UK Harvard star Niall Ferguson accused of intellectual fraud
Does historian have the moral authority to continue at Harvard, asks one economics professor
THE British-born journalist and Harvard-tenured historian Niall Ferguson has landed himself in a nasty spat with some of America's most distinguished economists, among them Princeton's Nobel Prize-winner - and venerable New York Times columnist - Paul Krugman.
Ferguson is a promoter of Chancellor George Osborne's cut-to-growth economic philosophy. Krugman is a spend-to-grow man, as is President Obama.
Last week, citing a report from the Congressional Budget Office, Ferguson wrote a Newsweek cover story titled ‘Hit The Road, Barack - Why We Need a New President' charging, among other apparent misrepresentations of Obama's economic record, that his centerpiece health care reform legislation will actually increase the US deficit.
Critics say Ferguson's selective editing of the CBO report is a willful misreading of the facts, and he's exposed himself as an intellectual fraud, a specialist in "counter-factual history". Dylan Byers on Politico.com called Ferguson's attempt to defend himself "ridiculous, misleading and ethically questionable".
Ferguson's nemesis Krugman accuses him of the worst kind of "wrongness" - "making or insinuating false claims about readily checkable facts".
Says Krugman: "We're not talking about ideology or even economic analysis here - just a plain misrepresentation of the facts, with an august publication letting itself be used to misinform readers."
Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, says Harvard should convene a committee to examine if Ferguson has the moral character to teach at the Ivy League university.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is mounting a vigorous defence, disputing his critics' interpretation of the disputed facts, and saying the only thing he dislikes about America is liberal bloggers. He says Krugman "is being disingenuous" and asks if American discourse is so degenerated that making a case for a change of president is impossible without being set upon by "a suspiciously well-organised gang" of Obama supporters.
But accusing Krugman and DeLong of being "liberal bloggers" is a stretch, especially given that Ferguson and Krugman have battled over the issue of cutting vs spending for years - and it looks, given the relative recent economic performances of Britain and America, and the British government's new "push for growth", that spending is the way to go.
This squabble conforms to a pattern of other, recent media controversies: the New Yorker's Jonah Lehrer resigning after being busted for widespread plagiarism and fabrication; Joan Juliet Buck's glowing profile of Syria's Assad family in US Vogue; Time columnist Fareed Zakaria lifting passages from the New Yorker, suspended then reinstated. It's a battle partially about the accountability of authors and partially about broader publishing standards. Tina Brown's Newsweek concedes it no longer has a fact-checking department and has to rely on its writers to submit accurate material.
In this clash between attention-seeking and accuracy, Ferguson and Newsweek certainly appear to be on the side of the former. And by casting this as a political battle in a heated political environment, Ferguson appears to have avoided immediate professional censure. But the longer term outlook for his professional standing, particularly in academic circles, is cast further into doubt.