Monday, June 17, 2013

Academia and Colloquia

Academics are forever giving presentations at conferences or at one university or another. It’s common enough that departments devote significant percentages of faculty salary to travel budgets. Yet these presentations at conferences and colloquia are almost uniformly, let’s say, crappy. This presents a puzzle: why do people spend so much time to present papers of dubious merit to so many different audiences, almost no members of which have the slightest knowledge of the subject of the presentation? My guess is that this activity has to do with making connections with other philosophers who can advance one’s career. For now, let me establish the uniformly low quality of these presentations from a sampling of my previous semester. As an aside, I would like to note that, while I’ve sometimes thought that philosophers are people who have never come within a mile of empirical research, this semester has shown me that this is not always the case. Sometimes the problem is that they should never be allowed near it either.

This past semester I attended the following lectures. I won’t identify the speakers because I don’t want to embarrass them, but also because the point is that these problems with the presentations are completely commonplace and the speakers don’t really deserve any special criticism for the flaws in their presentations. That is, while I am going to be callous and cruel in the following comments, I don’t think the people doing these presentations were any worse than the thousands of others who do them throughout academia.

One presentation was on language and representation that attempted to find the roots of representation, and hence misrepresentation, in some simpler (non-mental) ability that might then partially explain the variety of (mental) representational abilities humans have. Her idea was that (non-human) animal signals are predictions of their behavior that evolved or developed in order to influence the behavior of other animals. For example, a dog Fido growls at another dog Spot not to tell Spot that Spot should stay away from Fido’s bone (lest Fido bite him), but Fido’s growl simply predicted that Fido would bite Spot if Spot tried to take the bone. Thus, Spot could respond (more or less mechanically) to a predictive signal (as a kind of natural sign, in Grice’s terms) rather than as a complex representational state (e.g. Fido knows that Spot wants the bone; Fido wants to prevent Spot from taking the bone; Fido warns Spot not to try to take the bone, etc.). The speaker then tried to locate a point in evolutionary development where this ability, without more complex representational abilities, occurs. The idea was that if one could find this kind of predictive but not representational ability in a non-human animal, she would be able to then build up to true representation in humans. Here is where she ran afoul of the empirical evidence. She claimed that non-primates had this ability but not the more complex ability to deceive or misrepresent.

Unfortunately, the speaker had apparently never met a dog. If she knew any dogs, or did any research in comparative ethology, she would have known that dogs bluff. Dogs will growl at each other to warn each away from something even if they do not follow through with an attack. (This is so obvious that if you have two dogs, you’ll see it every few days in a dispute over a toy or treat. Dogs also deceive and hide things from other dogs.) I’m fairly sure there’s lots of research on this, and on deception in non-primates. The ‘prediction, not representation’ paradigm might ultimately work, but to establish it, one would need to find a clear case of one without the other and show how the less complex ability could lead naturally to the more complex by means of natural selection. My point is that, while there may be some merit to her ideas, the presentation was rather marred by a lack of basic research on an important empirical issue.

A second presentation was a libertarian on political philosophy. He had discovered empirical research on ignorance and apathy in voters and the correlation between these and race and socio-economic status. His conclusion: It’s a good thing most of these people don’t vote; we should probably do what we can to make them less likely to vote and definitely not increase their likelihood of voting. Of course being poor, female, or a minority decreases the chances one will know or care about politics and elections. So, the conclusion was that we should not go out of our way to include the disaffected non-voters into the system since that would result in less informed electorate overall. It takes an almost deliberate perversity to look at a system in which certain groups are systematically excluded or underrepresented in the political process, notice that they have little knowledge of this process and mostly don’t care about the outcomes (because no one in the political arena much represents their interests), and then, instead of concluding that we should give them something worth voting for (or some hope that their votes will matter to our politics), concluding that we are better off if they don’t vote.

