by Phillip W. Magness
About a week ago I began scrutinizing how the New York Times’ 1619 Project relied upon the work of the controversial “New History of Capitalism” genre of historical scholarship to advance a sweeping indictment of free markets over the historical evils of slavery. The problems with this literature are many, and prominent among them is its use of shoddy statistical work by Cornell University historian Ed Baptist to grossly exaggerate the historical effect of slave-produced cotton on American economic development. Baptist’s unusual rehabilitation of the old Confederacy-linked “King Cotton” thesis is unsupported by evidence and widely rejected by economic historians. His book The Half Has Never Been Told has nonetheless acquired a vocal following among historians and journalists, including providing the basis of a feature article in the Times series on slavery.
Curious about the following Baptist’s work had acquired despite its clear problems, I presented several questions on Twitter for its enthusiasts in the academy.
Were they aware that Baptist’s statistics, including his estimate of slavery’s share of the antebellum economy, arose from a documented mathematical error? Did they know his thesis had been scrutinized by leading economic historians, who found problems of misrepresented evidence and citations to documents that did not support what Baptist claimed? Had Baptist made any effort to respond to his critics? Or, more importantly, had he corrected his statistical mistakes, which continue to be cited in the press, in academic works, and even in congressional hearings on the legacy of slavery despite their inaccuracy?
These should be obvious questions for historians to ask each other, given the profession’s oft-touted commitment to informing the public about the past with factually accurate and rigorous scholarly expertise. Instead of an answer though, I received the following comment:
A tweet citing the work of Ed Baptist is alarming for whom troll? For you and your mom perhaps?
Abrasive remarks of this type, and worse, are an all-too-familiar norm in the sewers of social media, but the author of this one was not some random internet troll. It was Ana Lucia Araujo, professor of history at Howard University, director of its graduate-studies program, and a widely published historian of the slave trade.
Araujo is one of the many academics who makes use of Baptist’s faulty scholarship, and she was singing praises of his book at the time I posed my questions about its use as a source. Considering the issues of historical accuracy that they brought up and the direct relevance to her own areas of expertise, questions of this sort should form the basis of a rational scholarly exchange, including challenges over controversial ideas. Instead, Professor Araujo offered only a juvenile “your mom” retort more suited for a third-grade schoolyard taunt than the halls of a leading research university.
It was not her only quip to that effect. When other academics chimed in on the thread, she continued. “CATO Institute boy, I called his mom, not his puppy,” Araujo answered a political scientist who pointed out the unscholarly demeanor of her first comment. As other scholars took notice, she unleashed a flurry of similar insults. Araujo’s continued tweeting employed intentionally demeaning references to her adult interlocutors as “boy” and “young man,” and singled out the gender in particular of anyone who questioned the unprofessionalism of her tone. In a matter of moments a tenured full professor at a major university adopted a style of language and attack usually found in the anonymous ranks of the internet’s underbelly — and all of it was precipitated by a substantive set of questions about problems in a published scholarly work that she was citing and recommending to the public on her authority as a scholar.
For a little perspective, imagine if a presenter at the American Historical Association conference or a similar venue responded to a question from another scholar in the audience about a source used in his or her presentation by shouting, “your mom,” or by unleashing a string of gender-based insults directed at the person who raised the question. Imagine if an academic dismissively referred to a PhD-holding peer as “boy” when that person spoke up against the unprofessional and derogatory tone of such remarks. It’s not improbable that such a person would be asked to leave the conference.
Academia’s Social Media Problem
Social media brings with it a mixed bag of everything from intellectual exchange to juvenile antics to a corrosive undermining of basic discourse, as my colleague Max Gulker recently cataloged. But there also seems to be something about Twitter that brings out the very worst in academics.
A quick foray onto the site and a few minutes of reading will provide ample evidence that Araujo’s outburst is not atypical among the regulars of History Twitter. Or Econ Twitter. Or English, Philosophy, and Sociology Twitter. Politics are often, though not always, the occasion, which in practice translates into distinguished professors at elite institutions striving their hardest to reduce themselves to intellectual parity with a certain presidential account’s own notorious stream of insults and derision.
The more disturbing examples come from the medium’s effects on scholarly discussion though.
In theory, a functional academic Twitter community would permit intellectuals to instantaneously present their ideas before peers all over the world and receive real-time feedback on research discoveries or scholarly challenges to controversial ideas. They could tap the expertise of others for suggestions on roadblocks in the processes of scholarly production. They could solicit constructive criticism from opponents. Or they could challenge problematic arguments in the existing literature, prompting scholars to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each. Imagine a global conference or seminar room where you can not only find academic peers working on common interests, but also solicit their advice — or push back against contested areas of their work.
Instead we get serious questions and substantive criticisms of scholarly works answered by schoolyard insults — or worse. A few of the more notorious denizens of academic Twitter have built their entire reputations by posting conspiratorial smears against free market economists, usually amounting to accusations of secretive and nefarious ulterior motives for their scholarship.
Scrutinize the evidence behind dubious political claims about rising poverty or the effects of the minimum wage? It must be “neoliberal” disdain for the poor. Seek improved empirical accuracy for a better understanding of the complex mechanisms behind gender and wage gaps? It must be sexism. Question the reliability and accuracy of dubious scholarship behind historical claims in the 1619 Project? It must be motivated by secret racial animosity. Also here’s another round of “your mom” insults.
And of course there’s the standard go-to box of Twitter retorts for any research directing scrutiny upon the economic harms of financial regulations, questioning the cost and effectiveness of “climate change” policy, or suggesting that claims about rising inequality are overblown. Academic Twitter has no need to even consider these possibilities, because anyone who is writing about them is clearly “paid for” by “corporate interests.”
No economist could actually believe such positions, let alone produce evidence in their favor, without being bought and paid for. We’re all “Kochlings,” as a favorite insult goes, drawn to these positions for pecuniary gain even though the same people offer no evidence of such gain. Mere assertion is sufficient to dismiss entire volumes of rigorously sourced scholarly evidence in the academic seminar of Twitter ad hominem exchanges. And when insults predicated on false appeals to pecuniary interests are not enough, it’s not uncommon for Twitter academics to begin attacking their interlocutor’s gender, race, or physical appearance. The strongly implied message is always the same, and even applies when the attacker has misidentified the characteristics of the author he or she seeks to dismiss and discredit: belonging to the wrong “identity group” disqualifies someone from even being in the scholarly conversation, no matter the merits of their research or the strength of their evidence.
The entire exchange thereby devolves into derision and dismissal by insult.
The Ivy League Comments Section
In one of the more peculiar developments from the medium, some academics have even tried to valorize the self-described “services” they provide by flooding social media spaces with streams of cheap shots and sanctimonious derision masquerading as scholarship.
Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse rose to prominence on the medium by sparring with conservative agitator and pundit Dinesh D’Souza, usually over partisan political ephemera that bore closer resemblance on both sides to RNC and DNC press releases than scholarly historical analysis. More recently, the elite-university historian has taken to spending abnormally large portions of his day picking Twitter fights with random insurance agents, auto mechanics, soccer moms, or anyone else he can find who repeats a political talking point from conservative talk radio about the Democratic Party’s dubious racial history. While he’s been hailed as a social media celebrity by other academics for supposedly “dunking” on random members of the public by selectively hairsplitting its errors of historical detail, the sad reality is that of an otherwise capable scholar reduced to the level of an internet meme warrior.
At its worst moments, Twitter has effectively converted Ivy League scholarly discourse into the comments section on YouTube. It has turned academic engagement with the public into an army of pedants more interested in hectoring or — worse — “owning” them with derisive insults than disseminating knowledge or fostering education. And strangely, the very same academics are often at a loss to explain why the public is turning its back on academic history despite persistent popular enthusiasm for historical content. Or why the discipline is shedding majors faster than every other area of the academy.
A simple perusal of how historians interact with each other on Twitter suggests, at times, that the profession is intent on meming its own way into irrelevance.
It may be that such tendencies are the unavoidable nature of the medium, and perhaps even an outlet to channel political venting. Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that something else is being lost: an opportunity for scholars to converse and even vigorously contest each other’s ideas on an open and equal footing, to say nothing of sharing those conversations with the general public.
This does not mean academics should avoid terse or controversial exchanges with each other on Twitter — quite the opposite, as an aspirational virtue of the medium was its opportunity to facilitate instantaneous conversation about substantive and salient points of disagreement. I do not expect a “nice” and “friendly” Twitter and will openly admit to aggressively engaging other scholars on the medium myself, albeit with an explicit focus on substance. And substantive content-based discussions can thrive online, even in heated exchange, provided that they retain a core commitment to examining arguments and evidence.
But all of that dissipates when academics themselves become some of Twitter’s worst actors. The promise of the medium collapses when tenured professors at top institutions set examples of dialogue befitting an anonymous troll hiding behind a cartoon avatar — or when ostensibly reputable experts respond to challenges from their peers over their use and misuse of scholarly sources by devolving into grade school insults.
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Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.