12.2.10

Understanding the Rot in Academia

Understanding the Rot in Academia

Botulism and Babel
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, February 12, 2010

Jean-Baptiste Botul does not exist, but having been cited and sanctified by a real philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, he has exposed the level of fictitiousness that exists beyond the imagination in the world of academia.

Before we unravel the several layers that constitute intellectual deceit, it is important to take a quick look at the controversy.

Frédéric Pages, a journalist, created Botul and his ‘work’ that often critiqued Immanuel Kant. This came in handy when Lévy wanted to emphasise his own position and used two pages from the writings of the fictitious philosopher. The intellectual community is having a good laugh. The question is: what are they laughing about? That Lévy did not have the good sense to run a search? Did he need a simulated theorist to rubbish Kant as “raving mad” and a “fake”? If that is so, then should one not examine why the journalist chose to do what he has done? His mock-up effort has been going on since 1999 – what prompted his fiction?

Lévy’s critics, even while damning him as a poseur, do not fail to refer to him as “France’s most dashing philosopher”, which is a rather superficial yardstick for philosophers. It is the celebrity craze that props up thinkers who can turn around and, as Lévy has done, say, “So I was caught, as were the critics who reviewed the book when it came out. The only thing left to say, with no hard feelings, is kudos to the artist!”

He is being magnanimous and including the whole intellectual community in his blunder. Rightly so, for the cult of the thinker is seriously flawed in contemporary times. “It’s the role of the philosopher to land blows,” according to Lévy.

What passes for original thought is essentially dependent on a bibliography not only of data but of ideas that have been sponged on. In the realm of philosophy, it becomes difficult to understand the fount from the fountain. The basis of judicious analysis is to understand available material and find one’s tangential niche, unless one is part of a fan club or a groupie.

Lévy’s fault is not quoting a fictional philosopher, but being cavalier about it.

The imagined aspect is redundant when ghost writing has become fairly commonplace.

A few years ago All Deliberate Speed, a book by Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, had six paragraphs lifted from What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said, a book by Yale professor Jack Balkin, and he did not know he had plagiarised. Why? He had left the job to his assistants. The wrong assistant forgot to attribute it, or so he said, and it went straight to the publishers without him realising it.

He acknowledged his assistants but it was an Ogletree book. Often an academician claims to be helping out students; young people are indeed looking for such godfathers but what are they being taught? It is about being part of institutional cliques. It is an incestuous world where the hierarchy is based on who gets to the goal-post first. Not how. The number of guest lectures, the countries that send out invitations help in bolstering this pecking order. The academic junket junkies merely hold forth within the circumscribed area of what their sponsors lay out.

This case got some amount of exposure because big universities were involved. What must happen in smaller colleges? In the Lévy case, the most damning indictment was that he did not check on the internet. There is precious irony here. The fact that thorough philosophical discourse must include proper reading, absorbing, disputing of prevalent ways of thinking has now become something that is available within a few seconds.

If internet search engines are doing all the work, then why are huge sums of money spent on research that has absolutely no value except to glorify the teams, get their works published in journals and help create new celebrities? Most of the studies are only slightly smarter than spot polls. A small sample of people is used and treated no better than laboratory rats. Clearly, the motive is to prove a theory and there seems to be no room for individualism.

Besides, there is a disconnect with the outside world. The purpose of such knowledge is to disseminate information and not to be an exercise in vanity. While scientific breakthroughs in important areas are indeed valuable, what passes for science these days is quite often suspect or susceptible to vagaries of trends that are in turn chattels of commercial interests.

One of the reasons we still wish to respect the academic is that we believe there was no hurry to be feted. The image of the Saint of Scholarly Seeking toiling away among moth-eaten books in silent libraries smelling of old wood was a romantic notion. Today, not only do they wish to become known, but known better than the bloke sitting in the next cabin. Academics are often popular writers who were chartered accountants or some such thing and reinvented themselves, wrote fabulist tales about obscure aspects of their personal renaissance, were celebrated in the lists of bookstores along with cupcakes and immediately offered a Fellowship; if they are lucky in their veteran days, there might be a Chair named after them.

What makes them utterly charming is that after years of having done number-crunching they do not forget those roots and continue to nurse the market bubble. They have begun to use less heavy language, which would have been rather nice, except that they continue to look down on those who have such naturally accessible abilities.

Trivia is trumped up as appraisal. How many times must we have dreams of Madonna and Mona Lisa’s smile analysed or an ‘unusual’ assessment of Marilyn Monroe’s death?

The other worrying aspect is: Why would there be so many different versions and emphasis on how products affect us? From chocolates to wine to the scent from male armpits, we are inundated with conflicting information. Our health, sex lives and physical appeal become silent guinea pigs to this charade that is played out in campuses.

