Grounded: Not Only in Ideas, But in Reality

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Prof. Wilson was much more than a dissertation adviser.

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James Q. 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.

Professor Wilson was a great writer. That is what he tried to teach me—how to write. No matter how well I thought I had done with my work, he always sent it back for improvement. When I contributed a chapter of my dissertation to a book he edited, The Politics of Regulation, he tried rewriting much of it. I was amazed at how good he was at reformulating my ideas and making them clearer and more direct.

When I started my dissertation, he said, “You may think you know how to write,” speaking to an editor of student journals who had written for his college and high school newspapers, “but you don’t.” He continued with a total surprise: “Buy an elementary composition book. Read it carefully.”

Professor Wilson was a great dissertation advisor. He cleared obstacles so that I could finish my dissertation on time. He hand picked the committee members. He provided me with a schedule—a chapter a month starting in October, 1976, so I could be done by May, 1977.  He helped get me the research grant from the National Academy of Sciences that allowed me to spend time and do the 100 plus interviews he required. I had a detailed list of topics I wanted to cover with each person I interviewed, but he dissuaded me from taking this approach. He counseled me to have a conversation with the people I interviewed, to listen to what they said, to take detailed notes, and to review the notes for themes and insights, which I believe I found in the separation between the excellent science that was being done at EPA and the agency’s actual policy making process. The policy makers always felt that they lacked the information to make good policy, while the scientists complained that, for them to get definitive results to the environmental problems the U.S. faced, they needed more time and money. Thus, the regulations EPA made often were not backed by solid science. They were, in the end, judgment calls that could be disputed or overtaken by advances in our understanding.

Professor Wilson was associated with the neo-conservative movement in American politics but was tolerant of diverse views. When I was in graduate school, I did not share his politics. At that time and even now, I am to the left of him, but there were students he had that were very far to the left of me. As a national debate champion in high school, he continued to love the play of ideas—nothing was out of bounds. He also loved NFL football and scuba diving.

Professor Wilson was a great organizational theorist and should be remembered for that alone.  An article he wrote prefigures the research on ambidextrous organizations. It is about how different the creative side of policy making is from the practical side of implementation.  Organizational flexibility is needed for creativity but that flexibility has to be eliminated if you want to get something done.

Professor Wilson did not write groundbreaking articles for peer-reviewed journals, but instead he read and appreciated this work and integrated the findings in his many books. In my view, the greatest book he wrote is The Moral Sense in which I believe he reveals himself to be a follower of David Hume, the great Scottish empiricist. Professor Wilson wrote it after he left Harvard and returned to his native California to teach at the UCLA business school. It is odd that he ended up teaching in a business school, but I suppose if you knew me in graduate school, it is even odder that I ended up having such a career.

Professor Wilson’s view of human nature I believe was similar to that of today’s behavioral economists.  Human nature, he thought, is very complicated. An ongoing critique of the economist’s perfectly rational person can be found throughout his writing.

Perhaps the value I admired the most was Professor Wilson’s insistence on looking at the evidence.  He was open to evidence that challenged cherished preconceptions. This proved very useful to me when I was doing research on nuclear power regulation. My analysis showed that plant managers who resisted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and tried to maintain their own autonomy and control tended to outperform the managers who cooperated with the NRC and overly deferred to its dictates.

It makes me feel very old to hear of Professor Wilson’s passing, very privileged that he had some influence on my life, and very burdened with the thought that it is incumbent on me and others to try to continue in his ways.

Alfred Marcus

Alfred Marcus is a professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management.

This post is part of the Penn Program on Regulation’s online symposium, Remembering James Q. Wilson.