The tiresome title of Professor Emeritus

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, June 9th, 2010 - 28 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags: , ,

Carrying on from r0bs post about dissecting the bloated ego of the Looney Lord, I thought I should share my thoughts on the role of retired professors with similar meaningless titles.

There has been a series of posts at Hot-topic and other sites looking at the actions and background of climate change skeptical scientists. As someone who has trained in earth sciences I find it hard to see why anyone would give them much credibility in the face of the mounting evidence of quite fundamental changes in the atmospheric heat balance. However it appears many people prefer comforting noises rather than facing the consequences of not changing polluting behaviors. But what is fascinating generally is that many are retired professors far from the cut and thrust of the peer reviewing of their work that is a major and critical part of the scientific process. Many people seem to imbue a larger mantle of authority over a title than its meaningless value deserves.

Bryan Walker has been reviewing a book called “Merchants of Doubt” about four scientists who have been ranging far out of their areas of expertise to offer opinions over many decades.

Three of the physicists were Fred Seitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. The fourth, Fred Singer, is still living.

The issues in which the men, jointly or severally, played a part cover a wide range.  A surprising range at first sight.  What have tobacco smoking, the strategic defence initiative, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoking and climate change got in common? They were not areas of professional expertise for the four scientists. Oreskes and Conway point to the fact that they all involved the possibility of government regulation of market activities in the interests of the environment. Regulation was the road to socialism. All four men were stout defenders of free market capitalism and strident anti-communists. Nierenberg and Seitz hated environmentalists, viewing them as Luddites.

In other words, bugger the evidence or the science. In the opinion of these people the politics is more ‘important’. It evidentially works from the way that the media report their opinions. But there are always the simple and credulous without an understanding of the processes of science prefer to believe in titles rather than reviewing the available science. It makes for a good story for the journos who generally don’t have much background in science, but can spot a human interest story from miles away. Especially when it is being promoted by spinsters pushing for the interests of their major corporates clients.

Part of the interest of the book is its reflections on the nature of science. Science doesn’t provide certainty or proof. What it does provide is the consensus of experts, based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. Thus the geological theory of plate tectonics, for example, has emerged as accepted scientific knowledge. Modern science is a collective enterprise. What counts as knowledge are the ideas that come to be accepted by the fellowship of experts, the jury of one’s scientific peers.  If a claim is rejected the honest scientist moves on to other things. When Robert Jastrow and his colleagues first took their claims to the halls of public opinion rather than to the halls of science, they were stepping outside the institutional protocols that for four hundred years have tested the veracity of scientific claims. Many of the claims of the climate science contrarians had already been vetted in the halls of science and had failed to pass the test of peer review. Many were never even submitted for vetting.

This has been particularly evident in some of the comments written in this site. The name and title of Fred Singer in particular keeps being used like a talisman by the climate change deniers and skeptics here. They appear to think that the the phrase of “Professor Emeritus” means something more than it is. My definition of it is roughly:-

Professor Emeritus : Old specialist who is no longer doing much real work in their field, and will frequently comment on areas outside of their areas of expertise. Often entertaining, but frequently fossilized in their thinking.

Emeritus status is a bit of a mixed sword in most areas in its recipients.

It is sometimes useful because many of its recipients do develop a habit of thinking outside of their previous specialized box. They can help in cross-fertilize across areas of specialization. They often have a strong role in mentoring younger talent by providing the required support, especially in refining ideas. They frequently lecture in other universities worldwide cross-fertilizing the academic community, which is usually where I’ve observed them.

However often the real reason is that the status is awarded as a near-bribe to get old farts with tenure out of a department so people with new ideas and approaches can start doing some real work. Work that isn’t being constrained by the dead weight of someone locked into ideological positions developed many decades earlier.

Fred Singer appears to be one of the latter. His work in the 50’s and 60’s on using earth looking satellites is exemplary. However in his later years, he appears to have become increasingly associated with defending corporations in declining industries, and a lot less interested in current science.

