Zogby, Reynolds, and political bias in academia

David Horowitz commissions a fake poll from Zogby. Glenn Reynolds swallows it hook, line, and sinker.

If you’re a conservatarian professor and wish there were more like you, and fewer liberals, in the academic realm, you can:

1. Try to persuade you colleagues to come around to your view; or

2. Teach your ideas effectively to your students, and hope that some of them will join the academy; or

3. Ally yourself with David Horowitz &#821who in switching from an alliance with the Black Panthers to an alliance with Richard Mellon Scaife has never given up his authoritarian principles or his commitment to Leninist political tactics&#8212 to impose a right-wing vision of “balance” by political force. That way you can be sure of damaging the universities. even if you can’t change their politics.

I’m disappointed that Glenn Reynolds seems to be flirting with choice #3. Of course, that’s consistent with his repeated reflection that if the mass media don’t start reporting what he wants to see reported from Iraq the result will be censorship and it will be the media’s own fault, but it’s still a little bit disappointing that a professed libertarian has so little regard for the liberties of those he disagrees with, or that a professor should have so little concern about the independence of the universities from political pressure.

Nonetheless, if Reynolds admires Horowitz and wants to do his propaganda work for him, that’s certainly his privilege. Still, one might expect a professor to have some minimal regard for the difference between fact and bullsh*t, and some minimal capacity for telling the difference, even when the bullsh*t makes him happy.

The Zogby polling organization does some good work. But, notoriously, the results of its commissioned polls (as opposed to its electoral polling) are for sale. As long as your check clears, Zogby will design, and report, a poll designed to “prove” that the public agrees with whatever silly position you want to flog. It’s not hard to do, even without cheating on the sampling or faking the results; you just have to word the questions properly.

Consider, for example, this gem from a poll done by Zogby for Judicial Watch:

Some people believe that the Bill Clinton administration was corrupt. Whether or not you believe the Clinton administration was corrupt, how concerned are you that there will be high levels of corruption in the White House if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2008?

Or this beaut, from a Zogby poll done for NORML, a pro-marijuana group:

In light of the tragic events of Sept. 11th and the increased attention to the threat of terrorism, do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana smokers?

Moreover, if the people making the phone calls can guess from the questionnaire design what the “right” answers are, they’re likely to subtly communicate that to the respondents, even if they’re trying not to do so. (Campaigns learned a long time ago not to believe the results of polls in which campaign volunteers make the phone calls.)

So when Zogby puts out a press release about a poll on political bias in academia that mentions the David Horowitz thought-reform campaign and describing it as it describes itself (“to protect conservative students from academic reprisals by professors who hold contradictory beliefs”), it’s easy to guess who sponsored the poll. And when he doesn’t publish the text of the questions, it’s not hard to guess why.

In the tiny bit of methodological information Zogby does reveal, it turns out that a representative sample of the population was invited to participate in an on-line poll; of course, inviting a representative sample isn’t the same thing as getting a representative sample. If the question of the poll is, “How big a problem is X?” naturally those who think it’s important are more likely to respond than those who think it’s trivial. Zogby says nothing about the response rate &#8212always a red flag, since a low response rate usually generates a biased sample&#8212 or about the ideological makeup of the sample, though he says it was reweighted for demographics.

I’m not saying that the public isn’t concerned about political bias in academia. But I am saying that the Zogby poll would have to improve substantially to be completely worthless.

Once again, Glenn has ignored the First Law of Blogging: Think Before You Link. Was he trying to deceive his readers? I don’t think so? But would he have looked a little more closely at a result that didn’t suit his prejudices? You tell me.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com