Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 20, 2013

Academic Freedom versus Stupidity


Short post … This post is my musing on an article I read today about Harvard students seeking a probe into how a Ph.D. was awarded to a stupid thesis. My words, but allow me to explain.

Some may remember the new a few weeks ago that the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” that is very very right of the political spectrum (recently hired Jim DeMint, a leading member of the Tea Party movement), released a report saying that an immigration policy being debated in the United States Congress would cost the country $5.3 trillion. (It won’t.)

The report was primarily authored by Jason Richwine, a man who was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy in 2009 from Harvard. The report based most of its findings on Richwine’s Ph.D. thesis that stated hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than the “native white population” of the US, and that the lower IQ would persist for many generations. I recommend going to the Washington Post article I linked to above for direct quotes from the thesis. Oh, and after the outcry over the report, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The purpose of this post is about the article, which states 1200 students petitioned the President of Harvard to probe how Richwine could have been awarded a Ph.D. on a topic such as that with a conclusion such as that. The question raises an interesting conundrum on the interplay of politics, factual veracity, and academic freedom.

Let’s start with the most direct thing: I don’t think his degree should be rescinded unless, upon examination, there is evidence of fraud. All because someone is wrong doesn’t mean that their thesis must be withdrawn after the fact.

With that said, it would be interesting to know who was on the thesis committee, who signed off on the thesis, and possibly what their views are. Which gets into the much murkier area of academic freedom (real academic freedom, not the faux stuff pushed by the “Intelligent” Design movement). The concept of academic freedom is that one should be able to pursue research regardless of how politically incorrect or unpopular it may be.

Clearly, the conclusions in his thesis are unpopular and politically incorrect (unless you’re a Tea Party member). Objectively, I can’t state that he’s wrong because I don’t have the data and haven’t seen studies that speak to the contrary. My gut, and what I’ve seen of other studies throughout the years, would indicate that he IS wrong. In that case, we exit from the area of academic freedom and journey to the area of tainted or incomplete results to bolster a politically motivated conclusion. Journeying to the murky area of where fraud might come in.

To cut this rambling short, I’ve laid out my musings on this subject above. Why am I writing it on the “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” blog? Because I often deal with cases of outright fraud and deceit that are much more obvious (think Hoagland blowing up an image, increasing the brightness, and claiming JPEG compression artifacts are actually cities).

This, however, is a different case: An actual Ph.D., awarded by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, for a thesis that by all indications was done through all the proper hoops and channels, and yet seems to be completely wrong. To the point that over 1000 members of the student body have taken the almost unprecedented step of petitioning both the university President and the dean of the college (School of Government), requesting a probe of how it was awarded.

What are your thoughts on this situation?

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