Watch the whole interview with David Graeber where he talks about his experience at Yale.

2.) Academic Ambition and Cowering


Missed the first one? Take a step back and read about scientism.

It’s not illogical to expect that scientists as human beings are not any more unbiased, impartial, or unselfish than the general population. Since it is a highly competitive, high-skill career field, the expectation should be that if anything, it’s likely to go the other way, that many career scientists should be quite ambitious, driven people, who desire to do well for themselves. As such, it‘s no surprise that academic social dynamics tend to be rather self serving.

Research requires resources as much as any other human endeavor, and as long as those resources are scarce, there will be politics involved. Since in politics, there are always certain few who make the important decisions, getting on their good side, or at least not getting on their bad side, becomes a metaphorical life-or-death situation. Often, the people ultimately responsible for these decisions may not even be scientists, but politicians.

Or, in the case of American politics, even the politicians may be in the pockets of big business or, for science ironically enough, religious organizations. This means that structurally, a lot of the science that should presumably be a product of free inquiry and rational thought is in fact largely based on unexamined and undisclosed irrational interests, and scientists may not even consider it important to inquire as to who really makes the calls.

The results could be anything from stifling certain avenues of research, through firing scientists with the wrong political affiliation (or race, or gender, or belief), shelving uncomfortable findings, to outright making up false findings. Coupled with the assumption of authority and lack of bias discussed above, the clear motivation of people who entered into science to make a career is to conform and be complicit, even if they are aware.

To name one example of a high profile social scientist that got fired, David Graeber. Him being an anarchist didn’t sit well with the leadership of Yale, so they simply got rid of him, without explanation, not to mention due cause. And that’s a prestigeous university. It’s also telling that research shows that a death of an old “authority” figure is correlated with achieving substantial progress in a scientific field afterwards. More examples will follow next time.

The only way to presumably get safe from politics is to get tenure, something that for example Noam Chomsky has used very well to voice the most critical of opinions, but that’s relatively rare and certainly not bullet proof. Until that point, being an academician is a minefield where the pressure is on scientists to do subserviently what their superiors consider to be worthwhile. And while that’s somewhat clear in natural science, it certainly is not in social science.

Wanna read the next one about statistical significance? Click away.

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