Academic hogwash: an empirical study thereof

April 9, 2016 by Lucian Mogosanu

Scientia1 is brain-wreckingly difficult. What with it being a field where people work their asses off to push the boundaries of what we know and discover what we don't know and other tar pits.

Since the intellectual demands of said jobs are so high, it's not enough to push and discover and so on and so forth. New conceptual horizons are muddy, so at least half of the job, if not ninety-nine percent of it, involves making them clear, preferably in a language that "the scientific community" will easily comprehend2. If you've any doubts about that, you may study the historical examples of Einstein, Bohr, Pauli and others3.

Traditionally, the average "man of knowledge"4 does this by sitting on his ass somewhere, taking a piece of paper and jotting some ideas off, then re-writing them two or ten or a hundred times, in any case, until they are refined enough to be presented in front of said "scientific community". Once that is done, other "men of knowledge"5 will spend some of their precious time reviewing the work and deciding whether it is worth presenting to the world at large as a fact. Simple, right?

The reader will have to excuse me, for I am only a budding youngster on this matter, so I don't know the specific historical events that led to the current state of affairs, but I can make a pretty good guess that the point where everything turned upside down was when someone started talking about some nonsense or other, which they decided to call "academic standards"6.

So, to better illustrate the main point, back in the day getting a PhD would involve coming up with a model of relativity, or discovering DNA, or reasoning about abstract shit such as computation. In contrast, getting a PhD nowadays involves "publishing X papers to Y journals and Z conferences rated by Alpha company"7. Because if everything else becomes an industry, then so must science. Quite convenient, isn't it?

And thusly nowadays the end goal of youngsters fiddling with Scientia isn't to push the boundaries of knowledge anymore. Since "objective evaluation"8 is now a thing, it's enough for them to attempt to meet that criteria. That is all, and everyone's happy, right?

Not really. Now Alpha company will label journal Y and conference Z as more-or-less "prestigious", so dumbsters9 will pay to get more stuff published. Y and Z will only struggle to attract even more materials through the so-called "CFPs", in order to keep rejection rates up and thus be themselves rated "objectively" by Alpha as "prestigious". Meanwhile, dumbsters will jump with joy that one of their papers containing this or that -- at this point it's not like anyone cares about the actual content anymore -- has been published to "prestigious Y"10 and they're one more step toward graduation, tenure, or whatever else is fashionable in the academia nowadays11. Lo and behold, intellectual production has exceeded 200% this quinquennium12, all praise multilaterally-developed science!

So, what shall we do now? Well, one good idea would be to punch an academic in the face13.

Oh, you meant, doing that in a politically correct way? No, I'm afraid there isn't much to be done, welcome to the new, glorious age of post-religion.

  1. That is, the female personification of knowledge, whom everyone seems to want to rape nowadays.

    So, you've just started reading this and there I go, not even bothering to leave the reader to get acquainted with the article's tone and such. What, you really thought this was going to be an academic essay? Go read your abstracts somewhere else, this isn't an awful FSM-damned "prestigious journal". 

  2. Where "language" doesn't necessarily mean English. Oh, I mean, sure, everyone speaks it nowadays, but make the simple exercise of looking at the frequency of most terms in the average academic paper nowadays. In circles where Scientia actually matters, language is much more subtle a thing than just taking a basic grammar along with some marketspeak and shuffling them around; it most of all involves being precise, and this precision cannot be achieved merely by speaking "English". 

  3. Ever wonder why most of them are from mathematics and/or physics? One could argue that they're actually from philosophy, but the fact is, if I'm not mistaken social sciences and humanities have yet to rock the world in this fashion. And I doubt they ever will, I doubt it very much. 

  4. As opposed to just "man of science". 

  5. Women of knowledge too, we're not trying to be sexist here. 

  6. Sciences are not the only fields affected by this. Just look at the media; and look at all these sites claiming to have "unique visitors", "apps" claiming to have "millions of downloads", companies claiming to be valued at billions of dollars. Oh, and they do, they have, they are, but only insane people would believe that these so-called "metrics" would have any meaningful interpretation. Unfortunately some people are way beyond insane nowadays. 

  7. Seriously now, who the fuck are Thomson Reuters to decide on scientific relevance? Since when is the Australian Research Council more important than, say, common sense? Or has appeal to authority subtly but suddenly stopped being a logical fallacy in the last few decades? What do you mean, "we need institutions to"? Who says we do? I for one most certainly don't want my brain replaced by any "institution", thank you. 

  8. "Evaluating performance" of human knowledge is pretty much one of the hardest problems of humanity. That is, in case you're wondering why the educational system has failed miserably. Also, if you're wondering which piece on the Internet this essay is rehashing, it's probably TLP's. 

  9. In the age of Internet and self-publishing and whatnot, how many scientists do you know who actually promote sane publishing in favour of feeding the machine? The only example in my mind is Bernstein's IEEE boycott, otherwise everyone's sucking it up. Because "we need institutions to", right? Well, joke's on you for getting involved with the mafiosos. 

  10. Fine, we can give names. Take for example an article published in Nature, "The significant association of Taq1A genotypes in DRD2/ANKK1 with smoking cessation in a large-scale meta-analysis of Caucasian populations", subsequently pop-scientized (by Nature themselves!) in various journalistic venues under sensationalistic titles. The paper is bad or at most completely irrelevant by sane scientific standards, yet it was published in a so-called prestigious journal, therefore it must be good! 

  11. In case you're wondering: yes, I am in the academia at the moment of writing, and yes, I'm as guilty as all the other people taking, or worse, promoting this. If you're "one of my peers" and you're dismissing this with a hand wave, then again, joke's on you, don't say I didn't tell you. On the other hand, if you're offended, then good, you should be. Now read this again, and again and again and again until the offense rubs off on you and maybe you'll start thinking, like the intellectual you are. 

  12. Harder to get if you didn't live through communism. 

  13. What do you mean, how to do that, are you a grown up or what? Fine, here's a decent example from Rogaway

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8 Responses to “Academic hogwash: an empirical study thereof”

  1. [...] wanted to make sure that this essay would get rejected from any respectable academic venue out there, so I made the abstract as abstract as possible, without however stripping it of its [...]

  2. [...] The reader must remember that PhD degrees don't hold the same value as they did, say, fifty years ago. This is mainly due to causes of academic hogwash. ↩ [...]

  3. [...] faster, stronger material takes its place. Which I kind of doubt, given that science is also in a period of stagnation, and that is putting it very [...]

  4. [...] my break from writing (anything else other than academic hogwash) has left a visible negative mark on the quality thereof, so writing anything at all stemming from [...]

  5. [...] I might as well add here that from all the things that I spent my time doing in the pits of academia, I mostly miss teaching. Granted, the teaching in that environment was, and I expect still is today [...]

  6. [...] to challenge this: I like him because he's done more for the field of sociology than the Romanian academia managed to these past two supposedly illustrious decades of great heights of science. Yes, he [...]

  7. [...] is precisely how Romanians (among, I suppose, others) understood academia, for example. Step one: develop a superficial understanding, say, of distributed systems; step two: [...]

  8. [...] Academic. ↩ [...]

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