Another good example of the scientific fossilization has been recently offered in a presentation offered at the Heartland Institute – which appears to largely be a spinster creation for the hydrocarbon industry. Don Easterbrook, Emeritus Professor of Geology, has for a long time been looking at the well known long-term cyclic effects that would indicate that the world would be tending to go into a cooling phase at present. At least they would if humans weren’t around screwing up the heat retention of the atmosphere and hydrosphere.

However in his presentation to the faithful at the Heartland conference, he appears to have clipped the last hundred years of contrary temperature data from his charts so he could show a 1905 ‘baseline’ temperature. Of course, this rather ignores the geologically rapid increases in temperature that have been happening both regionally (especially in the polar regions) and globally during the last century. These are not been explainable during the last century using the effects he was commenting on. They get in the way of an otherwise good theory. The temperature rises have been all the more remarkable because they are on top of the probable overall cooling effect he was examining.

There are a series of posts at Hot-topic looking at the detail of Don Easterbrook’s presentation where both the posts and comments have been enlightening (and entertaining) – 1, 2, 3, and 4. If he was arguing that the world would (without human interventions) have been naturally dipping towards another glacial period over the long-term, then his data and conclusions would have been valid. His presentation may have won him applause from an audience already invested in that conclusion. But is unlikely to carry much weight with anyone who has looked at the worrying temperature trends over the last century that were removed from his presentation.

Why am I pointing out these two (out of many) examples of Emeritus Professor? Well it is because examples like these and the constant use of retired lecturers as being authorities are steadily making me think that the status is past its use-by-date.

I’ve been moderating comments on this site for a number of years now. I’m tired of reading eulogies by people commenting with hushed tones of awe about the statements of some awesome Emeritus Professors – it is merely a title indicating their largely retired role in the academic community. It is as ridiculous to throw a false mantle of authority over them as the clowns who seem to have the same awe of the rather spurious hereditary authority of Chris Monckton. They never seem to consider exactly what titles mean – which is sweet bugger all.

In the case of any person of science, your current reputation and the authority of your opinions depends on your recent contributions to science. Those contributions are not made by prancing around on a stage at the pleasure of spinsters or offering consultancies to corporations with declining markets and telling them what they want to hear. Those are the roles that we assign to motivational speakers to harangue sales staff, or to people paid to boost the egos and confidence of tired managers. That roles doesn’t sit well on people of science.

28 comments on “The tiresome title of Professor Emeritus”

  1. Bored 1

    All a bit of a laugh to be had from the honours and ranking system of the halls of academia. Emeritus is now more like being a senior partner in a consultancy company really (like the parasitic EYs of this world). Lets face it the university system is now a fully fledged industry at all levels, a money making concern. Which means an Emeritus man is in somebodies back pocket. All a very sad commentary on how the commercial imperative has been allowed to bastardise what should be one of our most revered and esteemed institutions.

    Capcha “passes” aka something you pay for the privelege of sitting for, with the bar set proportionately low so that the fear of costly failure does not put off the next hopeful enrolees.

    • just saying 1.1

      Gotta mention that there are some notable exceptions like the Alliance’s Jim Flynn.
      Last I heard he was still working out of a broom closet in the politics department at otago, but since he went emeritus he has continued to do world-class research in his two fields – politics and psychology.

      Seventy-something I think.

      • lprent 1.1.1

        Yeah, you have to look closely at what people are doing in the position (and some are indeed awesome). But the title demands a degree of skepticism, as I hope I’ve shown with the two examples above.

      • Draco T Bastard 1.1.2

        ~77 now (IIRC, he was 73 when I took one of his classes in ’06) and, yes, his office is a broom closet.

  2. Richard 2

    Yes, exactly. “Emeritus Professor” means “retired”.

