97 % of scientists, blah, blah…. Ridiculous, pathetic.
Thus challenged, some people I actually like throw reading assignments at me. Some are assignments in scholarly journals; some, sort of. Apparently, I have to keep my mouth shut until I reach a high degree of technical competence in climate science (or something). I don’t need to do these absurd assignments. I am not blind and I am not deaf. I see what I see; I hear what I hear; it all sounds familiar. Been there, done it!
A long time ago, I accepted a good job in France in urban planning after receiving my little BA in sociology from Stanford. I was a slightly older graduate and I had no illusions that I knew much of anything then. I had some clear concepts in my mind and I had learned the basic of the logic of scientific inquiry from old Prof. Joseph Berger and from Prof. Bernard Cohen. I had also done some reading in the “excerpts” department including the trilogy of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. Only a couple of weeks after I took my job, my boss sent me to a conference of urban sociologists in Paris. Having been intellectually spoiled by several years in the US and conscious of my limited knowledge of urban planning, I asked many questions, of course.
In the weeks following the meeting, I became aware of a rumor circulating that presented me as an impostor. This guy coming out of nowhere – the USA – cannot possibly have studied sociology because he does not know anything, French sociologists thought. I had to ask how the rumor started. I was aware that I knew little but, but, I did not think it was exactly “nothing.” Besides, most of my questions at the conference had not been answered in an intelligible manner so, I was not convinced that my comparison set – French sociologists working in city planning – knew much more than I did.
Soon afterward, I wrote a “white paper.” It was about the eastern region where I had been tasked to plan for the future until 2005 (the year was 1967) as part of a multidisciplinary team. The white paper gave a list of social issues city planners had to face at this point, the starting point of the planning endeavor. As young men will do, I had allowed myself short flights of speculation in the white paper, flights I would not have indulged in a few years later. My direct supervisor, an older French woman who was supposed to be sociologist, read the whole ambitious product, or said she had, and made no comments except one. She took exception to one of my speculative flights in which I made reference to the idea that much societal culture rises up from the street. It was almost an off-hand remark. Had that part been left out, the white paper would have been pretty much the same. The supervisor insisted I had to remove that comment because, she said exactly, ”Marx asserts clearly that culture comes from the ruling class.” She told me she would not allow the white paper to be presented until I extirpated the offending statement.
In summary: The woman had nothing to say about the many parts of the report that were instrumental to the endeavor that our team was supposed to complete, about that for which she and I were explicitly being paid. She had nothing to say about the likely mistakes I exhibited in the report because of my short experience. Her self-defined role was strictly to protect what she took to be Marxist orthodoxy even if it was irrelevant. There was a double irony there. First, the government that employed us was explicitly not in sympathy with any form of Marxism. The woman was engaging in petty sedition. Second, Karl Marx himself was no lover of orthodoxies. He would have abhorred here role. (Marx is said to have declared before his death, “I am not a Marxist”!)
In any event, I was soon rid of the ideological harridan and I was able to do my job after a fashion. For those who like closure: I went back to the US to attend graduate school, at Stanford again. Two years later, my old boss called me back. He had come up in the world. He was in charge of a big Paris metropolitan area urban research institute. He begged me, begged on the phone to go back to France, and take charge of the institute’s sociology cell. He said that he understood not a word of what the “sociologists” there said to him. He added that I was the only sociologist he had ever understood. I yielded to his entreaties and I promised him a single year of my life. I interrupted my graduate studies and flew to Paris. In the event, I gave the sociologists at the institute one month warning. Then, I summoned each one of them to explain to me orally how his work contributed to Paris city and regional planning. (“What will it change to the way this is currently being done?” I asked.) They did not respond to my satisfaction and I fired all six of them. I replaced them with people who could keep their Marxism under control. My boss was grateful. I could have had a great career in France. I chose to return to my studies instead.
Three years later, having completed my doctorate, I found my self at critical juncture common to all those who go that course. You have to turn your doctoral thesis into papers published in double-blind refereed journals. (Here is what this means: “What’s Peer Review and Why It Matters“)
That’s a lot like leaving kindergarten: no more cozy relationships, no more friends assuring you that your work is just wonderful; the real world hits you in the face. The review process in good journals is often downright brutal. Anyone who does not feel a little vulnerable at that point is probably also a little silly. To make matters worse, the more respected the journal, the harder it is to get in and the better your academic career. As a rule, if you have not achieved publication in a first-rate journal in the first three or four years after completing your doctorate, you will be consigned forever to second-tier universities or worse.
Be patient, I am just setting the stage for what’s coming.
Much of my early scholarly work happened to take place within a school of research dominated by “neo-Marxists.” It was not my choice. I was interested in problems of economic development that happened to be largely in the hands of those people. My choice was between abandoning my interests or buckling up and taking my chances. I buckled up, of course. My first article to be published was innovative but a little esoteric. (Delacroix, Jacques. “The permeability of information boundaries and economic growth: a cross-national study.” Studies in Comparative International Development. 12-1:3-28. 1977.) I presented to a specialized journal and therefore not one that could be called “first tier.” It happened to contain nothing that would offend the neo-Marxists. It took less than six months to have it accepted for publication.