Again, these findings do not take cognisance of cultural, metabolic and even personal disparities. How provable are they outside of the study group? Are the findings adequate indicators to apply across societies?

What about thinkers and their ideas? Are thoughts verifiable? It would be fascinating to explore these areas but we’d end up with a fictional philosopher to make the real more potently real.

9 comments:

  1. Part1 of the Response :

    Farzana,
    As a "first things first" Thanks for an excellent article on equally wonderful topic.
    A couple of points, though....
    You said :
    "The fact that thorough philosophical discourse must include proper reading, absorbing, disputing of prevalent ways of thinking has now become something that is available within a few seconds."
    And
    "If internet search engines are doing all the work, then why are huge sums of money spent on research that has absolutely no value except to glorify the teams, get their works published in journals and help create new celebrities? Most of the studies are only slightly smarter than spot polls. A small sample of people is used and treated no better than laboratory rats. Clearly, the motive is to prove a theory and there seems to be no room for individualism."

    Well, it may not always happen this way. Agreed that researching a topic has become much easier today than it were, say , even in 1999 - but research is much more than availability of information. We know that making a hypotheses does require a "point of view", a bias, a leaning towards a concept or particular concept. Availability of information just facilitates the process. Besides this, Speaking about the availability of information - the current state of art in Search engines and information extraction technology does appear to be seriously lagging the needs such as locating related research from appropriate journals.

    You said :
    "While scientific breakthroughs in important areas are indeed valuable, what passes for science these days is quite often suspect or susceptible to vagaries of trends that are in turn chattels of commercial interests."
    An interesting exercise would be to find out how much of the "research" is actually funded or "funded to be suppressed". However, in general I am in agreement with the sentiment of commercial interests weighing rather heavily on research.
    OTOH, the current economic framework worldover does mandate and equate development with "Commercial Interests" , so in a sense it becomes inevitable too.

    Cheers,
    Mahesh.
    p.s.: Part 2 of the response follows this post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Part 2 of the response :

    Farzana,
    You said :
    "One of the reasons we still wish to respect the academic is that we believe there was no hurry to be feted. The image of the Saint of Scholarly Seeking toiling away among moth-eaten books in silent libraries smelling of old wood was a romantic notion. Today, not only do they wish to become known, but known better than the bloke sitting in the next cabin."
    In the history didn't this description apply to Brahmins ?
    Maybe, afterall it was a problem with our world view that saw scholarly pursuits in a particularly romantic light. (OK, differently romantic .... :-) )
    Another aspect is sometimes academics do cross over the line into realm of activism. A popular example could be political content in economist Paul Krugman's contemporary writings. Or, for that matter, environmentalist academia's opposition to Monsanto.

    You said :
    "What makes them utterly charming is that after years of having done number-crunching they do not forget those roots and continue to nurse the market bubble."
    So accurately perceptive. Wonderful.
    You said :
    "They have begun to use less heavy language, which would have been rather nice, except that they continue to look down on those who have such naturally accessible abilities."
    My own experience with writings by some neuro-scientists such as Steven Rose, Kandell, Damasio has been somewhat contrary. But then this observation has a large component of subjectivity, so probably we are better off with "each according to his/her observation" here.

    You said :
    "The other worrying aspect is: Why would there be so many different versions and emphasis on how products affect us? From chocolates to wine to the scent from male armpits, we are inundated with conflicting information. Our health, sex lives and physical appeal become silent guinea pigs to this charade that is played out in campuses."
    Another more worrisome aspect is people - the ones fed on such trivia - tend to take these studies and results much more seriously than necessary. Sometimes it even sounds very very close to the faith people had in onion or "badaam aur milk" as aphrodisiacs. :-)
    You said "
    "What about thinkers and their ideas? Are thoughts verifiable?"
    A de-construction of some of the older concepts centred around thoughts and mind is already underway, and rather rapidly at that.

    Finally, Thanks again for a wonderful article.

    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mahesh:

    Thank you!

    …research is much more than availability of information. We know that making a hypotheses does require a "point of view", a bias, a leaning towards a concept or particular concept... the current state of art in Search engines and information extraction technology does appear to be seriously lagging the needs such as locating related research from appropriate journals.

    Re. the latter bit…that is part of the problem – tardiness. And the belief that, oh, a search would have led to the Holy Grail.

    Re. the first part…agreed, and that is my case against much of what passes for academic thoroughness. There is a lack of a point of view. I would appreciate a bias or an original concept. It often seems lie collected information strung together with a vague idea.

    The inevitability of commercial interests that you allude to is antithetical to the spirit of inquiry, in my opinion. Ideas then become products. Even if there are no real funds, the playing along with a market prototype has already co-opted the academician.

