THE FOLKS AT DUKE U. weren’t out to make themselves laughingstocks. They just wanted a little attention before the Oscars.
So out they went with a worthless study indicating film critics sometimes say more via their “silence” by not reviewing a movie, seemingly unaware that most critics share reviewing chores and don’t critique every release. Almost instantly, critics weighed in to, er, criticize the research, with Roger Ebert observing on Jim Romenesko’s poynter.org/medianews site, “This study seems to be have been conducted without any knowledge of the real world film critics inhabit, and to incorporate statistics that seem flawed, if not downright goofy.”
Welcome to the new and not-exactly-improved world of academia, where professors lobby, jockey and retain publicists to help flog books and push research, which, especially in terms of media analysis, tends to yield an array of wholly insignificant data. Eager to land a few minutes on the cable news circuit, university profs who once toiled in obscurity court the limelight. The result is plenty of lame-brained pseudo-science, transforming academics into the Dukes of Duh.
Beyond the Duke study, an assistant economics professor at the U. of Chicago earned some exposure last week by determining, as he told the New York Times, “The notion that television has terrible effects on very young children” might not be true. In a nutshell, various factors contribute to a child’s development.
A UCLA political scientist, meanwhile, garnered well-deserved ridicule for a media bias study predicated on a tortured formula that concluded the Drudge Report “leans left” and the Wall Street Journal carries the “most liberal” news pages.
Then there are the many professors pimping to serve as pundits, such as Fordham U. media professor Paul Levinson, pitched as being “available before, during and after” the Oscars to help journalists evaluate the show. That’s right, during.
Not to be outdone, an Ohio State business prof with a book to peddle was submitted through his reps to opine on “Robert Murdoch’s consideration of exiting from News Corp.’s China deal.” That’s right, Robert.
Of course, face time on TV talk programs isn’t as difficult to gain these days as it might appear. Both TV and the business press possess a near-inexhaustible appetite for experts, meaning the bar isn’t set terribly high. Syracuse U.’s Robert Thompson is a poster child for this trend, becoming a near-ubiquitous talking head by overseeing the authoritatively named Center for the Study of Popular Television and being willing to comment on anything short of shopping-mall openings.
Still, this isn’t opportune time for the academic community to punch itself silly, what with global warming and evolution under siege and medical researchers wrangling over whether women should avoid dietary fat or wolf down cheeseburgers.
It’s in the social sciences, however, where universities are dangerously close to erecting an Ivory Tower of Babel, as some of these studies suggest. Further muddying the waters, scientific-sounding reports are issued by groups with specific axes to grind, such as the Parents Television Council, which last week unveiled a study promoting its conservative agenda by concluding that children’s television is awash in violence as well as newly identified threats to the national character, among them “disrespect for authority” and “verbal aggression.”
Duke marketing professor Wagner Kamakura, half of the team responsible for the movie critics survey, acted bemused by the furor over it, which didn’t make him sound any less clueless.
“Our purpose,” he says, “was what you can glimpse about the quality of a product based on the opinion of experts.” He also concedes that no one spoke with any of the experts cited and that they “did not speculate about why the critic does not write a review when a movie tends to be bad.”
Kamakura admits the school’s PR department regularly prods professors for provocative material that can be put out on the wire, which is increasingly common throughout academia. As for the negative reaction, he says, “I was surprised that people actually paid attention to it.”
Fortunately, Duke has a terrific basketball team.
Ultimately, there are benefits to bringing informed people into media discussions, if only to displace some of the shouting partisans who dominate the chat realm. Nevertheless, universities often do themselves no favors by blinding diving into the muck in pursuit of sound-bite glory.
In their defense, academics are still adapting to the requirements of this new media landscape, despite the advanced degrees and fancy credentials. Yet while the situation is evolving, based on the latest evidence, there isn’t much intelligent design.