by Steven Yates by Steven Yates

Email Print

university professors in some sense smarter or more intelligent
than ordinary mortals, or just more likely to be locked into left-leaning
political ideologies with all four claws? Perhaps we shouldn't ask
one Robert Brandon, chair of the philosophy department at Duke University.

recently stepped into a hornets’ nest when expressing his opinion
on a controversy created by a student group on the campus calling
itself the Duke Conservative Union (DCU). The DCU had taken out
an ad in a Duke student news publication, The Chronicle,
documenting the relative absence of conservatives among Duke University
faculty. The DCU conducted a survey of faculty voter registration
and found that across the several Duke University academic departments
there are eight registered Republicans as opposed to 142 registered
Democrats. This isn't a whole lot of diversity of the political
sort, and one suspects that were the numbers reversed, the howls
of horror would be audible down here in Columbia. The group's methodology
– relying on party affiliation – might strike some as
suspect. Party affiliation isn't everything. After all, there are
liberal Republicans, and I have met people describing themselves
as Jeffersonian Democrats who are more conservative than I am. But
I'll let this pass in order to get to the meat of this article.

remarks – the product of a trained philosopher and chair of
his department – are the sort that makes those of us associated
with the subject cringe. Here is what Brandon initially said, in
an interview
published in The Chronicle: "We try to hire the best,
smartest people available…. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid
people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives
we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining
the power of the Republican Party in our society and the relative
scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to
be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members
of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good
reason for this, too."

remarks – immediately picked up and circulated around in the
"bloggosphere" – prompted a storm of replies. A letter
writer to The Chronicle accused Brandon of committing an
illicit conversion in his John Stuart Mill reference. Illicit conversion
is the formal fallacy of reasoning from a statement of the form
"All p's are q's" to "All q's are p's." That
the argument form is invalid is immediately seen by using what logicians
call a substitution instance: reasoning from "All dogs are
mammals" (true) to "All mammals are dogs" (false).
Changing all to most or generally doesn't affect
the invalidity of the inference.

Brandon stated that "stupid people are generally conservative"
when he either meant to say, "conservative people are
generally stupid" or wanted us to infer this. On second thought,
perhaps it isn't so clear whether he meant "generally all p's
are q's" or "generally all q's are p's."

there is at least one other way of analyzing Brandon's explanation
of the lack of genuine diversity on his campus. Coming from the
Fallacy Files
for February 10 is the following:

  • All stupid
    people are conservatives.
  • No philosophy
    hires are stupid people.
  • Therefore
    no philosophy hires are conservatives.

reconstructs Brandon's explanation in syllogistic form (a syllogism
is an argument with exactly two premises and three terms). The argument
is still fallacious; it distributes its major term (the predicate
term of the conclusion) in the conclusion but not in the major premise.
The technical term for this formal fallacy: illicit major. Readers:
never mind if you're not an expert on logic and aren't quite sure
what I'm up to with this talk of major terms, distribution, and
so on. The point is: Brandon should have caught it. Presumably he's
taught logic. The argument is invalid. Trust me.

fallacy blog offered another possible syllogism, one that reflects
the ambiguity between "generally all p's are q's" and
"generally all q's are p's." Perhaps Brandon meant to

  • All
    conservatives are stupid people.
  • No philosophy
    hires are stupid people.
  • Therefore
    no philosophy hires are conservatives.

syllogism does not commit a formal fallacy. It is structurally valid.
If you believe the premises you're rationally compelled to accept
the conclusion. But validity, as logic teachers always point out,
is a function of form or structure, not content. If one or more
of the premises are false, the argument is still worthless in the
"real world" where our arguments must not be merely valid
but sound: possessing both valid structure and true
premises. The major premise (the first one) in the second syllogism
is almost certainly false (we'll see why in a minute). The minor
premise (the second one) is also questionable (we'll see this below,

use of John Stuart Mill as an authority also presents a problem
of some magnitude. Mill wrote important works such as Utilitarianism
and On Liberty. Both ought to be studied by anyone interested
in grasping the full scope of modern political and moral philosophy.
But should Mill, whose major works appeared some 150 years ago,
be cited as an authority on conservatives today? After all,
have not the meanings of the words liberal and conservative
changed considerably during the intervening decades? In other words,
when citing Mill's remark on conservatives, Brandon commits an additional
fallacy, that of equivocation: using a term with multiple meanings
in such a way as to ignore the fact, resulting in an ambiguity that
misleads the reader. In fact, Mill's target was the 1860s British
Conservative Party – which with its defense of workplace regulation
and protectionism had more in common with today's liberals than
today's conservatives. This suggests yet another fallacy in Brandon's
remarks, what may be called misuse of authority. Misuse of authority,
like most informal fallacies, has several variants. In this case
it involves dropping the name of an out-of-date authority whose
words can no longer speak to the issue because of major changes
in the discussion (rather difficult to accommodate if the authority
is dead).

