Justin Fox (and me) on why Niall Ferguson should start doing real research again

I’m sure you’ve all seen the kerfuffle around Niall Ferguson and his puff piece for Newsweek. The outcry included this piece from James Fallows from the Atlantic. Ferguson shot back with a snotty, self-important (and ill-advised) “oh stop nitpicking and villifying poor me, you mean, meanypants liberal blogosphere” piece here, claiming he is the victim of an intellectual witch hunt. Poor wee Niall. It must be very difficult to be him. Public intellectuals are to be worshipped and invited to smart parties, not questioned.

Oh, the ego.

By far, the best response to this that I have read came from Justin Fox at Harvard Business Review.

Here’s the money quote that is so good I wish I’d written it:

Which is where my thought leader idea comes in. Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he’s become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That’s not a bad thing — I’m all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on Esquire.com, are the conference organizers who are pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about “Chimerica” or “the six killer apps of Western civilization.”

Here’s what chaps my fanny: NITPICKING? NITPICKING? I’M SORRY YOU ARE A TRAINED HISTORIAN WRITING FOR A NEWS MAGAZINE. You can’t check your specifics? YOU? CAN’T CHECK YOUR SPECIFICS?? Writing for a NEWS MAGAZINE. NEWSWEEK staff can’t check your specifics for you? Look, his was an essay on Obama for the election. That piece could have gone out this week; it could have gone out next week. It could have gone out any time before November.


We don’t need trained scholars to contribute to the vapid, sloppy blather in the world; we need them to do their homework and write thoughtful pieces in response to policy. I am SURE he could have done that from a conservative perspective and still been more careful with the specifics–there is much to legitimately critique–but he was just too lazy to do so, and Newsweek was too sloppy to do so. If we wanted this level of journalism, we could….go to personal blogs, not Newsweek. We could ask any schlub why the president should not be re-elected.

My brilliant colleague Richard Green said it best. If a USC proffie had written that original piece of slop, his fellow scholars would used him like a kickball and jumped up one down about how USC isn’t Harvard. Ferguson thinks he gets a free pass because of his lordly position with a Harvard moniker, which means he’s believes he’s entitled to be last experty-expert on whatever he pronounces–and he shouldn’t.

Ferguson, I beg you. Stop this. Go back to writing the beautiful books you used to.

3 thoughts on “Justin Fox (and me) on why Niall Ferguson should start doing real research again

  1. Newsweek didn’t help by putting the piece on the cover with a nah-Obama caption. Fallows makes the useful point that Harvard/Ivy people have written for nonacademic audiences honestly and effectively. He mentions Edward Wilson, but just at Harvard there are or have been Daniel Aaron (who turned 100 the other day), Edward Banfield, Carol Gilligan, Allan Dershowitz, Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Gates, Stephen Gould, Oscar Handlin,Samuel Huntington, Henry Kissinger, Richard Leowontin, Joseph Nye, Steven Pinker, Michael Sandel, Arthur Schlesinger, BF Skinner, Frederick Jackson Turner, Helen Vendler and James Q. Wilson, not all of them liberals.Princeton, a smaller school, has or has had Anthony Appiah, Russell Banks,Christian Gauss, Anthony Grafton, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Michael Oppenheimer, Peter Singer, Frank von Hippel, Cornel West, Woodrow Wilson and Michael Wood, again not all southpaws. I suspect most of these people did not blow off fact-checking the way Newsweek and Ferguson did.

  2. Positioning the piece on cover with a nah-Obama caption was probably not a good move. Fallows makes the useful point that Harvard/Ivy types have written effectively and honestly for wide audiences. He mentions Edward Wilson, but just at Harvard there are or have been Edward Banfield, Allan Dershowitz, Carol Gilligan, Stephen Gould, Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Gates, Oscar Handlin, Samuel Huntington, Henry Kissinger,Richard Leowontin, Joseph Nye, Michael Sandel, Arthur Schlesinger and James Q. Wilson–or if you go way back, Frederick Jackson Turner. At Princeton, a smaller school, you have or had Anthony Appiah, Anthony Grafton, Bernard Lewis, James McPherson, Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Singer, Cornel West and Frank von Hipple. Few of these people would have blown off fact-checking the way Newsweek and Ferguson did.

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