Wednesday 21 July 2010

Should we trust professors? – the return of ad hominem evaluations

It seems likely that nowadays it is almost impossible to be both honest and also a professor – whether in science or in any other branch of academia.

And the dishonesty required is pretty much all-pervading. 


In general terms, a professor must subscribe to the incoherent, vicious nonsense of political correctness - or at the very least tacitly abet it at an institutional level.

Dishonesty is mandatory in education. For example, a professor is expected to collude in implementing racial, sexual and religious preferences at the cost of academic and educational goals; to make-easier and then ignore academic cheating (from school children, students and faculty); and to collude in the inflation of educational qualifications at every level.

And of course in the practice of ‘research’ dishonesty is necessary – root and branch. The professor must pretend to be seeking the truth when actually doing whatever is necessary to get grant funding. He must be merciless toward the errors of the junior researcher and the non-PC researcher – while apologizing for and fawning over the dominant researchers – the peer review cartel whose opinions determine appointments, promotions, grants, publications and prizes.

His academic standards therefore vary between happy acceptance of unsubstantiated opinion – when it comes from the peer cartel; and adopting a virtually Descartian, Humean or Nietzchian radical ultra-scepticism with anything asserted outwith this domain.

He must follow fashion in his research, wherever this may lead – otherwise he will be perceived as not merely marginal, but actively selfish – selfish in wasting his time and resources on pointless activity and thereby damaging his colleagues’ interests and endangering the viability of his department or unit.  

He must selectively publish only that which is acceptable to the peer review cartel and also to the pervasive leftist norm – and must bias interpretation of data to be acceptable to this ethos (this can involve explicit delay or suppression of results until a suitably PC spin can be found). 

In sum, a professor cannot be honest – honesty is forbidden, and sanctions against transgression are imposed most rigorously at the most elite institutions.


Of course no system is perfect, and sometimes an honest person does happen to slip through the net and become a professor. But this is so rare that it can be overlooked as a statistical outlier – and anyway these exceptions are mostly old or marginal. 

So, in reading the academic literature, the rule of ignoring everything expounded by a professor or associated with prestigious institutions is a necessary basic heuristic. 

Non-professors may lack knowledge and experience, but at least some of them are trying to be honest.

But if you are not even trying to be honest, then you will only be true by accident and unpredictably – like the stopped clock that just happens to show the right time twice a day.


More precisely, in dealing with modern academics we need to drop any pretence at avoiding ad hominem arguments – and we need (explicitly and fully) to take account of the honesty of the person making a statement. 

The academic convention used to be that we should always try to ignore the person and focus on their arguments and evidence. But in a world of endemic professorial dishonesty the avoidance of ad hominem evaluations will simply concede the argument to the successfully dishonest. 

Impartiality is an impossibility, and when it is not even being attempted the only answer is to be openly partial and simply ignore every statement made by people whom you judge to be dishonest – and, in dealing with modern academia, you will need to assume that everybody is dishonest unless or until proven otherwise. 


Declaration of interest: I am a professor; therefore this whole article is self-refuting and an exemplification of the ‘Cretan liar paradox’. The solution to the paradox is that metaphysics is itself, ultimately, a matter of trust. Trust comes first.


Unknown said...

One must believe that all professors are willing to sell their integrity for a job or that they really believe the propaganda they produce and promote.
To believe the latter condemns reason, the former, character, both condemn humanity.
What truly boggles is that anyone would place their faith in man.

Bill said...

Of course no system is perfect, and sometimes an honest person does happen to slip through the net and become a professor. But this is so rare . . .

This is a bit hyperbolic. Most fields have a safe path for honest folks. Usually, you have to be interested in some technical matter which is rather far from direct policy relevance.

Sociologists doing (heavily mathematical) network analysis, economists working in any one of a number of heavily mathematical areas, life scientists doing stuff like cell biology, most engineers, etc.

It seems to me that fields where technical competence is prized and rare seem to let in a fair number of honest people---incidentally, not by design, of course. If you can find a way to do your work and to keep your mouth closed about controversial things, then you can advance without actually lying.

Now, for the truth to be told some of these people have to decide, post-tenure, to make themselves "cranks."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill: "Most fields have a safe path for honest folks. Usually, you have to be interested in some technical matter which is rather far from direct policy relevance."

Well, I think you have agreed with me here when you say: 'some technical matter which is rather far from direct policy relevance".

A few Professors are allowed to be honest so long as nobody takes any notice of them!

I had this problem about Medical Hypotheses. So long as it was a low-impact journal it could be written off as merely a vanity publishing arena for cranks. But when the impact factor took it into the top half of biomedical journals and the internet usage hit half a million per year and the journal was constantly being covered by the media - it needed to be shut-down, and was.

(Shut down in effect - by sacking me and re-making MeHy into Elsevier's 2000-and-somethingth PC orthodox mainstream peer reviewed yawn. MeHy isn't there yet, since the journal is still publishing the papers I selected that were in the pipeline - but as this pipeline is exhausted, then the truth will out!)

Bill said...

Yes, I am agreeing with you that when the truth on controversial matters is told, that is at best unintended and at worst an outright failure of the system. But I think this ties into one of your other ideas---the free floating cog or whatever you called it.

Suppose I were to take your entire set of factual claims as true and then try to defend the university. I would say, I think,
that the free floating cog is, actually, the whole point of the endeavor. We piss away billions of dollars and fritter away the time of tens of thousands of really smart people just in order to build institutions in which there (seemingly but not really by accident) are the right kind of free-floating cogs.

Recently, I have become aware of the work of Judea Pearl (easily googled), and recently I met him. I take him to be a free-floating cog. He is a computer scientist who has spent a good deal of the last two decades doing work which, in a better world, would be revolutionizing social science, epidemiology, and related disciplines. And, I think it is possible that it eventually will.

What was done to you and to MdHy was obviously evil and was a demonstration of how poorly Elsevier and the medical establishment understand what science is and is about. But, tenure and the facilities and free time that go with it seem to guarantee that there is a limit to how much evil can be done to the free floating cogs, no?