The speaker had got hold of political science research that, as far as I could tell from his examples, showed that, people were largely wrong about some given bit of esoteric political information (e.g. George W. Bush supported X policy to help the poor -- who would have thought? Can you name the current Speaker of the House of Representatives? Is it Elmo or Donald Trump?). Then he concluded that the people were generally uninformed (and, in particular, that their lack of information correlated with socio-economic class, race, and gender). So what? These kinds of academic studies are a blight on the academic landscape; they take people’s ignorance of something esoteric and suggest it implies major ignorance of important cultural, social, or economic issues. In fact, given the speaker’s ‘evidence’, it was amazing that poor, black, women managed to vote at nearly 100% for the black guy for president. One would have thought they would vote for Romney thinking that Romney was a Kenyan socialist. It’s clear that ignorance of some individual piece of legislation or office holder is basically meaningless in representing the general knowledge of the electorate. Of the two major parties, which supports economic policies that are slightly less inimical to the interests of the poor and working class? Everyone knows the answer to this. The studies that pretend to show different are basically just wankery. Leaving that aside, even taken on its own terms the reasoning was crazy: if people don’t know or don’t care about their government and politicians, the solution is to give them reason to care and information and the ability to get more information about them. The solution is not to keep them out (or de facto exclude them by taking no positive action to encourage them) of the political process altogether. And don’t tell me that the speaker was just being realistic about an imperfect electorate: the dude’s actual proposed solution was to get rid of the electoral college and randomly select some few thousand voters every 2 years to do all the voting for us. Yeah, that’s going to happen.

The best part was when a student asked, without apparent irony, whether we should institute some kind of literacy test for voters to make sure only the right ones were allowed to vote. The speaker was very receptive to the idea. I’m sure there’s no historical precedent for this idea, nor any way that it might go wrong.

In a third presentation, we were treated to another libertarian. This time the talk was about harming the dead. He did not mean blowing away zombies but doing things that harm people who no longer exist. This argument comes from Epicurus who said that “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” The basic idea from Epicurus is that we cannot be harmed by being dead because there is no subject to be harmed (or we cannot experience the harm, which I will skip because it’s less convincing to me). So, is there a possible subject of the harm of death? Maybe the person before his/her death (the ante- or pre-mortem person), not the post-mortem (nonexistent) person, is the one harmed (apparently this response is the standard solution to the problem given by Jeffrey Rosenberg). In fact, our speaker mentioned this interpretation and then, strangely, never even addressed that response to Epicurus’s argument. It’s the old, “Mention a problem for my theory up front and then conveniently forget to solve it,” gambit. (You might think it’s crazy to mention the problem if you are only going to ignore it, but philosophers like to know that you understand the problems with the position or argument you are defending. They mostly don’t really expect genuine solutions.)

Instead he talked about the particular harm of breaking promises to the dead. He focused on traditional theories of why breaking promises is wrong and then tried to show that the theories could not give a reason why breaking a promise to the dead is wrong. This is a nutty strategy since it assumes that at least one of these theories of promise-breaking is correct, and we all know that we’ve got basically no good philosophical theories of anything. Thus, the fact that none of the theories applies appropriately to the dead does not prove that the dead cannot be harmed by a broken promise. It might just mean that our theories of promise-breaking are, all of them, wrong. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of the whole strategy, even if it made sense, the speaker’s arguments all failed because he never addressed the aforementioned claim that the ante-mortem person is the subject of harm. And, because the speaker never even addressed the most common explanation for how there is a subject of harm, the speaker failed even on his own terms. I’ve got just one more thing about the weirdness of his conclusion.

Weirdly, the speaker thought we should keep promises to the dead despite the fact that they are not harmed by our promise-breaking. The only reason, on his view, we should keep our promises is because of the harm such disrespect would cause to living people since living people care about our current practices of promising and respecting the wishes of the deceased. Why do people care about whether people will keep promises to us after we are dead? If so, then we find this harmful when we are alive because we think breaking promises to us after we are dead would harm us. And, of course, the Epicurean has just argued that this belief is irrational. But, if that’s the reason people are upset about promise-breaking to the dead, then the Epicurean should not respect these irrational wishes but should view this as another opportunity for education (as Epicurus did in his general argument that death is not harmful). The point of Epicurus’ argument is revisionist; he wants to change people’s attitude toward death, so the Epicurean should want to adjust people’s attitude towards keeping promises to the dead as well. Why does the Epicurean try to change people’s attitudes about the harm of death but not try to change the, equally irrational on their view, attitude towards promise-keeping to the dead? Living people will be very upset if we break promises to the dead and won’t trust us to keep our word to them (the currently living) when they are dead. But our speaker never thought to ask: Why would these people be upset at us for breaking our word to the dead if, in fact, no one is harmed when we break our word to them? The obvious fact is that people are upset about others breaking promises to them when they are dead is because they think they will be harmed if promises made to them are broken. It makes no sense to care about their irrational beliefs about promises to the dead if you do not also care about their irrational beliefs about posthumous harms in the first place. The right Epicurean strategy is to teach us not to worry about breaking promises to the dead, not to cater to their irrationality (assuming, as the Epicurean does, that it is irrational).

