Life is continuous but we think in discrete terms. In applied statistics there’s the p=.05 line which tells us whether a finding is significant or not. Baseball has the Mendoza line.
And academia has what might be called the John Yoo line: the point at which nothing you write gets taken seriously, and so you might as well become a hack because you have no scholarly reputation remaining.
John Yoo, of course, became a hack because, I assume, he had nothing left to lose. In contrast, historian Niall Ferguson has reportedly been moved to hackery because he has so much to gain. At least that is the analysis of Stephen Marche (link from Basbøll):
Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. . . . That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.
But I don’t think it’s just about the money. By now, Ferguson must have enough money to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.
The paradox, though, as Marche notes, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.
And so he slips under the John Yoo line.
Just to clarify
No, I don’t think the act of taking a political stance is enough by itself to put you below the Yoo line (recall the definition: “the point at which nothing you write gets taken seriously, and so you might as well become a hack because you have no scholarly reputation remaining”). For example, I don’t think Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw are there, or even close. Krugman and Mankiw are partisans and go over the top on occasion but if they have something to say, people will listen. Similarly, I’d have no problem taking seriously the future publications of Tim Groseclose—when he’s not tossing out red meat for Fox News, he’s a scholar. And some of you might still read my political science research (we have a new paper coming out soon), even if you don’t love my blogging.
But it’s hard for me to imagine Niall Ferguson coming back from where he’s gone. It’s possible—Ferguson has the ability, time, and financial resources to do whatever he wants—but I think it would be tough for him to recover the trust of his readers.
On the other hand, if his scholarly reputation disappears entirely, he’ll have to compete with Thomas Friedman on his own merits. That’s tough too. Right now, people are listening to Ferguson partly for his fun Obama-bashing and partly from his credentials as a world-famous scholar. Without that scholarship part, he’s just another ranter—and there are a lot of bloggers out there who are willing to do that part for free.
P.S. Further discussion here (in particular, see the P.S. where I explain why I believe that Ferguson is hackish rather than sincere in his recent writings).