❮ Return to Our Work

Hack WatchNewsletter | April 7, 2023

Campus Activists Fight Back Against Academic Reputation-Laundering

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Law Professor Lobbies Government For Big Oil

Last week, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard (FFDH), a student activist group fighting the influence of oil companies at their university, published an open letter to Professor Jody Freeman. Freeman also serves on the board of oil giant ConocoPhillips. The Biden administration just greenlit Conoco’s Willow Project, a massive drilling initiative in Alaska that will do as much environmental damage as dozens of new coal-fired power plants. (For more on the perils of Willow, read our Hannah Story Brown’s newsletter on the subject, here, and her related appearance on “The Majority Report with Sam Seder” here.)

Freeman is a key part of Harvard Law’s environmental program, while simultaneously making hundreds of thousands of dollars helping run an oil behemoth. Additionally, as reported by The Guardian, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that she lobbied the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on behalf of Conoco while using her Harvard email address and title, and without explicitly noting her affiliation with ConocoPhillips. 

Freeman told The Guardian that her association with Conoco was common knowledge (as a side note: just how egotistical is that? Working for Harvard doesn’t make you a celebrity.). That is not a reason to forgo disclosure — just because anyone could Google her does not mean that the SEC bureaucrats did. Choosing to instead present herself as a Harvard environmental professor obviously biases how regulators will perceive her work — as an accredited expert inclined toward environmental protection, not as a fossil fuel profiteer. 

Freeman and everyone who platforms her are not absolved of ethical culpability just because internet search exists. As we’ve written before, Harvard policy requires proactive disclosure of anything that could be perceived as a financial conflict. She also told The Guardian she was arranging a meeting with a Harvard colleague. However, RDP has also reviewed the emails and this simply is not the case. The emails, shared with us by FFDH, clearly show Freeman arranging a meeting between SEC staff and Conoco personnel.

Unfortunately, Freeman is not an isolated instance of this type of corporate influence masquerading as academic input. That’s why Hack Watch exists. But RDP can’t take on every hack by ourselves. We applaud FFDH for their willingness to call out such an egregious conflict of interest, are thrilled to see the impact they’ve made. We’re glad to have briefly collaborated with them, and hope more groups step up in the same way. (If you know of any similar work that deserves a shout out, or that could use our help, let us know!) 

University of California System Ends Relationship With Corporate Consultants

In other good news, the University of California, Riverside has shut down its economic research center that was run by a private consulting firm. The move comes after an open letter, signed by over 100 graduate students and faculty, demanded an investigation over concerns about a “lack of funding transparency and academic integrity.” The center had been a partnership with Beacon Economics and produced reports paid for by the International Franchise Association and a plethora of gig companies, including Uber, Lyft, and Doordash. Those reports bore the UC Riverside seal on them (for which UC Riverside received 10 percent royalty fees.) If that doesn’t sound like reputation laundering, we aren’t sure what does! 

Reports produced to order by corporations led UC faculty to believe the center used its affiliation with the university to legitimate arguments against policies designed to help California’s working class.

UCR may now be free of a corporate tumor poisoning its academic credibility, but many other universities retain concerning ties to corporate interests. Until recently, Princeton had Exxon employees teaching classes while cosplaying as faculty. George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center is funded by the Koch network and ExxonMobil. Energy research centers at Columbia, MIT, and Stanford have all been found to be biased in favor of natural gas because of financial ties. 

Beacon was just borrowing from the oil and gas industry playbook. We’re glad they got caught, and bravo to the grad students and faculty who made it happen. But work remains to restore integrity to the American academy–including those who are effectively corrupted by corporate cash, but by more subtle processes.

Objectivity And The Economy

If you missed it, our Max Moran had a piece in The New Republic earlier this week responding to Martin “Marty” Baron’s recent Washington Post op-ed, which defends the ideals that underlie the practice of journalistic objectivity. Max argued that while Baron’s piece is mostly unobjectionable, it’s also beside the point: nobody besides hard-right propagandists wants journalists to ignore the facts, or be intellectually hubristic. The problem is that many journalistic norms actively interfere with those goals, and whenever anyone questions those norms, they’re deemed unobjective.

Max’s piece uses research we’ve done for this newsletter as evidence that these norms distort economics coverage in particular. Objectivity is supposed to be about reporting strictly the facts. But so much of economics itself for the last 40 years has been purely theoretical — abstractions built on abstractions built on abstractions. Yet its practitioners have claimed it’s just as empirical as physics or chemistry. 

The American Prospect has been documenting all of these layers of abstraction in an excellent series on economic modeling, part of their forthcoming latest issue. We at RDP have written plenty on the absurdities of the Congressional Budget Office and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ models in the past. They’re perfect case studies in supposedly scientific and rigorous economists wishing their ideologies into reality. If you want people to think that public investment is objectively worse than private investment, simply assume that it’s true! Then publish it in a fancy-looking report, bury the circular reasoning under mountains of math and footnotes, and you’ve got a new conventional wisdom.

It sounds like an obvious con when you spell it all out, but ploys like this have short-circuited so much of the economic media for decades — again, because of the norms of objectivity: how do you report objectively on a field where the empiricists are treated like wild-eyed maniacs, and the elite theoreticians say that if you bring in common-sense, observed realities, it means you don’t have their level of expertise? For that matter, how do you cover reports that are steeped in jargon and abstract calculations, including a veritable alphabet soup of Greek letter variables? 

The journalist is in no place to say that the leaders of an entire field of study are frauds, and they shouldn’t be expected to have a Ph.D-level understanding of math and economics to report on the topic. The only objective thing to do is report the controversy, which ultimately reinforces the status quo.

All of this is before you factor in any of the elements which can influence journalists besides a high-minded obligation to the truth: business models, personal reputation and ambitions, biases toward the elite, and so on. As Robert Kuttner writes for the Prospect, there’s thankfully more and more pushback against the Chicago School-style theoreticians within the economics field, so there’s more and more room for reporting on the economy to actually reflect reality. But the war is far from won — indeed, it’s only just begun.

There was a lot of hand-wringing after the Trump election about America’s epistemic crisis and the supposed birth of post-truth politics. That was a useful exercise. But (and this again reflects journalists’ bias toward the bourgeois) this was mostly framed as a problem of those backwateruneducateddolts who voted for Donald Trump rejecting reality and believing whatever they want to believe.

Wearing tweed, having fancy degrees, and using seven-syllable words does not mean that one is immune to self-delusion. The evidence is in the economics profession.

More articles by Dylan Gyauch-Lewis More articles by Max Moran

❮ Return to Our Work