefty fees upfront, students are increasingly treated like consumers, rather than prospective scholars, so that when they demand restrictions on free speech, universities supply those restrictions accordingly

In summary, I was not paid by the Adam Smith Institute to write the report, and fail to see the relevance of their funding sources to any discussion of my report’s veracity. I reject the accusation that I am a “racial superiority theorist”. And, finally, I would point out that one does not have to be conservative or right-wing to be concerned about the extreme left-liberal skew seen in some academic disciplines. Heterodox Academy, an American organisation set up to promote intellectual diversity within the academy, boasts many progressives and centrists, as well as conservatives and libertarians, among its membership.