Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Follow Up: Rose Nunez' Critique of My Posts on Journalists and Academics

I really appreciate Rose Nunez' response at her No Credentials blog to my attempt to explain why I think academics and journalists do what they do, viz. slanting, manipulating and mis-representing news/facts.

You should go read Rose's critique for yourself, but here are the key paragraphs:
But it seems to me that many reporters--and I know firsthand that many English professors--assume they have license far beyond their fiefdoms. A deep acquaintance with Foucault's History of Sexuality and a propensity for seeing a Panopticon in every self-service supermarket checkout doesn't mean you understand the actual effects of rent control any better than my mother does. Twenty years of performing materialist analyses of novels by mentally ill writers does not etch within you a superior understanding of the DSM IV, and it most certainly does not give you a loftier pulpit from which to preach about pharmaceuticals and brain disorders.

My bookshelves sag with 1980s tomes by leftist journalists whose nuanced ideas about socialism led them to predict a long life for the Soviet Union and a short one for western capitalism. And in the go-go nineties, journalists competed to see who could produce the most hair-raising scare stories about the dire effects of welfare reform, when in fact it turned out to be one of Bill Clinton's best ideas--I know from direct experience, having been a grant writer for a county social services agency during the Clinton administration.

In short, the list of wrong-headed and unsupported conclusions reached by well-meaning intellectuals could wrap around the planet thrice--never touching the ground, of course--duck through an asteroid belt of inconvenient results, weave a macrame of knotty intangibles with the moons of Jupiter, and come back with enough left over to pat itself on the back for being such a smarty.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I am very much in agreement with her critique. Over-reaching academics drive me crazy. There are way too many people who comment on things they know nothing about. One of my earliest posts took Toni Morrison to task for ignorant comments about Beowulf. And Rose is right that being an expert in one field does not make one and expert in another. I think this is particularly true when someone is attempting to comment in areas that are politically contentious: it's very, very easy to think that because you are smart (and all academic think they are smart) and because you possess some analytical tools, you are going to be correct about anything you turn your attention to. This is mistake.

And yet. [You knew there would be an 'and yet,']. There's a sentiment lurking in the blogosphere (for example in occasional comments on Roger L. Simon's blog) that professors--at least in the humanities--are on the whole mendacious and manipulative and should not be trusted to comment on issues of current concern. I don't agree, because, as an unabashed partisan of the humanities, I believe in the immense value of the things that humanists study and in the value they add to this enterprise. If you follow Rose's (and my) critique to its logical extreme, you end up with people all inside little, specialist boxes, unable to criticize anything outside their own particular (to use Rose's word) fiefs.

This is one of those very tangled questions. Noam Chomsky, for example, claims that his political work has nothing to do with his linguistics work, but that is completely bogus and disingenuous, because no one would pay any more attention to Chomsky than to any other citizen except for his fame from his linguistics. (True, now he may be equally or more well known for the politics, but he would never have gotten that soapbox if not for the unrelated language work).

Are all academics similarly manipulative and dishonest when they comment beyond their fields of expertise? I don't think so. And because I think that the deep study of literature and culture contributes to a better understanding of humanity and the world, it is at least possible that people who have deeply studied literature and culture might have useful things to say about the questions of the day.

I do have a possible solution, though it's more in the realm of ideals than in reality: I'd like to repeal what appears to be the 'public commentary exemption' for academics. Right now, academics can say any Tom-fool thing they like on an Op-Ed or other type of public commentary, and it is always a net plus for the career and the institution. If Paul Ehrlich makes one of his idiotic population growth predictions, his colleagues and institution will say "but he's been hired as an entomologist, so who cares if he was wrong on this other major issue?" So there is no real feedback loop: the academic can trade on his legitimate expertise, but when he's wrong, nothing much happens. I'd like to see public pronouncements kept track of (maybe the web and the blogosphere can make this easier) and the quality and accuracy of these statements balanced with the technical and professional contributions of academics. That way, being a complete dolt about public issues would count negatively even if someone was a profoudly good researcher on butterflies. I think the positive consequences of such an approach would lead academics to be more thoughtful and less tendentious in their public pronouncements, and would encourage them to become as informed on areas outside of their fields as they are in their specialities.

Of course this doesn't address the problems of bias, of 'stars' who can say absolutely idiotic things with no consequences (see Harold Bloom on Harry Potter, Salman Rushdie on Tolkien, for examples), or the lack of real consquences for people whose ideas end up leading to bad consequences in the real world. But it would be a start.

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