(Disclosure: I have known Chris for years and have great respect for his work and his professionalism.)
The article summarized the findings of a report by a new American think tank, the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, called “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship.”
The report is hardly the first to suggest that a significant majority of university professors in the West situate their politics to the left of centre.
But it does appear to be the first to have included Canadian academics.
Dummitt and Patterson aren’t surprised by the results, nor am I, but we seem to see the implications of the study a little bit differently.
Dummitt and Patterson are most concerned that the relative homogeneity of theoretical and philosophical leanings among university faculty risks compromising the quality of peer-reviewed scholarship.
Like all human beings, scholars are naturally inclined to hold the arguments of others with similar beliefs to a lower standard of proof. So if left-leaning faculty dominate the academy, not only will left-leaning scholarship inevitably dominate the scholarly realm, it is also likely to get off easy during the peer review process.
“If universities continue to be dominated by only one part of the political spectrum,” they go on to write, “a large section of the population will have good reason to feel that their views are not being represented… leading to greater political polarization, diminished support for universities and distrust in the veracity of academic research.”
While there must be scholars who consciously give the benefit of the doubt to their like-minded colleagues, I apparently have more faith in the majority of my peers’ commitment to do their best to evaluate all scholarship objectively.
Personally, I not only make a deliberate effort to park my own views before serving as a reviewer, I have also refused to assess papers when I have had concerns about my ability, or willingness, to be impartial.
From a public policy perspective, then, I’m more interested in what the report's findings mean for conservative scholarship.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadian faculty in the humanities and social sciences leans left doesn’t mean that there aren’t conservatives among us.
It just means that conservatives often end up working outside of the traditional academic setting. Indeed, a growing number can be found in think tanks that explicitly support scholarship with a conservative tilt.
(See, for example, my posts on the Macdonald-Laurier Institute here, here, and here.)
Since think tanks have strong incentives to publish findings that further their ideological agenda, it seems to me that conservative research fellows are even more likely than left-leaning university professors to arrive at conclusions that have not be subject to genuinely critical scrutiny.
At a time when Canadians are clamoring for new and better ways to deal with all sorts of pressing global challenges – from inequality, to climate change, to threats to the future of the liberal world order – we desperately need rigorous, innovative thinking from all sides of the political spectrum.
I regret that I don’t have any comprehensive solutions to offer. (Dummitt and Patterson’s suggestion that granting agencies should explicitly identify reviewers with particular political perspectives to basically “red team” research proposals with a political bent is neither feasible nor, I think, advisable.)
I do think, however, that those of us who write about contemporary public policy need to consciously subject our work to critics who are inclined to reject it more often, and we need to listen and respond thoughtfully to their objections.
Doing so takes courage, but it is critical to the maintenance of the integrity of our profession.
As flawed as it can be, rigorous peer review remains the best means of assuring that Canadian strategic-decision makers are offered a diverse suite of policy solutions to navigate the challenges of the 21st century.
Although I don’t always agree with either of them, I have found that Andrea Eidinger and Sean Speer can be relied upon to offer sincere and thoughtful commentary from the left and the right, respectively.
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