How frightening is Elizabeth Warren to wingnuts? Scary enough that Breitbart remnant Big Government is running a Very Important four-part series by Micheal Patrick Leahy about Warren’s scholarship. Four parts! Wow! That must really be some dynamite exposé they have, huh? Absolutely, if you consider repeating the same charges from a negative book review over four articles “dynamite.”
Unlike many Breitbart stories that are made up out of pure delusional fantasy, this one actually does at least start with a basis in observable fact: there actually was a minor academic squabble involving the research methodology in a 1989 book about personal bankruptcy co-authored by Warren (along with Teresa A. Sullivan and Jay Westbrook), As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America. Essentially, it boils down to this: in a 1990 review of Warren’s book, Rutgers Law Professor Philip Shuchman took issue with the book’s methodology, and accused the authors of “repeated instances of scientific misconduct” in their survey of individual and family bankruptcies. There’s more, but that’s pretty much the core of the accusation. Shuchman’s review is available on the web, for those hardy enough to plow through it; like many academic book reviews, it argues with both the research design and conclusions of the Warren book, questioning whether the study uses data from a sufficiently representative sample to justify its conclusions, and taking issue with how the authors define their terms. Like many a writer of a negative review, Schuchman really did not like this book.
Ah, but what about that damning phrase, “repeated instances of scientific misconduct”? Is there anything to it? Maybe, if you agree with Schuchman’s critique of the book. Schuchman himself died in 2004, and Leahy quotes extensively from obituaries praising him as a scholar. Surely Schuchman knew what he was talking about, since people said he was a great guy after he died! But the phrase itself is magical, especially if you divorce it, as Leahy gleefully has, from the context of Schuchman’s review article. In the article, it’s perfectly clear that the phrase refers to the methodology and conclusions of a single book. But hey, what happens if we move that phrase into a headline?
Good heavens! She must have been some kind of hideous monster who misconducted science again and again, heedless of the consequences! “Repeated instances” here implies that her whole academic career had to be full of charges of misconduct — and if you glance only at the headline, you might even assume that the problem wasn’t just one bad book review, but a whole charge sheet of academic crimes, made by multiple accusers.
In the best tradition of “Glenn Beck has never denied murdering a girl in the 1990s” logic, Leahy deftly pivots from the fact that Schuchman accused Warren of misconduct to the assumption that any positive mention of her scholarship simply flies in the face of that damning accusation. Thus, each time he mentions a Harvard official extolling Warren’s “excellent scholarship,” Leahy can sneer, Oh yeah? How could she be “excellent” with all those repeated instances of misconduct? At one point, Leahy even takes issue with the opinion of one scholar that Warren’s work was “thoroughly respectable.” Since Harvard was looking for “excellent,” why did they settle for merely “thoroughly respectable,” huh, huh? “Clearly,” he intones, “factors beyond teaching and quality of academic research played a role in her hiring.” Probably something really bad, we bet.
In any case, the specific accusations against Warren’s 1989 book almost don’t matter, except to fans of academic arcana. It’s pretty clear that, despite Leahy’s best efforts to spin it into a massive scandal spanning several institutions, there really isn’t much here beyond what appears to be a long-ago settled scholarly dustup about methodology and conclusions. And in fact, there doesn’t have to be any substance, as long as there’s a long, four-part series that says there’s a scandal — the rightwing blogosphere is already trying to build this into a Thing, and the details are almost immaterial. Several pages just spitting out the phrase “repeated instances of scientific misconduct” is what they’re after, and really, it’s about all they’ve got. And who knows, it worked for “Climategate!”
We do at least appreciate the irony of Breitbart.com trying to damage a political opponent with a story about whether her work demonstrates the highest standards of academic rigor. That takes some Chootzpah.