    It means that we (the university who used to employ you) no longer employ you, but we might let you still use an office, and we’ll print you some business cards. In return, we would still like to use your name for some assorted “elder-statesman of academia” purposes (opening buildings, chairing administrative committees, making up the numbers on examination boards, etc). We will probably give you some funding to potter about on whatever (cheap) project takes your fancy — pontificating on the “philosophy” of your discipline would be a good area to work in. But we think that you are too senile to do any actual work, which is saying something, as many of our working professors are quite senile. If you are not too senile, we might get you to help work on university “strategy”.

  3. PK 3

    ***I’m tired of reading eulogies by people commenting with hushed tones of awe about the statements of some awesome Emeritus Professors it is merely a title indicating their largely retired role in the academic community.***

    Whether they call themselves emeritus professors, or retired professors, people will still look for arguments that support their views. And in anycase, the evidence & logic they use should be the focus, not their title.

    • lprent 3.1

      Exactly my point. The source, rationale, evidence, AND peer-criticism are all important.

      Of course what happens here is that I get an interesting sounding link by a CCD on earth sciences, pop through, read the article, track back to the original paper, find out it is not peer reviewed, lookup the writer, and find out that they’re retired and have a background in chemistry and have never published a peer-reviewed paper in earth sciences.

      It just pisses me off, and the CCD usually starts complaining when I call them a moronic scientifically illiterate idiot.

      This post was mostly written so I can link to it in comments to explain why I think that they are such a dipshit.

  4. Anita 4

    I think your complaint is actually about the media paying too much over-awed attention to academics (semi-retired or otherwise) who are speaking on issues outside their area of expertise.

    There are plenty of awesome emeritus professors who continue doing great work in their own fields; supervising, participating in research teams, publishings and even providing useful public commentary.

    The fact the media can’t tell the difference between a well-respected leading thinker in a particular niche and a person with an opinion and a title is a criticism of the media, not of emeritus professors.

    The same criticisms could be levelled at the media’s attitude toward Family First and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. In both cases they’re effectively one person lobby machines which get treated with far too much reverence.

    • lprent 4.1

      I’d agree. I’ve net some pretty awesome emeritus profs (and for that matter other retired/semi-retired lecturers/researchers). I’ve also met a few that were (to put it politely) were fools running around with some pretty weird ideas and a complete lack of evidence.

      But who I was getting at was mostly the credulous fools that I see here and in the media who seem to see the title and don’t bother looking at the background.

      If someone is a working scientist (for instance), they take risks in coming up with unsubstantiated assertions. EP’s don’t have such restrictions on them. It means that they need to have their ideas treated with a lot more skepticism. It simply depends on the person.

    • Richard 4.2

      Absolutely, there are plenty of emeritus professors doing quality work *in their field*. The point is that an emeritus professor outside their field really offers no more than a “clever, but uninformed opinion.

  5. Retired is necessary but not sufficient for emeritus status; there is a minimum quality threshold. I don’t think we have a single Emeritus in our economics department currently, though many have retired. The title isn’t exactly given out like candy.

    Otherwise, Anita’s got it right.

    • Anita 5.1

      I’ve always thought of emeritus professors as semi-retired FWIW, there are expectations of continued participation on emeritus professors, so they’re still active within the university and/or research community on an unpaid basis.

  6. Carol 6

    There’s an interesting Prof Em talking on Nat Radio right now:

    “Professor Robert Ayres – How energy efficiency can fuel economic growth

    Professor Emeritus of the European Institute of Business Administration who says economists are missing out on a major growth driver for the economy.

    Robert Ayres is the author of several books, including The Next Industrial Revolution, and the 13 Percent Economy, which argues that the giant US economy functions on only 13 percent efficiency in terms of energy use – meaning 87 percent is wasted.”

    He may be onto something, or he maybe just providing a way for neoliberal capitalism to go on providing business as usual, without really tackling the real problems of climate change.

    • Lanthanide 6.1

      “without really tackling the real problems of climate change.”

