Excerpt: Scholarship, Scams and Credentials in an Academic House of Cards
In this realm of constructed mythology, actors are hired to play roles in a fake drama designed to divert attention from the war machine’s domination of virtually every facet our global political economy.
Cast in the role of fake left wingers in a fake discourse constructed to wed public consciousness to the political needs of the war machine, we are pointed at pundits who clear the way for the growth of the privatized terror economy. Prominent among them are Sebastien Junger, Christopher Hitchins and Michael Shermer. Let me address the very surprising case of Michael Shermer and the controversy swirling around the nature of his professional relationship with Claremont Graduate University and a number of brand name media venues like TED, Scientific American and the Charlie Rose Show.
I first became vaguely aware of Michael Shermer in 2008 after various factors converged in a way that forced me to examine the available evidence on the background, substance and outgrowths of what transpired in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Like many others who have navigated through the masses of information available on the subject, my survey of primary sources and the secondary literature on 9/11 led me to the unnerving conclusion that virtually every facet of the official conspiracy theory produced within hours of the attacks cannot stand up to close scrutiny. I discuss the interpretive controversies concerning 9/11 in my recent peer-reviewed text, Earth into Property, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The devastating realization that the largest part of the reportage on 9/11 forms the basis of a huge fraud led me to search like a detective for academic figures willing to defend all aspects of a story that is essentially a primal myth constructed to justify the growing aggressions of the world’s dominant war machine. Michael Shermer was one of the few intellectual workers I could identify who seemed ready and willing to defend all elements, large and small, of the official conspiracy theory. There the matter rested until, after a duration of more than two years, I saw a poster at my place of employment, the University of Lethbridge, indicating that Michael Shermer would be coming to give a public lecture. The poster identified our guest as the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University ....
The largest part of Shermer’s oeuvre can be seen as an effort to flatter power, to serve power, and to cover over the darker side of power’s workings. In the tradition of P.T. Barnum, Shermer essentially acts as a new kind of intellectual circus performer, presenting psychological tricks and slights of hand as if these gimmicks were the outcome of genuine scholarly inquiry. His main technique is to finesse an agenda of anti-skepticism in the name of skepticism. His priority seems to be to discredit the works of true skeptics whose quests for deeper truths often cause them to dig beneath the superficialities of commonly-held orthodoxies. ... Shermer dances around the periphery of the academy using it primarily as a prop to promote the impression that his media circus flows from a culture of higher learning. Shermer thrives most robustly in the milieu of TV performance. Among his venues of performance are Larry King, Oprah, Lezza, Unsolved Mysteries, 20/20, The Colbert Report, and the pseudo-intellectual digital platform, TED. Scientific American regularly publishes Shermer’s columns where this commentator assures his readers, for instance, that there are no public health problems that arise from the use of cell phones and that the world’s poor are doing better than ever before.
On September 23, 2010 I invited my graduate student, Joshua Blakeney, to attend the Shermer presentation at our university. ... I was not prepared for the virulence of Shermer’s verbal attacks on the wide array of targets he groups together with his McCarthyesque tactics of guilt by association. Shermer places a tent of his own imagination over a vast array of thinkers who have addressed a broad number of issues. Rather than dealing with individual thinkers as such, or dealing with the specific elements of this or that contention, hypothesis or theory, Shermer simply groups together the targets of his ridicule as an undifferentiated mass of “conspiracy theorists.” For Shermer conspiracy theorists include all those who question the lone gunman theory concerning the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, those who believe that the US moon landing was a staged event, those who address the possibility that Earth has been visited by creatures from outer space, and those who challenge various aspects of the government interpretation of what happened on 9/11. As he conflates all these issues, Shermer projects multiple power point slides showing images of human brains. These images seemed to me to be calculated to convey the message that mental illness forms the common denominator of those Shermer collectively condemns as crazed conspiracy theorists.
Shermer does major violence to the laws of evidence and proof by making vast and unsubstantiated generalizations about so-called conspiracy theorists rather than addressing the diversity of good, bad, or indifferent work done by thousands of investigators exploring scores of circumscribed problems. Shermer’s circus of pseudo-skepticism sets a terrible example for students and junior researchers. They would and should be blocked from advancing up the ladder of professional scholarship if they were to replicate Shermer’s unique brand of materialist evangelization aimed at turning the zeal of his converts against the demonized others. The complex of alleged connections said to link all thinkers with whom Shermer disagrees draws vital intellectual energies away from the tried and true methodology of setting out specific research problems that are narrowly enough defined to be comprehensively addressed with careful reference to relevant academic literature.
Shermer adds insult to injury when he indicates that all those addressing subjects that he has decided are closed to further critical examination belong in the same category as Holocaust Deniers. Here Shermer really crosses the line from mere malevolence into outright slander. As I see it this despicable smear tactic, one too frequently deployed in the effort to discredit those calling attention to certain categories of human rights violation, demeans and exploits the horrific legacy of the Nazi efforts to annihilate European Jewry. Such semantic abuses do severe injustice to the sanctity of the memory of a terrible event in history that illustrates the depths of depravity to which human beings are capable of stooping. ...
Michael Shermer must not be subject to the usual discipline of peer review from academic colleagues. ...In Googling various web pages published by the Claremont Graduate University I came across a list of Adjunct Professors of Economics. Shermer was not on that list. After making this discovery I wrote an E-Mail to Dr. Jean Shroedel, Dean of Claremont’s School of Politics and Economics. Quite quickly, Dean Shroedel wrote back to me, indicating tersely that she had “no idea” who this man Shermer is.
