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Call me old fashioned, but I still cling to an idea that the academe should stick to scholarship
Thoughts on a couple of recent incidents and the incentives that probably sometimes dilute academic rigour
A few years ago I became aware of a particular scholar I felt was behaving inappropriately on Twitter.
My respect for the highly educated was at its peak, then. Perhaps naively, I truly looked up to anyone who had achieved more than my own feeble bachelor's degree in philosophy. Even now I'll enjoy name-dropping high achievers I personally know, who have earned titles like 'Doctor', imagining that it reflects positively on me.
But I was watching this particular prominent senior academic with growing dismay. She had come onto my radar first by following me, then by creating big kerfuffles on Twitter about various people and things being racist.
Her language was so intemperate and provocative - and (in my view) some of her rhetorical declamations so unreasonable - at one point I actually Googled her to make sure that she really did have an academic career in an institution I personally saw as a kind of 'sacred' seat of learning.
I also wondered about her state of mind, amid all the shrillness and emoting. I know that when I am emoting, I’m not thinking clearly. And who do we expect to think clearly? My personal list includes clever people. Experts in their field. What must her employers be thinking, I wondered.
Nothing, really, as it turned out.
Without my noticing, this had become a fairly normal way to behave in academia. Activist scholarship was a thing and I was advised that it's fine.
In my naive and perhaps overly deferential way towards high educational achievers this has taken some personal adjusting to.
Albeit not quite in the same league, I feel the way about this that I would about the idea of activist police or senior military officers. That some people should be 'above' the fray and, in fact, can really only earn trust by being somewhat aloof from the dirty business of playing an active role in shouty political culture. Study it. Analyse it. Present the findings and hypotheses. Even lead the discussion. But remain an observer, rather jump in as a participant.
I laugh at myself for this, now.
But I also feel somewhat sad about the creeping suspicion that I now reflexively feel about large parts of the higher education world and what is sometimes really going on beneath those dreaming spires.
In one of my philosophy lectures on epistemology - in 1980 - a Californian woman insistently pressed a case for the validity of 'feminine intuition' as a way of knowing. She didn’t like that we were discussing just the ideas of ancient Greek and European men. The lecturer - a guy I revered because his books were under the Oxford University Press imprint - and those of us who discussed this afterwards were kind of surprised about her intervention. I guess this was the beginning of something in higher education.
(And then a student who attended no lectures, tutorials or even examinations and spent his whole time organising for the Communist Party of Great Britain ended up with an 'Ordinary Degree' instead of no degree at all, so I knew that academia wasn't perhaps as rigorous as I'd once assumed.)
But still my faith wasn't really shaken until I watched Priymvada Gopal so obviously and intentionally baiting people on Twitter, then becoming increasingly famous for having successfully drawn lots of racist abuse. Building a personal brand.
This was when I realised how the line between scholarship and activism could be crossed at no reputational cost and that the more intemperate an academic might be in their public pronouncements the better it seemed to be for their career.
My intuition is, though, that what's good for the individual may not always be good for the field. So, now, we have a situation where the entire higher education network is summarily dismissed by certain types of (usually right-wing) commentator to the baying approval of audiences that know nothing about the real work of the quiet majority in the academy.
For example, the conspiracy-tinged belief that universities actively programme students with a certain (usually Marxist) ideology is depressingly common. There's no evidence at all for this ‘programming’ and the left-leaning political qualities of universities are easily explained in much more prosaic terms. That's a topic for another time. And, no, it isn't because 'reality has a liberal bias' or brighter people lean left because they're better thinkers.
But those institutions being so comprehensively left-leaning obviously creates incentives to produce work - especially, but not only, in 'softer' fields - that fits with the vibe of the professional environment. And Professor Gopal presumably knew that Cambridge would have no problem with her insulting people who think their country's history should be as much, if not more, a source of pride than shame.
If you Google her, she has been a very successful provocateur, saying some pretty (in my view) stupid things. But I'm not so sure she's made most people any more inclined to respect scholarship in her discipline, when I think that it would be better if we did.
