Critical Thought And Koch Conspiratorial Cash

At Volokh Conspiracy, there has been a series of posts ripping to shreds a book about libertarianism by historian Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.

As Ilya Somin explains:

In her badly flawed book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean gets many, many things wrong about the history and purposes of libertarianism. Jonathan Adler, David Bernstein (see also here), Phil Magness (also here), Russell Roberts, and Michael Munger, and others, have highlighted some of her most important fallacies and distortions.

Rather than address the accusation that her book was substantively inaccurate, MacLean took to Facebook to attack the motives of her critics and call for social justice warriors to game the system in favor of the cause.

Nancy MacLean, author of “Democracy in Chains,” has not responded to substantive criticisms of her book. What she has done, however, is circulate a fanciful and potentially libelous post accusing Jonathan Adler and me of being at the center of a Koch-backed conspiracy to discredit her book. She refers to “Koch operatives and the riders of their academic ‘gravy train’ ” and writes, “It appears they are using Washington Post blogposts as a seemingly respectable pivot for a coordinated and interlinked set of calculated hit jobs.”

MacLean comes off not merely as anti-intellectual, but as a flaming nutjob. Koch-backed conspiracy?

MacLean also alleged that the Koch conspirators “have used their bottomless wealth to buy Google ‘Top Stories’ placement so their hits are what come up if I or the book is searched.” This is not just fanciful, but impossible, as Google does not sell such placement, as MacLean later acknowledged. The fact that she provides no evidence of any coordinated attack, and indeed offered as an example an impossibility, didn’t stop a bunch of respected historians from sharing her allegations on Facebook and Twitter. A clue should have been that her initial appeal said, “This will sound nutty …” Well, yes.

Yes, nutty indeed. And she may well be nutty, not to mention typically too fragile to address the substantive criticism leveled at her by conspirators Jonathan Adler, Ilya Somin and David Bernstein. And then came the Wall Street Journal* to toss a bomb into the mix.

Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenged of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for the work, The Wall Street Journal found.

As a general notion, this isn’t surprising or a big deal. Companies have long financed academics, whether studies or papers. Soros has long provided financial support for scholars, and the Soros Foundation’s support is well known. So Google does too? Fair enough.

University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald pitched an idea on copyrights he thought would be useful to Google, and he received $18830 to fund the work. The paper, publishd in 2012, didn’t mention his sponsor. “Oh, wow. No, I didn’t. That’s really bad,” he said in an interview. “That’s purely oversight.”

Oh wow. That’s really bad. And that’s purely bullshit. And it gets worse.

In 2010, Google hired Deven Desai, then a researcher in law and technology at Princeton University, to find academics to write research papers helpful to the company.

Over the next two years, Mr. Desai said, he spent more than $2 million of Google’s money on conferences and research papers that paid authors $20,000 to $150,000.

If the name Deven Dasai sounds remotely familiar, that’s because he’s been a long-time blogger at Concurring Opinions, and mentioned here on occasion. Was his writing there legit, intellectually honest, or was he just shilling for his ATM? I don’t know. And even if Desai says he was on the up and up, I won’t believe him.

The problem isn’t that academics are financed by special interests. They work for money, like anyone else, and the money has to come from somewhere. Moreoever, a point that’s raised numerous times in the WSJ story is that Google handed over the loot but never told them what to write. Then again, they made it clear that if they didn’t like what they wrote, they would never get another dime.

The problem lies rather in concealing the patronage, that some corporation or foundation was funding your research, paying cash on the barrelhead for you to produce “scholarship.” Was it, as Heald adorably claims, “purely oversight”? Please. So he concealed it once, then lied about it when caught. He’s credible.

None of this connects to any of the Volokh Conspirators. There is not a shred of evidence to show that Adler, Somin or Bernstein are anything other than legit scholars writing what they think. Nor, it should be noted, does the WSJ attribute to the Koch Bros. any conspiracy to discredit progressive academics, though no progressive will ever believe otherwise.

But now that the WSJ threw a skunk into the non-progressive garden party, who knows what to believe anymore? It’s outrageous that academics were getting Google loot under the table and concealed it. They not only sold their scholarly cred, but they lied by omission in spewing for their paymaster.

Academics have been wallowing in the cesspool of deceit in furtherance of their political agendas for quite a while now, but at least those who lie for their cause come by it honestly. They believe the cause is worth the lie, and one can certainly accept the bona fides of their beliefs since nobody would pay them for their shoddiness.

