Why oh why can’t we have a better academia?

I have been in a sour mood all day, and that is going to spill over into this mean-spirited post. Too bad.

The original reasons for my foul temper had nothing to do with online things or with academia, but then the Internet made it worse.

Reading Carnegie Mellon University’s Cosma Shalizi (excluded from the title) is always enlightening and usually lifts my spirits, but today he points us to a poor article by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine. I made the mistake of following the link and my sour mood deepened.

Then I see that Anita Elberse of Harvard Business School has actually looked at some data behind the same Chris Anderson’s Long Tail hypothesis (please, don’t call it a theory) and, not surprisingly found it misguided. You would think that would cheer me up, but reading Anderson’s response just (here and reprinted here) plunged me further into gloom. Why? Because although he loses this battle (if asked I will bore people with the details, but I really don’t think there is a point), sloppy business journalism has won the war.

Face it. Chris Anderson now has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet here are academics – smart people, with tenure, real jobs and things to do – actually spending their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.

And that’s not all. Here are other people – like Princeton University’s Ed Felten, Drew Conway from New York University, Fernando Pereira from the University of Pennsylvania and John Timmer who teaches at Cornell – smart people who work in universities, and probably with families and friends who could use their attention – who feel they have to spend their time explaining a few of the reasons why he is wrong in his latest screed. And here is Russ Roberts of George Mason University giving the man an hour of respectful time in his weekly economics podcast. And here I am (although I ain’t no academic, that’s my excuse) wasting my evening writing this junk.

Journalists and popular science or technology writers should take the serious thoughts of others and communicate them in an interesting and attention-getting way. But now everything is back-to-front. How do a few stories from a business journalist set the research agenda of Harvard Business School and claim the attention of otherwise intelligent academics?

The intellectual agenda has been derailed by snake-oil sellers. Why has academia let it happen?

(Title, of course, stolen from the impeccable academic Brad DeLong)

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  1. Well, in my case, the reason is that I like calling out people for being wrong, wrong, wrong. Drawing a veil over the flaws in my character, there are less-discreditable reasons for academics to spend some time debunking vulgar errors.
    The first is that our family, friends and students are going to encounter them, not see immediately what’s wrong with them, and ask us about them, especially when they come directly from perversely-influential members of the media. Having debunked it to them once or twice, it’s pretty cheap to set that down in writing in a blog post. It used to be more expensive to set it out in some public form, which gave us “the invisibility of scientific scorn”
    The second reason is that some of us care about public enlightenment and understanding of our subjects; this justifies more effort.
    The third and final reason, which justifies the most effort, is that academia doesn’t have all that much influence on the intellectual agenda of the wider society it lives in (which I think on balance is a good thing), but does have to live with that agenda and its consequences. When the vulgar errors come from or take hold of people with a lot of influence on that wider agenda (because, e.g., they edit sadly influential magazines), and they take hold among decision makers, that matters to us. (Anderson will not, inshallah, write a new book on his latest theme; if he does I fully expect to have to spend a good chunk of the next few years arguing with research-agency program officers, or more exactly with their managers.) Our options are to either suffer in silence, and hope that we can educate it out of succeeding generations, or do the work to come up with convincing public refutations.
    If you want to say that academics should be more involved in setting the larger society’s intellectual agenda, and that we should do a better job of educating the people running the media so they don’t fall for so much rubbish, then I think we can only hang our heads in shame.

  2. Having calmed down and meditated while grocery shopping, I realise I should have separated two entirely separate issues.
    One is the public debunking of hacks and I do agree that needs to be done and that it is a Worthwhile Pastime – even a duty – for academics as it is for others.
    The other issue – the one I should have focused on – is when academics invite hacks in, treat them with respect, and spend their actual work hours investigating the huge gaps etc. etc.
    Anyway, your comment is much more polite and reasoned than the post deserved. Thanks.

  3. perhaps many academics are frustrated actors, and like the opportunity to demonstrate their wisdom on a larger stage provided by responding to a popular author.

  4. I echo all of Cosma’s points, but most especially the third. When large-scale research agendas are dictated by “flavor of the month” claims made in the popular science media (sadly, Wired being one of these pubs), bad ideas can quickly become gospel. Surprisingly, many PMs are out there reading the blogosphere, and we do ourselves a great services by nipping these trends in the bud before NSF and DARPA allocate large budgets to fund bad research.

  5. Perhaps many popular authors are frustrated scholars, and like the opportunity to demonstrate their wisdom on a larger scale by propounding Big Ideas without such academic constraints as evidence, consistency, precision and accuracy?

  6. (OK, today I am in a bad mood.)

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