Monday, June 25, 2007

George Leef Is Not An Idiot

By Richard Vedder

A little study Whiz Kid Matt Denhart (who is taking a break teaching English to kids in a orphanage in Ghana) and I did in conjunction with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is stirring up a bit of fuss, which is great. We argued that Michigan's higher ed system was not as poverty stricken as is sometimes portrayed, and that spending more on higher ed there might hurt, not help, economic growth.

Our good friend and ally George Leef wrote some nice things about it on phi beta cons, a great higher education web site within National Review Online. Whereupon George was trashed by some bloggers, I am told. One even wrote a blog "George Leef is an idiot."

Folks, George Leef may be many things, but he is certainly no idiot. Indeed, I find him to be one of the most thoughtful, insightful and provocative writers on higher education today. But the attack on George is symptomatic of a serious problem facing scholarly inquiry in the United States. When you disagree with someone, increasingly you simply attack them with ad hominem diatribes rather than a careful analysis of the underlying arguments.

Indeed, I would go farther. I am deeply worried that we are retreating from the spirit of fact-based scientific method that has categorized most of human inquiry since the Enlightenment, and returning to an earlier, less positive and more destructive approach to observing the world, reaching conclusions based on faith instead of facts and reason. The "faith" of today is not the religious faith of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, but rather an ideologically driven secular set of values that shows contempt for freedom, individual dignity, and for reaching conclusions on the basis of reasoned evidence. This problem can be found among persons on both the left and right of the political spectrum, although I think it is more intense among those on the left.

Too often, politicians are trying to politicize science, either by pushing junk science results or by trying to suppress free inquiry, and universities are, by and large, going along with it rather than offend the politicians who feed them. That is the case, I think, with the global warming debate. If you raise doubts either about the existence of global warming or even about the policy implications, you are viewed as an intellectual pariah, someone who should be shunned, never mind the fact that there are reputable scientists who have raised concerns about purported factual evidence and, more pointedly, about the accuracy of computer models of the effects of warming. We have banned DDT, never mind the fact that the demonstrated harm from that pesticide is almost certainly trivial in relation to the benefits of eliminating malaria. Why aren't academics screaming about this? In the academy, persons who take unpopular, politically incorrect positions are often denied the good jobs that they might otherwise obtain. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray is one of America's preeminent social scientists, but almost certainly could never get a job at a prestigious university because of his unpopular, politically incorrect but factually correct views relating to human intelligence. While the disdain for dispassionate review of scientific evidence has not reached the level of the Spanish Inquisition, some of what goes on is pretty bad.

What does that mean for American colleges and universities? The increased politicization of the classroom and research reduces the attractiveness of supporting postsecondary education, which is about advancing our civilization through an appeal to facts, reason and the exercise of objective creativity, not through ideologically based recitations of dubious propositions that might harm our society far more than they help it.

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