Smoke-filled rooms.

March 16, 2010, 12:18 pm

In a recent article in The Nation, Jon Wiener of UC Irvine writes about historians who have worked as expert witnesses or researchers on behalf of Big Tobacco. It’s an interesting piece, I think, not least because it suggests that souls don’t come cheap the expert-witnessing business is lucrative: Kenneth Ludmerer, a historian of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, apparently made more than $500,000 working for tobacco companies. That’s real money!

But there’s a catch (there always is, right?): it’s a contentious business. Ludmerer and other scholars who have worked on Big Tobacco’s side during litigation claim that they’ve been harassed because of their efforts. Ludmerer asks:

Where is civility in this country? These ad hominem attacks are injurious. I had coronary artery bypass surgery in 2005. I’m sure a lot of the disease came from tension from the comments people made about my testimony. I’ve never done anything other than serve the public interest.

Ludmerer then insists that he can have his cake and it too although he worked for the tobacco industry, he really hoped the corporations would lose. So “why”, Wiener asks, “did he testify for the industry?” Because Ludmerer “considered it honorable to stand up for doing history properly.” Heroic!

Anyway, after reading Wiener’s article, I found myself (entirely predictably) sympathizing with the author. Sure, I like money, but I’m reasonably* confident I wouldn’t sell my services to Big Tobacco, the NRA, or other corporate lobbying organizations whose politics I find deplorable. At the same time, it seems possible, based on the evidence Wiener presents, that historians working on behalf of the tobacco companies have set aside professional norms in service of a payday. Still, I do enjoy the sophisticated taste of Parliaments! And I feel like more of a man when I smoke Marlboros! Please send me a check, Mr. Philip Morris!

But after reading an exchange of letters between Wiener and Matthew Gallman, a historian at The University of Florida, published in The Nation the week after Wiener’s article appeared, I started questioning my initial reaction.

Gallman raises what seem to be reasonable concerns about the way that Wiener depicts the actions of graduate students in the history department at the University of Florida, where Gallman directed the graduate program during the period in question. Wiener replies with drama. First, he notes that smoking kills lots of people every year. Next, he intimates that historians who work with Big Tobacco may have blood on their hands. And then he insists that Gallman, by raising the issue of the graduate students at the University of Florida, is getting worked up about “a footnote to a footnote.” Maybe. But that’s not the point.

Gallman is making two claims: that Wiener plays fast and loose with evidence (the very same charge that Wiener levels at historians working for the tobacco industry), and that there are power dynamics at play here, as the UF graduate students were worried about being outed for the work they had done. Wiener replies to this by noting that the students had the opportunity to speak on their own behalf but chose not to. I have to say, that doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise Wiener either. Again, these are graduate students who would prefer to remain anonymous. They’re worried about the consequences of their actions. And maybe they should be. But absent a clearer sense of their motives, and also of how much they knew about the job when they took it, it’s very hard for me to judge. And furthermore, I wonder if the ethics of working for Big Tobacco are different for graduate students making $25/hour than for faculty making as much as $500/hour. I’m guessing they are. But I’m not a philosopher, so I should be careful about what I say.

* Note: not entirely confident. After all, I’m quite greedy.


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