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An academic matter

[ 70 ] May 28, 2015 |


The Michael LaCour affair reminds me that I know of several flat-out crazy and/or evil people who have managed to make it big in the academic world. Or maybe this is just an observation about the world in general. In any case academia seems to have its own peculiarities, some of which are illustrated by the following story.

X and Y are both on the market for an entry-level academic position. For various intellectual, sociological, and psychological reasons they are to a significant extent rivals for the same tenure-track slots, which are very scarce and extremely competitive.

X and Y both get initial interviews at Very Prestigious University (hereinafter VPU). Y gets a second interview at VPU; X does not. X then tries to destroy Y’s chances of getting a job at VPU, by engaging in an astonishingly malicious fraud, which among other things involves inventing supposed harsh criticisms of Y’s work, and attributing these imaginary criticisms to members of the faculty at VPU.

Y doesn’t get the job at VPU. It turns out that, for reasons not relevant here, Y not getting the job wasn’t actually caused by X’s fraudulent scheme. Still, under slightly different circumstances the scheme could have had its intended effect. (The analogy with the LaCour matter would be if the paper had been rejected by Science, and then the fraud had been discovered before it was submitted elsewhere).

By the end of the hiring season, Y has gotten a tenure-track job at another school, while X has gotten a position at Fairly Prestigious University. At this point Y knows about X’s fraudulent scheme, but doesn’t know X’s identity. Just after X and Y start their new jobs, Y finds out who X is.

Y consults with various academic mentors. This process leads to these events coming to the attention of Prof. A, who threatens to out X if X does not acknowledge X’s guilt to Y, and to X’s new employer, FPU. X then confesses to Y and to FPU.

X and FPU then enter into an agreement. X agrees to leave FPU, and FPU agrees not to disclose what X has revealed to FPU about X’s fraudulent scheme to destroy Y’s job prospects at VPU. (FPU also agrees not to reveal the existence of any agreement between FPU and X).

By the end of the academic year, X has secured a new job at Got Played University. X gets this job with the help of glowing recommendations from various people at FPU, who know why X is leaving FPU. At this point nobody at GPU knows anything about the true circumstances of X’s departure.

Four years later, X is a Rising Young Star, and is up for early tenure. X has now gotten into a bizarre fight with another member of GPU’s faculty, which results in X filing a frivolous complaint with a government agency against this faculty member. This faculty member has many friends throughout academia, at least one of whom knows the story of X and Y. The friend provides a detailed account of the incident to GPU’s dean.

The dean calls the dean at FPU, to try to confirm the story. The dean at FPU refuses to discuss the matter (or the existence of any such matter etc. etc.). GPU’s dean then decides that he can’t pursue the matter further, because all he has to go on is a second-hand story from somebody at another institution who won’t go on the record about any of this. (GPU’s dean actually knows Y personally, but does not contact Y). X then receives tenure at GPU.

There are several other baroque or perhaps gothic twists to this little tale. Here are just a couple:

At the same time X is going through the tenure process, Prof. A decides to use X – who he doesn’t actually know — to attack Z, an anonymous internet critic of both Prof. A and X. Prof. A accuses Z of engaging in behavior similar to that which X engaged in toward Y, although Z’s behavior is “similar” only in the same sense that taking a questionable tax deduction is similar to robbing someone at gunpoint.

Prof A. has discovered Z’s identity, and decides to disclose it to X, even though back when Prof. A was threatening to expose X’s fraudulent scheme, he speculated both about X’s mental health, and about what effect exposing X would have on X’s apparently fragile mental state. Prof. A probably suggests (this is speculative) to X that X file an administrative complaint against Z. In any case, Prof. A praises X in a public and fulsome way for pursuing this course of action. (When praising X Prof. A does not, needless to say, reveal that he knows X has engaged in vastly worse behavior than anything Z has done).

While pursuing this administrative action against Z — which, like X’s complaint against X’s colleague at GPU, ends up going nowhere — X publishes a number of polemics upbraiding Z and others for engaging in the same general type of malfeasance that X had committed against Y, although again, X’s behavior was exponentially worse. (Recall that X is doing all this at the very same time X is going through the tenure process).

I’ve confirmed the details of the story with three different people who had first-hand knowledge of the events. I also spoke to GPU’s dean, and asked him what he planned to do if he learned X was under consideration for a job at another school. He told me he would have to think long and hard about that.

On one level, I can’t really blame him that much for his ambivalence. After all, there are dozens of people – certainly most everyone at FPU and GPU, and of course Y – who know much if not all of this story, and yet it remains off the official record. Why? For one thing, X is an obsessively ambitious person, of apparently questionable mental stability, and who wants to get tangled up with somebody like that, especially once the person has tenure and is close to unfireable?

For another, rationalizations in these situations are always at hand: while it’s true X’s behavior, had it been known at the time, would have absolutely barred X from ever getting a tenure-track job, maybe it was an otherwise inexplicable one-time act, brought on by exogenous factors which have since been dealt with, cured, or what have you. (This seems to me about as likely as Michael LaCour having been a scrupulously honest fellow until he suddenly had some sort of breakdown, but whatever).

Anyway, I’m not going to attach names to this story, at least not at this time, in part because a couple of at least mostly innocent bystanders have asked me not to. For what it’s worth, in my view the single biggest villain in all this – that is if we assume on principles of interpretive charity that X and A are more crazy than evil — is FPU, and especially its dean, who agreed to offload X onto GPU by covering up an incident which should have permanently precluded X from getting hired for any academic job. But there’s more than enough blame to go around.

Finally, this matter, like the LaCour affair, raises questions about how common these sorts of breakdowns in systems designed to protect academic integrity are. As in the case of LaCour, this story illustrates that institutions like academic tenure must function to a significant extent on the basis of an assumption that those participating in the process are doing so in good faith, even when doing so is inconvenient or costly to them.

It was obviously convenient for FPU to lie to GPU about X, and it would have been costly, in various at least short-term senses, for GPU to deny X tenure after they discovered what FPU had hidden from them. And so here they, and we, are.

“No, Toby. And no more questions about whether this is a joke.”

[ 27 ] May 28, 2015 |


In fairness, Pataki was able to get elected governor and didn’t nearly destroy a prominent corporation, so I guess as long as Fiornia remains in the race he can’t actually be the biggest joke in the clown car. Indeed, that would be more a distinctive status than he merits.

They Still Criticize What They Can’t Understand

[ 99 ] May 28, 2015 |


Megan McArdle knows she wants the Supreme Court to gut the ACA. But like many ACA troofers she is not entirely sure which particular version she wants to go with. At a minimum, though, she remains committed to the idea that it’s entirely plausible that the Moops invaded Spain:

These articles, however, often don’t provide important counterarguments. For example: Congress indisputably chose exactly that crazy, insane, totally inconceivable structure for the Medicaid expansion passed in the same law. In fact, it was considerably more coercive: if you didn’t expand, you lost all your Medicaid funding, not just the new stuff. Why would Congress choose a structure that might result in a net loss of insurance coverage? We can sit around and speculate, but ultimately the correct answer is “Who cares? They did.”

No matter how much you flog this cardboard horse, it’s never going to become ambulatory. There remain two obvious problems with this analogy, both fatal. First of all, unlike with the Medicaid expansion, there was no threat, which is a rather obvious problem with the assertion that Congress was trying to coerce the states. In this respect, citing the Medicaid expansion is an own goal. And in addition, the Medicaid program had no federal backstop. For the analogy to hold, the ACA would have had to make no provision should states fail to establish insurance exchanges; if this was the case McArdle’s reading of the statute would be plausible. But the idea that Congress went to the trouble of establishing a federal backstop but then designed it to fail is simply absurd. The federal backstop to the exchanges is nothing like the Medicaid expansion; McArdle is conflating two different types of cooperative federalism that are very different.

So how does McArdle deal with the latest story showing that nobody who drafted or voted for the statute shares her obvious misreading? Why, Gruber, Gruber, and more Gruber, plus some additional bullshit:

Actually, this is not crazy, but very wise. Memory is incredibly fallible, especially about stuff you’re highly motivated to believe.

We now have two cases of wonks who were closely connected to the drafting process, who said at one point that the King interpretation of the statute is insane to anyone who followed the construction of the law … and can be found on tape at an earlier point (in one case, during the legislative process) advancing exactly the theory that they subsequently declared completely and obviously insane. Do I think that their later argument was a strategic lie? No, despite conservative shouts that I am being naive. Scout’s honor, cross my heart and hope to die, I think that they simply forgot what they’d earlier believed.

Memory is so very terrible, and this law is so very complex.

First of all, these two wonks did not say what McArdle says they said. Senate Majority Leader, Speaker of the House, President, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and newly elected NDP premier of Alberta Jonathan Gruber didn’t say that tax credits wouldn’t be available on federal established exchanges; he said that the federal government might be too slow in setting up federal exchanges, a very different argument. I assume the second unnamed “wonk” she’s referring to is Jonathan Cohn, who prefaced comments that weren’t about the final statute with “[t]his is not something I’ve looked into that closely.” Even if Gruber and Cohn did definitively state at the time that tax credits would not be available on federally established exchanges, this would be not very meaningful cherry-picking (especially since neither person drafted or voted on the relevant provisions. One thing that McArdle conveniently ignores from the latest Pear story is that the father, architect, and midwife of the ACA Jonathan Gruber does not actually appear in the account of the drafting process.) But she doesn’t even have the cherries.

The obvious other problem with the “memory is fallible so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” argument is that it’s not just ex post facto accounts of the statute but the contemporaneous process that shows no evidence that anyone ever thought that tax credits would not be available on federally established exchanges. Why did the CBO never consider the possibility that the federally established exchanges wouldn’t provide tax subsidies if the statute unambiguously established this? Why did not state officials even consider this possibility? Why was there no controversy about what would have been a highly unusual and highly consequential policy choice? Why do many other parts of the statute assume that the tax credits would be universally available? Memory is fallible, but this case the memories gain additional by being consistent with all of the relevant available evidence. McArdle’s magic realist version of the law, conversely, is both nonsensical on its face and is supported by no evidence involving anyone involved with the legislative process whatsoever.

But why should we focus on what divides us? Let’s reach across those party lines and find a point of consensus:

That doesn’t mean I know how the court will rule next month; cases rarely end up at the highest court of the land unless there are at least two plausible readings of the words.

Indeed — the I.R.S. reading is, at an absolute minimum, plausible. So the government wins! I’m glad McArdle was able to stumble, however inadvertently, into the correct conclusion.

The Death of the Cool

[ 91 ] May 28, 2015 |


Scott Walker has something cool for the ladies: mandatory sexual assault for those seeking abortions!

During the interview with conservative radio host Dana Loesch, Walker defended a bill he’d signed in 2013 that required women get the ultrasounds.

“The thing about that, the media tried to make that sound like that was a crazy idea,” Walker said. “Most people I talk to, whether they’re pro-life or not, I find people all the time who’ll get out their iPhone and show me a picture of their grandkids’ ultrasound and how excited they are, so that’s a lovely thing. I think about my sons who are 19 and 20, and we still have their first ultrasounds. It’s just a cool thing out there.”

I suppose demonstrating that he doesn’t understand the concept of consent shows that Walker is really serious about winning the nomination — surely it’s a litmus test.

What would you ask Godzilla?

[ 21 ] May 28, 2015 |


I mentioned this in the previous post, but I figure it’s worth its own. At this weekend’s Dallas Comic Con, I’ll be hosting the panel with Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma, Tsutomu Kitagawa, a.k.a. the men who played Godzilla. Since I know many of you are likely bigger fans of the franchise than I am, feel free to pass along any questions you’d like me to ask them. (That way when I nerd out, I can argue that the question didn’t come from me, but you.)

Image above via this glorious clip:

Read more…

No Game of Thrones podcast this week!

[ 1 ] May 28, 2015 |

Steven and I apologize for those awaiting it, but if you’ve turned on the news and know where I live, you can probably understand why it’s been difficult for me to find time when the power’s on long enough to record it. And given that Steven and I will both be attending conferences this weekend — his a serious academic one, mine the Dallas Comic Con, at which I’ll be hosting the panel featuring the men who played Godzilla — we’re just going to have to record it next week.

Which means, of course, that you’ll be rewarded with two podcasts for your patience.

