In October, Yale Law professor Dan M. Kahan was doing a study on what the relationship might be between someone’s political outlook and their science comprehension skills. The answer: Identifying with the tea party correlates positively with scores on a test that measures science comprehension.
Interesting, right? Well, sort of, because the story behind the story is even better. The professor’s reaction to his own findings are priceless:
I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.
But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party. All my impressions come from watching cable tv — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the “paper” (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).
I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.
Of course, I still subscribe to my various political and moral assessments—all very negative—of what I understand the “Tea Party movement” to stand for. I just no longer assume that the people who happen to hold those values are less likely than people who share my political outlooks to have acquired the sorts of knowledge and dispositions that a decent science comprehension scale measures.
He doesn’t know a single member of the tea party. His worldview was shaped in large part from reading Huffington Post and Politco — and yet he was surprised at his findings. After having been shown that the “news” that molds his mind is so biased that it led him to come to false assumptions about the tea party, he still doesn’t question how those very same news sources could have warped his understanding of what the tea party movement actually stands for or — more importantly — the “moral assessments” he makes on a daily basis.
When you self-identify as a member of the tea party, you have to work twice as hard to prove you have the intellectual chops to be taken seriously by academics. Guys like professor Kahan just assume guys like me don’t read up on liquid fluoride thorium reactors. They assume that we would never find blogging material from sites like “I F**king Love Science,” and write on octopus camouflage in our spare time. Or that we have pretty cool friends who make engineering marvels for NASA, wives who are doctors, dads who took nuclear physics, etc.
I give the professor credit for being honest with his findings because many people would have buried them. It is often hard to admit when we are wrong, so in that sense Professor Kahan’s integrity deserves to be acknowledged. However, it should also be pointed out that the assumptions he held are sadly held by the majority of academics.
The Washington Post reported in 2005:
College faculties, long assumed to be a liberal bastion, lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined, a new study says.
By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.
Quick story: When I was in graduate school at American University, I had a professor who liked to brag about his contacts on the Hill. There were three conservatives in my entire program, and one day we met with him to see if there was any way he could help us obtain internships in the city. My friend said he was interested in working at a number of places, including the American Enterprise Institute. My professor’s response: “Oh. You’re one of them.”
“One of them.” It’s as if we were aliens from another planet that were sent to destroy the world. Of course he didn’t have any contacts in his magical Rolodex for us. Two of us went on to eventually work at The Heritage Foundation, and my other friend now works for the Department of Homeland Security. Not too shabby for a few kids who moved to Washington, D.C. with zero connections and a bunch of professors who probably held the kind of negative moral assessments of us that Professor Kahan has for tea partiers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll ponder the singularity of a black hole and the existence of God.
Editors note: Hat tip to douglasernstblog.com reader Denver Patrick for the story. I’m not sure how that one escaped my radar.