Response to John Morgan on British Academia

John Morgan of the Times Higher Education has penned a short article criticising the report I wrote for the Adam Smith Institute on the political views of British academics. His article is titled, ‘Adam Smith Institute ‘lurch to the left’ report: flimsy figures’. I should begin by noting that I did not use the phrase “lurch to the left” anywhere in my report; rather, this was the phrase that several newspapers used in their write-ups.

Morgan criticises my report on the grounds that I compared figures from a self-selecting poll that asked about vote intention to figures from a systematically conducted poll that asked about party closeness. He apparently regards this comparison as totally illegitimate. My response to his criticism is twofold. First, as Morgan himself acknowledges, I noted the caveats pertaining to the comparison between the two sets of figures several times. For example, on p. 4 I wrote:

Relatively little good evidence is available on the political views of British academics.

And on p. 5 I wrote:

It is important to be aware that Halsey sampled his respondents differently to the THE, and posed a slightly different question, which means the comparison over time should be treated with a certain amount of caution.

Second, despite the fact that the data were collected differently and a slightly different question was posed in each case, comparing the two sets of figures arguably still provides some information about possible trends within academia. Of course, a 50-year repeated cross-section of academics would provide much more reliable information, but unfortunately this sort of survey has never been conducted. (My hunch is that the THE poll understates the current left-liberal skew in British academia, though admittedly I have no data to prove this.)

It is noteworthy that, according to data analysed by Sam Abrams, the sizable left-liberal skew in American academia has increased since the 1990s. This is consistent with Duarte et al.’s earlier finding that the left-liberal skew in social psychology increased dramatically over the 20th century. (More references related to trends in American academia can be found here.)  

Nonetheless, even if the left-liberal skew in British academia hasn’t increased at all since 1990 (which seems unlikely), it would still be quite substantial today. Moreover, most of my report was dedicated to explaining why left-liberal views are overrepresented in the academy, and to exploring what consequences that overrepresentation may have had. Many academics I speak to readily acknowledge that there is a left-liberal skew. Indeed, it is an effect size of such large magnitude that it is almost too obvious to report.

Morgan also criticises my report on the grounds that I made claims about the impacts of left-liberal overrepresentation for which I provided no empirical evidence. He writes,

Using a self-selecting survey as a rough guide to possible voting patterns in a forthcoming election is one thing. It is another to conflate that survey with totally separate data and use this flimsy base to make sweeping judgements, as Carl does in suggesting that growing “ideological homogeneity” has led to “the trend towards curtailments of free speech on university campuses” or that it “has arguably led to systematic biases in scholarship”. There is no evidence in his report that this is true [emphasis added].

While reasonable people can disagree about the validity of comparing two sets of figures from different sources, on this point I would claim that Morgan is simply wrong. I discussed numerous previous papers that have investigated the impacts of the academy’s left-liberal skew. One important such paper is titled, ‘Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science’ by Duarte et al. Another is titled, ‘How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight’ by Chris Martin. Yet another is titled, ‘A Social Science without Sacred Values’ by Winegard and Winegard. Yet another is titled, ‘Microagressions and Moral Cultures’ by Campbell and Manning. For other references, please see Section 5 of my report. Morgan may well disagree with these authors’ claims, but it is simply false to say that I cited no evidence.

According to Morgan, my “wafer-thin report looks like an attempt to import a US-style campus culture war into the UK.” It strikes me as odd to use the word “import” here, given that––from what I can tell––a “US-style campus culture war” already seems to be raging pretty fiercely at British universities. Just in the last few years, there have been heated controversies about: no platforming (e.g., here, here and here), trigger warnings (e.g., here, here and here), micro-aggressions (e.g., here and here), decolonising curricula (e.g., here, here), and other identity politics issues (e.g., here, here, here and here).

In summary, I would disagree with Morgan that comparing two sets of figures from different sources is futile, especially given the paucity of available data. I would reject his claim that my report provided no evidence as to the impact of left-liberal overrepresentation on scholarship and free speech. And I would note that he does not dispute that fundamental fact that British academia has a sizable left-liberal skew, which is an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation.