The Difference between a Biased Professor and One You Disagree with



Can we agree to certain priors:

  1. University faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, tend to be significantly more left-wing than typical American voters.
  2. Consequently, many of those voters would prefer that professors have different values than they often have.
  3. University professors have significantly more power than students in matters of curriculum, method of delivering education, and perhaps most importantly, authority to control the content of speech in their classrooms.
  4. Faculty, like other humans, have beliefs, and try as they might to avoid doing so, those beliefs leak into comments in class when discussing optimal human behavior in any domain.

A new website urges students to submit the names of professors who “need to be watched” in light of their “leftist orientations” and “anti-American values.” But why do they need to be watched?

The illusion of the unbiased human or professor is fertilizer for piles of sloppy thinking. Mix that illusion with blindness to the narrowness of our own perceptions, and what emerges is an epithet available to castigate any who deign to have views different from our own as “biased.” And people who do mix those 2 phenomena can see so clearly that others have so many biases.

But what are these horrible things known as biases, and how are they distinct from ordinary human frailties?  Numerous capabilities exceed our grasp. We do not fly unaided by mechanical supplements; we are not capable of learning at anything like the rates of skillfully trained robits.

We each have aspirations, experiences, value preferences, and cognitive blind spots that guide our sentences. To curse these elements of our being, approaches  arrogant delusions of self-deification.

The way we use our biases is a different matter. I certainly have no sympathy for a professor who does not listen to contrary points of view in a classroom.  And by “listen” I mean understanding and exploring the quality of the assumptions underlying what is said. In the same spirit, I have little respect for faculty who persistently maintain their superhuman abilities to speak truths in counterdistinction to other voices in the classroom. But students have no right to voice any opinion whatsoever with the full expectation that no violation of the rules of evidence nor reason should be pointed out by others in the classroom. While we could debate on the periphery of the following claim, surely we can agree that there are basic intellectual standards for productive disagreement.

Soft objectivity is within our grasp. We can agree to listen to one another; we can try to articulate the arguments of those with whom we disagree in a form they support; and we can be open about our own probable biases. If we maintain that level of fair discourse, and someone wants to put us on a watchlist, I suppose I would have no objection if the list monitors would pledge to obey the same standards of soft objectivity.

However, as long as they insist on seeing bias as their bete noire, rather than professorial violations of the principles of fair discourse, then we all our reduced to name-calling. We left-leaning people can respond in kind by denouncing the website that is watching us as “fascist” and “truly anti-American”, thereby reducing all of us to embarrassing representations of pre-rational humanity.

As an illustration of how this issue of bias on campus can confuse even some of our more sane observers, consider a widely circulated essay by Nicholas Kristoff denouncing “liberal intolerance on campus.” Once again we are asked to be open to other perspectives with little regard to whether the resulting viewpoints are based on the standards of proof that universities at least publicly pledge allegiance to.  But “open” in the sense of listening to them, or “open” in the sense of legitimizing them by greeting them with a vapid “thanks for sharing that.”

Can universities and professors act like clumsy mobs?  Of course they can and sometimes do. How embarrassing when universities ban someone as benign as Madeline Albright! But anecdotes do not constitute impressive evidence, I hope. Does that incident permit Kristof to feel comfortable saying universities “disregard ideological diversity” and “stigmatize conservatives?” My colleagues would literally bend over backwards to legitimize conservative arguments from a colleague.  Did that true statement prove that universities are paragons of soft objectivity?  Not in any fashion!

His next evidence of liberal intolerance consists of  (random?)intemporate statements by 3 correspondents on his Facebook page that he then codes as “liberal arrogance.” Maybe those 3 are arrogant and maybe they are left-leaning, but they hardly justify charging universities with intolerance.

Finally, we are treated to evidence that there are few Republicans in the social sciences and humanities. Gee, Kristof, can you perhaps think of a rival cause or 2 for that reality other than “liberal intolerance”?

Just as a thought experiment, consider how much more persuasive Kristof would had been were he to demonstrate that unreasonable left-wing arguments on campus are evaluated with flabbier intellectual standards than are applied to those of conservative professors.  Then he would have my attention.

Just as a tease, I do think there is intolerance on campuses in hiring, but it is an intolerance of heterodox perspectives inside of disciplines. But that claim deserves its own post and is more complicated than the views of those who see biases where there is disagreement.

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