CSPI 2021: The Year in Review
Academic freedom, COVID-19, woke institutions and everything else 2021
CSPI has been operational for just over a year now. Since our beginning in November 2020, we’ve established ourselves as a fearless and intellectually rigorous source for scientific reports and original research, with frequent features and citations in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and on influential blogs like Marginal Revolution and Astral Codex Ten.
Political and institutional change are rarely the result of mass persuasion – they usually take place because a small group of highly motivated individuals who care a lot about ideas have an outsized impact on the public discourse and convince elites to see things in a new way. Thanks to CSPI’s research and analysis, public intellectuals and policymakers are thinking differently about political intolerance in academia, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) for stopping COVID-19, the relationship between wokeness and civil rights law, and a number of other important issues. People are hungry for concrete solutions to deal with failing institutions and stagnant bureaucracies, and we’re filling a unique role in the intellectual ecosystem.
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Below is a summary of the work we’ve done in the past year.
Right-wing and centrist scholars have long complained about anti-conservative bias in academia and its downstream effects on free speech and free inquiry. Eric Kaufmann’s landmark report, “Academic Freedom in Crisis,” was the first comprehensive survey of political intolerance in academia, finding ample evidence of discrimination against right-leaning and gender-critical scholars in hiring, promotion and other areas.
His report also shed light on the beliefs of academics, demonstrating that when it comes to issues like decolonizing the curriculum or firing controversial scholars, many are torn between their commitments to free speech and social justice. Nonetheless, there is no “silent majority” of academics who prioritize free speech above all else.
The report was widely discussed throughout the press, including in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, City Journal, and Bloomberg. University of Austin president Panos Kanelos cited it as one of his reasons for founding a new university dedicated to protecting free speech. Kaufmann’s recommendations are currently informing the UK Government’s Higher Education Bill, which will extend free speech protections for students and academics.
COVID-19 and the War on Science
During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen doctors, epidemiologists, and public health officials gain unprecedented levels of power over political and economic decisions. In an age in which we’re repeatedly told to “trust the science” and “listen to the experts,” it’s never been more important to criticize bad science and question the legitimacy of scientific authority.
Philippe Lemoine has shown that scientists studying COVID consistently get even the most basic things wrong. His first article for CSPI, “The Case against Lockdowns,” demonstrated that lockdowns and other NPIs have in most places not had notable effects on COVID transmission and likely fail any reasonable cost-benefit analysis.
His subsequent pieces have identified other scientific failures, such as epidemiologists’ inability to accurately model the pandemic, their attribution of declining case numbers to non-pharmaceutical interventions instead of voluntary behavior or the impact of networks, and widespread alarmism in the face of new variants like Delta and Omicron. He has written on these topics for The Wall Street Journal and Le Figaro, and his work is regularly discussed in outlets like New York Magazine, and on blogs like Astral Codex Ten, EconLib, and Andrew Gelman’s Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.
Richard Hanania also wrote on public health officials’ inability to think clearly about COVID, and the problem with “experts” more broadly. In “Are COVID Restrictions the New TSA?” he lamented the rise of “hygiene theater” and government officials’ inability to engage in cost-benefit analysis, while in “The Weirdness of Government Variation in COVID-19 Responses,” he asked why people have been relatively incurious and indifferent about regional or country-level differences in COVID policy. His article “Tetlock and the Taliban,” which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed, argued that most “expertise” is fake – the product of over-credentialization and appeals to authority – and that real knowledge and insight are often incompatible with intellectual diversity or narrow specialization.
Woke Institutions and Ideology
In the last decade, liberals have shifted far to the left on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Ideas once considered radical – like defunding the police, getting rid of high-school gifted programs, and giving puberty blockers to children – are embraced by more people than ever before in the name of social justice.
One focus of CSPI’s researchers has been evaluating the origins of woke ideas and institutions, and proposing solutions to combat woke bureaucracy, which increasingly manages and controls more aspects of our personal and professional lives. Richard Hanania has been a leading figure in proposing such solutions, and his ideas are changing how conservatives think about the relationship between government policy and cultural change. In “Why is Everything Liberal?” he argued that liberals control institutions because they care more about politics than conservatives, sparking a lively debate among political commentators including Ross Douthat, Ezra Klein, Scott Alexander, and Robby Soave.
After responding to comments and criticisms, he followed up with “Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law,” in which he argued that wokeness is largely the product of Civil Rights-era government policies and the HR bureaucracies that sprung up to enforce them. This piece prompted responses from Tyler Cowen, along with articles in City Journal from Charles Fain Lehman and Gabriel Rossman, culminating in a CSPI podcast episode where the two authors joined Richard to discuss the relationship between woke institutions, civil rights law, and corporate culture.
