How else to describe the publication of this bit of drivel on the political self-identification of college professors? The author, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence (and Hoover fellow) who used data from the Higher Education Research Institute, claims that the biggest driver of the leftward shift of the professorate is the cataclysmic transformation of New England, where the ratio of liberals to conservatives exploded from 5:1 in 1989 to 28:1 in 2014. Twenty-eight to one! This is across all disciplines and all types of institutions. Pretty astonishing, huh? And nothing like it shows up in any other region of the country.
Now, if I found myself getting numbers like that, the first thing I’d do would be to check under the hood. What’s the overall sample size, and how much of it is from New England? And then I’d get more detailed: what’s the sample frame—how exactly did the surveyors identify the individual professors who got surveyed? Response rates? And are there any indicators that might point to data errors? (Data errors are not unheard of. I worked a couple of years ago with data from one of the most internationally respected survey outfits, and after some email back-and-forths it became clear that there were significant errors for one of the countries in one of its samples.)
But there was no checking the Times story. The author provided no link to a longer technical paper or to the original data set. And the text itself supplied exactly zero information on sampling, not even the N. You’re supposed to take it all on faith.
To return to the heading of this post, the real fault lies with the editors at the Times. Careless or disingenuous authors, some with academic credentials, are a dime a dozen. Work at perhaps the world’s most influential newspapers and you’ll get a flood of these half-baked manuscripts. It all comes down to editorial judgment, and there was a big-time failure in that department.