On “true diversity”

Arthur C. Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, is worried that American universities are getting this whole “diversity” thing wrong:

Scholarly studies have piled up showing that race and gender diversity in the workplace can increase creative thinking and improve performance. Meanwhile, excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving.

Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity — the diversity of ideas — and that the problem is taking a toll on the quality and accuracy of scholarly work. This year, a team of scholars from six universities studying ideological diversity in the behavioral sciences published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia. The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal social psychologists.

Ah, true diversity, of course! The diversity of ideas! This is, I’m sorry to say, a load of extra diverse horse shit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diversity. Diversity in many things — socio-economic background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender — is vital in business, academia, government, pretty much everywhere, in large part because it produces diversity of ideas. Diversity of good ideas, or at least of ideas that are worth considering. But “diversity of ideas” in itself is only important insofar as none of those diverse ideas is dumb. If I’m the head of a college history department, I ought to make it part of my mission to attract people with varying backgrounds and experiences to provide my students with an abundant array of different, informed points of view. I shouldn’t hire some guy who thinks the moon landing was faked because he’ll add to our “diversity of ideas.” Likewise, I wouldn’t expect to find a flat-earther teaching in a geology department, or an anti-vaxxer teaching in a medical school, or an anarchist-doomsday prepper teaching courses in government. Although, hey, maybe I should. We’d all be more diverse that way.

You might ask Arthur Brooks, head of AEI, whether he practices ideological diversity in his own pseudo-academic institution. Does Arthur have anybody in his foreign policy department — a department whose “scholars” include, I shit you not, John Bolton, John Yoo, Marc Theissen, and Paul Wolfowitz (that’s not even a diversity of presidential administrations) — who thinks that, say, the Iran deal was a good idea? Or that the Iraq War was a bad one? Those are two pretty non-fringey positions, and yet I think you’d have to run through AEI’s personnel with a pretty fine-toothed comb to pull out anybody who wouldn’t “well, actually” either of them. Has AEI got any socialists on its poverty studies team? Any radical environmentalists on its economics team? Any single payer advocates on its health care team? Hell, does he have anybody on his board of trustees (oh man, Dick Cheney?) who isn’t either a chairman of the board/CEO-type, or the socio-economic equivalent of one? Look, I’m sure the “Rubio vs. Cruz” debates in the AEI offices can get real heated these days, but that’s not exactly ideological diversity, you know?

“To be fair, we’ve also got a couple of Carly Fiorina fans”

If Arthur Brooks is worried about the dangers of groupthink in academic institutions, he might want to start by tackling the groupthink in the one he runs himself.

You might also ask Arthur Brooks if he thinks traditionally conservative university departments (which do exist, and are going to be increasing in number and reach if the Koch Brothers — two of AEI’s biggest donorshave anything to say about it) should give the same consideration to ideological diversity that he seems to be demanding of traditionally liberal ones. Should the University of Chicago’s econ department create a chair for a Marxist? Should seminaries or divinity schools put an atheist or two on the faculty? To be honest, I can see the value in both, as long as their research is sound (and I’d say the same thing about hiring a conservative thinker in a more liberal discipline), but I’m willing to bet that Arthur Brooks would disagree, or at least that he’d never think to say anything about either case.

Most of a person’s lived experience before they reach adulthood is to one degree or another out of that person’s hands. You can’t change your parents, your race, your country of origin, your gender, or your sexual orientation, among other things. It’s those details that shape who we become and nobody should be discriminated against for them. On the other hand, if you’ve reached adulthood and it’s your sincere belief that the sun revolves around the earth, I don’t need to save a chair in my astrophysics department for you. At some point, the quality of your ideas has to matter.

And, yes, once you get over the “quality of ideas” bar it really does become a bad idea for universities to discriminate in hiring based on ideology, but after reading Brooks’s op-ed I still have no idea if anybody is actually doing that. Maybe there should be more “politically conservative social psychologists” in academia, or maybe “politically conservative social psychologists” are usually idiots. I’m not even sure I’d know what a “politically conservative social psychologist” is, to be honest, but then Brooks doesn’t seem to be interested in convincing me that they’ve got any worthwhile ideas. He’s just trying to bastardize the idea of diversity to get one over on his readers and score some points against the right-wing enemy du jour: people who know stuff.

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