Zach Goldberg, CSPI’s resident “Wokeness Studies scholar,” kept his finger on the pulse of public opinion, tracking changes in the beliefs and attitudes of Americans on issues of race, identity, and political ideology. He recently defended his PhD dissertation, “Explaining Shifts in White Racial Liberalism: The Role of Collective Moral Emotions and Media Effects,” which he plans on turning into a book. His work chronicling “The Great Awokening” and changes in racial sentiment were cited this year in The Economist and the New York Times.
Martha Bradley-Dorsey started a project to gather basic budgetary information from 200 public universities to see how much money was being spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and administration. Unfortunately, this information was largely undocumented or unavailable, meaning legislators and the public have no way of evaluating the financial costs of DEI spending in universities. The fact that she was unable to gather what should be basic and publicly available spending data demonstrates the barriers to evaluating the ballooning costs of college bureaucracy, and that state governments should demand greater budgetary transparency from their public universities.
Social Science and Public Affairs
CSPI was founded to fund research on unexplored topics in the social sciences – high-quality scholarship of public interest that is unlikely to be supported in traditional academic environments. In our first year, we’ve produced several studies of political behavior and electoral politics that highlight the psychological factors underlying support for political parties, candidates, or causes.
Eric Kaufmann conducted a survey of Black Americans’ racial identity and party identification, finding the subjective importance of Black identity to be a strong predictor of Democratic partisanship. These results were discussed in his New York Times op-ed “How Stable is the Democratic Coalition?,” in which he argued that the Democratic party may lose minority voters as they become less attached to their racial or ethnic identities.
George Hawley and Richard Hanania coauthored “The National Populist Illusion: Why Culture, Not Economics, Drives American Politics.” The report brought together a variety of evidence showing that anti-immigration attitudes and a disdain for political correctness were good predictors of voting for Trump in 2016, while economic factors like income were not.
Jack Thompson and Sierra Davis, CSPI’s first grant recipients, researched why people support QAnon, and whether certain messages could decrease belief in the conspiracy. They found that associating QAnon with racism or anti-Semitism decreased support for it, while learning that Congressional representatives had expressed support for QAnon in the past increased support among Republicans.
Lee Jussim and Nathan Honeycutt summarized decades of research on stereotype accuracy. Their analysis shows that most stereotypes that have been studied are approximately correct at the group level, and that efforts to reduce stereotypes in education, government, and business as a means of achieving equality are generally misguided in light of this inconvenient fact.
Jonah Davids argued that most social science research is false, useless, or obvious. He suggested that moderates and conservatives’ focus on making academia more tolerant has blinded them to how underwhelming it is, and that young people who are passionate about social science would be better off doing private sector or independent research.
Philippe Lemoine wrote about Éric Zemmour, a right-wing populist intellectual running to be the next President of France on the grounds that he can stop the “great replacement.” The piece provided an overview of Zemmour’s life, ideas, and electoral prospects, and detailed his strengths and weaknesses as a candidate and likelihood of winning the presidency.
Progress and Policy
As part of CSPI’s new mission, we’ve begun funding and supporting research into knowledge production and modern governance. We believe that by realigning the organizational incentives of dysfunctional institutions, we can change them for the better – increasing their capacity to foster social and scientific progress rather than contribute to societal decay and stagnation.
Scientists are, or at least used to be, thought of as freethinkers working in pursuit of truth and innovation, but institutional incentives can steer their research towards what is professionally or politically expedient, rather than what is genuinely worthy of study. Leif Rasmussen’s analysis of successful National Science Foundation grant abstracts demonstrates how scientific research funding has become increasingly politicized. He found that the frequency of documents containing woke terms has increased consistently over the last three decades. In 2020, no fewer than 30% of successful grant abstracts contain one of the following words: “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “gender,” “marginalize,” “underrepresented,” or “disparity.”
His research also shows that successful grants have been getting more similar over time, which suggests a decline in the diversity of ideas funded. His findings were featured in National Review, the Washington Examiner, and Marginal Revolution.
While politics is often contentious and divisive, we believe that the right reforms can have an outsized effect on technological development and, ultimately, economic growth. That’s why we recently announced our first essay contest, “Policy Reform for Progress.” We’re seeking submissions that propose a plan for a reform that can facilitate or remove a barrier to the development or application of an important new technology, like self-driving cars, commercial space travel, or anti-aging treatments. Anyone can enter, and winning essays will receive cash prizes, be promoted on our website, and brought to the attention of policymakers.
CSPI is only possible because you read our research, listen to our podcast, and care about the ideas we’re putting forward and the questions we’re asking. Make sure you’re subscribed to our Substack, Twitter, Podcast, and YouTube to stay up to date on developments in 2022.
Happy New Year to everyone, and thank you for your support.