Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An anonymous resignation letter from a Swiss graduate student has made a bit of a splash on the Internet lately, with many noting the uncanny accuracy of his unflattering portrayal of modern academic research.  I recommend a full reading, but the gist of his description is that academic researchers today have no interest in producing what an external observer would describe as "good research"--that is, research that significantly increases human knowledge and benefits humankind.  Instead, they devote their efforts to advancing their own petty academic-political interests: producing a large volume of narrow, conformist, incremental publications that improve their publication statistics and citation numbers; playing political games to advance their standing in the "research community"; and exploiting their graduate students for the benefit of their own careers, at the expense of the students'--and the field's--best interests.

It's easy to compare today's research world unfavorably with its counterpart of fifty years ago or more, since what remains of the latter by this point is little beyond its legendary successes, and certainly not its day-to-day workings.  But the truth is that academic research has always had more than its share of mediocrity drenched in politics, obscurantism and conformity.  Consider, for example, this little memoir, written in 1988 by the late great Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie (and recently pointed out by his fellow Mideast scholar Martin Kramer).  It turns out that Kedourie, as well, abandoned his doctoral studies, and for reasons not at all dissimilar to those of the Swiss graduate student.  But Kedourie was not a modern Swiss scientific researcher, but rather a history student at Oxford in 1953.

Unfortunately, the problems that have plagued researchers from Kedourie in 1953 to many young scientific researchers today are in fact fundamental weaknesses in the basic structure of academic research.  Researchers have always formed their own tiny expert communities, and thereafter demanded to be evaluated solely on the basis of peer review--that is, on the assessment of that tiny community, with no outsider being considered sufficiently expert to pass judgment on their work.  Academic newcomers are then forbidden entry until they first complete a multi-year program whose primary requirements are slavish conformity to the methods and practices of their graduate advisors' community, and voluminous difficult work exercising those methods and practices to the exacting standards of the graduate advisor and a small, hand-picked selection of his or her community peers.  And tenure has always guaranteed that these mini-communities will continue their hair-splitting line of research long after the last shred of value to outsiders has been painfully squeezed out of it.  It's hardly surprising, then, that academic research has historically been dominated by stifling conformity, petty politics and small-minded obscurantism.

If today's community is different from those of, say, a hundred years ago, the difference is primarily that research today is a "day job" in a way that it wasn't back then.  In the era when virtually every professor was a poorly-but-steadily-paid college teacher indulging his scientific, literary or historical obsessions in the gaps between classes and perhaps publishing the odd fusty monograph every few years for an audience numbered in the dozens, it scarcely mattered whether those academic obsessions were with the great unsolved problems in science or, say, the mating habits of a particular unremarkable species of butterfly.  Today, on the other hand, the average professor is fairly well-paid, with a light teaching load, either full tenure or a near-term expectation of it, and the promise of a multi-thousand-dollar research budget to spend on conference travel, graduate student assistants and other perks--if only he or she can generate the requisite volume of peer-blessed publications. 

What was once an eccentric but harmless academic idiosyncrasy--the practice of publishing technical expositions of one's own research that at most only a tiny audience of peers will ever read--has thus become an enormously expensive and wasteful boondoggle.  Abilities such as "selling" one's papers (writing them in a way that impresses one's peers), forming and leading networks of mutually logrolling researchers (much like the "alliances" in the reality TV show, "Survivor"), and crafting CVs and proposals that coax grants out of funding agencies, are now core academic skills much more important to career success than, say, deep scientific insight or vast erudition, much less teaching ability.  The resulting research bears all the signs of this change:  most of it is shallow and irrelevant, much is sloppy and error-ridden, and very little of it has a shelf life longer than the few months it takes to get it published and tacked onto a personal publications list.

