Wednesday 29 April 2009

Are you an honest academic?

Are you an honest academic? Eight questions about truth

Bruce G Charlton

Oxford Magazine. 2009; 287: 8-10.

A culture of corruption in academia

Anyone who has been in academic life for more than twenty years will realize that there has been a progressive and pervasive decline in the honesty of communication between colleagues, between colleges, between academia and the outside world.

With this is mind, I would ask you, the reader (and presumably an academic), to consider the following three sets of questions about truth.

1. Truth-telling.

a. Have you always been truthful in response to questions about your research and scholarship –questions concerning matters such as your performance and plans, or lack of plans, for future activities?

b. When asked to fill-out forms by administrators and managers, do you answer accurately?
c. Have you ever declined to complete a document because you felt you could not, or were unable to, be truthful; and you were not prepared to be dishonest?

d. Have you been correct and balanced in describing the implications and importance of your research in the RAE, in grant requests, and in job or promotions applications?

e. Would you withdraw a paper from a high impact journal if, as a condition of publication, a referee or editor insisted on modifying the text in a way which misrepresented your true beliefs?

2. Truth-seeking.

a. Are you trying your hardest to do the best work of which you are capable (given the inevitable constraints of time and resources)?

b. Would you stop working in a well-funded discipline because it was incoherent, incorrect, grossly inefficient, or where intellectual standards were corrupt?

c. Have you declined to cooperate with any of the numerous bureaucratic schemes, projects, exercises, commissions, auditors, agencies, offices or institutes that you know are predicated on dishonesty, misrepresentation and/or propaganda?

There were eight questions. The correct answer was yes, in all instances.

Interpretation: If you scored 8 then that is OK, and you have at least a chance of doing good work in academia.

If you scored less than 8, then you ought to quit your job and become a conscientious bureaucrat instead of a phoney academic.

How to become a virtuous scholar

I say you ‘ought to’ quit your job; but maybe you don’t want to quit but you do want to change, to become a virtuous scholar. Yes? In that case you must first admit to yourself your own state of complicity in the culture of corruption, and secondly embark on an immediate program of self-reform.

Truth is difficult, very difficult: it is either a habit, or you are not truthful. Humans cannot be honest in important matters while being expedient in ‘minor’ matters – truth is all of a piece. This means that in order to be truthful you need to find a philosophical basis which will sustain a life of habitual truth and support you through the pressure to be expedient (or agreeable) rather than honest.

Because truth cannot be a solitary life: the solitary truth-seeker who is unsupported either by tradition or community will soon degenerate into mere eccentricity, incoherence or covert self-justification.

There are plenty of resources to support truth – both religious and also secular (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelian or Confucian ethics). Any academic who seeks a cohesive philosophy knows how to find such resources, and it is incumbent upon you (as a would-be virtuous academic) to explore them; find one that suits you and in which you can believe; learn about it and live by it.

How did we get here? Drawing the line

We inhabit an academic system built on lies and sustained by lies. So, how did this situation came about? Another question might help clarify:

Q: Have you ever been asked to make a statement about your research, scholarship (or indeed teaching) that is less-than-fully-truthful; with the rationale that this is for the good of your department, research team, college, university or discipline?

Everyone reading this article would have to answer yes to this question. The explanation is that academics are pressured to lie for the (supposed) benefit of their colleagues or institutions. For instance, when your unit was being ‘inspected’ have you ever been told: a. that you must attend the inspection and meet with the inspectors and also; b. that you when you do meet the inspectors, you restrict your remarks to pre-arranged untruths. You are expected to lie, the inspectors expect you to lie; and the biggest collusive lie is that the process of inspection has been honest and valid.

For decent people, such quasi-altruistic arguments for lying are a more powerful inducement to becoming routinely dishonest than is the gaining of personal advantage. Indeed, lying to be agreeable is probably the primary mechanism that has driven the corruption of academia. Modern academics have become inculcated into habitual falsity by such arguments and pressures, until we have become used-to dishonesty, don’t notice dishonesty - eventually (like the inspectors, managers and administrators) come to expect dishonesty.

The solution to the current degenerate situation is radical in its simplicity – just be truthful, always. Never lie about your work, not even in a ‘good cause’. Maybe in some other professions absolute honesty can be subordinated to other imperatives (e.g. loyalty, literalistic rule-following, and obedience) – but not in academia. Here honesty is primary and ought to be non-negotiable.

