God Bless Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman's column from Tuesday's New York Times was even more excellent than usual:
Claims that liberal bias keeps conservatives off college faculties almost always focus on the humanities and social sciences, where judgments about what constitutes good scholarship can seem subjective to an outsider. But studies that find registered Republicans in the minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as in softer fields. Why?
One answer is self-selection - the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.
But there's also, crucially, a values issue. In the 1970's, even Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican Party was the “party of ideas.” Today, even Republicans like Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the “party of theocracy.”
Consider the statements of Dennis Baxley, a Florida legislator who has sponsored a bill that - like similar bills introduced in almost a dozen states - would give students who think that their conservative views aren't respected the right to sue their professors. Mr. Baxley says that he is taking on “leftists” struggling against “mainstream society,” professors who act as “dictators” and turn the classroom into a “totalitarian niche.” His prime example of academic totalitarianism? When professors say that evolution is a fact.
In its April Fools' Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it's “the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time,” saying that “as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.” And it conceded that it had succumbed “to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do.”
The editorial was titled “O.K., We Give Up.” But it could just as well have been called “Why So Few Scientists Are Republicans These Days.” Thirty years ago, attacks on science came mostly from the left; these days, they come overwhelmingly from the right, and have the backing of leading Republicans.
Krugman is right on both counts. Obtaining a job as a math or science professor requires obtaining a PhD in something. That means spending many years wroking very hard first to learn a lot of very esoteric material, and then making some original contribution to your subject. During this time you will be making very little money, and you can look forward to a career in which you are very unlikely to obtain any great measure of fame or fortune. I suspect that the sort of person who finds that life appealing (me, for example) also tend to be left-leaning in their politics.
But the bigger cause by far is the fact that, as things are now, the Republican Party is very hostile to both science and education. Administrations that use the term “Reality-Based Community” as an epithet are never going to be popular among scientists. A President who believes the jury is still out on global warming or evolution is not someone a scientist is likely to support.
Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to think that it's the teacher's unions that are responsible for the decline of public education. As anyone who actually works in education knows, the only reason teachers get the crumbs that they do in terms of salary and benefits is because their unions fight tooth and nail to get them. Instead of giving the public schools sufficient funding to do their job, Republicans seem more interested in giving huge tax breaks to wealthy people.
And then there's the fact that the Repbulican Party is currently at the mercy of the Religious Right. I know a great many scientists who hold perfectly orthodox religious views, but after devoting your life to an enterprise that values logic and evidence above all else you're not likely to find fundamentalism appealing. A belief that the Bible is the beginning and end of all wisdom is contrary to everything science is supposed to stand for.
If the Republicans started emphasizing the libertarian aspects of conservatism and left behind the fanatical religious nonsense, they would find much more support among academics. That does not seem likely to happen anytime soon. Until it does, it's simple common sense that explains the prevalence of liberals at universities.
P.Z. Myers has some additional thoughts here.
Sean Carroll also comments here.