Bryan Caplan  

PC and Availability Bias

Is Firing the President of Har... I'll Back Down on PC...

I agree with Arnold that Harvard did Larry Summers wrong. In fact, whenever I hear an anecdote about PC run amok, I normally take the side of the whoever gave offense. Nevertheless, I still think the PC threat to higher education is greatly overblown. The anti-PC movement is founded on availability bias - our tendency to overreact to a handful of vivid anecdotes. While PC is a witch hunt, it is happily a witch hunt that only burns a handful of witches per year.

Yes, that's small consolation to the Larry Summerses of the world. But the odds that an outspoken student or professor who challenges PC verities will be targeted for persecution are extremely small. The serious witch hunt in the modern U.S. is not on campus, but in the workplace - the witch hunt against discrimination and sexual harassment. Every day in American workplaces, millions of people look over their shoulders before they speak to avoid accusations of discrimination and harassment. I'm no fan of PC, but at least college students can still shoot their mouths off without worrying about lawsuits.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)

It would be helpful for readers for your posts to be time-stamped, rather than just date-stamped.

Dan Weber writes:
I'm no fan of PC, but at least college students can still shoot their mouths off without worrying about lawsuits.

Unless they're at Duke.

Seriously, though, I think, if political correctness ever were a problem on campus, it's not anymore. The absurdity at Duke just emphasizes how rare this kind of nonsense is these days.

mgroves writes:

Has anyone considered that PC isn't a problem on campuses because the diversity of thought has finally been beaten out of students?

TGGP writes:

Your link doesn't say anything about sexual harassment.

Fazal Majid writes:

I once read that there is no consensus on free speech in America, just the absence of consensus as to which speech to ban.

"PC" is just code word for censorship of right-wing speech by leftists. There is probably just as much censorship of left-wing speech by right-wingers,but left-wingers have yet to come up with as pithy a term for that as "PC".

For examples of these, just look at the reception for Jimmy Carter or Walt and Mearsheimers' books, DePaul's denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein, or the Bush administration's stifling of scientific reports on climate research, stem cells or other subjects that offend the religious right.

Les writes:


With all respect, you offer no support for your opinion by way of factual evidence.

So your opinion carries no weight.

John Hall writes:

Or if they go to U of F and get tasered.

tom writes:

I would say that the Professor Summers case is much more than an example of availability bias.

Instead, the Summers example demonstrates two broader problems in thinking about the effects of political correctness:

1--Unavailability Bias: a reminder of the people who don't become President of Harvard because of politically incorrect ideas (even Democrats like Summers); and

2--"You Can't Hire More of THEM" Bias--a reminder that top US schools are simply not allowed to consider any benign explanations for certain groups being 'over-represented' at the highest levels of certain demanding fields (which was the subject of Summers' fatal speech). Numerical overrepresention shows dicrimination, and people from underrepresented groups must be hired instead of people from overrepresented groups.

(The speech itself is much milder than I had remembered: Also, it's worth remembering that while a lot of people think of this as a problem affecting 'soft' studies like English that don't really matter, the whole speech and later debate were about the underrepresentation of women in the hard sciences. And Harvard's remedy involved using a lot of money to increase the numbers of women in the hard sciences at Harvard and reduce the number of men.)

Jim writes:

the witch hunt against discrimination and sexual harassment. Every day in American workplaces, millions of people look over their shoulders before they speak to avoid accusations of discrimination and harassment

Why is this worse than the time when millions of people had to look over their shoulders before they spoke because of discrimination and harassment?

General Specific writes:

Having spent 20 years in the workplace in upper management, I've come across many real cases of sexual harrasment and few cases of people suffering from innocent comments, watching over their shoulders as you describe it.

What are you proposing? To go back to the days when men could turn to their female co-workers and comment on their nice breasts?

You provide no evidence. As the commenter above points out, you state an opinion that is left floating in the air.

Michael Sullivan writes:

Why is this worse than the time when millions of people had to look over their shoulders before they spoke because of discrimination and harassment?

