Big Government‘s currently running a blockbuster four-part series on the “THE ACADEMIC SCANDAL ELIZABETH WARREN AND HARVARD DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT.” THAT LINK WILL TAKE YOU TO PART ONE. IN PART ONE MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY CLAIMS THAT HOLD ON WHY AM I YELLING WAIT ON A MINUTE LET ME FIX THIS. (Sorry about that.) Leahy claims that a “secret report” containing a “powerful allegation” against Warren was “accepted by University of Texas President William Cunningham.” The problems with the material in the quotation marks is that those words don’t actually mean anything. They represent a blatant attempt by Leahy to convince readers of a conspiracy where none exists. Consider “secret report.” Sounds pretty damning, doesn’t it? One problem: the “secret report” in question is actually a book review published in The Rutgers Review of Law in 1991. Don’t believe me? Click on the link Leahy provides. That “secret report” is only “secret” because no one actually reads academic articles. Meaning that it’s as “secret” as every other “secret report” I’ve published.
Which is to say it’s not “secret” at all. Just because an article’s in an inaccessible archive doesn’t mean it’s “secret.” It’s not. Leahy has mistaken “I can’t find it” for “secret,” a category error that turns many a home into a veritable “house of secrets,” complete with “secret car keys” and “secret books” and “I don’t even want to know about the secrets under the couch.” But enough about labeling an archived review article a “secret report.” What about the fact that this “report” was “accepted by University of Texas President William Cunningham.” What does it mean to have a law review article “accepted” by a university president? Does it mean he received this issue of The Rutgers Review of Law in the mail and later read it? I don’t know and Leahy doesn’t bother to tell. But doesn’t it all sound rather ominous? A “secret report” that’s “accepted by a university president” sounds much better than a “book review” that’s “read by a university president.”
But none of this earns Leahy the honor of being charged with “REPEATED INSTANCES OF PROFOUND STUPIDITY.” This is simply a case of a mischaracterization so gross it qualifies as a lie. Leahy is a liar. But he’s more than that: he’s a stupid liar. His evidence for Warren’s academic malfeasance is that a scholar invested in proving other scholars wrong wrote a mean review of their book. The scholar in question, Philip Shuchman, is the author of “New Jersey Debtors, 1982-1983: An Empirical Study.” One of his complaints? Warren and her co-authors’ “selection of Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas” for their sample (192). They should have tried to “maximize the heterogeneity of the states with respect to what might be important variables” (193). That translates as not unsubtle professional whining to my ears: “Why didn’t they use my ‘Empirical Study’ in the data set?” But even if it’s a valid complaint—even if Warren and her co-authors should’ve consulted Shuchman’s data in their set—that’s not a case of “SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT.” It’s one group of scholars arguing about the validity of another’s methodology:
“Your sample size is too small!”
“Yours isn’t sufficiently representative!”
That’s bog-standard academic debate. Leahy would have you think otherwise by repeatedly quoting Shuchman’s claim that Warren and her co-authors “have engaged in repeated instances of scientific misconduct,” and it’s the rhetorical strength of the accusation that Leahy relies on to mislead his readers. His argument boils down to “Shuchman wrote something that sounds very mean,” and he believes that tone says something damning about Warren’s work. It doesn’t. It’s typically not done with the rhetorical flair of a Stanley Fish, but writing highly critical essays about other scholars in your field is part of the warp and woof of the academia. Leahy contends that an argument made in the back of a law review in 1991 is significant because he doesn’t know that similar claims are made with similar force in the back of every law review. He’s too stupid to do what any other scholar would: examine other issues of the journal and determine whether Shuchman’s review is uniquely adamant. (It isn’t.)
You might complain that I’ve dubbed him a stupid liar when his ignorance of academic conventions only makes him an ignorant liar. Fine. Given the severity of the charge he’d like to levy against Warren and her co-authors, Leahy needs to establish the authority of the person, Philip Shuchman, on whose work he bases it. He does so by citing one of Shuchman’s obituaries:
Professor Shuchman was a champion of the underdog—the average debtor in bankruptcy. In the early 1980s, creditors attacked the 1978 Bankruptcy Code, and claimed that bankrupts could afford payment plans, hence bankruptcy should be made more onerous. Professor Shuchman set out scientifically to see what the facts were [...] and spent a lifetime teaching and writing and testifying for decent bankruptcy and consumer credit laws. He will be missed by all who strive for justice for consumers.
Audience matters, and in this case, his audience consists of conservatives. How authoritative do you think the readers of Big Government will think “a champion of the underdog” who acted on behalf of debtors against corporate interests is? I’d wager not very. So he’s building a case against Warren that relies on grossly mischaracterizing a book review, ignorantly misunderstanding the purpose of academic debate, and obtusely citing a person his audience won’t consider an authority. But that’s not what makes him stupid—much less profoundly so. What could he do that would warrant that? He could drop in a line about how this debate isn’t even a debate:
Professor Shuchman and Ms. Warren both came to the same conclusions about the causes of personal bankruptcy.
You read that right. Shuchman and Warren didn’t even disagree about the substance of their debate. They disagreed about how they came to the same conclusions. Leahy’s impugning the entire body of Warren’s work based on a disagreement that isn’t a disagreement in a “secret report” that isn’t secret on which “unresolved charges” that aren’t charges having been pending for twenty-two years.
Now that is some profound stupidity.
UPDATE: It turns out he did have access to the “secret report” and wasn’t basing it entirely on the content of the book review. So, while funny, that part of the post is factually inaccurate. But it is factually accurate to say that he sat on that information for over a month, and that his original claims were presented in a deliberately obfuscatory manner, and that he did this because The Heirs of Blessed Breitbart Most Holy care more about clicks than claims. I’ll untangle this mess in the morning.