It's not clear how to solve this problem, but a few obvious (though sadly unrealistic) mitigations come to mind.  First of all, since 99 percent of all research is worthless, we should start by vastly shrinking the pool of researchers.  The rule that virtually all full-time college professors must generate research as part of their employment is an absurd result of tiny colleges trying to increase their stature by emulating the top universities.  It ends up not only generating a flood of pointless, abysmally low-quality "research", but also undermining the higher-quality research communities, forcing them to compete with the mediocre majority for funds, recognition and adherents

Second, abolishing tenure certainly won't solve the entire problem--after all, most of the worst research is produced by workaholic untenured researchers, frantically churning out publications with which to establish their case for tenure.  But the protections of tenure certainly contribute to the insularity with which academic researchers indulge their worst instincts without fear of adverse consequences.  And given that academic training and peer review are guaranteed to squeeze every drop of non-conformist independent-mindedness from the peer-obsessed researcher, the likelihood of a researcher using the grant of tenure to break free from the constraints of conformity and rebel against the herd are negligible.  Tenure has thus failed in its only justifying purpose, and never comes close to paying back its enormous costs.

Third--and most importantly--the evaluation of academic research needs to be opened up to a much wider range of assessors.  As long as researchers can rely on log-rolling among peers to protect them from external accountability, they will continue to ignore any measures of the value of their research other than their own.  The only way to force them to take into account criteria such as economic value, societal impact and the public's priorities, is to make them accountable to commercial, political and popular representatives, not just fellow academics.  The howls of outraged disgust that invariably greet such suggestions reflect not only the academic dogma that asserts that anyone outside the holy circle of researchers is an ignorant yahoo incapable of grasping even the basics of evaluating scholarship, but also the rather baser fear that external evaluators might not be quite so indulgent towards researchers as they are toward themselves and each other.  It's high time that dogma were dispensed with, and that fear realized. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

And now for the 2013/2014 edition of ICBW's grandest (okay, only) tradition--the annual predictions post...

We begin with a review of our predictions for 2013, for which the theme is, "spectacularly accurate in the minor details, spectacularly off-base on the big picture":
  • The US economy will continue to grow at a sluggish pace, constrained by declining government stimulus and interest rates inching up with the growing concern over public debt, but buoyed slightly by lower prices for fossil fuels.  Inflation will remain tame, and the stock markets will weaken slightly.  Real estate will continue its very gentle upward trend.  
Spot-on in most respects (GDP growth 1.7 percent, bond prices down (i.e., yields up) slightly, annual inflation at 1.2 percent), but way off in a couple (Brent crude virtually unchanged, and especially the S&P 500 up over 30 percent)...
  • The newly-restabilized Eurozone will destabilize again, when domestic political pressure forces one of the bailed-out governments (most likely Greece) to balk at the required austerity measures, and/or one of the bailing-out governments (i.e., Germany) to balk at its required contributions.
Well, there was plenty of regret and foreboding, but in the end, everyone agreed to spend a fortune keeping Greece ruinously tied to the Euro...
  • Any US government spending reduction of any kind, let alone entitlement reform, that occurs this year will be purely cosmetic.  The debt will continue to expand until the threat of rising interest rates forces politicians' hands.
This was a gimme--no credit deserved for stating the obvious...
  • Damascus will fall to Syrian rebels, and chaos will ensue as Alawi Assad regime loyalists retreat to defend their stronghold in the northwest, the Kurds carve out an enclave in the northeast, and Sunni Islamists set about slaughtering minorities elsewhere.  The unrest will spread to Lebanon, where Sunnis (including Islamists) emboldened by events in Syria will begin challenging Hezbollah's dominance in earnest.  Meanwhile, in Egypt, The Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate its iron grip on power, but will be too busy dealing with economic crisis and the resulting unrest to make trouble elsewhere.  The Palestinian Authority will bring some kind of case against Israel to the International Criminal Court, where it will sit for some number of years, but the West Bank will be largely quiescent, and no "third intifada" will break out, a few occasional minor disturbances notwithstanding.  And despite increasing hostility from the Obama administration, overall global anti-Israel agitation will decline, as a result of Iranian setbacks and the increased respect that typically accrues to a potential future energy supplier to Europe.
Well, a lot of the little details were remarkably accurate--except for that bit about Assad falling, and the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating its hold on power, and the PA going to the ICC...
  • Binyamin Netanyahu's party will win the January election, and form a center-right coalition largely similar to the current one, but without Ehud Barak.  There will therefore be more settlement activity, but no military strike on Iran's nuclear program, which will remain in its current alarmingly-close-to-nuclear-weapons-but-somehow-not actually-building-them-yet state.  In fact, following the fall of Assad and the resulting decline of Hezbollah, Iran will begin to look--to all its adversaries, including both Israel and the Gulf states--like a much more manageable regional threat.  Official and unofficial expressions of anti-Iranian hostility in the Sunni world will thus become much bolder and more open.
Again, perfect--except for those bits about Netanyahu's coalition being similar to the previous one (it's completely different--the religious parties have been kicked out and replaced with secular ones).  Also, Iran looks like a much more managed regional threat--lots of agreements and diplomacy going on--but is hardly more manageable, unless you're foolish enough to think that anyone takes those agreements and diplomatic initiatives at all seriously.
  • At least one of the autocrats from 2012's list (Hugo Chavez, Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro) will not make it through 2013. 
Thanks for bailing me out, Hugo!
  • The next hit cable TV series will break new ground by revolving around a fascinating, complex male character who's not involved in violent crime. 
Not sure if this counts...

