Exemplar organisations, moral dilemmas and academic freedom

Marginal Revolution writes about a new NBER paper from Roland Fryer and Freakonomist Steven Levitt. The summary says (full text of the paper here):

The Ku Klux Klan reached its heyday in the mid-1920s, claiming millions of members. In this paper, we analyze the 1920s Klan, those who joined it, and the social and political impact that it had. We utilize a wide range of newly discovered data sources including information from Klan membership roles, applications, robe-order forms, an internal audit of the Klan by Ernst and Ernst, and a census that the Klan conducted after an internal scandal. Combining these sources with data from the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses, we find that individuals who joined the Klan were better educated and more likely to hold professional jobs than the typical American. Surprisingly, we find few tangible social or political impacts of the Klan. There is little evidence that the Klan had an effect on black or foreign born residential mobility, or on lynching patterns. Statistical analysis, however, suggests that any direct impact of the Klan was likely to be small. Furthermore, those who were elected had little discernible effect on legislation passed. Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization built through a wildly successful pyramid scheme fuelled by an army of highly-incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand.

My view? I can think of another example of this kind.

Another 70-80 years and Fryer and Levitt, if they were to stay alive, would be writing similar ‘case studies’ in how al-Qaeda is an exemplar of an organisation driven not by rigid structures and hierarchy but overpowering leadership and vision; how that vision creates its own incentives and enterprise in ’employees’ who seek to deliver the organisation’s mission in any way possible; how it is an exemplar multinational organisation which truly lives up to ‘think global, act local’; how it is “a social organization built through a wildly successful pyramid scheme fuelled by an army of highly-incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand“.

In today’s political correctness ridden world, it is difficult sometimes to remember that this freedom of expression is what attracts many to academia in the first place. The freedom to explore everything and not to let the dominant morality of the times limit that freedom! Long may it live.

5 thoughts on “Exemplar organisations, moral dilemmas and academic freedom

  1. Levitt’s popular economics work has actually interested me and inspired me to consider issues and data from unconventional perspectives. Why waste the time and intellectual effort on a topic such as this? What would be the purpose of trying to minimize the demonization of a group founded upon and existing for the sole purpose of race-based and religion-based hatred and terror campaigns? I cannot think of a single validating reason for the exercise of this academic freedom; why not do what other outspoken intellectuals do, which is criticize the tyranny of governments and other authority figures, rather than revisit this group’s paper trail and claim that there are numbers and statistics to prove that it really wasn’t as bad as we thought it was? I just don’t see the point, do you?

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  2. Levitt’s popular economics work has actually interested me and inspired me to consider issues and data from unconventional perspectives. Why waste the time and intellectual effort on a topic such as this? What would be the purpose of trying to minimize the demonization of a group founded upon and existing for the sole purpose of race-based and religion-based hatred and terror campaigns? I cannot think of a single validating reason for the exercise of this academic freedom; why not do what other outspoken intellectuals do, which is criticize the tyranny of governments and other authority figures, rather than revisit this group’s paper trail and claim that there are numbers and statistics to prove that it really wasn’t as bad as we thought it was? I just don’t see the point, do you?

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  3. Worth: Thanks for your thoughts.

    That is the interesting thing about academia. A lot of work is sometimes pointless (I write about many Duh! studies that appear in journals over on my other blog..) but when academics have visibility, they get published, they attract funding and become legends in their own lunchtime (or departments, if not wider world, the bookstores or the blogosphere).

    I do not know what the point of this exercise was for Fryer and Levine. May be to extend Levine’s Freakonomic portfolio? I posted this on the PumpHandle and the academic there was a tad annoyed. May be this is the reaction Fryer and Levine set out to get?

    But overall I think it also serves to show what research and advanced scholarship should ideally be about but what is all too frequently forgotten. To learn to question and to challenge existing framing.

    The bigger message, that at least I am willing to take, is that to characterise terrorism in any reductionist way – I doubt KKK were ever called terrorists – by framing it as a matter arising from certain social classes, certain religions, certain levels of education or achievement is as insufficient and wrong today as it was then. If anything it seems to be that to study al-Qaeda would be the next logical step.

    At some level, are some questions not worth asking? Does everything have to be utilitarian? As an Indian person, where this utilitarian view of education is so ingrained that the alternatives are rarely our default option, I would say yes. I think you are asking the same question. But academia does give the freedom just to explore…

    What they should explore is a moot question. Sometimes funders influence that; sometimes personal agendas too; sometimes individuals’ own political views do; or a host of other reasons do too. Pure inquiry is probably non-existent which is why such papers confuse and upset people.

    I think you will find the comments section on Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog quite interesting too.

    Thanks!

    Like

  4. Worth: Thanks for your thoughts.

    That is the interesting thing about academia. A lot of work is sometimes pointless (I write about many Duh! studies that appear in journals over on my other blog..) but when academics have visibility, they get published, they attract funding and become legends in their own lunchtime (or departments, if not wider world, the bookstores or the blogosphere).

    I do not know what the point of this exercise was for Fryer and Levine. May be to extend Levine’s Freakonomic portfolio? I posted this on the PumpHandle and the academic there was a tad annoyed. May be this is the reaction Fryer and Levine set out to get?

    But overall I think it also serves to show what research and advanced scholarship should ideally be about but what is all too frequently forgotten. To learn to question and to challenge existing framing.

    The bigger message, that at least I am willing to take, is that to characterise terrorism in any reductionist way – I doubt KKK were ever called terrorists – by framing it as a matter arising from certain social classes, certain religions, certain levels of education or achievement is as insufficient and wrong today as it was then. If anything it seems to be that to study al-Qaeda would be the next logical step.

    At some level, are some questions not worth asking? Does everything have to be utilitarian? As an Indian person, where this utilitarian view of education is so ingrained that the alternatives are rarely our default option, I would say yes. I think you are asking the same question. But academia does give the freedom just to explore…

    What they should explore is a moot question. Sometimes funders influence that; sometimes personal agendas too; sometimes individuals’ own political views do; or a host of other reasons do too. Pure inquiry is probably non-existent which is why such papers confuse and upset people.

    I think you will find the comments section on Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog quite interesting too.

    Thanks!

    Like

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