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Excommunicating Scientists:

Kim Scarborough points to this post from a newly minted Political Science Ph.D. (the poster had just gotten the Ph.D. in the mail the day before):

I don't think there is a tent big enough to hold me and one of the chief architects of the present war in Iraq [Condoleezza Rice]. And I have to wonder about our collective pretensions to positive social science when someone can hold onto her political science credentials while acting as one of the most persistent defenders of that "weapons of mass destruction" trope.

So I've been thinking: shouldn't political science have its equivalent to disbarment or excommunication? After all, if we want the term "political scientist" to mean something, then a doctorate shouldn't be a one-way ticket. When political scientists promulgate ideas or institute policies that violate even the most generous interpretations of our collective wisdom, they are not only disregarding their own academic training, but devaluing the intellectual authority and standards of our field. So shouldn't there be some threshold — it can be a generous one — beyond which one loses the right to practice political science?

Ah well. Any field that still claims Henry Kissinger as one of its own can certainly survive Condoleeza Rice.

A few questions: (1) What exactly does it mean to "lose[] the right to practice political science"? You lose the right to do the things that political scientists do — publish papers, teach classes, and so on? You lose the right to cite as a credential (since, after all, the whole point is so that you wouldn't be allowed to "hold onto [your] political science credentials") the Ph.D. you hold, the jobs you've had, and the field you're knowledgeable in?

(2) Say the political science profession indeed isn't a big enough tent to hold both a newly minted Ph.D. and the incoming U.S. Secretary of State (who also happens to be the former Provost at Stanford). Which is more likely (not just today, given the current political makeup of the academy, but in the future) — that (A) junior Ph.D.s will get to push out high government officials for "promulgat[ing] ideas" that depart too far from "conventional wisdom," or (B) vice versa? The poster is apparently "an expert on electronic democracy and electronic government"; what does our knowledge about democracy and government suggest as the answer to the previous question?

(3) I had thought that academics had a pretty standard response for dealing with people who promulgate ideas that academics think are unwise: It's called "criticism" via "persuasion." Why isn't that good enough for the good Doctor?

Yes, I know that I'm probably taking the poster's arguments a bit too literally here. My guess is that this is just hyperbole and fulmination on her part. Presumably, the poster is just using exaggerated language simply to suggest that lots of political scientists should condemn Dr. Rice.

Still, isn't an exaggerated post that, on its face, runs against basic principles of academic freedom — I assume those principles are similar in Canada, where the poster is from, as they are here — and that operates through hyperbole rather than reasoned substantive argument, an inauspicious way to begin one's life as a Ph.D.? Let's hope it's not characteristic of this person's future commentary.

Finally, what one says in moments of rhetorical excess might not fully reflect what one thinks most of the time — but then again it might. In Vino Veritas; perhaps In Hyperbole Veritas. And, as Scarborough writes about the poster,

She undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of her. Won't it be nice when she's not just dreaming of banishing the powerful from her exclusive club and actually grading papers and judging dissertations of talented students whom she may not agree with? It sure is encouraging that her gut instinct upon encountering disagreeable opinions is banishment. Certainly the attitude I like to see in higher ed, how about you?

Excommunicating Condoleeza Rice.--

Eugene comments on these snarky assertions of a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. at AlexandraSamuel.com:

shouldn't political science have its equivalent to disbarment or excommunication? After all, if we want the term "political scientist" to mean something, then a doctorate shouldn't be a one-way ticket. When political scientists promulgate ideas or institute policies that violate even the most generous interpretations of our collective wisdom, they are not only disregarding their own academic training, but devaluing the intellectual authority and standards of our field. So shouldn't there be some threshold - it can be a generous one - beyond which one loses the right to practice political science?

After spending the last few years at Harvard, Ms. Samuel (I presume that it is she who is posting at AlexandraSamuel.com) seems to be confused about how academics is supposed to work. To my mind, she is doing what she decries: "promulgat[ing] ideas . . . that violate even the most generous interpretations of our collective wisdom, . . . not only disregarding [her] own academic training, but devaluing the intellectual authority and standards of our field." I hope that no one at Harvard tries to implement Ms. Samuel's authoritarian policies, or they might just demand Samuel's Ph.D. back.

Science (and social science) proceeds by free inquiry, not by consensus, as Michael Crichton, a Harvard MD from a different generation so eloquently put it two years ago:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

Crichton then describes scientific consensuses that turned out to be wrong. I don't think that there is anything wrong with talking about the consensus of scientists or social scientists (and I certainly do so myself), but one must remember that it is the quality of the evidence that makes the work persuasive, not the consensus.