And now for my 2014 predictions, for what they're worth...
  • The US economy will strengthen moderately in 2014.  The stock market will decline slightly from its current heady heights, but interest rates and inflation will rise slightly (although not enough to divert the Fed from its current oh-so-accommodative course).  Oil  and other commodity prices will decline, but real estate will continue its recovery.  The EuroZone will recover as well, but far more sluggishly, with continuing unrest (but no major upheaval) over the severely distressed PIIGS economies.
  • Barack Obama's approval ratings will continue to decline, weighed down primarily by Obamacare, which will continue to accumulate angry "losers" (people whose health insurance has become narrower, more expensive or both).  Numerous other minor "scandals" will pop up over the course of the year, but none will gain significant traction with the press, and the November elections will see only small shifts in Congress, with the Republicans gaining a mere handful of House seats, and the Democrats (just barely) retaining control of the Senate.  Until then, the Republicans will content themselves by blocking various White House legislative initiatives, the administration will respond by doubling down on various expansions of executive power, and the Republicans will counter by initiating various legal actions (mostly unsuccessful) against them.
  • At least one Supreme Court justice will resign or die, and Senate Democrats will abolish the filibuster completely to prevent Republican obstruction of the resulting nominee's confirmation.
  • The Israelis and Palestinians will sign a "framework agreement" modeled after the Iranian-American accord.  Like its predecessor, it will say absolutely nothing concrete and definitive, and will be interpreted by all sides as perfectly aligned with their own official position on every issue.  It will therefore accomplish absolutely nothing, apart from allowing both sides to maintain the status quo while asserting at the same time that they've made progress toward their strategic goals.  Meanwhile, redoubts of anti-Israel animus--academia, the press, Europe--will respond to the process by doubling down on their anti-Israel campaigns, including more American Studies Association-style boycotts.  However, violence will be confined to sporadic incidents, and Israel's economy and trade will continue their stellar trajectory.
  • Elsewhere in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria will drag on with no end in sight.  The related unrest in Lebanon will increase substantially, led by relatively new radical Sunni elements rebelling against Hezbollah's dominance.  Muslim Brotherhood violence in Egypt will continue at a low level, but the military will tighten its overall grip on power.  Sectarian violence in Iraq will escalate, and the Erdogan regime in Turkey will shed all pretense of democratic rule, formally instituting structural changes that will in effect establish an AKP dictatorship, with a bit of democratic window dressing. 
  • Legalization or quasi-legalization of marijuana will spread to additional states beyond Colorado and Washington, and the next big trend in snobbish consumption will be "gourmet weed".
Feel free to add your own via comments...