We all know of academic disciplines dominated by bullsh*t, or, short of that bullsh*t-peddling “schools” and “tendencies” that contend for power even if they can’t make a whole field go to hell. Giving examples would be superfluous, and moreover could get me in trouble, so think of them for yourself.
Since I can’t imagine anything to do about the problem – peer review, which is supposed to filter out bullsh*t, is equally effective at filtering out criticism of bullsh*t – let me theorize about it instead. I want to claim that, just as the process of natural selection operating on religions tends to select for those that encourage excessive procreation, proselytization, and persecution, natural selection operating on “schools of thought” gives the bullsh*t-producing ones certain competitive advantages, only partly offset by the worthlessness of the product.
1. One measure of success as a professor, and one source of reputation, is the production of successful students, where success is defined as jobs, and eventually tenure, at good places.
2. Jobs and tenure are produced by publications.
3. Saying something new, important, and true is hard. Most people aren’t up to doing it very often. Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) cannot be repealed.
4. Therefore, success requires publishing papers that are not new, important, and true, that embody either pure b.s. or Kuhnian “normal science”: that is, solving minor puzzles according to a given paradigm without challenging the paradigm.
5. Therefore, in order to achieve a place within academia, a style of work and thought needs to enable the production of un-interesting papers. Those papers need to be distinguishable as “better” or “worse” by those in the in-group, so they can pretend – to others and to themselves – to maintain standards and reward excellence, but it must be possible to crank those papers out more or less mechanically without any risk of producing a a “wrong” result. Ideally, the papers should be written in some incomprehensible language (using either lots of non-standard words or lots of double integral signs and Greek letters) to conceal their vacuity from outsiders.
6. Str**sians, r*tion*l-ch**ce political scientists, r*t**nal-exp*ctations macroeconomists, F**c**ldians, L*c*nians, d*c*nstr*ction*sts, ec*n*metr*cians, and practitioners of “critical” anything have formulas that allow mediocre minds to produce arbitrarily large numbers of papers, and other mediocre minds to sort them out as journal referees. That gives their practitioners an edge when it comes to publishing. And the custom of citing one another gives them a further edge when it comes to citations.
Now I don’t think there’s a formula for producing bullsh*t formulas. Usually, at the root of any of these “schools” resides some great insight, often the product of a single great mind, whose prestige can be borrowed by his followers. William Riker, for example, seems to have been utterly incapable of examining any political phenomenon without creating a brilliant insight. But if he really believed that he was practicing a “method” that others could usefully copy, he was deluded.
I doubt there’s a way out of this social trap, as long as hiring and tenure committees keep counting publications and citations rather than new ideas.