This 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!
From the mailbag today, a note from Sheila Skemp at the University of Mississippi:
A number of us returned from the (excellent!) Omohundro Institute Conference in Halifax this spring with a sense of uneasiness. While the program was truly impressive, it did not include a single panel devoted to women/gender issues. Given the strength of the field, this is truly troubling. And we want to make sure that this does not happen again.
It’s true. I reviewed the program, paper-by-paper, and while there were two paper titles that specifically mentioned women as historical subjects, they weren’t about women’s or gender history: Megan Hatfield of the University of Miami gave a paper subtitled “War, Family, and the Transformation of Identity in the life of Eliza Pinckney,” and Rachel Hermann of Southampton University spoke on “‘Their Filthy Trash:’ Food, War, and Anglo-Indian Conflict in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative,” (a subject I’ve written about before, in Abraham in Arms.) CORRECTION, 7:45 P.M. MDT: I missed Craig Bruce Smith’s paper on “Women of Honor: Feminine Evolution through Dedication to the American Revolution. That said, there were twice as many men named Craig on the program as there were papers focusing on women with a gendered lense. Skemp continues: Continue reading
I’m having serious (and completely drug-free) flashbacks to my 1970s childhood courtesy of this advertisement, which I found at AdViews in the Duke University Libraries’ Digital Collections:
“You can see that they’re build solid, flashy, and hip.” Continue reading
In case you’ve missed the Jill Lepore-Clayton Christiansen Harvard University faculty feud, here’s a brief recap:
John Judis has published an interesting intellectual biography of recently deceased historian Martin J. Sklar (1935-2014), whom I had never heard of until I saw this article. (It turns out that there are some very good reasons for this–read on.) Judis’s essay focuses on Sklar’s conversion from committed socialism to being a huge fan of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. It’s weird–you can read the whole thing if you want, but it was the details of Sklar’s professional credentials and ambitions that interested me. He started as a precocious sixteen-year old college freshman in 1951 at the University of Wisconsin, and took his B.A. and M.A. there. However, he got stalled. Really stalled.
If Sklar’s career had proceeded along the same path as some of his fellow graduate students, he probably would have ended up like [Walter] LaFeber as a renowned professor at an Ivy League university. But Sklar had difficulty finishing what he was writing, and he was also pulled to and fro by the impassioned politics of the times. After he got his MA at Wisconsin, he moved to New York to work on Studies on the Left. Then he became a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester. He could have easily converted his research on Wilson into a Ph.D. thesis, but he got involved in student politics and embarked on a reconceptualization of the history of American capitalism, based on a study of the 1920s. Some of this research ended up in an incredibly difficult but original essay in Radical America, but much of it resided in a larger manuscript that sat unpublished in a file cabinet, as did other writings. Sklar would sometimes extract these writings and read from them in order to make a point, but would then stash them back away. Sklar left Rochester and graduate school in 1969 to get a job at Northern Illinois University’s left-leaning history department, which included his friend Parrini. In spite of the enthusiastic support of his colleagues and students, he was denied tenure by the administration in 1976 because he had not finished his dissertation.
He went to work for In These Times until 1979. Then, sometime in the 1980s (?)–Judis doesn’t say exactly when– Continue reading
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
Why did I agree to do this?
Great advice for academics planning next year’s conference and travel schedule, from David Plotz of Slate:
What an honor! You have been asked to appear on a panel, to keynote a conference, to advise a celebrity, to be publically acclaimed. Perhaps you have been offered a plump check. Perhaps you’ve even been promised a prize! Of course you’re flattered. Of course you accept, because you have so much time to prepare. After all, this thing isn’t happening until October. It’s next year. It’s in 2018. It’s so far in the future, you’ll probably be dead by then.
You’ve made a terrible mistake.
Here’s what will happen. Though the engagement seems infinitely far away today, it will eventually, inevitably, be a week away. Then it’s a day away. And you still haven’t written the speech you need to write. You still have to make a hotel reservation and buy a train ticket and find a baby sitter and apologize to your sister for missing her birthday dinner and beg Dan to cover for you in a meeting. (Sorry, Dan.) The opportunity that sparkled so brightly when they flattered you into it six months ago isn’t gleaming anymore. It’s just a gigantic hassle.