But what about examples of social science consensus?

The Case of James Coleman. As part of my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be among James Coleman's last students. At one time or another in his long career, Coleman had been the leading practitioner of several subfields in Sociology: educational sociology, mathematical sociology, and rational choice sociology. In the 1960s Coleman did some of the first large-scale, well designed educational studies. When his early results seemed to find positive effects for school integration, he was lionized by the profession. But just a few years later, when his data started showing problems with the educational effects of busing, he was vilified. Although I never heard exactly what was done to him, Chicago faculty members told me that he was "basically thrown out" of the American Sociological Association (ASA), perhaps analogous to what Ms. Samuel has proposed for Condoleeza Rice. I don't take the claims that Coleman was thrown out literally; probably nothing more was done than open insults, shunning, and expressions that he was not welcome anymore.

When eventually Coleman's work was mostly validated by other researchers, the leaders of the profession were ashamed of their prior actions. I was told by faculty members at Chicago and elsewhere (I have no personal knowledge of these events) that an effort was made to make amends for their shoddy treatment. Twenty years after being excluded, the ASA made him President of the organization. (I apologize in advance to those readers who have personal knowledge of these events; my knowledge is secondhand and thus likely to be in error on some details. Coleman never spoke to me about any of this.)

Welfare Reform. The greatest success of the Clinton Administration--and one that will continue to generate benefits for years to come--is welfare reform. It was a Republican idea, but it took real courage on Clinton's part to get it past the Democratic establishment, both academic and political. I take it that its chief proponents in the Clinton White House were Clinton himself, Gore, and Dick Morris. All sorts of horror stories were told about the scale of human disaster that would come about if even a modest workfare system was imposed. Even less alarmist academics thought that it had to worsen things, but as soon as it passed (even before it took effect), more poor people began looking for and getting jobs. Poverty went down, not up. Now a generation of the poor and the borderline poor are being raised in households with many more employed breadwinners, with positive effects of many sorts.

Arming America. After it was publicly exposed that in Arming America Michael Bellesiles had described the contents of over a hundred documents that never existed, the American Historical Association passed a resolution that specifically expressed support for both Michael Bellesiles AND HIS BOOK! With some of the country's leading historians praising the book, the consensus was so strong that most historians just did not think that they should spend an afternoon in a good library checking criticisms before going public with expressions of support. Later, some of those same leading historians wrote or told me that they were wrong. For several reasons, including because the AHA was embarrassed over having been taken in by Bellesiles, the AHA decided to end its practice of conducting ethical investigations.

Another Example of Academic Consensus and Shunning.--

My last post on Alexandra Samuel's proposal for excommunicating political scientists like Condoleeza Rice received this response from Jonah Goldberg saying that he was writing a book about the subject and wanted examples. So I thought that I would add another.

In the 1960s, just AFTER Ronald Coase had done his Nobel Prize winning work in law & economics and AFTER James Buchanan had done his Nobel Prize winning work in public choice, a concerted effort was made by members of their department and the administration at the University of Virginia to drive them out of Virginia. The story has been often told and some reports say that some of the letters and memos showing that this was a conscious effort on Virginia's part survived to be seen by more open-minded members of the department in later years. A run-in with the Ford Foundation helped to crystallize university opposition to the best scholars that the department ever had and among the best ever to teach in any department at Virginia. One view was that they were on the wrong side of history.

Here is a comment that Coase made in an interview in Reason:

They thought the work we were doing was disreputable. They thought of us as right- wing extremists. My wife was at a cocktail party and heard me described as someone to the right of the John Birch Society. There was a great antagonism in the '50s and '60s to anyone who saw any advantage in a market system or in a nonregulated or relatively economically free system.

Since Coase and Buchanan had tenure, they couldn't be fired, but Virginia decided not to make an attractive offer to keep Coase when Chicago offered him a job, though Coase has said that he might well have stayed had they done so. Buchanan was driven out in part by not tenuring his junior colleagues. That this was done a few years after Coase and Buchanan had done their best work is just stunning. Virginia began the 1960s as the most innovative and creative among the world's great economics departments and ended the 1960s as just another pretty good department, no better or worse than a couple dozen other departments in the country.

For more discussion on excommunicating scholars, see Alexandra Samuel's response and these posts from John Kalb, Jonah Goldberg, Jackal's Lair, and Eugene.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Another Example of Academic Consensus and Shunning.--
  2. Excommunicating Condoleeza Rice.--
  3. Excommunicating Scientists: