Lawrence Lessig: What Leads to Academic Corruption?

The first episode of Harvard Magazine’s new podcast, Ask a Harvard Professor, delves into academic corruption, and why “doing good can make you bad.”

Portrait of Lawrence Lessig with a microphone and his name




There’s a kind of academic corruption that most people have never considered. Not plagiarism. Not cheating on an exam. This is the kind of corruption that occurs when corporations and industry lobbying groups pay academics for expert testimony before Congress. Even the perception that such payments have occurred will result in an erosion of public confidence in scholarly research and in the impartiality of the academy. And the people most vulnerable to this ethical trap are those who believe they are doing good. As Furman professor of law and leadership Lawrence Lessig explains in this podcast, “Doing good can make you bad.”

 Harvard Magazine has also covered Lessig’s work on campaign finance reform, the problems inherent in the Electoral College, and other civic issues extensively in print.

Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):

Jonathan Shaw: Welcome to the Harvard Magazine podcast, Ask A Harvard Professor. I'm Jonathan Shaw. We'll spend today's office hours with Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founder of Creative Commons. Welcome, Professor Lessig.

Lawrence Lessig: Great to be here.

Jonathan Shaw: In your recent book, America Compromised, you take up the subject of academic corruption and you don’t mean plagiarism or conventional kinds of cheating, but something arguably more consequential: the erosion of the public’s belief in the impartiality and integrity of academic research. When did you first become aware of this problem?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I guess it confronted me quite viscerally when I was testifying before the United States Senate Commerce Committee about network neutrality. And just before I testified, I got an email from a senator who basically said, “I can’t believe you’re shilling for these big internet companies.” And I was shocked to think that he would have thought that I would be paid to give testimony. And then I realized that of course he thought that because basically everybody in that field was being paid to give testimony. And so when the senator heard what I was saying, he was filtering it on the assumption that I was being paid to say what I was saying and so therefore he wasn’t taking seriously what I was saying as an academic. And it was that moment I really thought we need a way, a better way, to either control what academics are doing in taking money to give public testimony like this or to at least signal that, I might be wrong, I might be biased, I might be focused on the next election. There are lots of reasons why you might want to discount what I'm saying, but I ought to have a simple way to say, look, don't discount what I'm saying on the assumption that what I'm saying, I'm saying because I'm trying to get money. That's the corruption of the integrity of the academy that I think that we have to be incredibly vigilant against.

Jonathan Shaw: How widespread is pay for public testimony? And what kind of sums are we talking about?

Lawrence Lessig: We don't know how widespread it is. And what we discovered at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethicswhen we ran a lab on this question of institutional corruption, which is thinking about this kind of problem but in lots of different institutions, is that the practices across the fields of the academy are very different. So at one extreme ... and I'm not saying all of this is bad, I'm just saying, let's just understand what's going on. At one extreme in the medical school, the vast majority of professors of medicine at the Harvard Medical School are not paid by Harvard. Their salary comes from someone else.

Lawrence Lessig: So they raise their salaries. So they raise their salary sometimes from the NHS, sometimes, I'm sorry, NIH in America. Sometimes from research grants from drug companies or pharmaceutical or device manufacturers. But the point is their money to do their work comes from outside the academy. And so there's a question. What is the relationship that they have to maintain to continue to secure that money? In the law school, which of course is the context that I must directly familiar with, most of us don't require money to do research. We get money from the law school directly. When I was a professor at University of Chicago, at the end of the summer, the Dean would sit down and say, okay, here are the people you need to thank for the support over the summer. But you didn't even know who they were when you were doing the work. So there was no relationship between the money and what you are actually doing.

Lawrence Lessig: But in particular fields like telecommunications, there's a large number of people who are in that field. They receive money from interested parties to participate in the policymaking process. And it's that dynamic that I'm most anxious about because if this were physics or engineering, where in a certain sense, the laws of nature constrained what someone could say. You might say, okay, so what you were being paid to kind of give your estimate of the, capacity of a certain steel structure to hold weight. You're going to be right or wrong. It's a function of the physics, not a function of who's paying you to say it. But in fields like economics and law, basically the soft sciences, the temptation to bend or to shade is always there. And if the return from bending or shaving is high, then obviously we have to worry that there's that kind of a distortion going on.

Jonathan Shaw: Is there evidence that a payment's changed the testimony or research focus or of people who are being paid?

Lawrence Lessig: Well we know first that it changes the perception of the integrity and one of the points I'm trying to make in the book, it's like they're two separate questions. Does it change the testimony? And secondly, does it change the perception of the testimony? And if it changes the perception of the testimony that's reason enough to be about it. Especially for institutions like the academy to be concerned about it because the academy doesn't want it's professors to be thought of as doing what they're doing because of the money.

Lawrence Lessig: So the perception alone is enough. Does it change the kind of work that's done? Well, Luigi Zingales who's a professor at the University of Chicago Business School, a libertarian, so this is not a left right point, has really wonderful research to demonstrate the way in which in business schools, the relationship that the academic must create with business in order to get access to the data that the business school professor needs to do the kind of case studies, which you know, is famous in the Harvard Business School and elsewhere, requires a certain attitude. You can't go into a business and get all this data and then write a case study that's deeply critical of the business. But his work was pointing to was, if you're going to study, for example, whether CEOs of businesses are being paid too much, you're not going to be able to have that career for long if you like get the data and then report, yeah, they're being paid way wildly too much.

Lawrence Lessig: So he suggested there's this incentive to focus on the question in a way that keeps the supplier of the data happy, which again is the kind of dynamic that we would worry about if we're worried about the actual research being bent in a way that's not reproductive of the truth. I don't know that we have any way to measure, except by just the sense that the results are or are not reliable, whether it changes the result in the sense that you would have said X, but now you say not X. I think the clearer examples are you're going to work in a certain kind of problem and not another kind of problem because of the money. And you're going to create an impression that your work is not because of ... your conclusion is not because of the truth, but because of the funding. Those two I think we can be confident about.

Jonathan Shaw: In your book, you outline some of the human psychological vulnerabilities that facilitate bias, that come from a study of industry marketing and its influence on physicians. What are some of the biases to which physicians have proved vulnerable?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think that one thing that's really clear is that people in the business of selling things to physicians know that they're in that business, know that they're in the business of creating trust with a doctor, leveraging insecurities of the doctor, and deploying the skills of a salesman for the purpose of steering the doctor at one way or the other. The doctor doesn't necessarily realize that he or she is in that relationship with the salesperson. The doctor might think this is his or her friend or this is his or her research assistant providing information about what the best treatment for a certain kind of condition is.

Lawrence Lessig: So the doctor isn't necessarily attuned to how he or she is being dealt with by the salesperson ... the detailer as in the pharmaceutical industry that person's called. And so that means that psychological biases of reciprocity become quite important. So if I do a favor for you, because you're a normal human being, you'll want to do a favor for me. You might not even realize that's what you want, but you will want it. And if you didn't want it, we would worry about you. There's a kind of sociopathic quality to somebody who doesn't want to return the favor once a favor is given. And so these, this basic nature of the way humans work is just a set of tools that those skilled and manipulating humans learn to deploy. And unless someone's skilled in resisting those tools, then I think they're vulnerable to the consequences of that deployment.

Jonathan Shaw: One of the biases that you talk about, the last one, in fact, which you call the moral license bias, you sum up as doing good can make you bad.

Lawrence Lessig: Yeah.

Jonathan Shaw: Why are academics, in particular, vulnerable to the moral license bias?

Lawrence Lessig: Yeah, I mean, this was first made apparent to me in the context of ethics professors. So you know, the basic question ... Are ethics professors more likely to be ethical? And you know, there's research out there to say no, they're not more likely to be ethical. And the way that this bias works is it basically says that if you think of yourself that you're a good person doing good, you give yourself some license for doing bad. So the more good you do, the more you feel entitled to do bad things. And we see this all over the place, likeDan Rostenkowski, a name that most people don't remember, but he was a congressman from Illinois who was convicted of engaging in all sorts of minor infractions of campaign finance and ethical rules around being a congressperson.

Lawrence Lessig: And you're like, why would you do that? And the answer is he felt like he was serving his community. He was doing good. And so he was entitled to these minor little infractions as a kind of payback and he thinks on balance, I'm a good congressperson. Maybe on balance, he is a good congressperson. But the point is the goodness makes him feel like he's allowed to engage in the badness too, and that dynamic, I think, the empirical, psychological work has begun to demonstrate is really pervasive and should lead us to be particularly anxious about the people who are proselytizing in a very highly moralistic way. I mean, it's a good thing they're doing that, It's good thing. They're spreading the good word, spreading ethical sensibilities. But we shouldn't believe that that immunizes them from normal human frailties, including the frailty of feeling entitled to behave bad because you've done so much good that day.

Jonathan Shaw: Right. You also wrote, “…here we have people who have chosen to do what they do, not for the money, but for the freedom or the intellectual engagement or the desire to teach. The academic is the most vulnerable. Not only is he less likely to be experienced in the influence game, he is psychologically primed to be the most vulnerable.”

