A loss at the University of Oregon

I did not know him at all — he was at the University of Oregon after my time there — but I was sad to learn of the death of Jeff McKnight from cancer. He sounds like he was a passionate, enthusiastic scientist, and we always need more of those.

This bit jumped out at me, though.

“Jeff was definitely someone special who saw his students as equals and not as anything lesser,” said Bryson Tyler Ricamona, a UO biology alum. “It was really enlightening and very motivating to know that somebody really believed in us, not only in the work that we’re doing now but the potential work that we could do in the future.”

McKnight supported students inside and outside of his lab. When someone tore down posters encouraging LGBTQ+ students to take part in STEM, McKnight printed and hung 50 new posters and talked to the UO science community about the incident. The posters disappeared the next day, so McKnight printed and hung 100 more.

“He cared very much about our community,” Orlandi said.

That sounds familiar — that was my experience at the UO, that the faculty were all committed activists and concerned about improving the world, so it sounds like he fit right in.

It’s too bad about the individuals tearing down posters, but I’ll trust that they were an obnoxious minority and not at all representative of the student body. I’ve noticed that every university has a few terrible people who have terrible ways of getting attention, and they’ve gotten worse in recent years.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    I have noticed the awful people -mainly in English-speaking countries- mock and generally fail to “get” altruism.
    Is this some neoliberal meme or are they just sociopaths?

  2. KG says


    The neoclassical economics ideology underlying neoliberalism is the theory corresponding to the practice of sociopathy. Evey one is assumed to be sociopathic, i.e., motivated only by their own advantage o(maximising their “expected utiliy”). When challenged, neoclassical economists will sometimes protest that “utility” from the “utility” of others is allowed for, and that all they mean is that people pursue their goals, whatever those are, but in fact the main “findings” of the theory concerning equilibria fail to hold unless it is posited that everyone assumes everyone else is completely selfish (and assumes that everyone else assumes this, etc.). As soon as the discussion moves on, neoclasical economists will revert to the “Everyone is socipathic” axiom – a fine example of “motte and bailey” argument that I call the “neoclassical shuffle”. (Incidentally, there’s empirical work indicating that taking a university economics course makes people more selfish.)

  3. flex says

    @KG #2,

    Incidentally, there’s empirical work indicating that taking a university economics course makes people more selfish

    Not surprising. That matches my experience. Having taken those ECON101/102 courses, Micro and Macro Economics, they tend to teach economics as mathematics rather than models describing applied behavioral psychology. The models are fascinating, but they are mainly descriptive models rather than predictive ones. I.e. you can explain past behavior by applying the models, but not accurately explain future behavior (what model would have predicted beanie-babies?).

    The economics instructors should not just teach Ricardo and Keynes, but also John Stuart Mill and Thorstein Veblen.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 KG

    Long ago I ran into one or two papers that suggested economics courses also negatively affected moral judgements or ethics.

    @ 3 KG
    The economics instructors should not just teach Ricardo and Keynes

    Hearsay suggests that many economics departments, at least in the USA, do not even mention Ricardo and Keynes. Smith is like the bible, often selectively quoted from third-hand sources but never actually read. The only Marx mentioned is Groucho.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 PZ
    I am becoming increasingly sympathetic to the idea that most people are sociopaths.

    No, no. Well maybe in the USA but not in a lot of cultures and countries.

  6. flex says

    @jrkrideau, #6.

    Smith is like the bible, often selectively quoted from third-hand sources but never actually read.

    For my undergraduate degree in EE, and had to take the basic ECON courses. Ten years later, after I started developing an interest in economics, I went back for a masters in business. By then I had read The Wealth of Nations and was really surprised to read the chapters on how a ruler should spend money to increase economic activity. Smith wrote that by investing in education and infrastructure the economy would grow, and also said that taxing the rich is better than taxing the poor. This was never mentioned in class.

    I was required by the university to take the basic ECON courses again as part of my masters. So at one point I asked the instructor if he had read The Wealth of Nations. I didn’t do this during class, as I wanted an honest answer and I was not certain he would give one front of all the students. He hedged a bit and admitted he had read parts of it in his graduate school. He also admitted that what he had read seemed a bit dry. I admit it wasn’t the easiest book to read. [Like many non-fiction books from that period, it wasn’t written to be read quickly. In the eighteenth century it was expected that you would read a section, and think about it before reading the next section. Books were written with that style of reading in mind. The author never expected the reader to try to absorb the knowledge in 2-3 sittings. Reading was for leisure.]

    But it did surprise me that the instructor in an ECON course hadn’t read the seminal book in his field. Rather, it surprised me at the time. It was much later when I learned how many prominent (and vocal) religious teachers haven’t read their sacred texts. The world appears to be largely by hearsay.

  7. says

    I am becoming increasingly sympathetic to the idea that most people are sociopaths.

    I disagree vehemently with this.

    Specifically, I believe most people are by nature reasonably kind (probably not all the way to altruistic, but, we need mutual caring to have a society at all), but are in a vast number of cases also driven by fear that messes up their judgement on HOW to be kind, and to who. It creates insularity and false competition and thereby “tribalism”.

    But the prominent people… “leaders”, politicians, “captains of industry”… THOSE guys are much much likelier to be sociopaths than the general population, because you can only be those things by being willing to do Whatever It Takes to get there, and also, usually, being born into the sort of privilege that stunts empathy itself.

  8. calgor says

    Always remember helping a friend with some mathematics relating to his economics work at university.

    It involved assessing data against three competing and mutually exclusive economic theories – all three fitted the data within tolerance (95%) and were considered perfectly normal.

    Never trusted economics or economists since…