You might as well shout at people in Church that their prayer is useless because God does not exist (because Epicureans want to change people’s minds) and then refuse to take the Lord’s name in vain because it might upset people. The two beliefs come as a piece: if it’s useless to pray, then it’s not bad to take the Lord’s name in vain.

These lectures were not in any way unrepresentative of those given as long as I have been around philosophy and philosophy departments. And despite their obvious flaws, these talks weren’t completely useless. Attendees learn a little bit about some otherwise unfamiliar areas of philosophy. Presenters talk about their research with a receptive audience, and presumably we all come away better informed with more research ideas bubbling away in the seething cauldrons of our creative unconscious. The author comes away with some valuable criticism from a small group of mostly uninformed semi-experts. The visiting lecturer gets a small payment (usually; some of these pay a lot, but some pay nothing at all) and a short vacation and a chance to talk to old friends. Maybe there’s a bit of socialization. The problem is not that they are useless but that the ratio of good ideas to time spent is very low for almost everyone. I would do better reading an article in my field (or an introduction to a different field) rather than listen to one of these lectures. The author would get better feedback sending the paper to a single interested expert.

So what justifies the time and effort of these lectures? The only purpose I can see that justifies the effort is networking and making connections. Academic philosophy operates largely according to (as a friend of mine called it) good old American know-who. Philosophers’ evaluations play a role in hiring and tenure decisions. To take just one example, big-time philosophers do not write generic letters of recommendation for graduate programs; they write a letter specifically to a friend (not necessarily even on the hiring committee) at the university where a student is applying. And their friends listen and respond in kind. The relationship is incestuous, with people knowing each other having more influence than do apparently objective factors. A much better student who happened not to know an influential philosopher would be less likely to gain acceptance than some worse students who do. It allows for implicit bias; people tend to prefer those who are like them, and so tend to give preference to relatively affluent white male students. Thus, the influence of networks of philosophers creates unfair and biased decisions about acceptance into graduate programs, and decisions involving hiring and tenure. The insidious part is that the people with influence do not see this as a problem; they think that the old-boys’-network is the best way to conduct business. They trust their own judgment about other philosophers and their work (more than they trust statistical or other evidence), and they don’t think they should lessen the influence of their own judgments. This situation cannot be changed by those who have little or no influence (by definition). The only way change can come is if people without influence, who see the inequities in the system, become influential (by their own merit, presumably) and change the culture from the top. But people who become successful within such a system are extremely unlikely to change that culture since it is the one they see (rightly or wrongly) as quite properly rewarding them. So, the waste of people’s time every few weeks is a small price to pay for the ability of philosophers to increase their influence and bring people within their network of influence.

I’m not offering a solution. I suppose we would be better off if academic colloquia were ended. Perhaps if our socialization came only at blind-reviewed conferences the role of networking could be reduced. But, alas, I’m in no position to effect that change. I suppose we all like an excuse to visit friends on someone else’s dime. And networking might help long-term research if philosophers who actually do work on the same questions meet. If there’s no other way to find people working on the same questions you are, then giving presentations might be a necessity. Still, to the extent that this practice supports the networks of personal influence, it is a mildly pernicious part of academia. It would be better if there were a way to do without it.

My apologies to anyone whom I have unfairly maligned in the above. I hope I understood all the papers presented and explained them fairly (even if too briefly).

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