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Motorpsycho Nitemare

Matthew B. Crawford has an essay in the New York Times magazine entitled "The Case for Working With Our Hands." It's an interesting read. What caught my eye was this passage, about the author's disillusionment with conventionally intellectual work:

I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.

That doesn't sound like a great policy organization. Which one could it be? A quick search turns up The Marshall Institute, which describes itself thusly:

The George C. Marshall Institute seeks to improve the understanding of scientific and technical issues that influence national security, energy and environmental policy.

Public policy matters are shaped by advances in science and technology. For that reason, unbiased and scientifically accurate assessments of the meaning of these advances for policy are critical. Where science is misused and distorted to promote special interests, we work to:

  • Communicate scientific information clearly,
  • Identify key linkages between science and policy issues, and
  • Provide balanced and accurate assessments on specific science-based policy issues.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a more critical assessment of the Marshall Institute's role:

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists offers the most comprehensive documentation to date of how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry's disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science ...

ExxonMobil-funded organizations consist of an overlapping collection of individuals serving as staff, board members, and scientific advisors that publish and re-publish the works of a small group of climate change contrarians. The George C. Marshall Institute, for instance, which has received $630,000 from ExxonMobil, recently touted a book edited by Patrick Michaels, a long-time climate change contrarian who is affiliated with at least 11 organizations funded by ExxonMobil.

I see why Crawford was disillusioned. But I wonder if he may be over-generalizing from his experience. Not all office work is as intellectually corrupting as work for a pseudoscientific industry front group posing as a think tank. Maybe, instead of abandoning all white collar work for a life of motorcycle repair, he should have tried Brookings first.

--Jonathan Chait