I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
As the debate fragmented into myriad sub-debates, one eddy focused on one of the co-authors, Heritage senior policy analyst Jason Richwine. As the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews unearthed, Richwine's Harvard University dissertation was titled "IQ and Immigration Policy." In it, he made the arguments that 1) Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than white Americans, 2) that difference is partly due to genetic differences between the races, and 3) these differences will not dissipate with successive generations. You can figure out Richwine's policy conclusions for yourself. Dave Weigel at Slate also discovered that Richwine had contributed to a "white nationalist magazine" on the side.
1) Hey, so it turns out that ideas do matter in public policy. Not just any ideas either, but the quality of the ideas. This isn't to say that politics aren't involved in what happened this past week -- this is totally about political self-interest as well -- but the incomplete and distorted analysis that Heritage provided left it very vulnerable to pushback.
2) A few immigration skeptics on the right, such as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, have decried what they see as intellectual PC-thoughtcrime run amok. Malkin in particular decries the "smug dismissal of Richwine's credentials and scholarship." Now, to be blunt, this is just a little rich coming from someone who has not been shy when it comes to smug dismissals of Ivy League credentials in the past. That said, whenever someone goes from anonymous to the focus of a white-hot media scrum to fired inside of a week, I get queasy. Was there a rush to judgment here?
I'd break this down into two steps: First, whether Heritage acted appropriately, and second, whether Richwine's work merits the mantle of brave truth-teller. On the former, well, this is a key difference between a think tank and a university. Think tanks are trying to influence public policy, and the taint of having someone dabbling with the racist fringe on the payroll is a difficult one to erase. So, yeah, it shouldn't be all that shocking that Richwine is no longer working at Heritage, whereas university professors who say or write controversial things stay on the payroll.
As for the quality of Richwine's dissertation, the primary defense that Malkin et al. offer appears to be the caliber of Richwine's dissertation committee. From Malkin's post:
No researcher or academic institution is safe if this smear campaign succeeds. Richwine’s dissertation committee at Harvard included George Borjas, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy. The Cuban-born scholar received his PhD in economics from Columbia. He is an award-winning labor economist, National Bureau of Economic Research research associate, and author of countless books, including a widely used labor economics textbook now in its sixth edition.
Richard J. Zeckhauser, the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at JFK, also signed off on Richwine’s dissertation. Zeckhauser earned a PhD in economics from Harvard. He belongs to the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Sciences).
The final member of the committee that approved Richwine’s "racist" thesis is Christopher Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's JFK School. He is a renowned left-wing academic who has taught at Harvard, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He edited the liberal New Republic magazine in the 1960s and has written several scholarly books tackling poverty, economic inequality, affirmative action, welfare reform, and yes, racial differences (The Black White Test Score Gap).
The willingness of Republican Gang of 8'ers to allow a young conservative researcher and married father of two to be strung up by the p.c. lynch mob for the crime of unflinching social science research is chilling, sickening, and suicidal.
These are serious people doing serious work.
I must confess that Malkin's lament made me think of this:
This is not to denigrate Richwine's dissertation committee. Still, as someone all too familiar with the Ph.D. life, let's just say that an argument based solely on authority is not convincing. I've perused parts of Richwine's dissertation, and … well … hoo boy. Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I'm familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It's therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine's dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn't convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication. Based on the comments that Weigel and others have received from Richwine's dissertation committee, one wonders just how much supervising was going on.
3) This whole affair should be a cautionary tale to Ph.D. students and profs alike. For the grad students -- particularly those planning on going into the policy world -- your dissertation will follow you for the rest of your life. Don't think you can just grind one out barely above the bar and it won't matter. And if you're puzzled why your advisor or a member of your dissertation committee is acting all anal retentive about some aspect of your thesis, there's a good reason. Our dissertation students follow us for the rest of our careers. The last thing we want as advisors is to get a phone call from a reporter asking us why we let some dubious piece of work skate through. It's our asses on the line as well.
Am I missing anything?
About Daniel W. Drezner
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.