But suddenly, the Nancy MacLeans don’t look quite as nutty as they once did claiming a Koch conspiracy and Google gaming. It’s not that she isn’t completely nuts, but that what these academics did was inexcusable, taking money and concealing it. They can no longer be trusted. Their actions now expose all academics to claims of cash conspiracies, nutty or not, because at least in some cases, it’s not totally nutty at all.

*As the WSJ article is paywalled, here is a pdf.

24 thoughts on “Critical Thought And Koch Conspiratorial Cash

  1. B. McLeod

    Conspiracy theories are great, because of the insidiously secret nature of the conspiracies. The greater the lack of any supporting evidence, the more certain it must be that conspirators have concealed it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Conspiracy theories can be easily laughed off as nutty conspiracy theories until someone actually shows that, at least to some extent, they’re actually real because there is supporting evidence. Even paranoids have enemies.

      There is nothing here tainting the VC prawfs in any way, but damn, this is ugly and messy. This mess taints everyone in the Academy.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      On information and belief, SHG’s simplejustice blog is a linchpin of the round earth conspiracy that has persecuted the flat earthers for centuries, and you, Scotsman, are one of his co-conspirators.

      But they are on to you, and their numbers are growing.

      Be very afraid.

      1. B. McLeod

        If they were in Kansas, where the Kochs are, I would understand this, but I have been to Colorado, and it is not flat.

  2. Rick Horowitz

    If only there were some techniques for evaluating arguments independent of who wrote them.

    Someone should invent a discipline to study that. Then, if we wanted, we could, perhaps, spot things that were wrong with what people said without even knowing who funded them, or even who the writers were.

    I propose we call it “logic,” after the ancient Greek for “word,” because we could use it to evaluate the words, instead of the writers.

    1. SHG Post author

      Logic alone doesn’t solve everything. We rely on academics to honestly reference decisions, studies, etc. (think Ma Frank “there are no First Amendment implications to revenge porn crime because 10 scholars say so”). So no, too simplistic.

      1. Jardinero1

        Appeals to authority, such as you state, are logically valid, only if the authority referenced is bona fide. The reader is not expected to accept, prima facie, the authority’s bona fides. Logic is still required to check the cited authority’s fitness as an authority.

        1. SHG Post author

          Appeals to authority are a logical fallacy, bona fide or not, but readers often fail to vet references and sources and rely on the authority, even when they shouldn’t. Few of us have the time or interest to dig back to the very beginning on everything we read.

          1. Jardinero1

            I can’t reconcile your second comment, in this thread, with your first comment, but I accept your authority on the matter, nonetheless.

            1. Jardinero1

              Rick Horowitz: Argument X

              SHG: Argument X is null because of Argument Y

              Jardinero1: Argument Y is only valid if condition A exists.

              SHG: Argument Y is always fallacious whether A exists or not.

              Jardinero1: Argument Y nullifies Argument X even if Y is always fallacious?

            2. SHG Post author

              Excellent try, but you’ve oversimplified it to reduce it to an equation. My arg to Rick wasn’t Arg X is null, but that Arg X isn’t sufficient as it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and includes conditions A, B and/or C, for better or worse. And no, when I write an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, it’s not because we don’t use it as a shortcut all time, but it is a standard logical fallacy whether we use it or not.

  3. Richard Kopf


    This is fascinating. It also hit home in a personal way.

    As you know, my son is an academic biologist in Australia. As the lead author, with 13 others from all over the world, he just published an important paper in one of the Nature publications (which is a big deal in his world). See, e.g., R. Keller Kopf, et al, Confronting the risks of large-scale invasive species control, Article number: 0172, Nature Ecology & Evolution (First Published 23 May 2017) (available on the Internet).

    The paper contained the following disclosure:

    Competing interests
    Five of the authors have submitted a grant application to Australia’s Fisheries Research and Development Corporation to assess the: ‘Ecological, social and socio-economic risks and benefits of releasing koi herpes virus to control common carp, Cyprinus carpio in Australia.

    My son was one of those seeking the more than one million dollars (AUS) in funding to pursue a risk assessment. It would have been a huge deal had they received the funding.

    During his visit to Nebraska several weeks ago, he and I had a discussion about intellectual integrity and disclosing grants or potential grants when deciding to publish. Relatedly, we also discussed how grant funding or seeking can influence, consciously or subconsciously, what is written.

