Ezra Klein reminded me of an interesting point about controversy and academia:
Krugman won it his way: He never retreated into the academy, never jealously insulated his expertise and insight from controversy because that would be safest for his reputation. Lots of folks seem to think that engagement with the public sphere puts a ceiling on academic achievement, and some had even said to me that Krugman had made himself too controversial to ever win a Nobel prize. They were wrong, and I hope more economists and assorted academics now follow Krugman’s model of deploying their expertise for the benefit of an interested public.
I’m not sure that it is accurate to imply that Paul Krugman’s controversial record in any way interfered with his chance of winning a Nobel. Obviously it is a risk to take a controversial stand on current issues, but in the medium- to long term it’s only a risk if, like Jonah Goldberg or Bill Kristol or Doug Feith, your declarations consistently turn out wrong. Taking controversial stands that turn out right, for example that Bush policies are ill-informed and likely to fail, just makes you look smart.
Two illustrate my point two different ways, reference this year’s Nobel in chemistry:
“The fluorescent proteins have revolutionized medical research,” says oncologist and imaging expert John Frangioni of Harvard Medical School in Boston. Last year, more than 12,000 papers reported using GFP and other fluorescent proteins, according to Marc Zimmer, a chemist at Connecticut College in New London and author of Glowing Genes, a book about the discovery of fluorescent proteins. Today, GFP and other fluorescent proteins “are probably as important as the development of the microscope,” he says. That underscores the value of basic research: If Shimomura’s pursuit of jellyfish fluorescence were funded today, says Zimmer, it would be more likely to earn scorn than anything else. “It’s a great candidate for the IgNobels”.
…and this profile of John Stuart Mill in the New Yorker.
Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals; and opposed adulterating Anglo-American liberalism with too much systematic French theory—all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed. He was right about nearly everything, even when contemplating what was wrong: open-minded and magnanimous to a fault, he saw through Thomas Carlyle’s reactionary politics to his genius, and his essay on Coleridge, a leading conservative of the previous generation, is a model appreciation of a writer whose views are all wrong but whose writing is still wonderful. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either. (No one has ever been more eloquent about the ethical virtues of Jesus of Nazareth.)
[…] When he died, in 1873, worn out by work, writers in the mainstream press in London mocked him for the beliefs that time has shown to be most utterly right. They sneered at his support for women’s equality, which had fallen into eclipse in that decade; he must himself have been “feminine” to have supported such a silly thing, and his opposition to slavery had been unrealistically “obstinate.”
I remember the ridicule that Krugman dealt with when he remained skeptical through 9/11 and the Iraq war hysteria. He stuck to his guns when colleagues like Tom Friedman chased around the Sunday shows with their nose up the President’s ass, a point that only underlines the difference between Krugman’s intellectual temperament and the more ordinary minds with whom he shares a printed page.
Although the award recognizes work in a field completely separate from American politics, I doubt that the committee missed Krugman’s tendency to stake bold and, ultimately, accurate positions there as well.