Lawrence Lessig: Yeah. Yeah. And so most academics, I haven't tried to think about how you'd add this up, most academics it probably doesn't matter much. Because if you're teaching poetry, you know, in a state college someplace, you're not going to be asked by Congress to testify much about much. Right. I mean, not that you wouldn't be a valuable contributor to any public discourse, but we don't rely on the expertise of a poet in many contexts where policy judgments are involved and so it's probably, it might be the case for most academics is dynamic doesn't matter much because what you're doing is basically teaching students, and that's a good thing. You're doing your research and your research is not being guided by anything other than what you want to research. But what I'm worried about, the focus that I'm trying to draw out is to the extent we begin to connect the academy to domains of consequence, whether it's policymaking domains or judgments about how resources from the government should be allocated, then we need to be increasingly concerned about whether the academic is actually fortified against the kind of dynamic that we know leads him or her into a biased or less than honest attitude.

Jonathan Shaw: And you note also this shift in higher education that government funding has become increasingly scarce, driving a push to find new ways to pay for research, whether through philanthropy or partnerships with industry. And you note that even donors have become more transactional, asking what they will get in return for a gift. Are these types of relationships inevitably tainted or are there ways to structure them that avoid corruption and the appearance or the appearance of corruption?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, there's certainly ways to structure it to minimize any corruption or appearance of corruption, but we have to recognize that some institutions can afford that more than others. I have a friend who teaches at a policy school that's focused on food, healthy eating, sponsored by the Hershey Corporation, so you might say, could they like not resist the Hershey money? And does the Hershey money affect what they're doing? And those are fine questions to ask in theory. But the real problem is that when you're a school that needs to find the money to fund your research, there's not so many places you can go, especially if you're not Harvard or Yale or Stanford.

Lawrence Lessig: And so this I think is part of the reason why I was so keen to write this book and to talk about this subject because I think what we need to do is to develop norms that we all as academics can rely on to help guide the work we do in a way that insulates us from the wrong kind of influence. And so it should just be expected that a university would not create the kind of relationships that would force an academic to question his or her motives when adopting one research project or another. And to the extent the university does, or to the extent a research center does, then if we have obvious and well known norms about it, then those norms can kick in and we can say, what is this? I shouldn't be in a position where I need to go help fundraise to support the research that I'm doing that might in fact be against the interest of the people I'm raising money from.

Lawrence Lessig: And so I think that dynamic of developing norms to help insulate and support the academic is one of the most important regulatory responses we can have. Because there's relatively few actual regulations that you could imagine deploying here that would make sense or could be enforced effectively.

Jonathan Shaw: What are the consequences for major public policy debates in areas such as health care, climate change, science, immigration, or the growing use of genetically modified organisms, if the public is skeptical about what science says?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think GMO is like the best example of this problem. GMO is for liberals what climate science is for conservatives. It's a standard view among conservatives to be skeptical of climate science, a standard view among liberals to be skeptical of GMOs. And scholars like my colleague Cass Sunstein, who was head of OIRA (the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) which was, is the central regulator inside the executive branch under Obama.

Lawrence Lessig: You know, spent a long time studying questions about GMOs and he's written extensively about how all of the concerns about GMOs are wildly overblown. In fact, there's great good that GMOs do and the actual evidence of any harm is very small. Now, I think that might be true. I'm not in a position to evaluate the science like that, but I think what that misses is that part of the reason people are so skeptical of GMOs is that they look at the funding of the science and they say, well, the funding of the science is interested or biased or has an interest in one answer versus another. And so in the way you might think of as tobacco science, referring to the history of tobacco companies funding science that just happened to conclude the cigarettes were not dangerous. So too, I think people look at the GMO field and they say, why should we trust these results when we know the dynamic and the incentives are there?

Lawrence Lessig: And so I think the GMO industry should look at that and say, okay, look, we can't fund research in this way. We should be giving money to an independent organization that gets to give the money out to researchers based not on whether the researcher is our buddy or not, but based on the appropriateness of the research. Because if we really believe in our product, if we really believe what we're doing is safe, that safety will come through in that way. And so we will insulate ourselves from the charge that we were trying to direct the science in one way or the other.

