Doctor X, “pure shit” and the Royal Society’s motto
from Edward Fullbrook
Recently at a large party I found myself sitting next to a very likable young middle-aged academic tenured at an elite British university, whom henceforth I will refer to as Doctor X and whose field is closely associated with this blog.
Doctor X was unfamiliar with both the Real-World Economics Review and the World Economics Association. But when I described the purposes of the latter, in particular the fostering of a professional ethos that prioritized the advancement of knowledge rather than the preservation of orthodoxies and the promotion of vested interests, there was an instantaneous recognition of a central relevance to his/her intellectual and career situation.
“Every year I publish papers in the top journals and they’re pure shit.” Doctor X, who by now had had a glass or two, felt bad about this, not least because “students these days are so idealistic and eager to learn; they’re really wonderful.” Furthermore Doctor X could and would like “to write serious papers but what would be the point?”
I then listened to an explanation of Doctor X’s predicament that went roughly like this.
One naturally feels loyalty to one’s immediate colleagues. The amount of funding Doctor X’s department receives depends not on how many papers or their quality its members publish, but instead on in which journals they are published. The journals in Doctor X’s field in which publication results in substantial funding will not publish “serious papers” but instead only “pure shit” papers, meaning ones that merely elaborate old theories that nearly everyone knows are false. Moreover, even to publish a “serious paper” in addition to the “pure shit” ones could taint the department’s reputation, resulting in a reduction of its funding. In any case, no one at a top university would read a “serious paper” because they only read “top journals.”
Memory of this little encounter came rushing back to me a few minutes ago when reading in today’s The Observer an opinion piece by Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society. In a few words he nicely spells out how real science operates and how Doctor X, perhaps no less than me, wishes economics would operate.
Good science is a reliable way of generating knowledge because of the way it is done. It is based on reproducible observation and experiment, taking account of all evidence and not cherry-picking data. Scientific issues are settled by the overall strength of that evidence combined with rational, consistent and objective argument. Central to science is the ability to prove that something is not true, an attribute which distinguishes science from beliefs based on religions and ideologies, which place more emphasis on faith, tradition and opinion.
A good scientist is inherently sceptical – the Royal Society’s motto, in Latin of course, roughly translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.
Doctor X, although clearly desirous of a regime like the one described by Nurse, seems resigned to the unhappy and morally troubling situation in which career ambition and intellectual ambition are mutually exclusive. But there was also a hopeful side to this conversation. When I asked if perhaps there were other privileged practitioners in the field who also found the situation lamentable and who if the institutional setup, meaning funding and promotion procedures, were changed, might have a go at writing “serious papers”, “Oh yes, loads!” replied Doctor X.