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Niall Ferguson and the perils of playing to your audience

History professor Niall Ferguson had another case of the sillies.

Back in 2012, in response to Stephen Marche’s suggestion that Ferguson was serving up political hackery because “he has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk,” I wrote:

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.

That’s what I called The Paradox of Influence.

But then, a year later, Ferguson went too far, even by his own standards, when during a talk to a bunch of richies he attributed Keynes’s economic views (I don’t actually know exactly what Keyesianism is, but I think a key part is for the government to run surpluses during economic booms and deficits during recessions) to Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry. The general idea, I think, is that people without kids don’t care so much about the future, and this motivated Keynes’s party-all-the-time attitude, which might have worked just fine for Eddie Murphy’s girl in the 1980s and in San Francisco bathhouses of the 1970s but, according to Ferguson, is not the ticket for preserving today’s American empire.

My theory on that one is not that Ferguson is a flaming homophobe or a shallow historical determinist (the expression is “piss-poor monocausal social science,” I believe) but rather that he misjudged his audience and threw them some academic frat-boy-style humor that he mistakenly thought they’d enjoy. He served them red meat, but the wrong red meat. Probably would’ve been better for him to have just preached the usual get-the-government-off-our-backs sermon and not tried to get cute by bring up the whole ballerina thing.

Anyway, it happened again! Fergie made a fool of himself, just for trying to make some people happy.

Brian Contreras, Ada Statler, and Courtney Douglas (link from Jeet Heer via Mark Palko) report:

Leaked emails show Hoover academic conspiring with College Republicans to conduct ‘opposition research’ on student . . . “[The original Cardinal Conversations steering committee] should all be allies against O. Whatever your past differences, bury them. Unite against the SJWs. [Christos] Makridis [a fellow at Vox Clara, a Christian student publication] is especially good and will intimidate them,” Ferguson wrote. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” . . . In the email chain, Ferguson wrote, “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” referring to Ocon.
Minshull wrote in response that he would “get on the opposition research for Mr. O.” Minshull is presently Ferguson’s research assistant . . .

It’s hard for me to imagine that Ferguson, globetrotting historian and media personality that he is, would really care so much about “grinding down” some students in a university committee. I’m guessing he was just trying to ingratiate himself with these youngsters, who I guess he views as the up-and-coming new generation of college politicians. Ferguson’s just the modern version of the stock figure, the middle-aged guy trying to talk groovy like the kids. “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” indeed. It’s the university-politics version of, ummm, I dunno, building a treehouse with some 12-year-olds, or playing hide-and-seek with a group of 4-year-olds.

The whole thing’s kinda sad in that Fergie seems so clueless. Even in the aftermath, he says, “I very much regret the publication of these emails. I also regret having written them.” Which is fine, but he still doesn’t seem to recognize the absurdity of the situation, a professor in his fifties playing student politics. As with his slurs of Keynes, the man is just a bit too eager to give his audience what he thinks they want to hear.

(pre-2000) academic historian
(2000-2005) propagandist for Anglo-American empire
(2010-2015) TV talking head and paid speaker for rich people
(2018) player in undergraduate campus politics.

At this point, he’s gotta be thinking: Could I have stopped somewhere along the way? Or was the whole trajectory inevitable. It’s a question of virtual history.


  1. Adede says:

    Eddie Murphy’s girl in the 1980s?

  2. Thanatos Savehn says:

    Totally off topic but … Andrew, please continue to stay off Twitter (other than pointing to new blog posts). It risks demonic possession. I’m grateful for the many times I’ve been enlightened by George Davey Smith, but watching him go full snark/mock mode on Judea Pearl on Twitter makes me wonder. And he’s not the only one. There are a few other scientists/stats/maths types whose tweets have taken me from “Smart guy, I’d like to buy him a drink and ask him how he found his way to that great idea” to “Sheesh, what an a*****e”. At the very least tweeting should come with a warning. Maybe a pop-up that says “This Tweet will be read during your eulogy. Post anyway?”

    P.S. Perhaps – “Another Look at Looking Time: Surprise as Rational Statistical Inference”

    – might be of interest.

  3. Terry says:

    Ferguson … attributed Keynes’s economic views … to Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry. The general idea, I think, is that people without kids don’t care so much about the future

    There is a very strong argument against this interpretation of Keynes. Keynes was an ardent eugenicist, and eugenics is the epitome of caring about future generations. Even after the full extent of Nazi atrocities was revealed, Keynes was still a strong advocate of eugenics.

    Keynes was a proponent of eugenics. He served as director of the British Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944. As late as 1946, shortly before his death, Keynes declared eugenics to be “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.”

  4. Keith O’Rourke says:

    > caring about future generations
    But not too many given Keynes comment about all of us being dead in the long run.

    (Prefer Ramsey’s (Keynes’ occasional partner) view of the (very) long run not mattering to him given appropriate discounting of future outcomes – near the end of

    • JimV says:

      Well, after all of us (the human race) are dead, there won’t be any future generations to worry about.

    • >But not too many given Keynes comment about all of us being dead in the long run.

      I think this comment is one of the most misunderstood famous comments ever. Keynes was 100% correct in his intention here, which I believe was to say that *equilibrium models* are inappropriate because the time it takes to attain a reasonable approximation to the equilibrium prediction in a real-world economic system can be effectively infinite (ie. longer than several lifetimes), so these models can only predict what will happen after everyone currently living is already dead, and in these instances they obviously have no use in decision making.

    • Keith Thanks for posting that. Never would I have guessed that Lettice was Frank Ramsey’s wife, until I came to Andrew’s blog. Thereafter I started rummaging through some pictures taken in Cambridge, England. Lo and behold, the name Lettice came to me. and I made the connection. Sheer luck.

  5. expr says:

    quote context:
    The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

    for elaboration
    or just google keynes dead long run

  6. I have surmised that academics from Britain, India, and Pakistan that came to US soon after the end of British Empire [50s-60s] shaped US foreign policies along lines that now seem anachronistic to me. More recent scholars seem never to shed the assumptions cultivated in those initial years of burgeoning ME, Near, East, South Asian expertise in American universities. Of course Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger knew nearly all of them. Many of them were ensconced at Harvard and Princeton. The assumptions that they don’t shed are rarely up for discussion because there are few opportunities to present these assumptions in their proper contexts.

    • Terry says:

      Can you elaborate? Sounds very interesting. I have always thought of Kissinger-era foreign policy through a Cold War/Soviet/China lens rather than a former-British-colony lens.

      • Henry Kissinger was at Harvard during the 50’s and co founded/directed the Center for International Affairs. During those years a good number of academic from Britain, ME, India, and Pakistan provided expertise. I wouldn’t characterize them as Orientalists. Perhaps better characterized as Quasi-Orientalists, meaning that they had signed on to the framework of the American Century and international institutions like UN, World Bank, and IMF forging a developing economics agenda.

        I did not mean to suggest that Kissinger saw historical developments through the lens of academics who wrote on colonial history. I meant to suggest that the period in which Kissinger taught at Harvard represented burgeoning of expertise on India, Pakistan, and ME. Princeton was the other hub of expertise. Kissinger was of course the Secretary of State too. Considerably more cosmopolitan than many around him. I really didn’t follow his career until I came to DC. I saw quite a bit of him during the Bush Jr. administration. He was then a Trustee of CSIS and gave many presentations. Nial wrote Kissinger’s biography, which I haven’t read yet.

        Kissinger is among the most scholarly of Secretary of States, reflecting also when academics were far more respected for their viewpoints. The intellectual backgrounds of officials are so different. Lawyers are dominant in foreign policy.

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