May 15, 2006
The Jokes of a Dismal Scientist
In a post about one of the various brushfires that joined up into the conflagration that was the blogosphere's most recent rerun of the "civility" debate (Chris Clarke's take on the issue adequately mirrors my views), Henry at Crooked Timber brings to light this article by Scott McLemee on the recently departed John Kenneth Galbraith, which concentrates on the economist's forays into satire, as demonstrated by his alter-egos Epernay and McLandress:
The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963...I was pleased to come across this because I had been hoping at least one of Galbraith's obituaries would mention how he had got in on another prominent jape of the 1960s by endorsing, as McLandress, the provenance of Leonard Lewin's satire on the action intellectuals, Report from Iron Mountain. The Report was purported to be a leaked thinktank paper on the benefits of perpetual war.
...While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.
The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”
The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”
A low coefficient — anything under, say, one minute — “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.
Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, “I find this ... one finds this odd.”
Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)
And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy — using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”
Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.Mr McLemee suggests that the McLandress endorsement might be partly responsible for this admitted hoax still being cited as a government text by conspiracy nutters today, despite every attempt by Lewin, including a copyright lawsuit, to establish his authorship.
In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”
Wikipedia links to the full text - apparently they're not buying Lewin's copyright claim either.