The Scary World of Self-Proclaimed Scholars

As someone who is aiming for a career in academia and, hence, with academics or scholars, I get to see quite a bit of what is going on “behind the scenes” in university departments. I also get to know quite a few people who claim to be scholars (and they are truly not) as well as people who use only the dirtiest tricks they can find to belittle, denigrate, and smear fellow scholars that they don’t like.

Some people are truly narrow-minded jerks, and quite a few of them seem to have taken refuge to academic departments at publicly financed universities. Most of them, it seems, are simply not interested in creating knowledge, finding the truth, and all the other things most of us would probably expect from researchers and professors.

Whereas I could write this blog post on all the little things that I have discovered and that have annoyed me, I will only discuss something that I find particularly annoying and unworthy anyone working with science: conscious and purposeful smearing for the sake of … smearing.

The art of undermining somebody’s authority and reputation through spreading rumors and attacking them behind their backs is practiced in most trades, and so too in academia. One should not assume that scientists, supposedly fact-oriented and logically stringent seekers of The Truth, do not play dirty tricks on each other and spend enormous amounts of time and energy waging and fighting petty faction wars in departments or even within offices. Politics seems to be a “natural” part of most organized  bodies of people in which they do not naturally and solely share a specific aim.

In any case, academia is just like any other such body but perhaps more puerile. The hierarchy is very fixed while often informal and it is a highly held custom to kick on anyone who’s on a lower level. Also, if there is something you do not like – do not hesitate to attack their person rather than their research, and do whatever you can to make straw-man arguments with as sarcastic tone as possible.

There are plenty of examples of such behavior, but perhaps Brad DeLong‘s treatment of Austrian Economics is the best recent example. Not only do comments correcting Dr. DeLong’s assertions mysteriously disappear from his blog or are as mysteriously shortened, but he does not give people disagreeing with him a chance. He is simply not interested in other views. Scholarly? Not very.

Steve Horwitz comments on DeLong (all the necessary links to comments back and forth are provided by Horwitz; Mellon was President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary):

First, DeLong cuts off the part of Murphy’s post where he provides the evidence that Hoover rejected that view and that it did not dominate his administration.  Brutally dishonest.  Bob replies in the comments, and I follow up.  DeLong then truncates the part of MY comment where I point to Larry White’s JMCB paper that demonstrated that even MELLON was not a “liquidationist” and neither were the Austrians.

This is not a very unusual or extreme behavior and Brad DeLong is hardly an extremist (extremely ignorant and puerile, maybe – but not an extremist). Rather, this is quite common behavior in the land of academia, where everybody’s constantly guarding their turf and aren’t interested in any arguments or facts unless they strengthen their own view.

The fact is that most academics are hardly sholars; they are mostly people who are too smart for politics but too lazy to do the work necessary to be successful in any other trade. And many professors have never even tried any other line of work. In fact, some even look down upon people with experience outside of academia as if that would be something despicable.

Academia and science simply doesn’t work the way it theoretically should, i.e. the way John Stuart Mill defended free speech: only through allowing everybody to speak their opinion can we have sufficient ground to weed out the obviously bad and false. If academia would work this way, it would be eagerly receptive to new ideas and not only accept but even long for new perspectives and challenging ways of explaining real phenomena. Embracing the ideas of the one who challenges you and what you believe in is the way towards scientific progress.

The fact is that academia works in a way that is quite the opposite. New ideas are not embraced; rather, they are fought, silenced, and ridiculed – and editors of scientific journals even refuse to publish papers that are too “controversial.” To be published, new scientific results need to be “scientifically correct” rather than true to the facts.

I guess the question that pops up in your mind now, dear reader, is why the heck I so badly want to be part of this? My answer is that there are a number of exceptions to this rule and that working with but one true scholar and a hundred nitwits is a privilege – it is very rewarding to be around and work with a true genious. Also, I love doing what professors do: I love research and I love teaching – I could even spend ours on committees without necessarily being bored to death.

What scares me, however, is that there are so many “great” self-proclaimed scholars out there that do not know what the word means. And that they fall to such low levels in ways of fighting their petty turf wars. I am scared about this fact, but I am not afraid of them nor what they do. My background in politics have prepared me for the worst, and the fact is that I too can play this game – and I have formal training through 15 years in politics, which most academics do not. They will not know what hit them.

So I say: let me do what I do best and do your worst in honest critiquing of my work. And if you cannot, but prefer to fight dirty, bring it on. It is not a threat, it is a promise.