Reality Strikes Back

The two main political stories of the last forty-eight hours have been (1) Todd Akin making up biomedical findings and (2) Niall Ferguson making up CBO conclusions. Both seem surprised to find themselves under siege, and I can sympathize: ever since the reign of the Great Communicator (read: Pathological Liar) Ronald Reagan, the right has been able to assume that it can simply get away with whatever b.s. it wants to put out there. The fact that both Akin and Ferguson catching flak is a triumph for the broader reality-based community.

The main difference in the two cases is that the professional politician is apologizing for his b.s., while the professional academic is just piling his b.s. deeper.

Of course, Ferguson couldn’t get away with deceptively truncating quotations in his scholarly publications. Apparently he thinks that he can get away with it in his pseudo-journalistic “public intellectual” hat. I think he’s mostly right. But should he be?

Of course we don’t want professors losing tenure for making political statements unpopular with their peers, or with academic administrators or funders (or undergoing official fishing expeditions for doing research that runs afoul of modern-day Lysenkoism). But equally of course, people who trade on their university titles as pseudo-journalists or consultants or expert witnesses ought to be held to the same standards – not of rigor or documentation, but of honesty – in their parallel work as they are in the stuff that gets them tenure.

“Veritas” isn’t a bad slogan for a university. I wonder if the Harvard History Department thinks it means anything?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.