DIGNITY FOR SALE

Posted in Rants on September 14th, 2010 by Ed

Throughout the Roaring Twenties and most of the Great Depression, Dr. Clarence Little was the President of the University of Michigan. A biologist by trade, Little held a number of beliefs that were both common and in the process of being debunked at the time. For example, Little was a hardcore eugenicist – the "Hey, why don't we sterilize all of the poor people!" kind – and a firm believer that no aspect of human physiology had an environmental cause. It's all genetics, he claimed. As his public statements became increasingly controversial and his professional opinions were disproved Little was run out of Ann Arbor on a rail. So he did what any professional who crosses the line into quackery would do: he sold out to corporate interests who were in search of a shameless quack. Thus Clarence Little became the scientific director of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, vehemently arguing that lung cancer was genetic and not conclusively linked to smoking.

Everyone got what they wanted. Little received a platform for his ridiculous views and a handsome salary. The tobacco industry got an official expert, Doctoral degree and all, to aver the safety of their lethal product. The smoking public got a rationalization to continue smoking despite the overwhelming contradictory evidence ("Science says it's OK! Cough cough cough.")

Little's story is a great example of how profitable it is to be utterly without shame. Any Ph.D.-level biologist, chemist, or so on could start making a fortune tomorrow by announcing some "research" proving that burning hydrocarbons do not pollute the atmosphere, hydrogenated fats are good for you, or condoms cause AIDS. A sociologist could make a mint with a book about how blacks and Muslims control society to the consistent detriment of white Christian males. A political scientist – and I know a few folks who will almost certainly go this route – can work the right-wing lecture and think tank circuit indefinitely with some ridiculous crap about how Alexander Hamilton believed in mandatory homeschooling or the 4th Amendment doesn't apply to Mexicans. It's almost too easy. Just earn the right credentials and proceed to tell the masses that whatever they want to believe is the indisputable truth.

Sometimes I wonder about the choices I've made and the potential alternatives to the deadening grind of the academic grist mill. At our recent professional conference the usual suspects on the right – the American Enterprise Institute is particularly active – attend in force but are largely shunned like the lepers they are in the reality-based community. Yet they are doing so much better than the rest of us – more money, higher profiles, and the easiest jobs on the planet. Just churn out scripts for Lindsey Graham in the morning and spend the afternoon golfing. Do the Sunday morning talk show rounds bimonthly and appear on the occasional Blue Ribbon Panel with Bill Kristol.

I'm not a particularly good person, but I'm terrible at pretending that I believe something. I wish I had just one utterly ridiculous belief – "The Arizona Cardinals will win a Super Bowl some day" does not count – that I could ride to financial success. Nothing I believe is profitable. I'd never have to work again if I could write a book about people Bill Clinton had murdered or Barack Obama's secret plans for the North American Union, the Amero, and one-world government. The marketplace of ideas is a free market, after all, and nothing moves its gears like selling garbage to idiots. The longer I look at the state of my profession and this country as a whole, the more it seems like a good idea to get cracking on that book about how Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jesus really felt about the limits of the Full Faith and Credit clause as applied to gay marriage. The only question is how large a font we should use for "Ph.D." in the cover art.