August 8, 2006

"After the public realizes I’m right ... my chances of getting a job will be better.”

The Badger Herald -- which is mostly on summer hiatus -- has a new article on the Kevin Barrett controversy. The student reporter, Joanna Pliner, obtained this quote from UW Provost Patrick Farrell (who made the decision to retain the 9/11 denialist):
“I think the political correctness — or non-political correctness — of his views outside the classroom … should not have an impact on whether or not he’s allowed to teach."
Political correctness?

The Herald, unlike various local newspapers, calls attention to the political criticism that comes not just from Republican legislators, but from the Democratic governor Jim Doyle, whose spokesperson is quoted as saying, "The governor would have come to a different decision than the university." Presumably, that means Doyle would have fired Barrett. (Doyle is up for reelection this fall.)

Also quoted is Donald Downs, the UW political science professor who is president of the Committee of Academic Freedom and Rights:
Downs said he does not believe Barrett’s theory at all and does not know anybody at the university who does, “left, right or center.”

But despite that fundamental disagreement, Downs said he still supports Barrett’s employment.

“We want professors to be intellectually responsible, but we also want professors to be intellectually honest,” Downs said. “We want the envelope pushed; we want people to stick their necks out if it is done with intellectual integrity. Otherwise it could cause a watered-down education.”
Most amusingly, Barrett himself is quoted, saying he plans to seek a permanent job here at the UW: "After the public realizes I’m right ... my chances of getting a job will be better.”

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: he's crazy. I think I know what Farrell is thinking: swathe this loser in academic freedom rhetoric, then hunker down and wait for the semester to end. But meanwhile:
More than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East, according to a new Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll.
Don't assume Barrett's ideas are obviously only a crackpot fringe theory. The 9/11 conspiracy theory has the power to propagate.
Suspicions that the 9/11 attacks were "an inside job" ... quickly have become nearly as popular as decades-old conspiracy theories that the federal government was responsible for President John F. Kennedy's assassination and that it has covered up proof of space aliens....

University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of the book "Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture," said the poll's findings reflect public anger at the unpopular Iraq war, realization that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and growing doubts of the veracity of the Bush administration....

The poll found that a majority of young adults give at least some credence to a 9/11 conspiracy compared to less than a fourth of people 65 or older. Members of racial and ethnic minorities, people with only a high school education and Democrats were especially likely to suspect federal involvement in 9/11.
I think the university ought to do something big this fall to respond to the situation. If you really care about free speech -- and I think the university does -- you believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. I would like the university to present speakers this fall on at least two subjects: 1. Why and how conspiracy theories originate and spread, and 2. Debunking the 9/11 conspiracy theories. In the second category, I would like to see Barrett on the stage with experts in engineering, who would make his lack of expertise very obvious to the audience.

38 comments:

Dave said...

"If you really care about free speech -- and I think the university does -- you believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech."

Well, thanks for your speech on the subject. At least not all of the academy is crazy!

El Presidente said...

My Secret Service suggested placing an Agent Provocateur in a respected U.S. University to undermine the Norte Americano's will to war.

I told them it was too crazy to work.

Guess it was crazy enough to work.

JohnK said...

"If you really care about free speech -- and I think the university does -- you believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech."

Do you really think that Anne or do you just want to believe that? I have never been to UW so feel free to correct me but I just don't see many universities caring about free speech. I will make a bet with you that UW doesn't do anything of the sort that you suggest. They won't bring in anyone to debunk the 9-11 conspiracy theories because to do so might make Muslims uncomfortable or the people giving such speeches might be (gasp) republicans or worse yet neocons.

I have to admire you lack of cynicism about UW. I wish I could share it.

Mike said...

Ann said: "I would like to see Barrett on the stage with experts in engineering, who would make his lack of expertise very obvious to the audience."

Very obvious to the 40% who believe the government is hiding the existance of space aliens?

I'm beginning to lose my faith in "the remedy for bad speech is more speech". I am beginning to believe, in a case like this, the appropriate role of a University should be to proclaim "you people are dumb as posts."

These poll results are very depressing. I hope they are inaccurate.

