Toward a general theory of academic b.s.

A successful academic career requires publishing more papers than anyone has important, valid, and new ideas. It greatly helps to own a paper-generating machine. That creates an environmental niche for tendencies of thought that enable the formulaic production of papers not incorporating significant new thought.

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  Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) cannot be repealed.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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

22 thoughts on “Toward a general theory of academic b.s.”

  1. Since you're the one choosing the words, it seems to me you should either write the word "bullshit" with all the letters in it, or choose some other word that doesn't require censoring — perhaps "nonsense"?

  2. Also, I don't see much wrong with doing Kuhnian normal science — it should not count as a negative. Perhaps the general atmosphere of timidity is drowning out the possibility of truly original work — perhaps — but it will be tough to convince anyone who reads Wired or BoingBoing that we are living in an age that lacks visionary thinking, in academia or away from it.

  3. Due to Harry Frankfurt, "b.s." is now a technical philosophical term, not synonymous with "nonsense."

  4. In number 6, which are some (but not all) of the vowels replaced with asterisks? Is it to imply that the words with the missing vowels are instances of bullshit, since the second vowel in "bullshit" is replaced with an asterisk? If so, that is a rather indirect way to make the point.

  5. You beat me to it. I was gonna say it might help a little if Frankfurt's essay were required reading in methods courses.

  6. "Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) cannot be repealed."

    Technically, this is Sturgeon's Revelation. Sturgeon's Law is: If it's less than 36 inches long you gotta throw it back.

  7. A whole lament about the state of academia and not a word about, um, you know, teaching? What about the emphasis of publishing incomprehensible and essentially meaningless work and its outcome in the classroom?

  8. I must agree with Mark's points. In astronomy research, things have gotten so ridiculous regarding "publish or perish" that researchers are overusing the qualifier "first time", making their own research a mockery of the scientific method. The process is as follows, which ends up trivializing their [Researchers A through Z] conclusions:

    A: We observed this star for the first time.

    B: We observed this star for the first time, in the infrared.

    C: We observed this star for the first time, in the infrared, using this telescope.

    D: We observed this star for the first time, in the infrared, using this telescope, while wearing a hat.

    E: We observed this star for the first time, in the infrared, using this telescope, while wearing a hat and a red shoes.

    F: We observed this star for the first time, in the infrared, using this telescope, while wearing a hat and a red shoes, and while chewing bubble gum.

    etc etc. The qualifier of "first time" is a direct result to impresses tenure committes by sheer volume of publications, not new and viable ideas. When I asked a fellow researcher why he was putting out such insignificant papers, he replied "I'm just playing the game…".

    I left the research soon after, with no regrets other than missing the investigative aspect.

  9. Does Sturgeon's Law apply to new ideas as well? If so, you definitely have a conundrum. If you produce an idea that's groundbreaking but wrong, a lot depends on how long it takes for it to be recognized as wrong. A long time, and you're Newton; a short time, and you're Velikovsky. But if you produce ideas that are "not even wrong" that recognition time can be extended arbitrarily. So the incentives are perverse. (You'll notice there's a family resemblance between this description and the state of the pre-crash banking industry, where bullsh*t instruments, i.e. maximally opaque, constructed without the usual regard to facts on the ground, were maximally profitable.)

    I think ultimately relying on any single measure or set of measures for rewarding achievement (except perhaps in fields where breakthroughs are obvious to all, and maybe not even then) is going to lead to some kind of perverse result. It just depends which perverse result you want.

  10. Thomas Kuhn. Ah, yes. The man who invented "paradigm" and "paradigm shift." Just the kind of "concepts" the "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" love with all their hearts. Other than quantum mechanics, plate tectonics (now there is a "shift" we can all believe in), and maybe the double helix (but we already knew what the genetic material was, so maybe the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty and Hershey-Chase Experiments were really the shift?), where are the bona fide paradigm shifts? Gleevec is solving a "minor puzzle"? Or the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on atmospheric ozone? Penicillin a minor puzzle? The role of the LDL receptor in cholesterol homeostasis a minor puzzle? Guess that depends on the definition of minor. What is bullshit is the stated goal of the granting agencies to fund only "high-risk, high-reward, path-breaking, paradigm-shifting, super-duper research. As if the bureaucrats and failed scientists who run these organizations can identify such things before they are discovered. Yeah, right.

  11. "If you produce an idea that’s groundbreaking but wrong, a lot depends on how long it takes for it to be recognized as wrong. A long time, and you’re Newton;…"

    Newton was wrong?

  12. Let's define the best bullshit as unempirical, pointless theorizing with little to no relevance to the world and little to no contribution to anyone's thought process or learning, while at the same time superficially engaging and able to draw large amounts of attention.

    I would venture to say that this post is among the bigger pieces of bullshit I've seen.

  13. Charles,

    Yes, Newton was wrong.

    Newton gave us an approximation good at low speeds. Einstein gave us an approximation useful at all speeds.

    By the way, Einstein was wrong, too. We know that because we know that General Relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible.

  14. Newton may be wrong in an absolute since, but he was right for what he could observe at the time. He was wrong in claiming his theories were universal. His theories could be viewed as a simplification of Einstein's within limits. Newtonian physics are still good enough to get space probes to Jupiter and beyond. Newton was incomplete rather than wrong.

  15. By the way, Einstein was wrong, too. We know that because we know that General Relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible.

    Of course, QM could be wrong and Einstein correct. But since Einstein's theory doesn't cover the microscopic, I suppose nobody is going to make a profit from that line of investigation.

  16. One of my outside evaluators for tenure started out by looking at one of my shortest papers – and started his letter by saying that unlike other papers, he actually learned something from mine.

    I was so proud.

Comments are closed.