Lawrence Lessig: Chris Robertson, who's one of the researchers I point to in the book, deploys this technique he calls blinding, which is to basically blind, in general it's about blinding for the purpose of breaking the assumption that somebody is doing something for the wrong reason. But in this kind of context it would be blinding the grantor of money to the people who are receiving the money so that and vice versa, so that you would not create the kind of incentives that would lead people to believe that there's corruption going on. And so he suggests in the context of expert witnesses, for example, in a trial, that it would be in the interest of the litigators to fund to these expert witnesses in a neutral way to create increased confidence of people inside of the trial without any regulation, like they're just be better for you. Your witnesses would be believed more if they were not funded by you. And I think that same dynamic has got to be, explored in the context of these other major fields of research like GMO and drive to the conclusion that you've got to find a better way to fund this.

Lawrence Lessig: There's a really great study that I point to that the Safra Center helped fund, just to be completely transparent about it., but it was as a research project where [Castleheim had led this research.] It basically recruited doctors to review summaries of, I think it's drugs. Yes, it was drugs. And a summary of the drugs, but described the method that was adopted, that was used, to determine what was claimed. So what was it double blind, or was at anecdotal? What was the quality of the research methodology. And then also it would record what was the source of the funding? Was it NIH funding, was it nothing was said about funding or was it drug company funded? And what this research showed in a really compelling way was that the fact that the drug company funded it reduced substantially the confidence that the doctors had in the conclusions being represented independent of the quality of the research.

Lawrence Lessig: So you can have the very best research methodology, double blinded, randomly controlled trials. But still if the doctor sees that it's a drug company funding it, the doctor thinks, oh, I don't really know if I believe that. Because the skepticism about the funding source overwhelms the confidence about the method of research. And that research in particular, I thought it would be very powerful to go to drug companies and say, look, you need a better way to fund your research because you're spending all this money to fund this research but the fact that you're funding it, is undermining the public's confidence ... In particular the doctor's confidence in the conclusions of that research. You're just throwing your money away. It would be much better if you steered your money into a structure that allowed doctors to listen to the conclusions of the research and not be guided so directly by the source of its funding.

Lawrence Lessig: And so I think that's it. That's the insight we're trying to encourage in lots of context to change the basic way people think about how they're going to get the research they want into the field.

Jonathan Shaw: Has any headway than made in that direction?

Lawrence Lessig: There's a lot of work now being done, especially in the context of drug research because there's been a lot of, in the context of connections to government regulators, it's been a lot of work to force transparency into the relationships and as transparency enters, then anxiety about these relationships becomes more salient, and then I think people begin to talk about alternative ways to achieve what they're looking for, which is the research without producing the anxieties. I think that we're just at the beginning of seeing really effective responses, but I'm encouraged that to the extent like Chris Robertson is able to demonstrate, the return from doing the clean thing is much higher than the cost, people will just be naturally driven to do the right thing.

Jonathan Shaw: Harvard's president Lawrence Bacow said during his inaugural address that, "For the first time in my lifetime, people are actually questioning the value of sending a child to college. For the first time in my lifetime, people are asking whether or not colleges and universities are worthy of public support. For the first time in my lifetime, people are expressing doubts about whether colleges and universities are even good for the nation." Are the issues you raise about academic corruption connected to this broad set of concerns?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think his concern is broader than the particular concern that I have identified, you know, so I think people question the academy because they think it might be partisan or ideologically driven. They question the academy because the huge cost of education weigh heavily on a student once he or she graduates. And when you walk out of a university with a quarter of a million dollars in debt, you might well ask, would it have been better for me to do something that it didn't require that kind of debt.

Lawrence Lessig: So I think a lot of great reasons to question whether the way we're delivering higher education now is worth it. And some of those certainly are connected to what I'm talking about. So to the extent we see academics being steered by the attraction of the money away from doing some of the work that we think academics are to do inside of the university—to be disinterested, to be engaged in the life of the teaching and the education of students—then that weakens, again, the value of the university to the students. And so if you know that if you listen to the professor and you think the professor is just biding his or her time until it has an opportunity to do this other thing that gets a real wealth back to the professor, it changes the character of the relationship in a way that I do think undermines the integrity of the project.

Lawrence Lessig: And so I don’t…again, one of the very core themes of my book is to say, this is not about moralizing against the professor. It's not about saying you’re an evil person because you’re doing this. It’s more about the institutions like the universities. They need to think about what are the constraints and opportunities we are creating and what do we know about how normal people will behave in that context. And when we know normal people will behave in a way that undermines the integrity of the work or steers the academic away from where we know we want academics to be, we need to change those structures and incentives. You know, we can’t expect superman or superwoman. We have to recognize it’s ordinary people living in a very economically difficult time, and they're going to steer themselves according to what makes most sense for them and for their family. And that, I fear, in many contexts is contrary to the interests of what the university has.

Jonathan Shaw: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Lessig.

Lawrence Lessig: Thank you.


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