Harvard has received quite a battering in recent months.
After the student cheating scandal (and the accompanying investigation scandal), we’ve witnessed the Reinhart-Rogoff error-ridden scandal followed by the Ferguson gay-bashing scandal.
Now, we have the scandal of Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation.
All of these scandals involve the production and dissemination of knowledge, and what fascinates me (and a friend with whom I’ve been discussing these issues) is the wide array of arguments that are offered in order to preserve the idea that what happens at Harvard is in fact (to use Louis Althusser’s term) a “knowledge-effect.”*
Consider Zack Beauchamp’s investigation of l’affaire Richwine.
First, of course, Richwine’s dissertation on the genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America must have been legitimate knowledge-work because it was done through the Kennedy School at Harvard and we know that’s a “very serious” place, that has produced “outstanding scholars,” with “kind,” knowledgeable professors (like George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher “Sandy” Jencks) who, of course, are engaged in their own first-rate knowledge-work.
Second, Richwine successfully went through the “normal” steps for achieving a doctoral degree: courses, comps, prospectus defense, dissertation research, and a dissertation defense. And we all know that each of those steps guarantees that knowledge-work is being done and that, in the end, new knowledge has been created.
Third, Richwine used high-quality (for economists, that is) statistical methods, which are considered impeccable, and therefore the work is unassailable in terms of its economic model. It certainly looks like knowledge, because it is produced by a knowledge-producing machine we call statistics and the econometrician says the work was carefully done and that, in itself, suggests the integrity and validity of the work. And, of course, the statistical techniques and economic model are somehow considered independent of the “other stuff”—the race and IQ connections—such that they stand on their own as criteria of knowledge-production.
So, there we have it, all the pieces that make Richwine’s dissertation resemble of piece of knowledge, to display the appropriate knowledge-effect.
And yet. Richwine is now the Heritage Foundation’s former Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies, because it was politically inconvenient to leave him in his post. But Richwine still has his Ph.D. from Harvard.
While the rest of us are left wondering what it is that constitutes the knowledge-effect that serves as the basis of much contemporary work in the social sciences—which, in the name of “good science,” metes out its rewards and punishments to thousands of scholars whose work is measured according to the scholarly standards set by the Harvards of the world; and which determines the fate of millions of Americans through the public policies suggested by the “best and brightest” whose work is taken as knowledge by think tanks and legislators in Washington.
*The knowledge-effect, for those not familiar with the term, was Althusser’s way (e.g., in Reading Capital) of making sense of what Marx called the “mode of appropriation of the world peculiar to knowledge.” Althusser begins with the important distinction between the real-concrete (the real object) and the thought-concrete (the object of knowledge), which is the basis of his critique of all forms of empiricism. He then argues that the criteria for producing knowledge—the knowledge-effect—are internal to the practices of each particular scientific discourse. In this manner, Althusser shifted the terms of discussion, clearly indebted to Foucault’s focus on “epistemes,” from the presumption of an original ground of knowledge (related in one way or another to some real object) to the contemporary mechanisms within specific knowledge practices whereby knowledges are produced and recognized as so many knowledge-effects.