    The subject of his paper was sensitive down under because Australia is now endeavoring to do something in a large way that is unique in all the world–release a virus in the largest river in Australia to kill an invasive species. The large grant application he and four others disclosed and sought was turned down around the time the paper was published. It went to another group.

    For those of us who are not academics, it is hard to fully appreciate the milieu in which they labor. If their work is worth doing, they will often appropriately seek grant funding. But in that same vein, the failure to disclose potential competing interests seems to me to be the hallmark of intellectual dishonesty.

    At the very least, law reviews should begin requiring as a condition of publication that law professors and other authors make formal full disclosures about outside funding receipts or applications for funding whether that funding is direct or indirect. If the author thinks there are no competing interests, then the law review should demand an affirmative representation that there are none. Those disclosures should be made part of the paper that is published.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      But Judge, liars lie. Should we lean, years after the paper is published, that it was paid for, what’s the remedy? What about the dozen follow up papers? What about the court decisions that relied on the paper? What about the people in prison for life due to a shift in doctrine because of the paper?

      1. Richard Kopf


        True. But don’t fall into the trap of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

        Academic scientists are no more pure than legal academics. But, yet, these types of disclosures are better than nothing. That is particularly so when the author affirmatively declares no competing interests. When one such interest pops up later (as in the WSJ article) that author can be and often is labeled a whore.

        In the Academy, being labeled a whore (and, as you know, academics can be vicious ) is a strong motivator to be open. When one’s self-interest is at stake, as when one makes an affirmative representation in a journal article (or law review article), you might be surprised that the risk of not being able to continue to do business frequently produces candor, albeit not always or perfectly.

        Judge Posner, when writing in economic terms about the behavior of judges, call this motivating factor “reputational interest” or some such phrase. For many people, one’s reputation has a discernable value. Think of requiring disclosures, and particularly negative disclosures, as a form of general deterrence.

        Al the best.


        1. SHG Post author

          I would agree with you (and want to agree with you), but for Desai’s millions. We still don’t know where they went, but they went somewhere and the recipients still aren’t talking. This isn’t a one-trick whore.

          1. Richard Kopf


            While I vehemently deny any personal knowledge, they seldom are.

            Again, thanks for taking this on. It is very important particularly for those judges like me that sometimes read what legal academics write. It is, indeed, a cautionary tale.

            All the best.


            PS “Deven Desai joined the Scheller faculty in fall of 2014 in the Law and Ethics Program.” (From the professor’s profile at Scheller College of Business, Georgia Tech). Irony abounds much as the Dude abides.

            1. SHG Post author

              As Rick Horowitz argued, the logic of the arguments stand or fall regardless of payment, though any references and/value judgments are suspect. But they can be overcome by a more thorough vetting and a grain of salt. Still, there is just no excuse for concealment and, as you say, it’s intellectual dishonesty. This has been very disappointing for me.

              PS The opposite of irony is wrinkly.

    2. DaveL

      As you know, my son is an academic biologist in Australia

      I was hoping, for a second there, that you were going to say he got to tranq and tag academics in their natural habitat.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Academics are immune from tranqs. It’s the strange result of evolution reversing itself. Additionally, unlike fish, there is no reason to tag them* either since these cold-blooded invertebrates group together in large easily identifiable pods while attacking each other in savagery otherwise unheard of in the animal kingdom.

        All the best.


        * For more on fish tagging, see McKenzie, J., B. Parsons, A.C. Seitz, R.K. Kopf, M. Mesa, and Q. Phelps. Editors. (2012) Advances in fish tagging and marking technology. American Fisheries Society Book. Symposium 76, Bethesda, Maryland. Pp 1-560.

    3. Mark Sinton

      Most of the hard science journals already have such disclosure requirements. It’s not perfect, but it does let readers know who is financing the research. And if a researcher is caught in a disclosure lie, their reputation will be gone, and they’ll likely never be taken seriously within the discipline again. Of course this loss doesn’t prevent them from acting as an expert witness!

  4. Fubar

    On advice of counsel, due to recent scandals concerning academic research and scholarship funding, I must make this full disclosure of my funding sources in a reputable publication of world-wide circulation, etc.

    Who funds me? The Illuminati,
    With laundered cash straight from John Gotti.
    But their payments are slow,
    So the world needs to know
    That’s why I don’t drive a Bugatti!

    1. Billy Bob

      Nor live in Benghazi!

      There once was a man in Benghazi,
      Who owned both a Ferrari and Bugatti.
      Not knowing which to drive,
      He instructed his driver to decide.
      And crashed into the well of the Illuminati.

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