Quackery tolerance – a learned response

Academic politeness turns to the vicious  This is more on the theme of academic and postmodern roots of sectarianism-quackery’s advance on medicine. I illustrate through the personal experience of a noted combatant – Mary Lefkowitz – in the front lines of the war with intellectual and academic buffoonery passing as scholarship. The joke is not in the buffoonery, though. The joke is turning on us.

Some of you are familiar with Prof.Lefkowitz’s academic dispute from publicity last spring. Prof. Lefkowitz is on the list of academic opponents to relativism and postmodernism. Lefkowitz’s travail began in 1993 when another Wellesley faculty member who led a department or course of Africana Studies claimed in lectures that ancient Greek and Roman intellectual advances were lifted from libraries and other sources of ancient Egypt, and that furthermore, those Egyptians were black Africans.

You recognize this as Afrocentrism, one of relativism and postmodernism’s multi-pronged attack on intellectualism and Western civilization. I attended a session on the problem in 1992 (or so) at the AAAS in San Francisco, and did not appreciate or understand what was going on, or why the raised rhetoric and voices. I do now, especially having read excerpts from Lefkowitz’s book, History Lesson, published earlier this year.

Pertinent accountings of History Lesson’s contents can be read in a number of reviews last spring and summer, from the Times of London to NYT and WSJ. Much of this post comes from those reviews, as I did not locate a copy of the book in time. (I’m ordering it.)

Back to Prof. Lefkowitz. As an authority and a scholar of Greek and Roman civilizations, she had opposed this Afrocentric historical claim in essays and books. (one titled Not Out of Africa.) She also attempted to have the title of Martin’s course changed. Several exhanges through writings and university committees ensued. Martin eventually sued Lefkowitz for defamation because she recounted publicly a witness‘s account of a confrontation between Martin and a female student. Martin felt Lefkowitz defamed him.

The details sketched: At a meeting in a residence hall, Martin stood to go to a bathroom, and the student, who was responsible for implementing the hall’s policy that someone accompany persons in the dorm asked Martin who would accompany him through the hall. Martin took it as a racial slur and berated the student. Here is where accounts differ, as Lefkowitz described a witness’s account that Martin threatened the student, who fell to the floor, whereupon Martin bent over her, continuing to harangue. Martin denied doing that. So he sued his adversary for defamation.

After four years of motions to dismiss, denials, appeals of denials and so forth, a judge panel threw out the case. But not before the Wellesley administration distinguished itself by not taking sides., and by refusing even to consider the teaching of falsified history and false information. I do not know about the present status of teaching such claims, but many of us remain amazed that under academic freedom, such pap can be taught to naïve, malleable undergraduates, who do not have the maturity or knowledge to evaluate what is being taught.

In looking for causes of the present institutionalization of quackery, its renaming, and recent acceptance in medical schools, we have the perfect storm of a predecessor. Academic correctness and the failure to define, recognize and distinguish fakery and implausibility.

Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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6 thoughts on “Quackery tolerance – a learned response

  1. James Fox says:

    A learned response or the fear induced stupidity syndrome?

  2. Wallace Sampson says:

    Apologies for leaving out the Africana Studies professor’s full name – Prof. Tony Martin.
    Also, I do not know the final outcome of the student’s experience although she soon afterward withdrew from Wellesley, reportedly sgnificantly depressed.
    I assume because of the litigation, Dr Martin did not publiclicize his side of the episode. I seached his web page and did not see an original description. However there are entries with negative sounding references to Jews and to the Anti-Defamation League, which defended Dr.Lefkowitz pro bono. They include pages titled: Prof. Tony Martin’s Jewish Onslaught | Jews & the Black Holocaust | Jews in the Sugar Trade | List of Jews in Slavery .
    So the conflict is even more complex and wider than the was original matter of Greek and Roman history. Followers of university political orientation will not be surprised.

  3. DLC says:

    I’ve seen things like this before.
    not everywhere, but sometimes you find a college or university which has fallen victim to their own willingness to be diverse.

    While it’s not really on topic, I saw about a half hour of the
    movie “PCU” on cable.

  4. tarran says:

    The problem is one that is inherent to movements that view people as being part of a collective. African studies professors (in my limited experience) have an axe to grind; they feel that people with black skin have been dismissed and/or put down by post-enlightenment western culture. While there is some truth to this claim, the solution – to build a course of study that is focused on opposing the hostility – is an intellectual disaster. By being opposed to something, and by having as its mission the rehabilitation of people based on skin color rather than accomplishments, it becomes a system not of rational inquiry but of prejudice – ideas are not judged on their merits as observed in argument and debate but rather by what groups the original proponents of these ideas belong to.

    Rather than adopting the ideas of the enlightenment, many of the movers and shakers seem to throw the baby out with the bath water. The end result is a grotesque parody of academic inquiry.