Eugene Volokh, professor
in UCLA's school of law, observes
: "If some liberal professors (who are probably pretty
far from 1860s Liberals) want to express their contempt for conservatives
(who are probably pretty far from 1860s Conservatives), then it
seems to me that they shouldn't call on John Stuart Mill to support
their prejudices."

source for Volokh's remarks notes further that another law professor,
Jim Lindgren of Northwestern University, has done empirical research
on conservatives and liberals in academia and in society. His research
supports the thesis that, contrary to Brandon, conservative Republicans
in the general public are actually, on average, better educated
than liberal Democrats. Thus is refuted the major premise of the
second syllogism above. (Volokh has some additional remarks that
are a bit too technical for this article; anyone so inclined can
read them here.)

Brandon commits at least one more fallacy, that of false analogy.
An analogy is a comparison. Arguing by analogy means arguing that
because two items (or classes of items) are similar in a given set
of known respects, they are also similar in some additional respect.
Brandon's analogy compares the greater height of basketball players
in the NBA to the greater intelligence of professors in academia:
"There is a good reason for this," he says of each. Implication
again: there are more liberals than conservatives in academia simply
because liberals are generally smarter than conservatives, in a
manner akin to there being more tall people than people of average
height in professional basketball. As we've seen, however, this
is probably just factually wrong.

has gone wrong? Height, of course, is quantifiable. You can see
it. You can't really see intelligence. You can only measure its
effects, and then only imperfectly at best. A debate has raged for
decades over whether intelligence is measurable or quantifiable
at all. Surely it is not measurable and quantifiable in the same
way as height and other qualities found in basketball stars. There
are, moreover, many different things the word intelligence
can mean, as Brandon must know. Some of them might make one a good
professor; others not. Putting this another way, a professor may
be exceedingly smart in some area of academic specialization. It
doesn't follow that he understands politics, or economics, or any
of the many other factors operating outside the walls of academia.
Universities being fundamentally socialist institutions with policies
such as tenure and shared governance that don't exist outside the
walls of academia doesn't help matters any.

a later guest
, Brandon tries to backpedal – following what
he called "two days of venomous, hate-filled emails from self-described
conservatives." Unfortunately, Brandon only digs himself in

with that first sentence. Probably some of Brandon's email was
nasty. A lot of conservatives, after all, are sick and tired of
being dumped on by arrogant academics. But surely we've all noticed
it: say something politically incorrect in a context where such
academics are likely to run across it (it has happened to me with
past articles), and you yourself receive
emails accusing you of "hate speech" or "racism"
or some such. I typically respond to such writers by asking them
to point out the specific sentence or paragraph containing the "hate,"
or to produce for me their definition of racism. I almost
never hear from them again.

contends that by quoting John Stuart Mill he was attempting to be
"quite funny." He adds, "I now see that humor is
not much appreciated in this context." I have to think of the
now-countless cases of politically incorrect jokes or asides that
were also attempts at humor but nearly ruined their authors' careers.
Radical feminists in particular seem utterly devoid of anything
remotely approaching a sense of humor. Apparently, academic leftists
may use humor when ridiculing those they consider conservative;
but not the reverse. Such double standards are astounding in their
very brazenness.

maintains that in many courses, professors' political views are
not relevant to course content. I'm sure this is true enough in
some contexts. I doubt I would care if I took a computer science
course and found out that the professor was a socialist – not
that this is likely; most computer scientists have better sense
than that. The problem, of course, is with what goes on in the classroom
in subjects like philosophy. The best professors, I believe, will
reward the best papers regardless of their agreement or disagreement
with the students' conclusions. Brandon contends that this is the
general rule. However, complaints by students contending that they
have received a lower grade because they defended a conservative
or libertarian point of view to a socialist professor in these cases
are legion. I haven't tried to quantify or tabulate the number or
prevalence of such cases for the purposes of this article, so I
won't place a whole lot of weight on them here. Brandon's most striking
assumption is that academics are fundamentally smarter than nonacademics,
and that there is some kind of correlation – even a causal
connection – between this greater intelligence and left-leaning
points of view. Here is what he says: "The serious and interesting
issue is how do we explain the surplus of liberals in academia….
Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the only viable
hypothesis … is something like the following: There is a statistical
association between the qualities that make for good academics and
those that lead to left-leaning political views. Said another way,
a larger proportion of academics tend to be liberal, but certainly
not all, and this may also vary by field and subfield because of
the nature of knowledge, learning and the advancement of knowledge
in that field. But, stated this way the hypothesis still remains
incredibly vague. What qualities, what traits are we talking about?
What causal relations underlie these statistical associations? These
questions are worth exploring, but I think the hypothesis is right

you get all that? I'm not altogether sure at this point what Professor
Brandon means by "good academics." I'll concentrate on
philosophy departments, since I know them best. I spent a few years
(eight, to be exact, not counting graduate school), in and out of
four different philosophy departments, and had sufficient contact
with people in quite a few others to gain a good feel for what went
on in them.