Then I wrote to Joseph C. Hough Jr., Interim President of Claremont Graduate University. On October 11, 2010 in an E-Mail to me Claremont’s current president wrote,
I did not know anything about Professor Shermer until I received your email and did some quick research. Michael Shermer assists Professor Paul Zak of the Economics department in an occasional course in the transdisciplinary studies program of the University. He does not hold any term or permanent appointment in the University. ...
In [one] round of communication, Joshua also received the following E-Mail from Michael Shermer making the weird suggestion that his inability to document the credentials he claims somehow demonstrates he could not be on the pay roll of the CIA. Neither Joshua nor I had ever accused Shermer of working for, or being funded by, branches of the national security state. Nevertheless, the object of our investigative work decided to make the following assertion:
Joshua and I shared some of these letters with interested parties. One of them observed that somebody was responding to our interventions by changing Shermer’s CV and his Wiki article, dropping the phrase “of Economics” from the description of the pseudo-skeptic as Adjunct Professor. We also noticed that the web page announcing Shermer’s talk at the University of Lethbridge had been revised. A new element was added in red print near the top of the relevant page. It announced, “This notice is from the archives of the Notice Board. Information contained in this notice was accurate at the time of publication but may no longer be so.” Was the advertised information really correct at the time of publication? Before he gave his talk on September 23, was Shermer Adjunct Professor of Economics?
As his CV demonstrates, Michael Shermer makes ample use of the phrase, Adjunct Professor, to describe his career. He asserts, for instance, that he was Adjunct Professor in the History of Science at Occidental College between 1989 and 1999. He claims to have been Adjunct Professor in the History of Science at California State University in Los Angeles between 1991 and 1993. The job of Adjunct Professor should be understood as involving considerably less commitment to the academy than that of full-time faculty members. The following explanation from the wiseGEEK website helps explain what is and isn’t involved:
For a university, there are a number of advantages to hiring an adjunct professor. Because an adjunct professor is viewed as temporary, for example, a university can hire a part timer for a single semester to expand its course offerings or to meet student demand for a program which does not have enough staff. Because adjunct professors do not have tenure or other rights, a university can also easily get rid of a professor who does not perform to the university's standard: all the school has to do is decline to renew the professor's contract.
In addition to being essentially disposable in the eyes of many educational institutions, adjunct faculty are also much less costly to hire. They are not entitled to benefits such as health care and retirement plans, and they are usually not given offices. Adjunct professors who do have office space typically have to share the space with other faculty. Most are paid by the unit, and their teaching loads vary from part-time to overloaded. They also do not have administrative duties, meaning that they do not need to attend faculty meetings and similar events, and most are not required to perform research or to publish work unless they are interested in seeking full time work. Some people actually prefer working as adjunct faculty because they enjoy teaching, but dislike the academic rat race associated with tenure and full time responsibilities.
As best as I can understand it at this point, Shermer’s response to the positions of Dr. Shroedel and Dr. Hough seems to be to admit he has been incorrect in his frequent references to himself as Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont. While he has dropped “of Economics” from his self-description, however, he has not backed away from calling himself Adjunct Professor. Shermer’s primary ally and supporter at Claremont is Professor Paul Zak. Professor Zak has been nicknamed Dr. Love at his school for his devotion to the benefits he claims for the hormone oxytocin. In his Claremont biography published by the School of Politics and Economics, Professor Zak is attributed with being instrumental in the invention of the new field of “Neuroeconomics.” In Professor Zak’s world of Neuroeconomics commerce and sex both work best when fuelled by abundant oxytocin. The claim is advanced that “oxytocin allows us to determine who to trust.”
On October 10 Professor Zak wrote to Joshua Blakeney,
Josh, Dr. Shermer is an adjunct Professor in my dept. Please leave me out of all future emails.
Apparently Shermer has been team teaching with Professor Zak a single course entitled Evolution and Society. The course is part of something called Transdisciplinary Studies. In a Claremont press release dated 29 November 2007, Michael Shermer is referred to as follows:
Though Shermer has over twenty years of experience of collegiate teaching experience, his writing and publishing duties have kept him out of the classroom since 1998. When he remarked to his friend, School of Politics and Economics Professor Paul Zak, that he was itching to return to teaching, the idea of a return to Claremont Graduate University took shape.
The project of salvaging Shermer’s reputation as an Adjunct Professor of something at least, if not economics, was joined by my own Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge. On October 14 Dean Chris Nicol wrote to me, with a copy to Joshua Blakeney, as follows:
Dr. Wendy Martin, the Vice-Provost and Director, Transdisciplinary Studies at CGU, wrote on October 11, 2010, confirming that the credentials and affiliation of Dr. Shermer are clear, that Dr. Shermer has taught as an adjunct professor for the past two spring semesters at CGU, and that he is currently scheduled to do so again in 2011. Dr. Martin stated that Dr. Shermer is “indeed currently an adjunct at CGU.”
The confusion and conflicting signals concerning the precise nature of Michael Shermer’s relationship with Claremont seems to go on and on. In a recent press release put out by the Claremont Board of Trustees, for instance, Shermer is referred to as a an “alumnus” under a large headline proclaiming, “Paul Zak will make his debut on OWN Network in January.” The press release continues, “SPE professor and chair of the Economics department, Paul Zak, and CGU alumnus Michael Shermer, will be featured on one of the debut programs of the new Oprah Winfrey Network when it debuts in January, 2011.” ...
What trust can we put in some of our key institutions of scholarship and communications when we see basic principles of meritocracy sacrificed in order to serve the expediencies of power?