November 11, 2004

Always accompanied by the qualifier

Professors on American campuses tend overwhelmingly to be liberals, says Mark Bauerlein (a not-so-liberal professor of English at Emory University), in an interesting critique of the politically monochromatic character of American campus opinion. And although liberal academics will acknowledge that some conservative intellectual work is done at think-tanks, he opines, they nonetheless believe that such work is inherently corrupt: "The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution all have corporate sponsors, they note, and fellows in residence do their bidding." Well, maybe sometimes as we liberal professors struggle through our teaching week we may sometimes seek to assuage our jealousy of the cosseted opinion-mongers at the neocon policy zoos by dismissing them as mere corporate whores (though that view is not one that Language Log would endorse; notice that Language Log has a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, John McWhorter, on its roster of contributors). That's not really a testable claim.

But having made his point about what he thinks liberal academics think, suddenly, heedless of his own safety or credibility, Bauerlein steps off the edge of stereotype into empirically testable space with an unsupported but testable claim about language use:

Hence, references to "right-wing think tanks" are always accompanied by the qualifier "well-funded."

Always, that's what he says. So, since no one else ever seems to want to do any fact-checking on matters of language, the dedicated team of researchers here at the Language Log think-tank turned (as ever) to Google, and I present herewith a table of the relevant findings (uninfluenced by any corporate sponsor):

"right wing think tanks" 14,600
"well funded right wing think tanks" 50

Why would Bauerlein do this to himself? No one would say "Buicks always have pro-Republican bumper stickers", because everyone can just look at the traffic and see that it's not true. How could a professor of English not realize that we can do the same with linguistic material?

His piece is called "Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual," and it's in the November 12 Chronicle of Higher Education. The irony is that I broadly agree with his drift. Academia is astonishingly devoid of conservative opinion, and this is by no means a good thing even for academics whose views are of the left, because debate between sharply differing political positions doesn't occur — it can't, because the differing opinions aren't there. I know exactly two serious intellectuals who hold right-wing views, neither anywhere near my campus. I am in regular touch with only one of them; he lives three thousand miles away. We fight a lot by email. He is utterly wrong, but not on everything, and I'm convinced that the extensive arguments we have are good for my intellectual life. I learn facts from him as well as learning to argue better about non-linguistic matters. I have no access to any such arguments on my own campus. Some years ago our campus newspaper (actually a radical leftist opinion weekly that is usually wrong about what little campus news it reports) did a survey from public records of the voter registration status of the faculty in the Department of Politics here: it came out to Republicans 0%, Democrats 100%. Long live intellectual diversity.

Academics should take Bauerlein's view more seriously. How can our universities be arenas of wide-ranging and untrammeled debate on political, economic, social, and cultural topics if our profession represents almost exclusively the range of opinion to the left of John Kerry?

But oh, I wish people like Bauerlein wouldn't spoil their presentations of critical views like this by including ridiculous claims about public use of language that can be falsified in seconds. My statistics actually understate the absurdity of what he says, since a large proportion of the 50 web-hits for "well funded right wing think tanks" are requotations of a single line from a document on the Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce prepared in or around July 1995 by the Clinton White House Counsel's Office and discussed here and there in the press around 1997 and subsequently:

The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce refers to the mode of communication employed by the right wing to convey their fringe stories into legitimate subjects of coverage by the mainstream media. This is how the stream works. First, well funded right wing think tanks and individuals underwrite conservative newsletters and newspapers such as the Western Journalism Center, the American Spectator and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Next, the stories are reprinted on the internet where they are bounced all over the world . . .

Take away the hits that involve repetitions of that passage in the various periodicals and websites that have discussed it, and the imbalance is much greater. But even if we do no such correction, the fact is that the number of times in which references to right-wing think tanks on the web are accompanied by the attributive modifier "well-funded" is approximately 0.342%. Three or four out of each thousand.

Claims as patently ridiculous as that liberal professors always qualify "right-wing think-tank" with "well-funded" discredit the people who make them. If that is what it means to listen to a more conservative cast of opinion, no wonder we don't waste our time doing so. Bauerlein's moment of careless hyperbole has doubtless encouraged thousands of academics to spend even less time listening to conservatives than they do right now. I'm convinced that they're making a mistake thereby, but Bauerlein has made it hard for me to defend him.

Of course, I could tell you, "Oh, don't take the hyperbole seriously, he doesn't mean his universal quantification literally." But then we might just as well say the same about the universal quantifiers used by leftists in universities who assert that whites are always blind to their inherent racism, or that American intervention in foreign countries is always motivated by rapacious greed for control of natural resources, or that analytical argumentation is always phallocentric and sexist; and in that case Bauerlein's whole discussion of such excesses of university left-wingery has gone up in smoke, because everyone has an intellectual alibi.

The bottom line: people who want to be taken seriously should exercise as much care with their linguistic evidence when making a point about the use of language as they do (or should) with their claims about financial evidence when talking about economics, or psephological evidence when talking about electoral politics, or seismological evidence when talking about earthquakes.

[Note added later: The very fair-minded researcher Maryellen MacDonald points out to me that there are other kinds of qualifier than attributive modifiers: phrases like "right-wing think tanks that are well funded", where the qualification is in a predicative complement, might be relevant, for example. Maryellen is right to raise this as a possibility, though in actual fact "right-wing think tanks that are well funded" gets no Google hits at all. I suppose if we were being really generous we might (despite Bauerlein's direct quotes around "right wing think tanks") allow other wordings, e.g. "conservative" for "right wing". But I hold out little hope for Bauerlein's defense team. I found one (1) hit for "conservative Think Tanks that are well funded", and 119 for "well funded conservative think tanks". Another correspondent, Russell Burdett, suggested that Bauerlein's remarks implied that he would only claim that professors always used the qualifier. I tried testing for this by doing a search limited entirely to the .edu domain, in which most web sites belong to academics, and I also limited the search to the past year. But I got 125 hits for "right wing think thanks" and only 2 for "well funded right wing think tanks" (both of them just quoting the above-mentioned report from the Clinton administration). No, I don't think fiddling with the search is going to yield numbers that will necessitate a retraction of my general point: Bauerlein did not do even the tiniest bit of fact-checking on his linguistic point, and his "always" is the wildest of exaggerations.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 11, 2004 03:03 PM