The Human Toll of FIFA Corruption

[ 20 ] May 28, 2015 |

1200 dead workers building World Cup projects in Qatar so far. This compares to just a handful of workers dying for other major sporting events in recent years, even in relatively poor nations like Brazil, China, and South Africa. Note that we are 7 years out from the actual event.

Against Consensus Decision Rules

[ 38 ] May 28, 2015 |

This has been a longstanding hobbyhorse for Loomis, too, but L.A. Kauffman is very much making sense here:

If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

Refusing to Tinker With the Machinery of Death

[ 9 ] May 28, 2015 |

Good for the Cornhusker State:

Nebraska became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday when lawmakers boldly voted 30-19 to override the governor’s veto.

There are 10 inmates on Nebraska’s death row — the 11th died this week — but the state has not executed anyone since 1997 and only recently ordered the drugs necessary to carry out a lethal injection. It’s the 19th state to abolish capital punishment.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum came together to pass a repeal bill three times. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a first-term Republican, then vetoed the legislation on Tuesday. Thirty senators were needed to override him.

One one level, the impact on this is relatively small, since the death penalty is rarely used in the state. But it still matters, particularly since the legislature had to override a veto. It’s good that legislators were willing to do it in a Republican state, and hopefully the trend will continue.

“But there is one thing in this story that checks out. There does appear to be a University of California Los Angeles.”

[ 65 ] May 27, 2015 |

Shattered Glass

Oh my:

In that section, he lists as one of his awards: “Emerging Instructor Award, UCLA Office of Instructional Development, 2013-2014. One of three UCLA graduate student instructors selected for excellence in their first year of teaching” (formatting his). But a staffer in the office of instructional development told Science of Us that it does not give out an award of that name. “I don’t know if he either misnamed our department or if it’s from another department,” said the staffer, who only agreed to be quoted if I didn’t use her name. “I’m not clear on what happened.”


I emailed LaCour for comment, and he asked if I’d hold off on publishing this until he released a planned statement about the whole affair. I told him I couldn’t unless the statement contained information pertinent to the nonexistent teaching award. Shortly thereafter, a browser extension I installed to notify me when his website changed pinged me. His website’s link to his CV, which he’d taken down from his site recently, is now back up. This version no longer lists the Emerging Instructor Award, and the entire “Original Grants & Data” section has been cut.

Somehow, I don’t think his allegedly forthcoming explanation is going to be convincing. (See also this.) You almost have to feel bad for the guy at this point.

Further thoughts on the larger issue from Azari and Drezner.

Don’t Try to Create the Impression That You Are a Millionaire

[ 13 ] May 27, 2015 |

Some sage advice to rural people visiting Chicago, 1888

Exculpating the Republican Party, 1960s Edition

[ 42 ] May 27, 2015 |


One thing that many people “know” about the 1964 Republican presidential nomination is that Nelson Rockefeller lost, despite being a frontrunner, because of his marriage to the late Happy Murphy. One obvious problem with the narrative is that if the rejection of Rockefeller was based on “character” reasons, the support should logically have gone to ideologically similar candidates like Romney or Hatfield. Instead, it went to Goldwater. This is because more important than his affair and marriage was that he was a liberal on civil rights:

The day before the Rockefeller wedding, and the day after Birmingham exploded, Joseph Alsop of the Washington Post, one of the era’s leading pundits, concluded that “Rockefeller’s heaviest single handicap” was his aggressive and consistent liberal record on race. This was especially true after Birmingham, which shocked the nation and convinced many in the Republican Party that they needed to stay far away from the controversial issue of civil rights. Alsop noted that Rockefeller’s strength as a candidate was a concern among party professionals, who believed his nomination would forfeit all support from southern states—and a fair amount of support in other regions, too, for that matter—in the general election. A remarriage, in Alsop’s opinion, would give some Republicans cause to rethink Rockefeller’s nomination and to reconsider Goldwater, who, they believed, could successfully carry every southern and border state. While nominating Goldwater would most likely mean losing the urban North, some Republicans preferred to take that chance.

If we’re going to pretend that Rockefeller getting steamrolled by Goldwater was about something other than his ideology being too liberal for Republicans in 1964, I’d prefer that we cite his fascist architectural tastes and leave poor Happy alone…

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