Lawpolprof said...

Wisconsin actually does have a long history of supporting free speech and individual rights. Not that there have not been threats (student and faculty speech codes, anonymous reporting boxes, "professional" conduct requirements in the medical school), but speech and rights have generally been on the winning side at UW. See, for example, Donald A. Downs, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (2005). Downs' main point is that speech and rights advocates must become activists in their own right to combat the political activism that has lead to speech codes and other rights threats.

SteveR said...

I can't get past the thought that 1/3 of Americans think, the government "allowed" 9-11 to happen as an excuse to go to war. I don't know where these people are because I been around and never met anyone that stupid.

Of course I don't talk to wild animals or inanimate objects so maybe my data set is too restricted. I'll go home tonight and talk to the apple tree in my back yard and see what it thinks.

PatCA said...

Your idea for a class on conspiracy thinking is spot on. But conducting this class would mean that the university would have to address the merits of Barrett's argument, not just his right to make it, and you can see from Farrell's comments that he will never do that. The mantra of the leftist academy is that there is no truth any more--it's all a matter of what truth you choose to believe, and all truths are equal. Thus, every argument turns on its political correctness.

This is evil.

ray_g said...

"conspiracy theories that the federal government was responsible for President John F. Kennedy's assassination and that it has covered up proof of space aliens...."

Actually, and I am not making this up, some in the UFO community think that JFK was assassinated as part of the cover up of proof of space aliens - it is suggested that JFK was going to spill the beans to the public.

Jake said...

What ever happened to intellectual capacity and scholarship in deciding whether to hire a professor?

I should apply as a math professor. I could just show them my work that contains nothing but formulas that are wrong. This would give me the same qualifications as Kevin Barrett.

Pogo said...

Ann's approach would go a long way to rehabilitating UW Madison's image.

Unfortunately, it now needs rehab. Best intervene now before it needs tube feedings, too.

Murph said...

Ann:

Let’s see:

1. How many people believe a Navy missile brought down TWA 800?
2. Jonestown was a CIA mind control experiment gone wrong.
3. JFK was killed to cover up UFO alien secrets.
4. Princess Diana was killed by MI6 as revenge from Queen Elizabeth.
5. The 1969 moon landings were staged by NASA from Area 51.
6. “Men in Black” was actually a documentary.
7. JFK had Marylyn Monroe killed to hush up their tryst.
8. Ronald Reagan invented AIDS.
9. George Bush caused 9/11 to engineer a Republican takeover of the world.
10. Green M&M’s make you sexy.


Instead of laughing at Professor Barrett perhaps we should scold him for his lack of vision. The list of available lesson plans is endless.

Murph

Tibore said...

"I would like the university to present speakers this fall on at least two subjects: 1. Why and how conspiracy theories originate and spread, and 2. Debunking the 9/11 conspiracy theories."

Yeah, but who's got the time? I mean, that's not a speech that can be thrown together in just a week or so. Has anyone taken a more than cursory look at how many, and how detailed and long some of these conspiracy fantasies are? Would anyone be able to dedicate the time needed to even debunk one aspect of one fantasy that someone might actually be expert in? Take a look at this link called "PhysOrg" (A Physics forum). The big conspiracy fantasist claims both physics and math degrees and credits in graduate level math (granted, he might be lying, but you'd think a person falsely claiming physics and math expertise in a physics and math forum would get called on such expertise pretty quickly). It's taking other physics/math students, teachers, "experts", whatever serious effort to address his posts. And that's just that one, specific topic (heat, jet fuel, melt steel, account for towers collapse). What about all the other narratives out there? How much effort to address them?

Does anyone actually make 9/11 Conspiracy Fantasy their area of study, even at least part time? No, I'm not talking Barrett, I'm asking who studies the conspiracies as a topic themselves, not who takes the conspiracies as a given, as actual fact, then works from there. Because diving into the details of what some of these fantasists put out there would take more than a few hours on a weeknight to work through, and that's after you've thrown out all the obviously stupid stuff.

Plus, who'd be willing to confront the fantasists, and risk being their email, phone, web, and snailmail target for years to come?

