Your Dialogue contributor last Thursday, Alex Davis, claimed New Zealand universities are politically biased communities of left-wing academics, stifling diversity of thought and producing unreliable research.
He concluded that until universities are staffed by people with a full range of left-right political pursuasions we should be wary of believing the results of university research.
Unfortunately, his opinion piece rested on a major logical fallacy. He appears to believe scientific truth sits at the midway point of what might be called "left" or "right" wing political ideology at any moment in time.
There is absolutely no reason to think this is the case. Let me assume Davis accepts the scientific knowledge that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. He may also be aware that, in the past, this belief was heretical: conservatives decried the new science.
The evolution of scientific knowledge on this matter did not arise out of a political popularity contest, but through following the scientific method of reason and observation.
Now take science that is currently politically divisive in the United States, where Davis sources his data on the political leanings of university academics. In the United States, acceptance of climate change science varies dramatically by political orientation.
Almost all of America's climate change scepticism is accounted for by people with right-leaning ("Republican" or "conservative") political views. A similar political "bias" is associated with belief in Darwin's theory of evolution, with conservatives more likely to reject the idea that life on Earth evolved over billions of years rather than being the product of "intelligent design". This does not make the theory of evolution a left-wing conspiracy.
In both cases, the political values of those who either believe in, or reject, evolution or climate change science does not change the science. If all Republicans decided the Earth was flat, it would not move the truth one iota.
Political and moral values do of course shape science. Medical researchers may choose to focus on finding cures for the diseases they consider most urgent — reflecting their moral judgment about what is important. Or they may end up researching treatments for diseases that afflict mostly those who have the ability to pay for treatment — reflecting a different kind of pressure.
The scientific process is not perfect. Error, bias and even outright fraud sometimes occur.
The way to reduce the probability of bogus science getting through the peer review process is to double down on requiring transparency and analytic rigour according to the standards of the discipline — not through vetting the political values of the peer reviewers.
We should acknowledge that the questions academics choose to inquire into often reflect their own personal values and commitments. If there are important questions that universities fail to investigate, this is worth highlighting — and doing something about.
And yes, recent campus controversies around free speech here in New Zealand should remind us to protect the values that underpin science: free inquiry and a commitment to evaluating the evidence, not whether we like the person who brings it to us.
Calling for universities to ensure their staff have "representative" political views is, ironically, to take a leaf out the identity politics playbook.