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Grounded: Not Only in Ideas, But in Reality

August 3, 2012

Professor Alfred Marcus on RegBlog.

By Prof. Alfred Marcus

Wilson was my dissertation adviser at Harvard. When he passed away, the New York Times featured a front-page obituary, and the Wall Street Journal also had a number of articles. One of the articles calls him the most important social scientist of the last century: perhaps hyperbole, perhaps not.

I have many anecdotes, just a few of which I will share. As a young man of 25 or so, I brought Professor Wilson a 100-page document that was to be the introduction to my dissertation on the origins and early history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was the longest thing I had ever written, a standard review of the literature with hypotheses. Professor Wilson read the document. I could see scattered notes he had made, but after asking me to summarize it, he threw it in the trash and said, "Go out and do at least 100 interviews and then we can talk." This--from the man who rode in police squad cars to find out about police behavior--was not very good training for an academic who ended up at Big 10 research university where his anthropological inductive approach to phenomenon is not universally appreciated.
Professor Wilson was a public intellectual. His aim, I believe, was to contribute to the general debate about important issues. That role is sorely missed. How many well-recognized public intellectuals are left in the U.S.? Academics have become increasingly technical and specialized and pseudo-scientific.

Read the rest of Prof. Marcus's entry on RegBlog.

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