A Low Bar

by Kieran Healy on March 2, 2004

Via Volokh comes news of the controversial firing by Penn State Altoona of Professor Nona Gerard. Penn State aren’t talking about it. Erin O’Connor gives the Prof’s side of the story. Gerard was dismissed, it seems, for making what in diplomatic circles would be called a full and frank assessment of her colleagues. The details of what she said do not appear to be public. Given the lack of information I make no judgment either way, though on its face firing tenured Professors because they are opinionated jerks seems to set a dangerous precedent. Eric Rasmusen, whom you may remember is everyone’s favorite homophobic economist, is on Gerard’s side. He comments:

We see also that her criticism was indeed stinging. Her mere words were so effective that they led one person to retire and another to resign. To me, that implies that her criticisms must have had merit—otherwise, why react so strongly?

Revealed preferences strike again! It must be true, otherwise why are you reacting like that? QED! My students sometimes try a variant of this idea, viz, “You’re only giving me an F because You Can’t Handle The Truth, man.” It’s a useful rule to live by, especially late at night, in bars, when talk turns to the personal qualities of people’s mothers.



Ralph Luker 03.03.04 at 2:58 am

Would you mind to unpack this just a bit for me, Kieran? What you’ve written is certainly clever, but I’m not sure where it leads, either about Rasmusen’s argument or Gerard’s dismissal.


DJW 03.03.04 at 3:04 am

I read this as another mockery of the sillyness of the revealed preferences method. Sounds to me like Gerard probably shouldn’t have been fired, so Rasmussen is on the right side. But he still can’t reason his way out of a paper bag.


Kieran Healy 03.03.04 at 3:59 am

Ralph, I just thought that gauging the value of criticism by the severity of the reaction it provokes isn’t a terribly reliable guide to how an argument is going.


ralph luker 03.03.04 at 4:49 am

Well, yes. Nonetheless, to focus on Rasmusen’s known prejudices and weak reasoning and to follow that with Henry’s attack on Erin O’Connor’s poor literary judgment seems to me to deflect attention from a real undermining of tenure in the Penn State system. I haven’t the faintest idea what Professor Gerard’s politics are, but on the net her clearest support seems to be coming from the right. That strikes me as unfortunate.


Kieran Healy 03.03.04 at 5:07 am

I made my views about the case clear in the first half of the post and linked to the summaries by O’Connor and Rasmusen. What’s not to like?


ralph luker 03.03.04 at 5:48 am

I like. I like. Except that the second half of your post, followed by Henry’s, focus the issue away from the substance of the matter. It’s rather like saying “I know these people are correct about the matter, but there are all these things about them that give me pause.” I can assure you that, had we done that sort of calculus when I was active in the civil rights movement, we’d have had a much more difficult time keeping the picket lines up every night. I walked them with people I’d perhaps not want to be seen with otherwise. There’s a sort of cause-destructing purism on the left which sunders it repeatedly and particularly so when it ought to be striking alliances with folk on the right who happen to be correct about a particular issue.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.03.04 at 7:21 am

Perhaps I completely misunderstand revealed preference, but I don’t see how it applies to this case at all. I at least understand how it could be used in the Australian case below, and understand your criticism of its use in that case. But how does it apply here? Isn’t revealed preference all about preference? Isn’t it about the idea that many people answer claim a preference which matches an interviewers expectations, or the image the people want to project, but their actions reveal their true preference?

Maybe I am looking at the wrong person. I was thinking you were talking about the administration. Are you saying that the person who resigned and the one who retired have something to do with revealed preference? What were they claiming? What do their actions reveal to the contrary? I just don’t get it.


Kieran Healy 03.03.04 at 8:05 am

Hey SH –

Of course this post is not really a serious comment on revealed preferences. (This has been happening to me a lot, lately.) RP is the idea that whatever it is people are observed doing must reflect their preferences, because otherwise (given that people are rational utility maximizers) they wouldn’t be doing it. The danger is that you assume what you need to prove — ie, that people are rational utility maximizers — or otherwise infer panglossian conclusions. At worst, you tread a tedious little circle whereby your assumptions are validated by the data in virtue of futher use of these assumptions to interpret the data.

In this case, a bit of evidence (about people’s reactions) was used to validate the initial assumption — that the accused’s criticisms of her colleagues were justified[1] — on the basis that the assumption had to be true. A similar circle, that’s all.

fn1. NB a different question from whether it was right to fire her.


ralph luker 03.03.04 at 4:20 pm

Kieran, Your point about revealed preferences underscores what makes me uncomfortable with your post. When Rasmusen comes to the defense of a left lesbian, shouldn’t one be cheering him on rather than nitpicking his rationale? Somehow it seems like a sort of small-minded triumphalism.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.03.04 at 5:14 pm

OK, I see how the circular logic is similar. Sorry for the confusion.

Isn’t revealed preference just the economic version of “actions speak louder than words”.


nnyhav 03.03.04 at 6:53 pm

They say that actions speak louder than words, but words do more than they say.


Simon Kinahan 03.03.04 at 10:47 pm

Revealed preferences are much more interesting than stated preferences in economics, because economists are usually interested in how people actualy act, not in how they’d like to act or how they think they’d act. They’re not normally in the business of trying to proved that people are rational utility maximisers.

The idea that people are rational utility maximisers only really runs into problems when the technical sense of “preference” – how someone would actually act – is confused with the day-to-day usage, in whichs its quite normal to say “I’d prefer not to be doing this”. I suspect economists do get this mixed up occasionally, but there doesn’t seem to be any real problem with the idea of revealed preferences.


Matt Weiner 03.04.04 at 1:53 am

I note that Brian Leiter, who is certainly of the left, has condemned Gerard’s firing in no uncertain terms. I believe that this takes care of the liberal community’s obligations in regard to this manner under section 7 paragraph 4 of the blogging bylaws, thus making it OK for Kieran to condemn the firing quickly and then make his joke.


Ralph E. Luker 03.04.04 at 4:33 am

Matt, I’m glad to see the left finally clocking in in defense of a tenured left lesbian professor. I also appreciate the fact that the right on the academic net beat it to the punch.


Matt Weiner 03.05.04 at 12:00 am

Indeed, I was over at Academic Left Net HQ when the orders came down. “The right is beating us to the punch on the Nona Gerard story! Quick, who can we deploy to preserve our credibility? I hear Leiter’s available….” But the Right on the Academic Net certainly outplayed us there. I understand that Crooked Timber has been rebuked by ALNHQ for what Pogo’s cowbirds would call “arrant frivolism,” taking away from our mission to enforce ideological uniformity and eventually overthrow Western Civilization, I think it is.
IOW: Who freaking cares? Are you trying to say that the left doesn’t really care about academic freedom, because two right-leaning professors posted on one case before one left-leaning professor did? It seems that the liberal Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and alternative Pulp were on this first, if we’re handing out cookies.
[Disclosure: Gerard has directed plays for Unseam’d Shakespeare in Pittsburgh, on whose board my mom served.]


ralph luker 03.05.04 at 4:01 am

Just an observation, Matt.


Matt Weiner 03.05.04 at 4:05 am

Well, OK. My last post was a bit overheated, and I guess readers can judge for themselves whether this means anything.
I can provide some Personal Evidence as to factors that affect who blogs on what–I’m thinking of posting on this, because I’ve seen plays this woman directed, but I have four or five other things to post on and am just going to knock off instead.

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