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Academics for Sale

posted by Bob Lawless

Whatever force academics have in public debate comes not from a claim that we are somehow smarter than others but because we can claim the persuasive force of having opinions that have not been purchased by others. Over the years, I have watched the line between legal academic and paid advocate slowly erode--a trend that is perhaps not uncoincidental with the downward drift of the influence of legal academics in public debate.

It seems The Nation has been noticing also. While I was on the road last week, the magazine published a story entitled "The Scholars Who Shill for Wall Street," The article begins with a discussion of the activities of Professor Todd Zywicki, who will be known to many readers of this blog.

The issues raised by this article are particularly acute for legal academics, where normative claims are often standard fare. Indeed, I often hear criticism of legal scholarship for failure to make a normative claim. There is no methodology -- at least no agreed-upon methodology -- to assess different normative claims. The article is entirely correct when it suggests more disclosure of academics' financial interests where they are speaking in public policy fora. And, these disclosures should occur not just for things like congressional testimony but in other outlets for academics' work -- including law reviews and, yes, even blogs.


I question whether the first sentence is true. I certainly have understood academics to at least imply that they are, by dint of scholarly efforts, indeed "smarter" than generalist policy makers - not smarter in the sense of an innate genetic superiority, but in the sense of having made it their life work to study a special subject and having indeed done so much work in the field that they in fact arrived at a higher level of knowledge, an expertise that is of value to one seeking his or her own understanding. One can debate whether that is true but certainly when I see academic work published, the author's expertise and intellectual rigor are at least as much the premise as his or her disinterestedness. I mean, my high schooler isn't paid to offer opinions on technical legal areas but that won't get his opinions published or read to a Congressional panel.

The other part of the sentence I think is a bit disingenuous. There are multiple kinds of bias. Economic is one. Political is another. Cognitive is a third. Conforming to the mores of the academy when one is seeking to advance one's academic career is as much an economic bias as taking a fee from someone in the for-profit sector for advancing in a different forum opinions you already formed on your own. Much research and publication is done to fit an agenda and the right is not the only wing with an agenda supported by academia. Of course, the Nation is aligned with the left, and like all old-line media, has learned from Fox that the only way to survive is by reinforcing the biases of your audience, not driving the audience away by challenging them.

As Sam Clemens said, "Show me where a man gets his cornpone, and I'll show you where he gets his opinions." And boy do Zywicki and his ilk get paid. The Nation went easy on him. As for research biases, what was that you were saying? Being paid to reach a certain conclusion is the same type and magnitude of bias as conforming to accepted methodology or acknowledging existing research? I'm not following that one.

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