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September 30, 2003

Conservatives in Academia

Seems the blogosphere has been chattering away about the new David Brooks piece that discusses the hate relationship between conservatives and academia[1]. A post by Virginia Postrel brings up the supply & demand issue-there are hundreds of English Ph.D.s out there for every job (I hyperbolize, perhaps), so your academic creds are almost a given, and you can be filtered out on other criteria (including politics). I get the impression that this isn't as extreme in the natural sciences (the imbalance between supply & demand)-though there is the same problem in getting a tenure track position (as opposed to ending up teaching chemistry to community college students). But cultural issues might be at work in the natural sciences too-for instance, the 90% rate of non-religiosity in the NAS seems so high, I wouldn't be surprised if scientists that aired their religious views were simply considered irrational and dismissed by the Great Men[2]. Anyway, if you want more info on this topic, follow the link that Mrs. Postrel provides and read away.....

On a mildly related note...as a follow-up to godless' post on academic hierarchy of difficulty-when I graduated from my university, there were about 30 graduates with chemistry & biochemistry degrees, and almost 250 biology grads (out of about 2,000 graduates I think). I think it was safe to say that many of the biology majors were kind of stupid-but I wouldn't be surprised if there were as many or more intelligent biology graduates in absolute numbers as chemistry graduates. In other words, the biology majors had a lower threshold to graduate-they did not have to take physical chemistry for instance-so they had a full spectrum of intellectual aptitudes and interests, from sociology-dumb to physics-smart, while people in the chemistry department were more self-selected and would switch majors if they couldn't pass organic or physical chemistry (especially the latter). Once you get really high up in the sciences, I think the difference in mean g between fields (say biology & chemistry) shrinks, possibly because as godless alludes to, many prominent biologists, economists, etc. have strong mathematical backgrounds (E. O. Wilson taught himself population genetics while Francis Crick was by training a physicist, Keynes was very mathematical in orientation and ventured into economics almost as a personal challenge to his comparatively poor results in that field as opposed to math)[3].

fn1. This includes libertarians of course, I knew people who read Reason as their token far Right publication.

fn2. Carl Sagan was denied a spot in the NAS for a different reason-he was a big popularizer the last half of his career, which probably cancelled out the value of his earlier work.

fn3. I once went to a small talk given by Richard Dawkins to about 20-30 students as an undergrad. He is by training an ethologist-a researcher of animal behavior-traditionally a rather soft field, though population genetics and mathematical modelling have come to the fore recently. In any case, he is often dismissed as a "popularizer," and not strictly speaking an original thinker. This is true as far as it goes-but I was surprised to note that he tangentially went off into the details of the physics of sound and threw up a few equations and went on to relate how it affected animal auditory systems. My point? The guy might be a popularizer & an anti-religious crank, but he does strike me as rather intelligent and his drift into popular writing might be a calculation of the impact he might have on the public rather than a reflection on his inability to do original research.

Posted by razib at 05:56 PM

Your footnote 2 has a better example: Some years ago, Scientific American refused to hire Forrest Mims as their 'Amateur Scientist' columnist-,you know--build a centrifuge with a kitchen blender etc., solely because he was a creationist. Shameful behavior I thought.

Posted by: martin at September 30, 2003 08:40 PM

"When I was in college, my professors advised me against pursuing an academic career, despite my excellent record. They knew nothing of my politics. They knew only that there were no jobs for English Ph.D.s. That was 20 years ago, but the humanities job market hasn't improved much."

If anything, I'm sure the demographic decline has made it worse.

Posted by: duende at October 1, 2003 09:54 AM

The "Invisible Adjunct" site has tons of horror stories, mostly from English and history. I know a guy who has done great, original work on the history of the Mongol Empire, who spent 5 years trying to get a job and then went into high tech. He's mastered the scholarship in about 6 languages and has hardly written anything. And this is a world-history, early-modern-age area, not some obscure backwater of scholarship.

Posted by: Zizka at October 1, 2003 10:24 PM