At 15, P.T. Barnum showed what he was made of. He shrewdly traded some trash for a peddler’s wagon full of green bottles. Then he opened a lottery, sold a thousand tickets, and handed out the empty bottles as prizes.
Barnum eventually grew rich with his museum, his circus, and his spectacular coup in bringing the singer Jenny Lind to America, but he longed for something else. As his biographer Neil Harris put it, Barnum sought “approbation”—
Swindlers had existed for a long time, but none had the effrontery to call themselves philanthropists or to make money from revelations of their own cunning and deceit.
The public loved his spectacles but a certain class of people deplored his ethics.
I am not sure why contemporary higher education hasn’t more forthrightly claimed P.T. Barnum as its true progenitor. His influence surely outshines Thomas Jefferson, Mark Hopkins, Charles Eliot, Nicholas Murray Butler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, or Clark Kerr.
Contemporary higher education has its own “greatest show on earth” tactics, but fondness for spectacle isn’t the heart of Barnum-ism. Barnum’s genius was in matching his entertainments to public yearnings and the vagaries of taste. He was deeply democratic, attuned to the press, and knew that he could use incredulity in his own favor. As Harris put it, “an exhibitor did not have to guarantee truthfulness: all he had to do was possess probability and invite doubt.”
But let’s put aside these vacant thoughts and turn to some serious news. Science reports that retired computer scientist Dr. John Mashey is attempting to patch the tattered reputation of “hide the decline” Michael Mann, the climate scientist whose famous “hockey stick” chart shows exponentially increasing global temperatures in the near term. Mashey has been, as he puts it, “trying to take the offense” against global warming skeptics by flyspecking their publications. “You hope they make a mistake,” he says, and when they do, he pounces with demands that journals retract whole articles. Some journals indeed have. As Science puts it, “His critics say Mashey is more interested in destroying his foes than in debating the issues.” Professor Mann is extolling his efforts at “exploring the underbelly of climate denial.”
Mashey’s crusade brings to mind an article published in the journal Critical Inquiry back in 2004 by French social theorist Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Latour, who had been a key intellectual force in efforts to undermine the authority of modern science first by insisting that science is “socially constructed,” and later by deploying the obsessive obscurantism of “ethnomethodology,” had come to the abrupt realization that by undermining the authority of science, he had inadvertently helped those who were skeptical of global warming. Since he knew (on what authority?) that man-made global warming was a scientific fact, it now struck him as crucial to combat “excessive distrust of good matters of fact.”
But how is this to be done? I suppose Mashey offers an instructive example of one way to put “excessive distrust” of authority back in the green glass bottle. Making the bottle the only safe refuge from abuse might work on a limited scale, but it isn’t really attuned to our sense of fair play. We don’t need perfect assurance in our scientific theories but we do need to believe that the scientists are doing their best to get to the truth.
As P. T. Barnum taught us, skepticism is tricky business. “Perfect and absolute conviction in exhibits made them less valuable,” says Harris summarizing Barnum’s perspective. “Spectators required some hint of a problem, some suggestions of difficulty.” The trick is to evoke just the right amount of skepticism, and not too much difficulty. A little too much either way and the game is over.
Of course, man-made global warming is just one exhibit in the contemporary higher-education circus. If it grows stale, we have others.
This article originally appeared on June 30 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.