Preface. Discussing issues intelligently requires using a consistent and commonly understood vocabulary. During the last few days, I’ve had an intensifying sense that the discussion of Mailergate is being conducted with different vocabularies, principally the vocabulary, jargon perhaps, of the academy, and the vocabularies employed in politics and everyday life. All of us need to be careful.
It’s not about whether voter turnout is a legitimate field of academic inquiry. And it’s not about the studies within that field of inquiry that led to the DIME database that the Stanford and Dartmouth researchers used to place Mike Wheat and Lawrence Vandyke on a liberal to conservative continuum. DIME is interesting; indeed, I’ve downloaded it for future reference.
Nor is Mailergate about academic freedom. That defense has not been raised yet, but you can bet it will be in an attempt to establish the right of righteous researchers to do whatever they bloody well please.
It’s about the experiment in which half-page cards bearing the official seal of Montana, and looking like an official state document, were mailed to 100,000 voters in Montana, ostensibly to see whether injecting information on alleged partisan leanings would increase turnout in the nonpartisan elections for justices of the Montana Supreme Court. Was the experiment ethical? Was it legal? Was it even an experiment — or was it advocacy masquerading as an experiment?
We now know the experiment was funded by $250k from the Hewlett Foundation and $100k from Stanford, but we don’t know the source of the money Stanford contributed. Two of the three researchers work at Stanford, one at Dartmouth, yet institutional approval was provided by Dartmouth, not Stanford, and Stanford’s spokeswoman says the experiment would not have been approved had it been reviewed by Stanford. Why the obvious effort by researchers who are not simple virgins, and who knew better, to avoid review at Stanford? And why did Stanford not conduct a review anyway? After all, Stanford put up $100k. Was the university misled by the information in the application for its grant?
What are the relationships between the researchers and Vandyke and/or friends or associates of Vandyke and/or organizations or people who want Vandyke elected? What is the relationship of the researchers, if any, to montanans4justice.com; to Everest College?
Did anyone in Montana have prior knowledge of this experiment? Was anyone in Montana in cahoots with the researchers?
I’m not counting on the internal investigations at Stanford and Dartmouth to get to the bottom of this affair. The universities’ highest priority is mitigating damage to their reputations. We need independent investigations, from both the Montana and federal governments, and from the fourth estate.