Monthly Archives: August 2015

Lucky Professor Gets to Quit

by Michael Dhar


“Marketing” and “branding” sound like dirty words if you’re a scholar or an artist. I take that back — actual dirty words are awesome if you’re a scholar or an artist. “Marketing” and “branding” sound like compromised ideals if you’re a scholar or an artist, which is much worse than crudely referencing sex or taking the lord’s name in vain. (That just makes you a “cool professor.”)

They’re pretty uncomfortable words to most of us, but something we must generally accept — in the same way most people hate networking, yet still print up business cards. But those academics and artists who hold university positions can set themselves apart; academia is separate from — above, really — all of that. Which is why the resignation of Alice Dreger, in protest of Northwestern University privileging academic branding over academic freedom, must be celebrated as an act of courage and conscience.

Anyway, that’s the press release I might have written were I Prof. Dreger’s publicist (or branding manager, say) . Of course, academia is not separate from marketing — universities must sell themselves, as well. They need brands to attract suckers (I mean, undergraduates). Academic researchers must sell their projects to get funding. Artists must contrive those horrible artist statements. And Alice Dreger’s very act of anti-branding is itself a brilliant act of branding. You see, Dreger has written a book on academic freedom and scientific controversies. Her resignation is priceless press, and it seals her brand as a warrior for intellectual independence. (The book is “Galileo’s Middle Finger” — she’s a cool professor — available now on Amazon!)

To be clear, I don’t suspect any underhanded dealings here — no invented outrage so that she could courageously resign and sell more books. The facts of the incident seem clear: Dreger, a medical humanities and bioethics professor (formerly) at Northwestern, guest-edited an issue of the university’s Atrium magazine, which included an essay about a consensual blowjob between a nurse and a patient. Northwestern said that essay violated the university’s “branding agreement” with the medical school, and had the issue taken down.

That act of censorship inspired the resignation of Dreger, who said, “Academic freedom is always going to cause brand problems. A brand is very much about something specific, and a university has to not be.”

Well, that’s great! It’s just pretty funny how all this rebellious, anti-branding activity bolsters Dreger’s personal brand so perfectly. This quote, from Greg Lukianoff of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), is just priceless:

“I am proud that Alice was willing to take this stand for free expression and academic freedom, and I strongly recommend her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger.

I’m sure he means everything he says there. But I can also just see him holding up a copy of the book at the end of that quote, a big Coca-Cola smile on his face for the cameras.

Because rebellion, of course, is a brand, too. Just walk into any Hot Topic or review youth popular culture since forever (or, at least, the ’50s). Anti-branding is a brand, too. Just look at how well Adbusters and the like have sold the anti-corporate lifestyle.

Anyway, I would like to say fuck Northwestern (I’m a cool professor!) for their act of prudish censorship. But, concomitantly, congratulations to Prof. Dreger on the tremendous ad campaign that fell into her lap. She should be OK — as she has said, she was relatively free to resign her post, because she has income from the book and scheduled appearances. So hopefully that resignation will sell some books. More people need to read about Galileo, anyway.


Don’t Worry, Science Is Still Right

by Michael Dhar

Ready for his portrait.

Scientists across the planet mopped the flop sweat from their brows yesterday and gave each other a series of weary, dorkily off-target high fives.

“It’s OK,” they croaked to one another through parched and bleeding lips, their eyes red from exhaustion and worry. “Everything we believe has NOT been upended. Turns out people didn’t ride around dinosaurs for fun.”

It was possible that the firmaments of geological, astronomical and paleontological science might have been overturned, had not a hero cadre of scientists figured out that a rock-art painting wasn’t of a pterodactyl.

Scientists can now continue to open their books of equations and careful observations, instead of burning them and only reading the one true Book — that is, until the next challenge to all of scientific observation arises. Creationists, however, will have to keep looking for solid evidence. And/or just keep insisting that they’re right. We’ll see which route they choose.

This latest reprieve for science came in the Black Dragon Canyon of Utah, where rock-art drawings by the Fremont peoples had long received what we’ll call “slightly different” interpretations from scientists and creationists. Scientists saw a grouping of several figures, including both people and animals — a reasonable interpretation of the drawings of an agrarian people who lived from about A.D. 1 to 1100. Creationists saw a pterodactyl, which science says lived in the Jurassic period some 150 million years ago, or a pterosaur, which existed as early as 228 million years ago.

Both sides accepted what science had to say about the age of the rock paintings and the Fremont culture. Creationists merely suggested that a depiction of a dinosaur-era flying reptile proved that all of geology and paleontology were wrong about the age of dinosaur bones and the Earth itself.

So both sides had points.

However, recently, scientists made some additional points using little electronic devices — specifically, a portable X-ray fluorescence device and something called a DStretch: with this machine, the scientists could upload a photo of the paintings to a computer, and then use a program to reveal the original pigments, even when time (and some previous researchers’ activities) had obscured them.

The result? The painting, scientists said, portrays separate figures: a couple of people, a sheep, a dog and a snake-like thing. All those individuals had been mistakenly joined together by “chalking” work and, apparently, the capacity for the human eye to see images that aren’t really there. No pterosaur. No pterodactyl. No smoking gun revelation that humans and dinosaurs (and dinosaur-era reptiles, to be precise) co-existed, as a literal interpretation of the Bible would suggest they did.

All snark and satire aside, I really do wonder what proponents of the pterosaur interpretation thought (and still think) it would prove. You’d have to assume that the same scientific method that accurately dated the Fremont people failed epically, hilariously in its estimation of the majority of Earth’s geologic and biological history.

And the evidence to overthrow all that science? People drew a picture that looks like a thing. Even if they had drawn a pterosaur-like creature, a more parsimonious explanation might be that they drew an eagle really badly. (Take a look at how European explorers originally drew African animals.) Or that they had vivid imaginations. As one of the scientists explained, the Fremont people could easily have portrayed mythological creatures, as most civilizations do.

The central absurdity here is that creationists, a group who’s beliefs about reality are based on a text they take on faith, are looking to bolster those beliefs with evidence — evidence that will supplant the entire enterprise of science, the most evidence-based activity, one could argue, in human history. An enterprise whose evidence they will disregard when it violates their faith.

So, if all it takes is faith, if faith is the trump card, why look for evidence? It could betray a subconscious acknowledgement that their method has been roundly defeated, and long ago. Or simply an immature notion of what evidence means: not the testimony of reality, both ugly and beautiful, but a weapon to be selectively activated — something to cherry pick.

The scientists who released the new study apparently had a civil discussion with their creationist counterparts. “We were all very polite to each other,” the archaeologist Paul Bahn said.  

The creationist, however, was not convinced.

He said, ‘No no, no, I’ve had this checked out with infrared, and the whole thing is one single painting. It’s a very detailed painting of a pterodactyl,'” Bahn told Live Science.

His evidence, he insisted, was better.