    You are right in your allusion to Brahmins; I’d say it applies to any high-born segment or superior race. As we know, there are fascistic tendencies manifested, and this applies to the scholastic field as well. Yes, it is part of our problem, but some of us do have a thing for monocles :)

    Another aspect is sometimes academics do cross over the line into realm of activism. A popular example could be political content in economist Paul Krugman's contemporary writings. Or, for that matter, environmentalist academia's opposition to Monsanto.

    True, but one aspect supersedes the other. Or, the lines are not well-defined. There can be a political dimension to economics, and is Fukuyama an academician or an environmentalist? Here, research is meant for active participation or understanding.

    "They have begun to use less heavy language, which would have been rather nice, except that they continue to look down on those who have such naturally accessible abilities."

    My own experience with writings by some neuro-scientists such as Steven Rose, Kandell, Damasio has been somewhat contrary. But then this observation has a large component of subjectivity, so probably we are better off with "each according to his/her observation" here.


    Although I have not read these scientists, I would be keen to know what aspect you disagree with in my observation. I promise to continue to disagree!

    Another more worrisome aspect is people - the ones fed on such trivia - tend to take these studies and results much more seriously than necessary. Sometimes it even sounds very very close to the faith people had in onion or "badaam aur milk" as aphrodisiacs. :-)

    Aren’t they?! I’d say these are harmless superstitions for the heightened common good and is left to faith and not rationalised. I do accept that there are some aspects that could have terrible consequences, but we are vigilant about those. But if a study says something it just has a stamp of having been verified and consolidated.

    Have a good St. Ballantine’s day :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Farzana,
    You said :
    "Although I have not read these scientists, I would be keen to know what aspect you disagree with in my observation. I promise to continue to disagree!"
    OK, my specific disagreement was on this part in your original post...
    "except that they continue to look down on those who have such naturally accessible abilities."
    Anecdotally, I am relating this to simple and clear language used by several of renowned scientists (stalwarts) in popularising and explaining the specializations achieved in respective fields. (Persons cited in my response are neuroscientists). None of the persons ever felt the need to "look down" , at least their "popular writings" never indicated so. Possibly we are arguing un-relatedly in that you implied something else and me shooting at something else.
    In either case let us promise each other disagreement where we must. :-)
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sorry, missed out this....
    Not much of "Bal"lantine's day happening in mumbai these days. Guess, some things just lose their steam.Forever. :-)
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Mahesh:

    See, your neuroscientists were also popular writers themselves, so they did not look down on others.

    My swipe was also against academicians who have problems with more accessible writing, in general.Among the emails I have got, one of them (from saat samundar paar)said that I should have interveiwed the journalist. Wonderful. he can sit in an ivory tower discussing abstarct issues and I must do gadha mazdoori (donkey's work, for my international audience!).

    But I shall keep my promise to you...

    As regards V-day, you are such a Marathi maanus and thinking of 'Bal'antine, while I was just wishing you a good bottle of the Bally...or whatever tharra you prefer :)

    PS: Have you seen 'Harishchandrachi factory'? Rec?

    ReplyDelete
  7. And, you might know of the Sokal Hoax.

    http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Sokal_Affair

    ReplyDelete
  8. Farzana,
    Had a short glimpse of "Harischandrachi factory", not the whole film though. My take here is - "... factory" deserved to be out of the oscar race. As a criterion, for instance, it doesn't really stand up to - for instance- Clooney's "Up In the Air". BTW, this is "oscar evaluation". In itself, my personal rating for the film falls between 3-4 on the scale of 1-5 (5 being highest). A good attempt, overall speaking.
    But no comparison with Majidis and Kurosawas yet,though. OTOH, the industry insiders insist me to keep a tab on marathi film industry next year or two for several socially intense films.
    In either case, Harischandrachi... is deservedly out of the race.
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.
    p.s.: On a passing note - did you get to watch "Kabul Express" ? IMHO, a good attempt at a much different topic (compared to contemporary themes) by the Bollywood. My personal favourites include the discussion in Pakistan military when they are disowning Talibs and the scene when John Abraham is trying to befriend a afghan child by trying to teach him push-ups only to be taunted by the kid's crutches.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Mahesh:

    Are you someone famous?

    OTOH, the industry insiders insist me to keep a tab on marathi film industry next year or two for several socially intense films.

    No insider has ever asked me to do that :(

    Thanks for the review, anyway. I missed 'Kabul Express', but it is on my list. Watched 'Kite Runner' the other day. And may end up with 'Kurbaan' (again) on TV so that I can smash up something...could not do that in a movie hall.

    I don't agree with you that the Oscars are the yardstick for good cinema. Oh, I enjoyed 'Julie and Julia' thoroughly

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.