fbpx

How Preferences Expand at the Expense of Academic Truth Seeking

Some legal academics now propose boycotting panels and conferences if they lack sufficient numbers of “diverse” speakers. The call was initiated by some feminist law professors who were concerned by the absence or paucity of women at some academic events, but it has morphed into a more general demand for more “diversity” where diversity is mostly, if not entirely, defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and even sexual orientation.

As someone who has organized a half dozen conferences and many more academic panels, I think this movement is deeply misguided. Setting aside the general morality of selecting people by considering race and gender, the hard fact is that the more specialized the topic the less likely the ideal participants are going to reflect “diversity.” There is no reason to believe that the pool for a panel on banking or antitrust law, subjects I teach, will contain the right proportions of academics as measured by “diversity” categories. And conferences are frequently focused on even more narrowly gauged topics, such as limited liability corporations or bank risk regulation, with relatively few experts in the entire nation. And a conference organizer is not going to get acceptances from everyone invited. As a result, it becomes even more difficult to be sure that a panel on a specific subject on a given date will be both excellent and “diverse.”

Of course, it is always possible to assure greater diversity by inviting a professor who is vaguely connected to the subject matter, like inviting a constitutional generalist to a conference on originalism. But not only does that kind of choice reduce quality, it is deeply unfair to academics who have been tilling the field for years to deprive them of the opportunity to present the fruits of their labor in favor of rounding out the conference by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

It might be thought this latest academic kerfuffle is a fad of little interest outside the ivory tower. But sadly it reflects the iron law of preferences: They forever expand in scope. Here they are expanding from demands for diversity on a whole faculty to diversity on much smaller groupings, where the loss from the failure to choose solely on merits of previous scholarship is even clearer. Given that being invited to a conference is also an honor, a recognition of quality often of decades-long work, it shows how the diversity demands go from demanding a seat at the table to demanding an honored place there.

We see similar trends in society at large, in the call that nominations for awards in any given year reflect diversity, even when the number of nominations is very limited. #Oscarsowhite is an example of a successful campaign to inject racial consciousness in entertainment awards. There are even complaints now that the Nobel prizes are flawed because winners are overwhelmingly white and male. The politics of identity in this latter sphere compromises truth seeking, because it suggests that truth is not universally available to all without regard to markers of identity.  Academics should bind people together in their pursuit of truth, but today they are just as likely to contribute to social fragmentation by making truth identity dependent.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 10, 2018 at 10:36:33 am

1., McGinnis’s argument is clearly accurate on a conceptual level: The more variables in your optimization formula, the less likely that your optimal strategy will involve maximizing any one variable.

2. I have occasion to attend conferences. And no, not every presenter is a knock-out. And yes, it sometimes seems to me that a disproportionate share of the duds are not white or male—but perhaps I’m primed to look for that outcome. Hard to say.

3. That said—

There are even complaints now that the Nobel prizes are flawed because winners are overwhelmingly white and male. The politics of identity in this latter sphere compromises truth seeking, because it suggests that truth is not universally available to all without regard to markers of identity.

Really? I wouldn’t draw that conclusion; quite the opposite.

First, let’s talk causation: I don’t understand the Nobel Prize in academic or scientific fields as leading to truth-seeking. I see truth-seeking—on very rare occasions—leading to the Nobel Prize, and it arrives often when a recipient has long past his days of scrounging for research money. Thus, the prize would seem to have little influence on the productivity of the recipient.

In that case, what social role does the Nobel Prize play? By publicizing and lionizing excellence, the prize is designed to motivate OTHERS to emulate the recipient.

So, let’s return to McGinnis’s concern: Does McGinnis truly believe that truth is universally available to all without regard to markers of identity? And, if so, why do we find whiteness and maleness—markers of identity—correlating with things such as invitations to conferences and Nobel Prizes? And if the Nobel Prize is designed to motivate others, which others seem to need the most motivation: White males, or everyone else? Which groups might see academic fields as categorically beyond their reach because it’s just for people like THEM—you know, all those guys shown receiving the Nobel Prize? Do you really think that when Richard Thaler got the Econ Prize, some little white boy thought to himself, “Gosh, if even he can do it—so can I!”?

[This practice] is deeply unfair to academics who have been tilling the field for years….

Yup.

Now, let’s go back to the question of why conference speakers and Nobel Prize recipients are overwhelmingly white and male. Can you see—just possibly—that there might be some other deep unfairness in the system? And, in the grand scheme of things, can you really conclude that the oppression of specialized white male academics is the biggest problem society faces?

If so, then great: McGinnis can stack is conferences with all white male presenters, and damn the critics who simply have values that differ from his. We all must make trade-offs and live with the consequences; what else is new?

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 10, 2018 at 10:53:26 am

As to #3: absotively. It is far more likely than a previous effort at truth seeking lead to the Nobel AND the conclusion McGinnis reaches is neither apparent from the premise nor likely from a review of history. A little rhetorical flourish by the good Professor, I suspect.

And to foolw up some earlier 8conversations* with you:

"In that case, what social role does the Nobel Prize play? By publicizing and lionizing excellence, the prize is designed to motivate OTHERS to emulate the recipient. "

Gee, I thought you did not buy into the whole motivation thing - motivation herein defined as making a determined effort to achieve excellence in some endeavor.
(I suspect that this is actually one of the areas that we agree on; here, you have simply changed your point of emphasis).

seeya

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on July 10, 2018 at 11:35:26 am

“In that case, what social role does the Nobel Prize play? By publicizing and lionizing excellence, the prize is designed to motivate OTHERS to emulate the recipient. ”

Gee, I thought you did not buy into the whole motivation thing – motivation herein defined as making a determined effort to achieve excellence in some endeavor.

Ha! Thanks for raising this.

I sense you use the word "motivate" to refer to some self-generated action; an act of will. I use the word "motivate" to mean causation in general: "The force from the collision with the Cue Ball motivated the 8 Ball into the corner packet."

Thus, I still argue that people respond to their circumstances. If your circumstances are that you observe someone you identify with achieving some outcome, that stimulus motivates the response of you forming a belief that you could achieve something similar. But in the absence of the stimulus, it's less likely that you'd get the response.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on July 10, 2018 at 15:51:22 pm

Nobody:

Yep, I understood your meaning. Was just being my usual playful self and (in a self deprecating mode) playing the role of the one incapable of understanding.

which gets me to this as an aside.

Your use of the word motivate ( a stretch, of course) brings to mind the abuse of the language as practiced by numerous sportscasters.

A golf announcer, Paul Azinger is fond of saying that the player is "trying to legislate the ball into the hole." I suppose if a well paid somebody can get away with something like that, why can't a nobody get away with it. I mean REALLY! - Ha!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.