Knowledge vs. Wisdom: The Sad Case of Karin Calvo-Goller

by Roger Alford

“Karin Calvo-Goller has undoubtedly invested much time and effort into this book, which – but for regrettably sloppy editing – might well serve as a first systematic introduction to the procedural issues confronting the ICC. What is still missing is a book that might help to resolve these issues.”

It’s not the best book review one could hope for, but neither is it the worst. Undoubtedly it would have gone unnoticed by almost everyone if she had used better judgment. (Before this story, how many of you have ever read a review from Global Law Books?)

Poor Karin Calvo-Goller. I have been thinking quite a bit about Karin Calvo-Goller and her strange libel case against Joseph Weiler. The details of the affair are now well-known to you and will not need repeating here. Far more interesting to me is the question of the wisdom of academics and spectacularly bad judgment of Calvo-Goller.

We have come to expect bizarre behavior from celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan. We assume that celebrities are self-important, insecure and dysfunctional. Not so with professional academics. We assume that learned professors combine expert knowledge with practical wisdom. But, alas, that is not always the case.

Let’s be honest, many legal academics are a strange lot. At their best, they forego riches to pursue a higher calling of knowledge. Good for them. But occasionally one senses they are not pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone. Along the way they come to cherish their reputations, and will exert great effort to burnish their images. I do not fault academics for being concerned about their reputations. But there is a distinction between reputation and vanity. It is in the breathless pursuit of vanity that we are overexposed to bad episodes of professors gone wild.

Many law professors frequently commit errors of vanity. They keep score. They are thin-skinned. They become caught up in their own self-importance. They crow about their latest congressional testimony or busy speaking schedule. Occasionally they will go to extreme measures and write laughable law review articles to stand out from the crowd. They feel slighted when they are not invited to speak at a conference within their area of expertise. These transgressions are common enough and obvious to almost everyone–except the ones who commit the error. But these mistakes are relatively harmless and easily forgivable.

Then there is the sad case of Karin Calvo-Goller. I’m not a international criminal law scholar, and frankly had never heard of her before the Joseph Weiler affair. Her decision to sue for criminal libel is the most notorious example of knowledge without wisdom that I have ever encountered in the legal profession. She is the poster child for the proverbial warning that “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Someone who once was a respected scholar in her field is now the object of derision. The book reviews on make one cringe. Her book has 52 one-star reviews that give one a sense of the public outrage:

Shame on this author.

Anyone who would file a meritless lawsuit … shouldn’t be allowed near crayons, much less writing implements customarily used by grown-ups.

The fact that she’d file criminal charges for a lukewarm review makes me suspect her competence.

This book is both good and original. The part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.

She sounds as if she is nuts.

The book also has a handful of mock five-star reviews, including these gems:

Better than the Bible!

The author is righteous, her work without peer. Seldom in the history of global letters, or in the circle of its most accomplished artisans and practitioners, has a human being emerged with [such] gifts of perception, foresight, [and] literary verve

I laughed, I cried, I loved!

Karin Calvo-Goller will never live this day down the rest of her professional career. It will haunt her to the grave. “Pride is a great vice,” warned St. Augustine. “It is the first of vices, the beginning, origin and cause of all sins.”

4 Responses

  1. Roger, I have also thought about Karin Calvo-Goller a lot. Her judgment was shockingly poor, undoubtedly, and it is a good thing that the Paris court held in favor of Joe Weiler. And yet, while I understand Joseph Weiller’s own consternation, I wonder why she deserves the universal rage and sheer hatred coming over her from people all across the world, people who presumably know nothing about her except what Joseph Weiler himself blogged about the case. I wonder what makes you think that she acted out of pride and vanity, rather than – what do I know, fear of being dismissed by her institution (I do not know whether she has tenure, that institution which makes negative book reviews so much more tolerable for you and me), overt lack of self-confidence, other things going on in her life, mental problems, anything. I am speculating – I really know nothing about her (though I did once meet her briefly). But I cringe at the self-righteousness of the worldwide web, which celebrates free speech so much it is happy to sacrifice a human being it hardly knows without any sympathy or humanity.
    Roger, I write this so passionately because, as you know, I hold you in very high regard, and your post is one of the very few that have the humanity to actually care about the person who has already become the laughing stock of academia. It may well be that she “will never live this day down.” If we cannot forgive, I think at least it would be good for us others to move on. Other people are being silenced in the world, and some of them do not even have access to the editorial pages of EJIL.

  2. Ralf Michaels,

    Very well said.  There may be other causes to explain her behavior, such as insecurity, institutional sanction, or some sort of mental health concern.  Perhaps others that know the situation better than me can illuminate.  Absent such other explanations it seems that the best answer for her behavior is pride. 

    In any case, she unfortunately showed a genuine lack of wisdom, despite expert knowledge, which was the central focus of my post.

    Roger Alford

  3. Dear Prof. Alford,

    With respect to what you call a “laughable law review” article, I actually think there was nothing laughable about it and it made a pretty good argument. I would love to hear your reasons for concluding that the purpose of the author was to stand out from the crowd.

  4. 1/20

    The article, and particularly its title, was a gimmick to draw attention and stand out from the crowd.  It worked.  It has 400,000 abstract views, 28,000 SSRN downloads, and a measly 18 citations on Westlaw.  Interest in the article is a mile wide and an inch thick.  He claims to be writing about “word taboo” when in fact the word he is using is the only reason almost anyone would be interested in the article at all.


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