Is the lure of research grants affecting the quality and integrity of scientific research in our time? Is the dream of being invited to join prestigious societies influencing scientific decisions, including the decision to do research in "acceptable" areas, where grants are available? As we consider the global-warming issue, we must be sensitive to public charges that researchers who do not go along with the "consensus" in the field are denied funding and are often ostracized, called cranks or tools of oil companies.
One prominent scholar at MIT is reportedly so concerned about the power of money to influence scientific work that he seeks out graduate students who are financially independent.
In the invitation society, acceptance becomes a lure that can change whole professions, distort public debate, corrupt the news media and destroy independence in universities. We have seen too many cases to be complacent. We have seen calls for "diversity" in colleges and universities, but the calls never seem to include ideological diversity. We have seen great newspapers turn their news pages into editorials for whatever cause is trendy at the moment.
There are ways to insure conformity, even in scientific research, and they involve money. In President Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961 - the famous speech in which he warned of an "industrial-military complex" - the president also warned of something else, even more relevant to our public concerns in now:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present - and is gravely to be regarded.
In 2002, Brooklyn College decided to deny tenure to K.C. Johnson, an outstanding associate professor of history with ostensibly conservative leanings, because he lacked "collegiality." Even liberal professors were stunned by the introduction into the tenure process of a concept that did not appear in any university rules. Scholars from other institutions, including liberal history icon Alan Brinkley of Columbia, issued a letter saying that "this decision reflects a 'culture of mediocrity' hostile to high academic standards " The letter went on to say:
Introducing a redundant category of collegiality rewards young professors who "go along to get along" rather than expressing independent scholarly judgment. It poses a grave threat to academic freedom, since the robust and unfettered exchange of ideas is central to the pursuit of truth.
Among Johnson's apparent crimes was protesting the makeup of a panel discussing the September 11, 2001, attacks because it contained no scholars who supported American or Israeli policy.
Eventually, the decision was overruled by the City University of New York, which governs Brooklyn College, as The New York Times reported on February 25, 2003:
The City University of New York's board overruled Brooklyn College officials yesterday and granted tenure to a young history professor whose plight had drawn support from academics at several leading universities nationwide.
But the damage was done. A message had been sent to young scholars: Want to be promoted? Invited to the correct salons? Then go along. And that often means going along with the leftist orientation of universities today. That same message has been delivered in a number of ways at institutions throughout the country to teachers who do not have K.C. Johnson's clout. It hardly encourages young scholars who dare to disagree to pursue academic careers.
Universities have influence on public policy. Many of President Obama's highest appointed officials come from university backgrounds. If universities promote an atmosphere of suppression of ideas, and of faculty ideological conformity, how can those backgrounds contribute positively to policy decisions?
Ron Radosh, in his excellent book about Marxists in the movie industry, "Red Star Over Hollywood," wrote that many of those who joined the party in Hollywood didn't really buy the full ideology. The party gave them a place to go, to be accepted, to be invited.
Pack journalism, the term normally given to pressure on journalists to write as a pack, with little or no dissent, is with us today in the coverage of President Obama. As economics writer Robert Samuelson says:
The Obama infatuation is a great unreported story of our time. Has any recent president basked in so much favorable media coverage? Well, maybe John Kennedy for a moment; but no president since. On the whole, this is not healthy for America.
And Samuelson says:
The infatuation matters because Obama's ambitions are so grand. He wants to expand health care subsidies, tightly control energy use and overhaul immigration.
He envisions the greatest growth of government since Lyndon Johnson.
But being skeptical of President Obama may not win many ribbons in the newsrooms of today. Or many promotions.
In looking at the performance of the press, and the goings on in the academy, we sometimes underestimate the impact of the pressure to conform. Journalists and scholars are no less susceptible to that pressure than are teenagers seeking social acceptance. Several years ago, a staff member at the Washington Post revealed that he'd witnessed the newsroom burst into applause on an election night at the newsQ of a Democratic victory. Try being a conservative in that atmosphere.
We say we are a democracy, but a democracy only thrives if nourished by a clash of ideas. "Going along" in colleges or newsrooms destroys the nutrients that make democracy grow.