McArdle: What Does Bias Look Like

From Megan McArdle, who brings sanity to The Atlantic:

So my post on the liberal slant in academia
has garnered what I believe to be a record number of comments, many,
even most of them, pretty angry.  And as I predicted, the positions are
very much reversed from the normal take on such things.  Conservatives
are explaining how bias can be subtle and yet insidious; and liberal,
many of them academics are saying that you can’t simply infer bias from
statistical underrepresentation, and sarcastically demanding to know
whether I really think that people are asking candidates for physics professorships who they voted for in the last election.

They’re
all right, of course: you can’t simply infer bias from statistical
underrepresentation, and yet bias can be subtle and yet insidious.  I
thought it might clarify the argument a bit to outline how I think bias
works in institutions, even though much of it should be old hat,
particularly for social scientists.

Most
people, when they are accused of being a member of an in-group that is
excluding some other set of people, immediately define bias in the
narrowest possible terms:  conscious, direct personal discrimination.
 Did we make an explicit rule that no person of that persuasion could be
hired?  No we didn’t.  Well, then, no bias!

Those people offered their own alternate theories, which boiled down to:
  • Smart people are almost always liberal
  • Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait
  • Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor
  • Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals
  • Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re more interested in something else (money, the military)
  • Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re anti-intellectual
  • Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors

So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from
disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a
statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush
to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people
they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s .
. . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.