Underidentified Expert Opinion: Academia, Nuclear Power, & Genomics
Absolutely fascinating Washington Post Op-Ed via Kevin Drum
about how local op-eds with academic bylines are apparently often ghostwritten by PR firms
, who unfortunately (or fortunately, for the sake of detection) recycle the same pieces over and over again. William Adler, the author of the piece, is a writer and close observer of the nuclear power industry and recognized the language in an op-ed by a local professor of nuclear engineering, about the skimming of nuclear-power fees from their intended destination (the Yucca Mountain project) to the U.S. Treasury. Adler found that the piece of writing had been quite efficiently recycled through the years, and chased its roots down to another scientist, a researcher at Oakridge National labs, who also happened to be a consultant to a nuclear industry PR firm.
The issues this raises are many fold. In Drum's comment section "asdf" writes
, "Are there any enterprising young programmers out there who want to write astroturf detection software?"
Adler himself uses the metaphor of literary DNA, which immediately brought to my mind the work of my friends Nick Bray
and Lior Pachter
, who specialize in hunting for genes in the Genome databases by comparing the large sequences of multiple species
and analyzing the similarities. In fact, Lior and some of his colleagues have been able to posit hypothetical family trees, or histories of descent from common ancestors, for modern species by mathematically comparing many of their genomes at once---a method they've used to find genes hidden from other methods, which I wrote about for the Berkeley Science Review last fall. (PDF here.
) I don't know enough about the computational parameters, but it would be fascinating if someone could use a similar kind of alignment technology to find all the descendants of a PR release and perhaps even map out each one's "mutation history." A possible collaboration between the Math department and the Departments of Mass. Comm., Sociology, Rhetoric or School of Journalism?
It would also be incredibly useful in catching these guys and figuring out which scholars are PR stooges and which are genuinely opinionated. There's nothing innately wrong with academics and scholars working with industry, consulting, etc.--staying isolated in the ivory tower isn't necessarily helpful. But these ties should be disclosed. Having disclosed their ties to industry, faculty can they lay out their case for why and how they aren't necessarily influenced by the people paying them to consult---after all, if they're paid consultants, it could be the corporation that's getting ideas from them, not the other way around. But by hiding these ties, the scholars look
guilty. The first step to understanding when scholars are and are not influenced by corporate connections is being honest about these connections and opening up the conversation.
This is important because it's not good enough to just throw our hands up in the air and decry the use of experts. Several of the commentators in Drum's blog mentioned the book Trust Us, We're Experts
with the cynical tone of people to whom this is old hat. Being cynically well-informed is not good enough, however. The public arena of discussion is vital to an open society and a healthy republic, and if scholars are misleading the public within that arena--especially scholars who are employees of public institutions---they need to be called on it, and the arena needs to be made aware of the problem. If it's not that much of a problem, or not really a problem at all, that needs to be confirmed and explained so that people keep paying attention to the public arena.
I wonder how many of these experts-for-hire have testified before Congress? Google Uncle Sam hasn't yielded any instance of the three experts cited in Adler's artilce testifying for congress, but that does not discount the possibility in general. My friend Colin McCormick
(incidentally the editor of abovementioned issue of BSR
) is now an overworked science fellow with Congressman Ed Markey, trying to fulfill a highly underreported and underappreciated Constitutional mandate of Congress---congressional oversight of the executive branch--in precisely this subject (along with many others) of nuclear safety and nuclear power. Should Colin have to do the extra legwork required to find out that testimony he's evaluating for his boss was written by someone in cahoots with PR firms for the very industries his boss needs to vote on regulations for? Maybe it's not a problem, but we ought to find out.
We ought to find out even if it isn't an issue precisely so that we can put the issue to rest. Cynicism in the public arena ruins the efficiency of the marketplace of ideas, and using the ends to justify the means will often backfire against even the best of causes---ask Brutus, that most honorable of men. As Ray Radlein writes in Drum's comments section
, "You know what really pisses me off about this? I suspect that I would agree with most of the points raised in those letters. I hate it when "my side" of an issue pulls a crappy stunt like this." Causing a shift in policy that's not based on real policy concerns but on public distastes and shudders should not
be the aim of good journalism.