I'm not saying that the Professor's suggestion shouldn't be taken. What I'm saying is that involvement would be more than just a speech in a given semester. The fantasies morph quicker than that, plus the sheer amount of info that would need to be addressed makes this more than a one-off lark. Someone would need to dedicate real time to being a conspiracy fantasist opponent.

--

P.S. For those that noticed: I no longer call these narratives conspiracy "Theories". What little scientific training I have - undergraduate degree in Chemistry, minor in Bio - makes me recoil in horror at debasing the term "theory" in conjunction with the dribble that's out there.

Gaius Arbo said...

The remedy for insanity of this nature is not readily apparent to the casual reader. But facts can help:

Steel yield strength reduces to 20 percent of its initial (room temperature) value and ultimate tensile strength is reduced to 40 percent of its initial value at 600 °C. Concrete compressive strength is reduced to between 30 percent and 50 percent of its initial value. Concrete tensile strength, which is already low, is also reduced to 30 percent.

From the NIST final report on the WTC collapse.

Editor Theorist said...

SHNS says: The poll found that a majority of young adults give at least some credence to a 9/11 conspiracy compared to less than a fourth of people 65 or older. Members of racial and ethnic minorities, people with only a high school education and Democrats were especially likely to suspect federal involvement in 9/11.

I say - in other words, people relatively lacking in experience. I cringe when I think about what I used to believe when young (I mean, up to age 35) - luckily, we keep learning and most of us live long enough to develop some common sense. But it _is_ slower to learn common sense when, like me, you are an academic and in a state of 'psychological neoteny'.

Ann Althouse says: If you really care about free speech -- and I think the university does -- you believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech.

I say: I don't think this has anything to do with freedom of speech in the constitutional sense. University teaching is not a matter of allowing lecturers freedom to teach whatever they want in front of captive audiences of (mostly) inexperienced students - never has been, never should be. College teachers must teach to a curriculum, and the curriculum must be approved by their peers.

The blame for allowing Barrett to teach 9/11 conspiracy theories to UW students lies with his head of department or whoever approved the curriculum and continues to approve it.

Palladian said...

"More than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East"

Thinking that federal officials assisted the 9/11 terrorist attacks is very different than thinking they took no action. Both are stupid theories, but they're still quite different and I hope weren't lumped together as a poll question.

"the poll's findings reflect public anger at the unpopular Iraq war, realization that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and growing doubts of the veracity of the Bush administration...."

So... wait. The evil geniuses behind the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 terrorist attacks so brilliantly and secretly that there's no credible evidence of them doing so, yet they were unable to cover up the lack of WMDs in Iraq? Would an evil genius regime who could stage 9/11 not be able to gin up some rusty WMDs after years spent in a chaotic country thousands of miles away? Ah, but maybe that's all part of THE MASTER PLAN.

Conspiracy theories are the way the weak-minded are reassured that there is order and control in the universe. The idea that human events are not being controlled by kings or presidents or aliens is just too horrifying. For these dullards, believing stupid things is better than facing the void.

Jeff said...

"Wisconsin actually does have a long history of supporting free speech and individual rights"

Right, the original home of "speech codes".

knoxgirl said...

Ann, I think your suggestions are good, given that this guy has been hired. I see two big problems, though:

UW doesn't seem to be saying "We regret our decision and acknowledge our mistake." ...making Barrett's views look even more like they are legitimate;

and no matter WHAT experts or evidence can be dug up to disprove a conspiracy theory, the theorist will just randomly make up another far-fetched story to explain it away. How much should serious people really be expected to dignify this crap with a response?

RogerA said...

While the conspiracy theory angle is always interesting, this incident says much more about academic governance--Academe is one of the few institutions I know where academics can rise thru a hierarchy to run major, multi-millian dollar institutions--and, who in many cases, have absolutely no training or education in management skills. I suppose one could argue that running faculty committees and academic departments might constitute preparation, but somehow I dont think that is genuinally adequate preparation. How else to explain the absolute tone-deafness of the academic chair, the college dean, and the provost, who let this Barrett thing spin out of control?

