Monday, June 27, 2005

The Barbara Kay investigations: when sloppy thinking meets shoddy logic.

Not that long ago, we decided to take a close look at the David Horowitz-inspired rantings of National Post columnist Barbara Kay. And an ugly experience it was, what with Kay opening her piece on alleged pro-liberal bias in Canadian academia so sensationally, only to finally admit that, well, she had nothing and, really, could her readers please help her out, pretty please. Well, one month later, the results were in so let's, as they say, go to the videotape.

In her January, 2005 article, Kay opens with (and I swear this is verbatim):

Canadian students in the arts and social science departments of our universities are being recruited to the hyperorthodoxies of multiculturalism, feminism, Marxism, postmodernism and bio-politics. Proponents of these ideologies prefer social engineering and the subversion of Western values to the advancement of learning and respect for Western achievements.

"Hyperorthodoxies"? Apparently, someone just got herself a brand new thesaurus and couldn't wait to try it out. Seriously, what in God's name does the above mean? And "subversion of Western values"? Maybe our best approach is to just get into the meat of Kay's column to see if we can make sense of the above gibberish. And, sadly, we're going to be disappointed.

Describing the results of her plaintive cry for help, Kay writes:

Last month I posed a series of questions about ideological harassment in academia. I asked students if it is still possible to get a classic, broadening education in public universities today.

Well, no, actually she didn't. If you care to read the original article, what Kay was clearly asking was whether there was an obvious, pro-left-liberal bias in academia, plain and simple, so it's a little bit tacky for her to start changing the definition of the survey at this point to try to turn this into a discourse on "classic, broadening education in public universities." Ah, but this bit of intellectual dishonesty is the least of Kay's sins, as you're about to see.

Kay continues:

The vast majority of the 100-odd respondents to my unscientific poll say no. More than 90% agree that campus political correctness generates a frosty anti-intellectual climate hostile to academic freedom. Out of 500,000 university students in Canada, 100 responses is a picayune representation.

No shit that's "picayune," and yet it doesn't stop Kay from making massively sweeping generalizations based on an infinitesimally small response set, generalizations made all the more meaningless since not a single one contains enough detail to allow further study by the interested reader. Savour, if you will, the overwhelming non-specificity of the following:

Comparative Politics teachers wouldn't admit The Economist (in one case) or Fraser Institute reports (in another) as source material because of their "right wing, biased writers";

An International Relations professor pronounced political realism as a method of inquiry "dead" and inadmissible in argumentation; - Political Science students taught by a feminist were not permitted to use statistics to bolster an argument because "mathematics is a male construct for a male-dominated world";

A professor
in a course on terrorism said: "No educated person can support Israel ... educated people don't have those kinds of views."

A feminist teacher in a school of nursing insisted that her male students participate in a "Montreal Massacre" commemoration.

Yes, based on some 100-odd anonymous, unsubstantiated complaints, public education in Canada is clearly a complete mess, but all of the above sloppy thinking pales by comparison with the following attempt at analysis by Kay earlier in the article. Feast your eyes on this delightful bit of sheer boneheadedness:

Out of 500,000 university students in Canada, 100 responses is a picayune representation. Yet every anecdote reflects an opinion or behaviour exposed to a classroom of between 20 and 300 students. Multiply that figure by every class the same instructor offers per semester, and then factor in a lifetime of teaching.

That's right -- Kay took her picayune, anonymous 100-odd responses, and proceeded to generalize to the worst imaginable conclusion -- that each and every report represented, not just the opinion of the respondent, but that it could be extended to encompass every student in every class in every year associated with the professor in question over an entire lifetime of teaching.

Apparently, it never occurred to Kay that such reports might represent, perhaps, the personal opinion of just the respondent. Or, since all of the responses are completely anonymous, some of them might even represent reports from students in the same class, rendering her (alleged) logic just a wee bit flawed.

Or perhaps -- just perhaps -- Kay might consider that some of those responses might be from the new breed of crybaby conservatives who seem to get mortally offended by damned near anything that ruffles their delicate sensibilities so that some of those responses aren't really worth shit, if I may be so blunt.

Of course, there's no way to know since Kay doesn't give us squat in terms of any way to follow up on her thoroughly unscientific poll. If I could give Kay some friendly advice: Please don't try to do logic or mathematics again. It can be a bit tricky, and you just aren't up to the task.


David Webb said...

Why doesn't Barbara Kay want to live in a reality-based world? I thought that was the conservative mantra?

Declan said...

You needn't have bothered with this post. I'm sure Colby Cosh will be writing a stinging critique of her misues of statistical principles any minute now...

Maybe Kay will start an insurance company or a bank some day and when she tries to figure out why she went bankrupt she will come to understand the principle of adverse selection. (I see ricia beat me to this point - but I'm going to make it again anyway).

Ahistoricality said...

"Hyperorthodoxy" is because the right want to impose an orthodoxy, and needs language which makes other orthodoxies bad.... it's kinda cute, as rhetorical misdirection goes.

Anonymous said...

I have no quarrel with what in geneneral is being offered at this post but what the fuck is the nit-picking academic bullshit all about? Small wonder that academics and those of the chattering class seem remote from the rest of the world...find a bigger topic, issue, and please don't tell me how important this stuff is to the discerning few.