Friday, 20 April 2012

Uncle Gnarley on Objectivity and Altruism

“Nav”, says Uncle Gnarley, “there are still some serious economists who prowl the halls of academe”.  “Of course”, I volunteered, “our very own university boasts more than a few”.   “Yes”, says Gnarley, “several good ones, in fact; one or two who taught with me in the Department of Economics, are probably still around”.

“One of them is quite an advocate for Muskrat”, I ventured. “He seems to think the project is better than sliced bread, though he did seem to be a bit confused as to whether the cost of the transmission line was included in his numbers.  That’s a bit like buying a car and not being sure if it includes the motor, isn’t it, Uncle Gnarley”?  Needling the old Professor was a favourite pastime and I seldom passed up an opportunity to keep in check the ego of one who was deeply proud of his years engaged in the subject. “Do all you economists add up numbers that way”, my harangue continued, knowing I would pay a dear price later for such insolence.
Uncle Gnarley was completely non-plussed by my sudden charge on his profession.  “Now Nav, don’t confuse advocate and academic, as perhaps that professor may have; advocate and academic can be one and the same, but they rarely are”. “By jing”, says Gnarley, “the data had better be compelling when you try to do both.  There is a big risk of conflict”. 

“If you want to be in the persuasion business and still be a true academic”, he commented, as he looked up at the ceiling, in deep contemplation of the circumstance I had described, “I think”, he uttered finally, “you should decide in which of the two you really are engaged”. By now his curled lip had become an evident facial scar, making his mouth appear twisted, even grim.  I had not intended to cause him such anguish but I found the occasion irresistible.  He could get obnoxiously patronizing. But for Uncle Gnarley, the issue, though not about him, was clearly personal. This was serious business. Indeed, I thought he had finished, but he was really just getting started.
“Nav, there are special people in this world and you are not one of them”, came the opening volley.  What is it again that you studied? Perhaps, it was at a modest undergraduate level. Not offering me a chance to respond, Gnarley continued his monologue.  “Now take, for example, this fellow known only as “JM”, who submitted no less than a one hundred and sixty seven page review of the Muskrat Falls project to the PUB, under that acronym.  You could never hope, Nav, to be anything like that person. No mean feat for any mortal, clearly he was an economist”, Gnarley announced proudly, “and a fine academic”.  “JM”, he continued, obviously thought he might suffer recrimination if he published under his real name (and I say, “he”, Gnarley interjected, but it could have been “she”, for all that matters, but let’s assume the masculine gender). Evidently, JM was not prepared to compromise the analysis by disclosing his identity, which could have been a result of he, or someone he knew, being affected by his research”.
“Now, Nav”, Gnarley continued, “who would have undertaken such a demanding project? Who would have made such a commitment knowing that he could neither benefit financially nor on an academic level?  After weeks of difficult research, the decision to sign off on the work, under the anonymous "JM", had to be tough.  Whoever JM was, Nav, I believe he left the signature of a real academic; a person in pursuit of the truth rather than any reward, not even self-aggrandizement”. 
“OK, Ok, Uncle, I understand what you are getting at.  But, are you suggesting that JM actually has that whole Muskrat project figured out and that Nalcor, is all wet”?, now trying out one of my little witticisms on the great man.  “No”, replied the bearded one, without any acknowledgement of my sarcasm, “I don’t entirely hold that view, though he succeeded in exposing some very serious questions.  JM understood that there is more to research than just a bunch of figures and conclusions”.
Obviously, Nav, you are none too bright and I will have to dig deep for the patience to explain this properly.  “Now numbskull, have you read the novelist and poet, Toba Beta, by any chance”?  “As a matter of fact, I have not, Uncle Gnar..”.  “Well,, I thought as much, but you see, I have”, said Gnarley, more than a little pompously, “and he wrote many good works, but there is one line of his that keeps reappearing, in my mind,  as I work through these Muskrat papers”. 
His pause was long, forcing me to enquire: “What line is that”?  The 'presence' took a deep breath, following which he slowly mouthed the words like someone under the spell of a  mentor’s exalted status: The clarity of perception makes reality look as it is”.  The words hung, as if in rarefied air, by the force of his singular respect for their author, though I have to admit, my attention had already been diverted to the ‘beneficial vapors’ of a certain Scotch whiskey bottle.  
Continued the great one; now wishing to finish his point, “I am convinced it is that very wisdom that JM possessed.  JM was clearly someone who had enjoyed something more than merely position and knowledge of the question as to whether there existed a rational and studied basis for the Muskrat project.  You see, Nav, JM had the gift of a mind unconflicted”.  Now, I understood; as much he sometimes bored me, the man was clearly still on his game. Someone did understand Muskrat and it just might not be Nalcor!
Uncle Gnarley: "Nav, you did mention the possibility of a single malt. Perhaps, you want to talk about kayaking or hiking, or some other of your great 'mental' challenges". I knew it was time to change the subject, though it was clear Uncle Gnarley was not finished with “JM”.

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