Russ said...

Kevin Barrett has a right to free speech just as every American does.
The problems lies with using taxpayer Dollars to fund his far reaching theory.
If he were floating the idea at a private university it would be a different story.
The time has come to ask taxpayers if they are willing fund way out conspiracy theories with their money.

stephenb said...

PatCA said: "...there is no truth any more--it's all a matter of what truth you choose to believe, and all truths are equal. Thus, every argument turns on its political correctness."

True. Sad...but true.

UW Student said...

Ann, the lecture series is a great idea, and I've written to the barrettissue address to suggest it. I didn't credit you, but only because I thought if they got a million emails saying "hey, this one prof had a great idea!" they might take it less seriously, figuring it reflects the opinions of a single fan base rather than UW community members at large.

UW Student said...

To those who have commented that academics believe there is no real truth: In my field, at least, this is patently false. Scholars may not agree on what the truth is -- but by and large they agree that there is one, and that through careful study, we approach it asymptotically. Without this bedrock belief, what on earth is the purpose of scholarship? Why write one thing if you believe that another is equally true? You can be sure that Barrett believes there is deep truth and, moreover, that he alone has got it. Such is the way of fanatics of all political persuasions, actually.

I also take extreme exception to the notion that liberals have the monopoly on empty-headed intellectual relativism that seeks to manipulate "truth" for political ends. See: creationism in schools; the repeated FDA stalling on Plan B; global warming and James Hansen's NASA career. I might well be willing to vote for Republicans if the current set hadn't made me completely cynical about their contact with reality.

tjl said...

Ann said,
"I would like to see Barrett on the stage with experts in engineering, who would make his lack of expertise very obvious to the audience."

I don't think it would make much difference to Barrett and the true believers in his bogus theories. As PatCA points out, relativism has won completely. In academic circles, there is no longer any such thing as "truth," merely competing "narratives" of equal validity, from which you may choose the one that best supports your world view.

In this climate, belief trumps mere facts. It's reminiscent of Gibbon's take on late Rome as "the triumph of barbarism and religion."

UW Student said...

One more comment -- tjl, I'm sure you're right that no expert will convince Barrett that he's a nutjob, but that's not the point of a discussion forum. The point is to convince the non-fanatics, which I can tell you with certainty is the vast majority of the student body. If no one you hang out with has ever had his mind changed by empirical data or rational argument, perhaps you need to get some new friends ;).

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

We love you too, Sip.

Simon said...

I agree with Sippican's comments, to some extent, but let me add this reply to PatCA, who said:

"But conducting this class would mean that the university would have to address the merits of Barrett's argument, not just his right to make it, and you can see from Farrell's comments that he will never do that."

Worse yet, they have addressed the merits of Barrett's argument, not just his right to make it. They addressed it when they hired him (it is hard to imagine Barrett keeping his mouth shut about what he intended to teach), and they have addressed it every day since it became clear what Barrett intends to teach in which they fail to fire him. UW has lent its imprimatur to Barrett's theory; they keep attempting to evade this by making this a question of "free speech" or "academic freedom," but the plain and ineluctable fact of the matter is this: they have explicitly told Barrett that he can teach his theory to UW students in a UW classroom while getting a UW paycheque for doing so. This idea that they have done so much to facilitate teaching the theory yet do not approve of it - tacitly or otherwise - is a conceit at best and a sham at worst.

More speech is not going to fix this. More prevaricating is not going to fix this. More handwringing about academic freedom or free speech is not going to fix this. How can it possibly be thought that it will? If the press is bad now, how much worse will it get if Barrett ever actually steps into the classroom? UW's reputation is hæmorrhaging over this, and surely there's only one thing that's going to staunch the bleed: to remove their imprimatur from Barrett and his course by firing him. It seems to me that that is the only way they can make this right and start fixing their image.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

I kind of believe the 30+% number but that doesn't necessarily mean anything, as we've seen similar numbers for other whacko stuff, as someone noted above.

