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January 24, 2005

The Dark Underbelly

Fear and Loathing are not words that you typically associate with people engaged in research. Things like Serious and Measured, or even, for some people, Creative and Dramatic. I recently had a pair of extremely unpleasant experiences, in which the guilty, who shall remain nameless, exhibited all the open-mindedness and aplomb of a jealous and insecure thirteen year old. What on earth causes grown men, established academics no less, to behave like this?

Academic research, although it pretends to be a meritocracy, uses social constructs like reputation, affiliation and social-circles as a short-hand for quality. This is the heart of how we can avoid reading every paper or listening to every presentation with a totally open mind - after all, if someone has produced a lot of good work before, that's probably a pretty good indicator that they'll do it again. "The best predictor of the future is past behavior." Unfortunately, these social constructs eventually become themselves elements of optimization in a competitive system, and some people focus on them in lieu of doing good work. This, I believe, was the root cause of the overt and insulting hostility I experienced.

Ultimately, because everyone has a finite amount of time and energy, you do have to become more choosy about whom you collaborate with and what ideas you push on. But if everyone only ever did things that moved them "up" in these constructs, no one would ever work with anyone else. What's the point of being an intellectual if it's all turf wars and hostility? Shouldn't one work on things that bring pleasure instead of a constant stream of frustration over poor prestige or paranoia over being scooped? Shouldn't the whole point of being supported by the largess of society be to give as much back as possible, even if this means occasionally not being the most famous or not the guy who breaks the big news?

Maybe these guys don't, but I sure do.

posted January 24, 2005 10:58 AM in Rant | permalink