My comment follows his article
Bridging the Moat Around Universities
My Sunday column is about the unfortunate way America has marginalized university professors–and, perhaps sadder still, the way they have marginalized themselves from public debate. When I was a kid, the Kennedy administration had its “brain trust” of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government. That’s still true to some degree of economists, but not of most other Ph.D programs. And we’re all the losers for that.
I’ve noticed this particularly with social media. Some professors are terrific on Twitter, but they’re the exceptions. Most have terrific insights that they then proceed to bury in obscure journals or turgid books. And when professors do lead the way in trying to engage the public, their colleagues sometimes regard them with suspicion. Academia has also become inflexible about credentials, disdaining real-world experience. So McGeorge Bundy became professor of government at Harvard and then dean of the faculty (at age 34!) despite having only a B.A.–something that would be impossible today. Indeed, some professors would oppose Bill Clinton getting a tenured professorship in government today because of his lack of a Ph.D, even though he arguably understands government today better than any other American.
In criticizing the drift toward unintelligible academic writing, my column notes that some professors have submitted meaningless articles to academic journals, as experiments, only to see them published. If I’d had more space, I would have gone through the example of Alan Sokal of NYU, who in 1996 published an article in “Social Text” that he described as: “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.” Not only was it published, but after the article was unveiled as gibberish, Social Text’s editors said it didn’t much matter: “Its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document.”
I hope people don’t think my column is a denunciation of academia. On the contrary, I think universities are an incredible national resource, with really smart thinking on vital national issues. I want the world to get the benefit of that thinking, not see it hidden in academic cloisters. Your thoughts on this issue?
Deborah Mayo Virginia 12 hours ago
In my own field of philosophy, the truth is that the serious work, the work that advances the ideas and research, takes place in “obscure journals or turgid books”. There are plenty of areas where this research can be directly relevant to public issues–it’s the public who should be a bit more prepared to engage with the real scholarship. Take my specialization of philosophy of statistical inference in science. Science writers appear to be only interested in repeating the popular, sexy, alarmist themes (e.g., most research is wrong, statistical significance is bogus,science fails to self-correct). Rather than research what some more careful thinkers have shown, or engage the arguments behind contrasting statistical philosophies–those semi-turgid books–, these science writers call around to obtain superficial dramatic quips from the same cast of characters. They have a one-two recipe for producing apparently radical and popular articles this way. None of the issues ever get clarified this way. I suggest the public move closer to the professional work rather than the other way around. Popular is generally pablam, at least in the U.S.