Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Niall Ferguson, history, and punditry

It looks as if Niall Ferguson has been caught being a bad boy, lying about his evidence, and for a Newsweek cover story no less!  I never paid much attention to him. It's one thing to have an ideological slant, we all do, but it's another to be a courtier.   Ferguson crossed that line long ago, becoming just another political pundit, but with history as his shtick. He's basically Victor Davis Hanson for the New Yorker set.

Eric Zeusse, an "investigative historian" (I wish I'd known about that job when I was making career choices), discusses the rarefied world of star pundits in relation to Fareed Zakaria.  We've known that some pundits have staffs working for them ever since the revelations about George Will and his "quote boys."  It is reasonable to have staff to do research, but the volume of material that star pundits produce suggests the staff duties often extend to ghost-writing.  Fareed Zakaria may not have actually been the one who plagiarized, although he will certainly never admit this.  

I would like to be charitable and assume that, like Fareed Zakaria, Ferguson probably got caught up in the punditry machine.  I imagine the pressure of producing reams of politically submissive opinion and analysis, often on areas outside one's expertise, on deadline will wear anyone down.   However, he is accused of lying about and manipulating the evidence.  This has no potential to be explained away by lack of research, carelessness, or sloppy note-taking under pressure.

If the allegations are justified (and they are about matters of fact), The Daily Beast and Newsweek should sack him...and invest in fact-checking departments. However, it is unrealistic to expect Harvard to do the same. It is possible Ferguson's alleged behaviour as a pundit does not extend to his scholarly work, although this work would have to now be treated with caution.  Whether Harvard wants faculty that have been rejected by The Daily Beast is up to them.

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