Why Care About the O’Bagy Affair?

Tom Ricks and Dave Weigel partially defend Elizabeth O’Bagy, the think-tanker who pretended she had a doctorate from Georgetown. Ricks’ take is that Washington DC society is too hung up on credentials, and there are many fools out there with doctorates. Weigel’s take is that no-one really would have cared if she had only had an MA degree – therefore, while she had to lose her job, she doesn’t deserve the public excoriation. From within the academy, both Dan Drezner and Steve Saideman defend the Ph.D. as representing an extraordinary amount of work.

I don’t have much to say about the ethics of Ms. O’Bagy’s actions – it seems a cut and dried case to me (Weigel is wrong to think that she just hadn’t defended – people in Georgetown are saying she was never in a Ph.D. program in the first place). But there are some interesting questions about the value of a Ph.D. in Washington DC in the first place. Some think tanks value Ph.Ds more than others – as Thomas Medvetz points out, think tanks vary substantially in how much they value academic capital (as opposed, say, to its journalistic or policy making equivalents). This may help explain the disagreement between Ricks and Weigel – they likely move in somewhat different circles of wonkishness (Ricks is at the Center for a New American security; Dave is a well connected journalist).

Whichever which way, the value of a Ph.D. as a credential in the think tank world is mostly unrelated to the things that academics care about. Academics tend to specialize heavily – newly minted assistant professors spend their first few years living on the fat that they have stored up during their dissertation research, and trying to turn it into peer reviewed publications. Think tankers may or may not use their dissertation work to get started – but are valued for a certain class of intellectual agility as much as for expertise. Acquiring detailed knowledge in a particular area is important, but so too is the ability to switch rapidly to another area if and when the market dries up. Thus, in the academic market, a Ph.D. signifies that you have an active research agenda in a particular area (and people are likely to care lots about the specifics of your dissertation). In think tank world, people may indeed care that you have a Ph.D., but see it more as a general signalling device. If you’ve learnt lots of relevant things doing your dissertation, great. If you have learned lots, say, from pursuing a policy job before your Ph.D., which is completely unrelated to your actual research, that’s great too, and maybe even better. Your reputation for expertise may be reinforced by a Ph.D., but it doesn’t necessarily depend on your dissertation research.

This is also reflected in the attitude of media towards academia. Any professor in a DC university quickly gets used to random cold-calls from media outlets looking for commentary on topics completely unrelated to their research. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing – all that matters is that you can call yourself a professor. Also, in a subtly Bourdieuian strategy of distinction, professors in US universities rarely refer to their doctorates and almost never refer to themselves as Doctor X or Doctor Y. This is better to distinguish themselves from those who have doctorates, but are not professors, just as surgeons in the UK and Ireland invariably want to be referred to as “Mr.” or “Ms.” X or Y, despite having trained as doctors (they revert to an older style of nomenclature to stress precisely that they are not mere doctors).

10 Responses to Why Care About the O’Bagy Affair?

  1. John September 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    I was always under the impression that the North American reticence about calling oneself
    ‘doctor’ was meant to avoid coarse differentiation between instructors who have PhDs and those who don’t. Everyone can be ‘professor’ in the classroom environment whether one is an ABD, professional instructor, adjunct or tenured prof; doctor is a more specific marker.

  2. Steve Metz September 12, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    Ricks misses the point: it isn’t about whether having a doctorate makes one wiser about policy. It’s about personal integrity or, more specifically, about surrendering integrity in the quest to maximize one’s personal exposure and celebrity.

    • Jbruns September 12, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

      Yes, precisely

  3. Eric McGhee September 12, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Based on my years in the think tank world, I think you’re under-emphasizing the role of expertise in think tanks, and missing some of the real value of the PhD. Any smart person can learn the substance of a policy area, and think tanks (the better ones, anyway) expect their employees to be sort of “super-reporters” who know everything about a policy area: all that has happened, all the legal details, all the extra-legal realities as people perceive them, and all the important players. In fact, think tank people with or without PhDs often do this better than academics.

    At the risk of sounding snooty, what the PhD provides is some sense of how to think about all this information. It’s theory, methods, and research design. Non-PhDs can acquire this skill and information through trial and error, but it’s less common for them to bother. The challenge is that few policymakers are PhDs, so they don’t often understand or appreciate the value of these things and can’t distinguish between research produced by people with these skills and those without.

    The VERY best think tanks try hard to get the right answer, so they turn to PhDs to do some or all of their research. Good think tanks make sure that their employees are at least “super-reporters” in a limited number of subjects so they can give the lay of the land. And then there are a large number that are just trying to produce talking points for a particular point of view, and they don’t have to care much at all.

  4. Chris Lawrence September 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    While it may be true that “Dr.” is rarely used by academics in the BosWash corridor, in my experience it’s far more prevalent in the Midwest and virtually de regieur in the South. And at an institution like mine where there are a large number of master’s-only faculty (both permanent and temporary) teaching as adjuncts or primarily in “learning support” the distinction is heavily emphasized.

  5. Chris September 12, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    The defense by Ricks, at least at this stage in the affair, is especially misguided. Given that she lied so brazenly about the PhD, why is anyone still taking her work or claims about her skills and expertise (e.g., Arabic language proficiency) at face value? The ThinkProgress pieces cites Kagan saying that she has no idea how O’Bagy got her sources, who they are, or how her trips to Syria were funded. For a 26 year-old with no battlefield experience, no war journalism experience, and no previous experience in Syria to suddenly have extensive ties to the rebels and to undertake multiple trips in an incredibly dangerous environment (and not just on the fringes–her reports cite interviews with commanders in Aleppo and Latakia) should have raised red flags to begin with, and the should even more so now that we’ve learned she has a fundamental problem with honesty.

    • Steve Metz September 12, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      “The defense by Ricks, at least at this stage in the affair, is especially misguided” <— That depends on the criteria. Are they the ability to provide sage policy advice? Or the ability to maximize influence while sort of thumbing one's nose at the system which stresses formal credentials?

  6. Henry Farrell September 12, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    Eric – maybe I didn’t express myself well. I’m not saying that think tanks don’t value expertise – obviously, they do. I’m saying that they don’t necessarily value the expertise accumulated in the Ph.D. as being better than the expertise you might get from several years in a policy job, and will often view the latter as actually preferable.

    • Eric McGhee September 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      Yes, agreed. It just sounded like you were talking up the value of the extreme specialization of the PhD. In my experience, the biggest advantage PhDs bring to a policy debate isn’t their specialization, it’s their theoretical infrastructure and their methods. In many cases it’s nothing more than a willingness to question one’s own conclusions. PhDs have that beat into them, and others don’t.

      This isn’t just about the social sciences, either. My wife is a chemist and she describes the same distinction in industry: the PhDs think about problems in a different way. Not because they’re smarter, but because they’ve been trained to do it.

  7. RobC September 12, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    At Princeton back in the day, not only were professors not referred to as Doctor, they weren’t referred to as Professor. Everybody was Mr. (or rarely, Mrs.) I wonder if that’s still true.