Bing, Bing, Bing! You win the prize.

well, it's even more than that. I venture that the number of people who lose their jobs *today*, in the claimed "PC witch hunt" climate, because of discrimination or harassment, or their reasonable reactions to it, is greater than the number of people who lose their job because they said something semi-innocuous which was misinterpreted as harassment or discrimination.

People say ridiculous racist and sexist stuff *all the time* and nothing bad happens to them. I'm not talking about bigots, though they certainly aren't thin on the ground either, I'm talking about regular people who just don't realize how offensive things we say are because we are blinded by our privilege. Talk to pretty much any woman or person of color and they will be able to give you plenty of examples.

Yes, I'm quite sure that a few people have lost their jobs or or been disciplined unfairly over this issue. I'd like to see that change. But I think that problem is rounding error compared to the huge injustice that used to be prevalent and which cultural changes in the workplace are solving, and it's a far smaller problem than the still extant race and sex discrimination.

Yes, it's hard to be a white man these days. You actually have to think about the social ramifications of things you say in ways that women and POC *have always had to and still do*.

Years ago, we had the privilege to pay no attention to that whatsoever, now that privilege is a bit less.

I'll note also that most of the examples of this going too far are not the *law*, but companies for whatever reason setting their standards much higher than the law requires. As a libertarian, isn't that their right?

Larry Summers didn't get fired because Harvard was afraid of a suit. He got fired because they didn't like the *image* he presented with that speech (that and a lot of fighting with powerful profs and admins unrelated to his speech which had them looking for a good excuse).

People in high profile positions get fired over social gaffes all the time. People used to get fired for speaking the truth about sex and race discrimination all the time because that was a social gaffe.

Well now, it mostly isn't, and occasionally privileged people saying true things in a way that is insufficiently sensitive to the brutal history of past oppression is a social gaffe of the kind that can get people in politically tentative positions fired.

ZOMG! Oh Noes! they fired him just because he said something that made people mad! Only PC liberals would ever do something like that! It's a Witch hunt!

How very sad it is to be a white man these days. Boo hoo hoo.

General Specific writes:

Michael Sullivan:

You make an excellent point. I wish those in the opposite camp would actually address it. Research has demonstrated that equally qualified candidates are more likely to be hired if they are caucasian or have a caucasian sounding name. That is bias--and racist--pure and simple. It's a fact. Obese people also suffer real discrimination.

And there is still a great deal of sexual harrassment in the workplace. Real harrassment, not including then the more benign type--loose language.

Are people over-sensitive to language? Probably. But for good reason. Their radar is watching, looking for signs of harrassment, because it's out there.

Go into the human resources department of any large corporation and the stories--about real harrassment--are amazing. And sad.

I think people who want to discuss a topic, or even make a joke, those who are sensitive, can still do so. My co-workers and I used to--as a joke--ask a female employee who worked with us if she would grab the coffee pot to warm up everyone's cup. We were friends, and we were using the language of sexual harrassment as a joke. A meta thing one could say.

There's a time and place for everything. Some people are wrongly accused of sexual harrassment, but often enough those accused are clueless when it comes to dealing with people. My experience has shown those accused of harrassment of some sort to be lacking in certain social skills.

In summary, I just don't see that big of a problem.

Mudslinger writes:

There have definitely been some abuses on campus but I agree with Bryan that the workplace is where the real witch hunt is going on. Case in point: A co-worker complained about me to HR for the tiniest "offense." Here is the unembellished story: As I passed by her desk I noticed she was seeking warmth under a blanket but her ankles were exposed. As a joke I gently tugged the blanket down to cover her ankles. This silly gesture resulted in a call from HR about a week later. The HR woman admitted the complaint was silly but nonetheless she had to issue a warning not to bother my co-worker anymore. A few months later this same co-worker referred to me as "Honey" and I was sorely tempted to report her for this humiliation and degradation. But my self-esteem recovered quickly and I changed my mind.

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