As an academic, your colleagues, your employers, your institution should be able to ask a lot from you – but not to lie. As an individual you can pursue personal status, security and salary by many legitimate ways and means – but never by dishonesty.

That is where the line must be drawn. Starting now, why not?

Obstacles in the path of virtue

Why not? Because to become systematically truthful in a modern academic environment would be to inflict damage on one's own career: on one's chances of getting jobs, promotions, publications, grants and so on. In a world of dishonesty, of hype, spin and inflated estimations - the occasional truthful individual will be judged by the prevailing corrupt standards.

When 'everyone' is exaggerating their achievement, then an automatic deduction or devaluation is applied – so that the precisely accurate person will, de facto, be judged as even worse than the already modest (compared with prevailing practice) estimation which they place upon themselves. In an environment when it is routine for mainstream academics to claim 'world class' status' (and this is understood to represent national fame in the real world); an honest academic who accurately claims national status will find it is assumed that his true status is merely of local importance.

Obviously, taking a firm stance of truthfulness would mean such individuals would forgo some success in their careers at least in the immediate term; indeed the sanctions might be much more extreme than this. But over a longer timescale, the superior performance of self-selected groups of honest academics working together in pursuit of truth would become seeds from which (with luck) real scholarship could again grow.

The necessary first step would be for academics who are concerned about truth to acknowledge the prevailing state of corruption and then to make some kind of personal pledge to be truthful in all things connected with their work: to be both truth-tellers and truth-seekers.

Truth-telling would apply to matters both ‘great and small': things like grant applications: applications for jobs, tenure or promotion; communicating with the media; casual informal conversations; conference presentations; papers and books; and reviewing or refereeing. This would be done such that that a 'habit of truth' becomes thoroughly established.

Furthermore, the pledge should also be primarily to seek truth in one's work (and not mainly to seek status, power, grants, promotions, income etc). Even more difficult is the imperative to focus one's own research and scholarship where one believes there is greatest potential to make the largest contribution; and not (for example) merely to follow academic fashion, or do whatever is most likely to lead to grants, or do what most pleases the department, or do work because it leads to higher research ratings.

A 'Church' of truth

Such is our current state of corruption that the above insistence on truthfulness in academic life seems perverse, aggressive, dangerous - or simply utopian and unrealistic. But truthfulness in academia is not utopian. Indeed it was mundane reality in the UK, taken completely for granted (albeit subject to normal human imperfections) until just a few decades ago. Old-style academia had many faults, but deliberate and systematic misrepresentation was not one of them.

Now, however, academia is a communications economy that operates using debased currency. Our discourse uses paper money inflated by hype and spin - like a ten dollar bill crudely stamped-over with a ten million dollar mark; until we no longer know what is accurate and who to trust, what is exaggerated and which is trivial, and when stuff simply got made-up because people felt they could get away with it.

So I am proposing nothing short of a moral Great Awakening in academia: an ethical revolution focused on re-establishing the primary purpose of academic life, which is the pursuit of truth. Such an Awakening would necessarily begin with individual commitment, but to have any impact it would need to progress rapidly to institutional forms. In effect there would need to be a 'Church' of truth (or, rather, many such 'Churches' – especially in the different academic fields or 'invisible colleges' of active scholars and researchers).

I use the word Church because nothing less potent would suffice to overcome the many immediate incentives for seeking status, power, wealth and security. Nothing less powerfully-motivating could, I feel, nurture and sustain the requisite individual commitment.

However, given that we are in the current mess, and pre-existing safeguards have clearly proved inadequate; there is a big question over whether academia has within itself sufficient resolution to nourish individual academics in their difficult task of devotion to truth. What we need is moral courage. But there is a severe and chronic shortage of this commodity in modern British universities.

I suspect that the secular and this-worldly Zeitgeist of the modern university operates on such a here-and-now, worldly, pragmatic and utilitarian ethical basis as utterly to lack moral resources for the job I have in mind. When happiness is the ultimate arbiter, the certainty of short-term punishment weighs far more heavily in the balance than a mere possibility of greater long-term rewards.

So will it happen? – will there be a Great Awakening to truth in academia? Frankly, I doubt it; and we will probably continue to see the world of scholarship degenerate towards being merely a mask for the pursuit of other interests.

But I would love to be proved wrong.