The war on expertise: there are limits to the democratization of knowledge

einsteinrelativityThis American Life featured a fascinating–as in, car-crashtastic–example of the war on expertise that I thought many of you academic readers might be interested in, if you haven’t heard it already.  In a story called “Sucker Mc-squared” (Mc-squared as in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, not Mc- as in McDonald’s), Robert Andrew Powell tells the story of Bob the Electrician, and of Bob’s conviction that he alone had discovered a fatal flaw in Einstein’s theory.  You can hear the entire story here–it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.

To summarize:  Bob takes a year-long self-funded sabbatical to study physics and prove that Einstein had it all wrong.  Powell tries to get real physicists to read the paper that Bob produces over the course of the year, which turns out to be quite a chore because it turns out that Bob is kind of like the old joke about asylums being full of Napoleons:  there are thousands of cranks around the world who believe Einstein’s theory–and by extension all of modern physics–is wrong, and they are a plague upon real, working, university- and U.S. government-affiliated physicists in much the same way that Holocaust Deniers, Constitutional Originalists, and Lost Causers are to historians; climate change denialists are to real climate scientists; and anti-vaxxers are to real physicians.  In sum, these cranks have no confidence whatsoever in expertise or in the value of the credentials that real historians, scientists, or doctors have.  But yet, they crave their respect and demand to be acknowledged by the experts.

 Why does Bob believe that all of physics has it all wrong?  Why is he argumentative and defensive when finally Powell convinces a real physicist (Brant Watson of the University of Miami School of Medicine) to explain to him why he’s all wet?  Why does he admit that he doesn’t understand the advanced training in mathematics that physicists receive, and still believe he’s right?  SPOILER ALERT!
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Call the whaaaaaaaaaambulance!

OMFG.  This is a completely incoherent critique of Orange is the New Black because–get this!–the show which is about a women’s prison doesn’t portray male prisoners realistically or accurate to their numbers in U.S. prisons.  See if you can make more sense of it than I can.

Hey, Concern Troll:  where was your column about the mis- or under- or stereotypical representations of women on just about every other television program or movie ever made?  Did you have this concern about Oz, or Silicon Valley, or The Bachelor?  I guess I missed that.  All I can see is that you’re complaining that you can’t see a man like you on the one semi-high profile program on TV that features women’s stories (and not just white women’s stories!) Continue reading

What a schmuck! Chris Hedges is a plagiarist.

It turns out that Chris Hedges is a plagiarist.  Christopher Ketcham assembles a very damning dossier demonstrating that it’s serial, not incidental, plagiarism that he has committed.

It doesn’t exactly surprise me, given his logorhheac output, which is a typical tell in the case of other plagiarists (Stephen Ambrose, for example.)  It’s disappointing, however, because for the past several years, I have assigned chapters from his 2003 book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning in my survey class, which I’ve organized around a consideration of warfare in early America.  It’s also embarrassing for me as a professor, doubly embarrassing because not only have I assigned portions of this book for a decade to students who flunked my classes when they plagiarized, but also because the news of his plagiarism in this book is more than a decade old!

The horror, the horror~!  (See Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness–I’m not plagiarizing Conrad, I’m evoking him here): Continue reading

Brisk winds from the archives, or, a publicly engaged historian at work on Roe, Brown, and the Christian right

impeachearlwarren

Drop whatever you’re doing now and go read Randall Balmer’s excellent article on “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.”  Subtitle:  “They’ll tell you it was abortion.  Sorry, the historical record is clear:  it was segregation.”  Balmer, who has just published Redeemer:  The Life of Jimmy Carter, recounts what he found in the archives while researching that book.  If it really was Roe that radicalized the Christian right, then what the hell were all of those “Impeach Earl Warren” bumper stickers and billboards about in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? (Isn’t that a nice touch with the stars and bars over there on the left?  Very subtle.)

That’s right, friends:  it was Brown v. Board of Education, not Roe:

This myth of origins is oft repeated by the movement’s leaders. In his 2005 book, Jerry Falwell, the firebrand fundamentalist preacher, recounts his distress upon reading about the ruling in the Jan. 23, 1973, edition of the Lynchburg News: “I sat there staring at the Roe v. Wade story,” Falwell writes, “growing more and more fearful of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s act and wondering why so few voices had been raised against it.” Evangelicals, he decided, needed to organize.

Some of these anti-Roe crusaders even went so far as to call themselves “new abolitionists,” invoking their antebellum predecessors who had fought to eradicate slavery.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.

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The so-called “liberal” academic workplace

AliceteapartyJust go read this description of a job interview in a humanities program at a rich SLAC.  The search Chair told our informant, Anonymous, that the young African American woman on the faculty had been denied tenure.  Some flava:

Dr. Chair explained that the whole process had been very unpleasant and that the aforementioned white male colleagues had been “hurt” as a consequence. I said something innocuous in response like, “Oh well I suppose the tenure process is hard on everyone.” But Dr. Chair assured me that there had been problems for a while. “We just want this to be a nice place,” she said.

In addition to making her white male colleagues sad, Dr. Chair told me that the African-American woman who had been fired did not produce what she was expected to produce or teach what she was expected to teach. When I asked what those expectations were, Dr. Chair sighed and said something to the effect of, “She’s a black feminist, you know, and it’s just: not everything is about black feminism.” She said this to me matter-of-factly, as if it were a satisfactory answer to my question.

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Right wing minority wields disproportionate influence over the NWHM, and why the NWHM lets them

Via a retweet by Modupe Labode on Twitter, I found this fascinating essay by Manon Parry, who tells of her experience as a recent Ph.D. who had an informational interview with a staff member from the National Women’s History Museum in 2010:

While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research.

I completed my PhD in 2010 with Sonya Michel as my dissertation advisor. Interested in employment opportunities at the NWHM, I arranged an informal phone conversation with a staff member at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, then involved as designers for the project. Although this contact acknowledged my relevant training and expertise, she bluntly stated that my research, on family planning media over the twentieth century, made me a liability, given the political sensitivity of the topic. Birth control may be legal in America today, but it is clearly not legitimate. I mention this personal anecdote as full disclosure, not to complain about what happened to me, but to highlight how bad things have become. This is the state of the public history of women in twenty-first century America. Simplified, politically sensitive, and censored.

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