My intuition is that self-promotion is becoming addictive among some of our brightest people and that it has led to all manner of ills.
Take all those amazing things that we have read about in the newspapers and devoured from TED Talks, about how machinelike people are, unconsciously responding to words associated with age and consequently walking more slowly, ‘power posing’ to boost testosterone and all those myriad studies that came to spark the replication crisis - but not before the people that published them got famous, doing interviews, books and talks.
Look at the Freakonomics brand and how we all loved that. (I had the first book). Even though it turns out often to rest on 'back of the envelope' calculations and sloppy analyses that often don't withstand serious scrutiny.
Then you have the celebrity climate scientists literally going after colleagues who question aspects of the narrative.
Again, I was genuinely shocked to read about the successful campaign waged against a paper that used the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change's own data on catastrophic weather events to suggest that natural disasters may not be part of the 'climate crisis'.
Get the whole account of that here.
This really doesn't reflect well on the field of climate science and that frustrates me, because I'm exhausted as it is by maximalist climate change sceptics and believe that this kind of behaviour can only fuel faith in doing your own research as the only source of TRUTH and FACTS.
What are climate science professionals doing going to The Guardian and badmouthing colleagues in this way?
Getting their names into print. That's what. Making sure they’re on the TV news show guest option lists. Becoming names.
I thought that episode was disappointing until I read about a piece of 'scholarship' that recently earned its author priceless media coverage, while apparently being almost entirely fictitious.
Google 'Dr Jenny Bulstrode' and you will quickly find out that by delving into original sources she has revealed - in a scholarly exercise - how Britain's industrial revolution was founded on intellectual theft from black slaves. Do it, now.
Read her paper 'Black metallurgists and the making of the industrial revolution'.
Then read the fact check by another historian, Oliver Jelf, in this preprint paper 'The origin of Henry Cort's iron-rolling process: assessing the evidence'.
For a quicker introduction to this story, read Ian Leslie's piece, in which he charitably attributes Dr Bulstrode's 'errors' to the powerful allure of a good story to us humans, including academics. (But, also, definitely read both Bulstrode's and Jelf's papers themselves. They’re both accessible and entertaining, albeit for different reasons).
Ian is probably right about the idea of slaves inventing a game-changing method of making steel at scale, which was then stolen by colonialists, being a story that was too good to resist. A story that fits the zeitgeist.
But Dr Bulstrode is now quite famous for this tale. Her story stands uncontested, despite the forensic dismantling of all its central claims. There is almost nothing on Google reflecting the contested nature of her paper. Her reputation has received a huge boost.
If I were a historian I know what incentive I'd be feeling right now.
I could either carefully read the sources of papers telling stories that are too good to be true and remain in academic oblivion. Or I could find my own romantic or tragic tales to tell, knowing that few people will bother to check my work and that the media will love it.
Alongside the generally awful way win which scientific and technocratic 'elites' do their communicating, this drive for influence - via the media and social media - seems to me to be undermining the academy at a time when trust in institutions is already tanking.
There are entire books to be written about this, once you begin looking at the problems.
Psychology is notorious for low quality, high emotional salience, research that fits the zeitgeist but fails to register much on the truth scale while generating media coverage. Some people in the field despair of the dynamic and some are trying to propose solutions.
Psychologist Adam Mastroianni even makes the amusing observation that so much of the 'science' done in his discipline is so poor that he isn't sure that the field itself is even relevant now.
I now suspect that the underlying problem here is a drive for attention and fame taking precedence over academic rigour.
Were I an academic I'd be furious when people do this, but the sense I have is that because identities are sacrosanct - and being a scientist or a scholar is an identity - it's easier to circle the wagons and complain that detractors are ushering in an 'Age of Endarkenment' instead of recognising that something is wrong here. And that people have good reason to be mistrustful.
No wonder there's a sense of the centre not holding, when the centre is often behaving like this.
At this point I'm inclined to assume that anybody who claims that 'the science says...' is probably getting their 'science' from Twitter and their favourite websites.
I preferred it before. When I at least thought that academics were above most of the nonsense the rest of us are obsessing over.
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