the cases I knew about, one or at most two people carried the department.
During the years I spent at Auburn University, for example, the
two were Tibor R. Machan and the late Robert V. Andelson. Everyone
reading this knows Professor Machan's voluminous writings on various
aspects of libertarian political and moral philosophy. Professor
Andelson, who sadly passed away last November, conducted extensive
research keeping alive the ideas of the economist-philosopher Henry
George, writing or editing books on Georgist thought. No one was
more qualified to expound, develop or apply George's ideas than
Professor Andelson, and I felt privileged to have sat in on his
lectures and assisted on one occasion with the production of manuscript
material for the just-published revised edition of his anthology
of Henry George

once attended a presentation by one of the other professors in that
department, however. His topic was supposed to have been something
in aesthetics (the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature
of beauty – in art, music, architecture, sculpture, and so
forth). What I heard was a stammering morass of confusion with no
discernable thesis or direction. I felt sorry for the guy, who was
clearly in over his head. So upon catching his use of the phrase
metaphysics of feeling at one point it dawned on me: a philosopher
named Quentin Smith had written a book entitled The
Felt Meanings of the World: A Metaphysics of Feeling
, which
one reviewer had described as "the most significant work of
phenomenology ever written by an American." I seized on this
and asked the professor if what he was saying tied in, in any way,
with Quentin Smith's ideas.

didn't know what ideas I was talking about, for he hadn't heard
of either Quentin Smith or the book. So much for my attempt at charity.

others were not necessarily better teachers than scholars. Another
senior professor gave the exact same tests, semester after semester,
and lectured from yellowed notes that had not been revised during
a period as long as two decades.

another department, I once sat and listened for close to two hours
while a visiting speaker, a radical feminist, developed what was
clearly (to me, at least) an application of Marxism to the theory
of knowledge in science – "women's distinctive ways of
knowing" rooted in all that oppression women have experienced
under capitalism.

these cases atypical – the product of what you can expect down
here in the Southern boonies? I don't know, but I've no evidence
that philosophy professors in other parts of the country are exactly
setting the world afire. Marxism remains very much alive in the
American academy (where it constitutes the major intellectual influence
in departments of "women's studies" and similar nests
of political correctness). It is deader than a doornail everywhere
else except places like Cuba and North Korea, brutal bastions of
totalitarianism. Marxism has proven to be the most destructive worldview
in history. We may never have an accurate body count. Scholars from
David Gordon to N. Scott Arnold among others have devastatingly
criticized various aspects of Marxist philosophy and economics.
Since many philosophy departments continue to contain (and sometimes
hire) Marxists, this throws cold water on that minor premise above
that no philosophy hires are stupid.

there is simply no reason to believe Professor Brandon's assumption
that academics are smarter than ordinary nonacademic mortals, or
that there is some correlation between smarts and left-leaning political
views. Many nonacademics, through the kind of creative productive
work that seems to me indicative of high intelligence, have contributed
far more to American society. One need only think of Bill Gates
(founder of Microsoft), Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Michael
Dell (founder of Dell), among numerous other high-technology entrepreneurs.
None of these three even have college or university degrees, much
less university faculty appointments. What they did have were ideas
that could be transformed into products that greatly improved people's
lives and the efficiency of their work. All became billionaires
as a result.

Marxists, of course, see such men as part of the inherently unjust,
exploitative, impoverishing capitalist system; how fair is it, they
will ask, that Gates be worth billions while the average humanities
professor must scrape by on (perhaps) $50,000 a year? Whenever a
professional intellectual asks a question like this, he shows his
ignorance of economics and further confounds the opinions of the
Robert Brandons of the world that professors are more intelligent
than ordinary mortals.

all this as it may, it has been a long time since a professional
philosopher made a contribution to that field on a par with Gates's
development of the Windows operating system and all that has come
along with that, or Ellison's development of Oracle. I had never
heard of Robert Brandon prior to the DCU flap at Duke. A Google
search on his name brought up the two items in Duke's The Chronicle
I used to research this article, the professor's home page, and
a select handful of other items. In fairness to him, I learned that
he has published a couple of books on philosophy and evolutionary
biology with the names Adaptation
and Environment
and Concepts
and Methods in Evolutionary Biology
; he also has a few articles
in academic journals such as Philosophy of Science. This
places him a cut above the unnamed professors I discussed earlier.
However, to the best of my knowledge neither of Brandon's books
has had the wide-ranging and potential worldview-altering impact
of a provocative work on the subject of evolution such as Michael
Behe's Darwin's
Black Box
. But again, in fairness, one may assume that upsetting
the academic apple cart the way Behe has done is not part of Professor
Brandon's personal agenda. Such things are not for everybody. In
any event, I seriously doubt that the lapses of logic found in his
explanation of the lack of intellectual diversity on the Duke University
faculty occur in his serious work. But then the onus is on faculty
members – especially those in positions of influence such as
departmental chairs or who open their mouths and make themselves
visible on their campuses – to apply the same standards of
rigor to their political statements that they do to their intended
contributions to their disciplines.

cannot help but think that if they did, their commitment to various
forms of left-leaning politics would waver and then collapse.

February 21, 2004

Yates [send him mail]
has a
Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action

(1994). He is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute,
and is at work on a philosophical tract entitled In
Defense of Logic
and a science fiction novel entitled Skywatcher's
both scheduled for completion this year. He lives in Columbia, South

Yates Archives


Email Print