March 13, 2010


Climategate Was an Academic Disaster Waiting to Happen (Peter Berkowitz, 3/13/10, WSJ)

The real reasons for releasing students from rigorous departmental requirements and fixed core courses are quite different. One is that professors prefer to teach boutique classes focusing on their narrow areas of specialization. In addition, they believe that dropping requirements will lure more students to their departments, which translates into more faculty slots for like-minded colleagues. By far, though, the most important reason is that faculty generally reject the common sense idea that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn. This is consistent with the popular campus dogma that all morals and cultures are relative and that objective knowledge is impossible.

The deplorable but predictable result is that professors constantly call upon students to engage in discussions and write papers in the absence of fundamental background knowledge. Good students quickly absorb the curriculum's unwritten lesson—cutting corners and vigorously pressing strong but unsubstantiated opinions is the path to intellectual achievement.

The production of scholarship also fosters intellectual vice. Take the peer review process, which because of its supposed impartiality and objectivity is intended to distinguish the work of scholars from that of journalists and commercial authors.

Academic journals typically adopt a double blind system, concealing the names of both authors and reviewers. But any competent scholar can determine an article's approach or analytical framework within the first few paragraphs. Scholars are likely to have colleagues and graduate students they support and whose careers they wish to advance. A few may even have colleagues whose careers, along with those of their graduate students, they would like to tarnish or destroy. There is no check to prevent them from benefiting their friends by providing preferential treatment for their orientation and similarly punishing their enemies.

That's because the peer review process violates a fundamental principle of fairness. We don't allow judges to be parties to a controversy they are adjudicating, and don't permit athletes to umpire games in which they are playing. In both cases the concern is that their interest in the outcome will bias their judgment and corrupt their integrity. So why should we expect scholars, especially operating under the cloak of anonymity, to fairly and honorably evaluate the work of allies and rivals?

Even if objective knowledge were possible, it could not be derived from such subjective sources.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2010 6:52 AM
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