Paul Krugman’s Fallacious Academic Question

Paul Krugman is a columnist who never passes up an opportunity to throw jabs at those Americans whom he dislikes, a set that comprises anyone who doesn’t accept his big-government philosophy. All the jabbing would be fine if Krugman limited himself to serious arguments, but serious arguments might be too boring for his New York Times editors, so he often resorts to cheap shots and fallacious reasoning. His April 5, 2005 column “An Academic Question” is a case in point. (Site requires registration.)

Responding to the recent study by Stanley Rothman, Robert Lichter and Neil Nevitte — which found statistical evidence that the high percentages of professor with leftist political inclinations cannot be plausibly be explained as a random occurrence, but indicates discrimination against would-be faculty members who do not hold such political beliefs – Krugman contends that a better explanation is self-selection. Quoting Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican that the Republican Party has become the “party of theocracy,” Krugman offers up this bit of analysis: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.”

I don’t have any brief for the Republican Party, but Krugman’s argument is absurd.

Let’s begin by noting how he slides from the group of people in question, namely would-be professors who are not of a leftist political persuasion to a group he believes he can easily tar – Republicans. Leaping easily from Rep. Shays’s “party of theocracy” notion to his own “disrespect for science” attack, Krugman manages to imply that all of the non-leftists who were turned away from university employment were turned away for good reason. They must not have been interested in research, but are satisfied with revelation as a means of finding truth. Since scholarship demands research and universities only want scholars, it’s easy to see why faculties have very few Republicans.

Logically, that won’t do at all. Even if it were true, rather than a mere bit of political hyperbole, that Republicans generally want truth to be revealed to them rather than sought through scholarly inquiry, it does not follow that all non-leftist would-be academicians share that trait. I happen to know some non-leftist would-be academicians who are passionately interested in rational inquiry. I also know some non-leftist professors who rely entirely upon rational inquiry. Krugman dismisses all of them with his indictment that Republicans are theocrats. Mighty sloppy thinking on his part, more in line with his despised “revelation” than with investigation.

How about this parallel argument? It’s a well-known adage that “those who can’t do, teach.” Most teachers are Democrats. So it therefore follows that Democrats are just a great big bunch of incompetents. Take that, Krugman! It’s a bad argument, of course, and bad for exactly the same reason.

Moreover, it doesn’t dawn on Krugman that the most evidence-averse bastions to be found in the universe of higher education are notoriously leftist departments such as Women’s Studies. If a professor or student wanted to land in hot water there, just let her question the conventional wisdom that the famous “wage gap” is explained by anything other than discrimination against women in the labor market.

Over the last few months, we’ve witnessed the slow roasting of Harvard president Larry Summers for having suggested that the relatively small percentages of women in top faculty positions might be due to the aptitudes and preferences of many women. Summers was merely offering a tentative explanation, one subject to rational investigation, but for having done so, he has been pilloried. Is the posse that’s out to get Summers composed of Republican theocrats? No. It’s composed of leftist autocrats who would rather hang the man for having said something they dislike than engage in debate.

Krugman puffs out his column with an attack against Republican politicians, whom he accuses of wanting to impose a “Lysenkoist solution that would have politics determine courses’ content.” It’s amusing that a leftist like Krugman, who loves to have politics determine just about everything from our retirement planning to the amount of water per flush, is aghast at the idea that politics should play any role in directing university curricula. But he’s right — it would be a bad idea. Fortunately, hardly anyone really wants Congress or state legislatures to decide what courses will be taught, what ideas will be covered, or what books will be assigned. Krugman can rest easy that his nightmare of economists being commanded to “give the macroeconomic theories of Friedrich Hayek as much respect as those of John Maynard Keynes” won’t happen.

But then, there are a lot of economists who voluntarily give Hayek’s macroeconomic theories much more respect than those of Keynes. I guess that Krugman would dismiss them all with his “revelation” canard.

George Leef ( is the executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.

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