    An economist I respect greatly, Dr. Walter Block, is involved in a brouhaha right now over his remarks on labor economics and his case demonstrates this parody well. Essentially, he has long argued that people tend to be paid a wage proportional to their marginal revenue product, and that wage differentials between groups is an indication that if one were to average the productivity of members of the various groups one would find a correlation between average wages and average marginal revenue of productivity. The implications of such a theory are discomfiting (for example, his analysis of the Canadian labor market found that the wage gap between men and women correlated with marriage – women and men who eschewed marriage completely had, in the aggregate, identical earnings).

    You can find a sense of what the guy is like by reading his classic“>Defending the Undefendable: The Pimp, Prostitute, Scab, Slumlord, Libeler, Moneylender, and Other Scapegoats in the Rogue’s Gallery of American Society
    , a book that is either hated or loved by everyone I know who has read it.

    His recent talk on the subject in Loyolla College of Maryland trigerred a firestorm of controversy. He was accused of sexism and racism and pilloried in the college newspapers and via email. Exasperated, he wrote the following to his critics:

    Last but not least, states The Loyola College Economics Department: “We appreciate the thoughtful questions and responses we’ve received from members of the Loyola community, particularly its students, and we look forward to continued dialogue on topics of great importance such as this one.” “Continued dialogue?” With whom? Certainly not with me. Nor, I suppose, with anyone who does not share their beliefs. They did not have the courtesy to send me a copy of their letter. They did not have the courage to sign it, individually. Maybe I should apologize for them for these oversights?
    I tell you what, gentlemen. You think I am wrong, mistaken, incorrigible, in my views on the pay gap, wages, discrimination, productivity. There is a tried and true way to settle such disputes in academia: I hereby challenge any of you to a debate on these issues.

    Predictably, the people attacking him are unwilling to debate him. I don’t think any of them had actually attended the lecture in question, and getting to the root of the controversy is not important to them. Rather, they view his arguments as those of an enemy to be rejected out of hand.

    In medicine, the CAM proponents frequently level similar attacks on traditional MD’s, that the traditional MDs are unwilling to examine the CAM proponents’ arguments fairly. However, if one digs more deeply, one sees the same principle in operation, on the surface a willingness to dialogue, but in reality an unwillingness to engage in rational argument – to pretend that certain evidence does not exist or that certain debates never occurred, and that certain papers or studies were never published.

    I don’t think this trend will continue much further, though. Students like debate. They like controversy. I think we are posed to have rational discourse to make a comeback.

  5. Karl Withakay says:

    >>>”I don’t think this trend will continue much further, though. Students like debate. They like controversy. I think we are posed to have rational discourse to make a comeback.”

    Maybe, but in my experience, even in college, students generally aren’t encouraged to think for themselves very much (especially at the lower course levels) and critical thinking skills usually aren’t emphasized enough.

    I think that one of the most important things you can teach a student is how to think critically. Many college students can probably be expected to forget anywhere from a good fraction of, to almost everything they study in college, depending how directly it applies to their subsequent profession and life, but if you teach them how to think critically, that is something that anyone can use every day of their life.

  6. Prometheus says:

    I tend to agree with Karl. As a university professor, I find that the current “crop” of students are generally accepting of whatever their professor says, even if (especially if?) it conflicts with reason and logic.

    I think that these things are cyclical. Students in my generation rejected the ethical teachings of their professor – students today slavishly adopt the ethical teachings of their professors (which tends to be rather left of center). Perhaps the next generation will revert to rejecting their professors’ ethical teachings and will move to either the left or right of them. Only time will tell.

    I have had some personal experience with the current university fads of “tolerance” and “diversity”. In my experience, “tolerance” is only extended to ideas that the university finds acceptable, which is the exact OPPOSITE of tolerance. Likewise, diversity seems to be limited to melanin content of the skin.

    For example: our university currently has more women than men enrolled. When I brought this up at a faculty meeting and suggested that the “diversity” office try to round up a few more male students to “increase the diversity”, my idea was rejected and I was called a number of rude names.

    When I subsequently suggested that the “diversity” office try to increase the political diversity in the Political Science department (which was looking for a faculty member), I was again called rude names.

    When I suggested that a class on “non-Western medical therapies” belonged in the Anthropology department rather than the Biology department, I received a number of rude e-mails (especially after the department declined to sponsor the course).

    The academic “tolerance” of nosensical “science” and “history” is part of the same overall problem – there is a reluctance to “offend” people by pointing out that they are wrong. We can’t expect the students to do that if the faculty won’t.

    A university that allows a faculty member to teach that Greek and Roman civilizations “stole” their culture from Africa (or even Egypt, with the side-claim that Egyptians were black) is failing in their duty to the students.

    Prometheus (not out of Africa, either)

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