The second published paper out of my dissertation struck at the heart of neo-Marxists convictions. It demonstrated – using their methods – that the parlous condition of the Third World – allegedly caused by capitalist exploitation – could be remedied through one aspect of ordinary good governance. I submitted it to one of the two most respected journals (the American Sociological Review). All the reviewers who had the technical skills to review my submission were also neo-Marxists or sympathetic to their doctrine. The paper reported on a study conducted according to methods that were by now common. Having the paper accepted for publication took more than three years. It also took a rare personal intervention by the journal’s editor whom I somehow managed to convince that the reviewers he had chosen were acting unreasonably. (The paper: Delacroix, Jacques. “The export of raw materials and economic growth: a cross-national study.” American Sociological Review 42:795-808. 1977.) No need to read either paper.
Am I telling you here a story of conspiracy or a story of academic corruption? Yes, I faced a conspiracy but it was not a conspiracy against me personally and it was mostly not conscious. The only people – but me- who had the skills to pass judgment on my paper were not numerous. They were a small group that shared a common understanding of the reality of the world. It was not a cold, cerebral understanding. Those people formed a community of sentiment. They believed their work would contribute to the righting of a worldwide injustice, a “global” injustice committed against the defenseless people of underdeveloped countries. Is it possible that their ethical faith influenced their judgment? To ask the question is to answer it, I think. Did their faith induce them to close their eyes when others from their own camp cut some research corners here and there? On the contrary, were their eyes wide open when they were reviewing for a journal a submission whose conclusion impaired their representation of the world? In that situation, did they overreact to an uncrossed “t” or a dotted “i,” in a paper that undermined their beliefs? Might be. Could be. Probably was. Other things being equal, they may have just thought, it would be better if these annoying Delacroix findings were not publicized in a prime journal. Delacroix could always try elsewhere anyway.
So, yes, I faced corruption. It was not conscious, above-board corruption. It was not cynical. It was a corruption of blindness, much of it deliberate blindness. The blindness was all the more sturdy because it was seldom called into question. Those who would have cared did not understand the relevant techniques. Those who knew them shared in the blindness. This is a long way from cynical, deliberate lying. It’s just as destructive though. And it’s not only destructive for the lives of the likes of me who don’t belong to the relevant tribe. It’s destructive of what ordinary people think of as the truth. That is so because – however unlikely that sounds – the productions of elite and abstruse journals usually find their way into textbooks, even if it take twenty years.
Are the all-powerful editors of important journals part of the conspiracy? Mine were not but they tended to adhere to imperfect rules of behavior that made them objective accomplices of conspiracies. Here is the proof that the editor of the particular journal tried to be impartial. Only a month after he accepted my dissenting paper, the editor assigned me to review a submission from the same neo-Marxist school of thought that trumpeted another empirical finding proving that, blah, blah…. After one reading of the paper, my intuition smelled a rat. I spent days in the basement of the university library, literally days, taking apart the empirical foundation of the paper. I found the rat deep in its bowel. To put it briefly, if you switched a little thing from one category to another, all the conclusions were reversed. There was no imperative argument to put that one thing in one category rather than in the other. The author had chosen that which put his labor of love in line with the love of his neo-Marxist cozy-buddies. If he had not done it, his pluses would have become minuses, his professional success anathema. In the event, the editor agreed with my critique and dinged the paper for good. Nothing worse happened to the author. No one could tell whether he was a cheat. Or, no one would. No one was eager to. The editor was not in appetite for a fight. He let the whole matter go.
Myself, I came out of this experience convinced that it was likely that no one else in the whole wide world had both the skills and the motivation to dive into the depth of the paper to find that rat. It’s likely that no one else would have smelled a rat. It’s possible that if I had not still been smarting from three years of rejection of my own work, I would not have smelled the rat myself. The editor had the smarts, the intuition fed by experience, I would say, that he could put to work my unique positioning, my combination of competence and contrariness. He put it to work in defense of the truth. That fact is enough to exonerate him from complicity in the conspiracy I described. To answer my own question: Do I think that powerful scientific journal editors are often part of a conspiracy of the right thinking, of an orthodox cabala? I think not. Do they sometimes or often fall for one? Yes.
For those who like closure: My interests switched later to other topics. (See vita, linked to this blog’s “About me.”) I think the neo-Marxist school of thought to which I refer above gradually sank into irrelevance.
After that experience, and several others of the same kind, do I have something better to propose? I don’t but I think the current system of scholarship publication does not deserve anything close to religious reverence. Even if there were anything close to a “consensus” of scientists on anything, that should not mean that the book is closed. Individual rationalism also matters. It matters more, in my book.
What does this story of reminiscences this have to do with global warming, climate change, climate disruption , you might ask? Everything, I would say. More on the connection in part Two. [Update: Here is part 2, as promised! – BC]