      On the contrary, it means there is great opportunity for the economy to keep growing in the face of shrinking energy input, either from a climate-change impetus, or peak oil (or most likely, both).

  7. pointer 7

    Great podcast of Naomi Oreskes interviewed by Chris Mooney:
    It’s long — about 40 min — but well worth listening to for the history of how climate change denialists started to manufacture doubt.

  8. uke 8

    You could level all the same accusations of being captured by special interests at “serving” professors, not just the retired ones.

    An argument has been made, most prominently by the science historian David Noble, that the current academic peer review system is a scam and system of censorship that benefits corporatised US universities, academic publishers, and commercial research interests. He came up with examples of papers credited to certain academics that were in fact ghost-written by pharmaceutical company staff and reviewed by captured “peers”. See:

    Of course, no doubt there are some bad apples among the retirees too.

    • NickS 8.1

      …And it’s by Suzan Mazur, who cannot in any way be relied to get anything to do with science _right_

      Ugh, I lack the motivation to even slog through Mazur’s interview, let alone put the brain into gear to critically look at Noble’s answers and get into the finer issues with peer review.

  9. Andy 9

    On the subject of Oreskes claims, I though you might be interested in the following comments (h/t Bishop Hill commenter “Mac”)

    In 2004, history professor Naomi Oreskes performed a survey of research papers on climate change. Examining peer-reviewed papers published on the ISI Web of Science database from 1993 to 2003, she found a majority supported the “consensus view,” defined as humans were having at least some effect on global climate change. Oreskes’ work has been repeatedly cited.

    Medical researcher Dr. Klaus-Martin Schulte updated this research. Using the same database and search terms as Oreskes, he examined all papers published from 2004 to February 2007. Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the AGW hypothesis.

    So is Naomi Oreskes being completely impartial here?

  10. Craig Marshall 10

    So four professors emeriti attract your scorn on the basis that that they hold views outside of their nominal areas of expertise and with which you disagree. On this basis you condemn the whole class?

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      Ah, no. They get scorned because it’s provable that they don’t know WTF they’re talking about.

    • lprent 10.2

      Draco caught the sentiment…. BTW: I only commented on two – did you actually read the post or just the first quotation?

      Based on his track record for the last 30 years, Fred Singer seems to have been more concerned with getting the ‘right’ ideological answer on a large number of topics than he is with the science.

      Easterbrook looks more like he is stretching the data to get the ‘pure’ conclusion he’d like, while ignoring the effects that those pesky humans are adding to the geological processes.

      Both aren’t exactly good role models for the PE status.

      • Craig Marshall 10.2.1

        I stand corrected. My point remains. The fact that two (or five if you included those in the quotation) professors emeriti hold views with which you disagree proves exactly what? You cannot generalize from that to justified scorn for the whole class of such people.
        Having said that, I’d agree that a title such as this offers little in the way of authority per se: the test is the quality of their arguments (and not just whether they agree with you) and the data they offer.
        And is it really provable they don’t know what they are talking about, or is it just they take a different point of view?

        • NickS

          Ye gads, in this age of google you’d think people would at least be able to do rudimentary searches and a bit of basic research. Which in terms of the particular people lprent’s talking about leads one to a whole range of good material on the bad science these people have pushed and in the case of Singer, still do.


          Or you could just use wikipedia.

          Which lprent’s linked to in the post.

          So go forth and fucking _read_ before asking fairly stupid questions.

  11. Craig Marshall 11

    The claim that lprent made was a general one. My point is that however doubtful the ideas that any emeritus professor such as Fred Singer (or anyone else) might promote, it does not follow that all professors emeriti are idiots. For each Singer there is a Flynn (but I’ll bet there is range of opinion on Jim Flynn’s political views).

  12. Andy 12

    Not quite as impressive as Emeritus Professor, but I see that the climatic claque have been suitably rewarded in the Queen’s honours

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