Diversity bill draws on not-so-varied ‘N’ case

You should never draw a general conclusion from a number as small as one. That’s just what is happening here.
Sunday, April 15, 2007 | 11:06 p.m. CDT; updated 3:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

You probably saw the story in Wednesday’s Missourian about the latest problem at Missouri State University down in Springfield. It appears that the faculty of social work is in serious disarray.

That would be merely unfortunate except that a student who felt ideologically pressured by a teacher there sued the school and won. Her case is being memorialized in the title of a bill, introduced by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, that ostensibly seeks to promote “intellectual diversity” on the state’s campuses. Curator David Wasinger testified in favor of her bill, and the House approved it with a 97-50 vote Thursday. That shifts the situation from sad to serious.

When conservatives talk about “intellectual diversity,” they usually aren’t arguing that we need more communists and anarchists on the faculty. What the term really means is that they see faculties as a bunch of left-leaning, tree-hugging homophiles. What they really want is more red-blooded Reaganites in the classroom.

Somebody should explain to legislators and curators the danger of generalizing from an “N” of one. In research, “N” stands for the number of cases under study. In public opinion polling, for example, you typically want an “N” of at least 400 responses just to bring the margin of error within reasonable bounds. In a laboratory experiment, the “N” is going to be a lot smaller. But any reputable researcher knows that the smaller the number of cases, the less confidence you can have in the results. You should never draw a general conclusion from a number as small as one.

That’s just what is happening here. Sure, Rep. Cunningham says she has had other complaints from students. I’ll bet she has. Some students are inclined to complain when their preconceptions and biases are challenged – which is the very essence of higher education. But the only documented case anybody has cited is that one in Springfield. Given what we know about the School of Social Work there, the most reasonable response to that case would be to categorize it as what researchers call an outlier, meaning that it’s a one-of-a-kind.

Remember the furor four years ago when the national leader of the “intellectual diversity” movement, David Horowitz, came to campus? The campus Republican club charged that a biology professor was offering extra credit to students who’d protest his lecture. Rep. Rod Jetton, now speaker of the House, immediately called for an investigation and suggested that the professor should be fired.

Remember the truth? When the facts came out, we learned that Horowitz and his fans had it all wrong. There had been no requirement, no pressure. Did that shut Horowitz or Jetton up? You know the answer to that.

I’m all for real intellectual diversity. I doubt you’d find many faculty members who aren’t. But I’m also in favor of fact-based argument, critical thinking and free speech, even in the classroom.

Instead of presuming there’s a problem that requires another law, legislators and curators should demand some actual evidence beyond an “N” of one.

George Kennedy is a former managing

editor at the Columbia Missourian.

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