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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Spherical Horse

Conservatives spend hours and hours discussing how far left our media and our universities tilt. As a conservative scientist embedded in one of America's top liberal universities, I am far less interested in how far left the professoriate leans than why they are so liberal. If conservatives want to persuade liberals rather than to complain about them, it is important that we understand what makes them tick. The liberal dominance of academe, in particular, is important not only for the impact on college students, but also for the intellectual seal of approval it awards to a bankrupt ideology. In this and subsequent posts, I will offer my untutored field observations on the field markings of the liberals commonly found in my habitat.

First I should dispel one conservative myth. I have never seen any prejudice against hiring or promoting politically conservative mathematicians. (I have no personal insight into political bias in the hiring in departments in the humanities and social sciences.) Mathematics itself is fundamentally apolitical. This makes mathematicians a good group to examine when exploring faculty political leanings. I should also remark that my liberal colleagues are generally my liberal friends. They are good people with confused politics rather than the demons some of our more fiery conservative orators like to describe.

The four dominant species we encounter are: the spherical horse, the happily ignorant, the NYT victim, and the true believer. I will discuss these four overlapping types in the following weeks. Today I will restrict attention to the spherical horse. The description of this species is somewhat labored, but I am sure that I will find ample opportunity to refer to spherical horses in subsequent posts.

To explain the spherical horse I must first retell an old lame math joke:

A wealthy playboy is disappointed with his stable of racehorses. He hires an economist, a biologist, and a mathematician to advise him how to develop a winning racehorse. The economist devises a system of incentives to motivate the horses to produce optimal speed. After several horses die of starvation, the playboy fires the economist. He fires the biologist after being told that he will have an award winning racehorse in only 200 generations of careful breeding. Finally, the playboy asks the mathematician if he has solved the problem. The mathematician excitedly answers that after much deep thought he has worked out a beautiful solution: "First assume the horse is a sphere..."

This joke amuses mathematicians (and physicists and engineers) for several reasons. It underscores mathematicians' reputed willingness to focus on the mathematics of a problem to the exclusion of practical applications. It also casts light on the dirty secret of all mathematical modelling: a mathematically sophisticated model need not have any real world utility if the simplifying assumptions (always present) are insufficiently realistic. I will return to this latter aspect of modelling when I discuss global warming.

Mathematicians (and many other species of academics) are fond of abstraction, and many are willing to assess real world political, economic, and social issues in the context of oversimplified theories which, unfortunately, relegate such concepts as incentive, moral hazard, inefficiency of central planning, etc., to the same discard pile that holds the limbs of our playboy's racehorses. So, my most generous explanation for academe's attachment to left wing ideology is that professors are accustomed to thinking abstractly and are willing to ignore important detail in order to force the real world to fit into their abstract constructs. Some of my conservative colleagues assert that this explanation of left wing professors' willingness to embrace unworkable policy prescriptions is too generous; it is true that, in my experience, the riders of spherical horses are less numerous than the other species mentioned above. The notion is convenient, however, for providing some explanation for why so many smart people can have such poorly considered political positions. Besides, the spherical horse is an appealing metaphor that deserves wider circulation. Next week I will turn to the happily ignorant and the victims of the New York Times.

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