I have only mentioned William Cronon on this blog once, but I’ve been a strong admirer of his since his amazing book about the intricate relationship between city and countryside, Nature’s Metropolis, came out. It is therefore horrifying to see him get the full Phil Jones treatment.
As always, I will preface my discussion of these matters with a protestation that I favor radical openness and strict reproducibility to the maximum feasible extent in publicly funded research products, with a couple of caveats. The relevant caveat here is that we are talking about research products. Email exchanges are not research products.
Academic life (despite some recent number-fudging that shows unrealistically low hours and high pay for “earth scientists”, which might just possibly be distorted by petroleum geologists, don’t you think…) generally doesn’t pay very well. Its main reward is the blurring of the boundary between work and play. If you want to have any academics at all, you will need to reward them by letting them think for a living, and be wary of slicing their lives into “work time” and “off duty” time. A good professor is a professor in every waking hour. The distinction between funded research, speculative investigation, and goofing off is something that doesn’t enter into the academic life. Some of us should just be whole people. That makes up for the hassles and the reduction in earnings.
And so, a professor writing opinions (short of blatant electoral advocacy, which is widely known to be illegal) more or less relevant to his professional interests is, well, par for the course. The question, here as in Phil Jones’ case and those of other victims of anti-climate-science FOIA persecution, is whether this is a reasonable use of FOIA at all. Is a professor responding to a student email or chatting with a colleague acting as a government functionary?
If this is the case it is a disastrously bad law, as it allows anyone with a gripe against a faculty member of any sort to make a profound nuisance of himself or herself for no legitimate reason. Now, perhaps those who want to shrink government enough to drown it in a bathtub feel the same way about academia. If so, they should say so, and not hide behind a law intended to protect the public from official abuse.
Fortunately, the victim chosen in this instance has a very high profile, as the propagator of the nuisance (who did not even spell Cronon’s name correctly) must have been unaware. Cronon is the current president of the American Historical Association.
For anyone just picking up on the story:
The ‘offending’ blog post, the Times oped and Cronon’s response. Josh Marshall at TPM, James Fallows at the Atlantic, Krugman, etc. etc., but so far the only person I’ve seen tie it back into climate is Alex Steffen.
“Wisconsin GOP tries using FOIA demands for chilling effect at WI universities: http://goo.gl/ehnxY (shades of “ClimateGate” fake scandal)”
So, somebody please tell the movers and shakers on this story that this is not without precedent.
The latest technique used by conservatives to silence liberal academics is to demand copies of e-mails and other documents. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia tried it last year with a climate-change scientist, and now the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing it to a distinguished historian who dared to criticize the state’s new union-busting law. These demands not only abuse academic freedom, but make the instigators look like petty and medieval inquisitors.
Update: See also comment #57 on Krugman’s piece for further precedent.