But you know, you can assume a lot of Democrats believe it (whatever % of the population they are)( plus a lot of hard-right whackaloons (same % that believes Waco and OK City were plots to Take Away Our Guns). A LOT of blacks I knew on a web forum were certain Bush Did It™ within minutes of the first Tower being hit.

SippicanCottage said...

The average person has never heard on the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Trust me; no one's more average than me.

What a shame it is that the public face of your university is now that of one Mr. Barrett. The only reason a media outlet calls up the other faculty is to ask: What do you think of Professor Barrett? Have you got any thermite on you?

Look at what't going on there, right down the hall, that people might hear of instead of that crapweasel if you people had the sense to put him on the curb straight off:
Something besides thermite and BDS at UW

bearbee said...

Official Presbyterian Publisher Issues 9/11 Conspiracy Book

Valerie Hans said...

"If you really care about free speech -- and I think the university does -- you believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech."

Great idea Ann! I don't like the prospect of Barrett having another opportunity in the spotlight, but I really like the idea of a series of talks about the lure of conspiracy "theories." We could all learn something.

knoxgirl said...

once again Sippican says something I wish I had!

except maybe this part:
Your institution, like many others, is already in the shitter. You've only now gotten around to looking in the bowl after you're through. That's Barrett floating in there.

apt, but gross me back to the stoneage~

T J Olson said...

I'm with JonhK, an I live in a major university town, still defending and embracing the rediculous Ward Churchill )ie, Boulder, Colorado - University of Colorado):

"I just don't see many universities caring about free speech. I will make a bet with you that UW doesn't do anything of the sort that you suggest. They won't bring in anyone to debunk the 9-11 conspiracy theories because to do so might make Muslims uncomfortable or the people giving such speeches might be (gasp) republicans or worse yet neocons."

T J Olson said...

"SippicanCottage said...


"Barrett is not a looming danger to UW education. Barrett is the product of a UW education. Your institution, like many others, is already in the shitter."

THE latter is my experience at University of Colorado, Boulder. And to the above previous point, Barrett is the protege of a UW-Madision Islamonazis apologist - a tenured proponent of denail of Islamic imperialis. Thus, Barrett really believes tha Bali- London- Madrid bombings were all CIA jobs.

So much for any guarding of the hen house - just like wth Ward Churchill, these people have been invited , promoted and succored so long, the university don't know "up" from "down," or a turkey from a prize.

el presidente said...

I agree with fighting speech with more (and better) speech. You can always, however, wait until they hang themselves with their own words.

The problem would be to actually get Barrett to engage in such discourse. Like Ward Churchill at my alma mater, these nuts are harder to pin down than nailing jelly to the wall--they might agree, and then inevitably withdraw with some fake emergency.
No dialogue.
No discussion.
Just as they like it.

Pogo said...

The clock ticks away, and Barrett remains. Farrell tries to talk tough, but not very believably. The lack of outcry from fellow teachers at UW Madison (except Althouse) exposes their credulity and suggests support.

So the far left gains further distance from reality, and seems as if it will believe damn near anything, as long as it involves Bush behind the curtain, pulling the levers.

The left has long believed in false economics (Marxism), false philosophy (Sartre, Foucauld), and now false science (physically impossible conspiracy theories). It's as if the John Birch Society had taken over the GOP in the fifties, instead of being an obscure nuthouse. My God, how shameful it's become..

UWhank said...

So does that mean that accademic integrity or honesty says that we should allow scientology taught in the classroom, or alien abductions, or even religious theories such as that Christ's descedents live amongst us... at taxpayer expense?

Each of these ideas has an equal amounts of "evidence" to support them and the followers (in the former two cases anyway - who are certainly wearing their tin foil hats) come out in droves to support the claims...

Freedom of speech is the calling card of the United States - and always should be - as such, no one is stopping Mr. Barrett from donning a sandwich board and holloring from the pulpit on Library Mall - enough of the anti-gay and pro-choice people do so on a regular basis -

the tax payer should not have to stomach the blatantly untrue - where does it stop otherwise? Will there be a lecturer next year who claims that Dumbledore and Mcgonagall were instrumental in the rise to power of Voldemort? This is equally as absurd