September 28, 2004

Trickle-Down Academia

There's been a question niggling at the back of my mind for some time now, but I've been reluctant to face it head on due to its unpleasant association with post-modern literary theory and the attendant scars to my psyche, but after perusing my blogroll this morning, I have to ask:

When did it become acceptable to just make shit up and pass it off as objective fact in the service of some "higher truth?"

I first confronted this issue a couple of years ago, when the Bellesiles scandal hit. He made stuff up about the history of gun ownership in America in order to serve his "higher truth," which was essentially "Guns are evil and I'll prove it by showing that we didn't really need them to tame the frontier, feed ourselves or assert our independence--pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Hey! You kids! Cut that out!" Bellesiles got burned for that, albeit not as burned as he should have been due to the reluctance of others in his profession to expose what I believe (based on my own academic experience) is a fairly widespread practice: "stretching" and "interpreting" reality in order to make it fit a foregone conclusion, to gain brownie points with peers and superiors of a certain political stripe, and to thus assure your success in the profession. Notice the awards and accolades Bellesiles had garnered before the inconvenient truth came out.

In retrospect, Bellesiles was the dead canary in the mine, the warning that our academic surroundings are not perhaps as healthy as we'd like them to be. It's still pretty easy for us to dismiss discredited academics; after all, they're "out of touch" and "stuck in that ivory tower" and don't really affect the rest of us out here in the real world, right? Wrong. You can debate the efficacy of trickle-down economics all you want, but I'm here to tell you that "trickle-down academia" is alive and well and can have a rather pernicious influence on society when the ideas that are trickling down are bankrupt. Bellesiles' increasingly weak defenses of his "research" and conclusions boiled down to "Well, it should be true, anyway," and doesn't that have an interesting resonance with what's going on in some newsrooms nowadays?

I'm not saying that there's some sort of grand conspiracy out there to coerce the benighted masses into proper Groupthink, but I am saying that laziness and partisanship in academia have leaked into society at large, and that it is not a good thing. I learned early on in grad school that it is much, much easier to approach a text with a foregone (politically popular) conclusion and then pull quotes slightly out of context and paper them over with the blatherings of some hip theorist that incidentally is a favorite of the professor I'm writing for than it is to pursue an independent line of thought or to, God forbid, attempt to get to the "truth" of something. The former gets you A's and recommendations. The latter gets you dismissed as hopelessly unsophisticated. Plus, it's hard, and it may force you to revise your worldview, and well, that's just uncomfortable! Eventually, the pattern--create conclusion, remake reality accordingly--gets so ingrained that you don't realize you're doing it, or that it might be morally suspect, and if someone points out that you're playing a bit fast and loose with the facts, you can come back with, "but I'm interested in exploring the meta-narrative" or some such crap which basically boils down to, "Well, it should be true, anyway."

Enter Dan Rather, who has the distinction of being by far the biggest celebrity to use the "Well, it should be true, anyway" defense with the infamous "Fake but True" meme that swept newsrooms across the country. The meta-narrative being explored here seems to be that the document forger had the Amazing Kreskin's ability to divine the innermost thoughts of a man who is conveniently dead, if not an entry-level secretary's knowlege of Word. And now it's not just some grad student peon taking indecent but ultimately meaningless liberties with the text of Absalom, Absalom, it's the figurehead of an organization which purports to give the nation "the facts." Not "the facts that we could gerrymander to point to the larger truth as we see it through a particular political filter," but The Facts.

The amount of damage this does to our ability to believe anything anymore is simply amazing. I can no longer read, watch, or listen to anything without playing the "what's their angle" meta-narrative analyst in my head. There follows the "can I trust this person and their facts" question, and the answer which increasingly is "no." So where do I go from here? I am not optimistic about Big Media's or Academia's abilities to heal themselves, to shake off the "well, it should be true" fog and get back to staring objective reality in the eye, unless it turns out that there's a "trickle-up" process of honesty, objectivity and fact-checking out there somewhere.

NOTE: the posts that prompted this one are not necessarily directly related, but are still good reading:

and Here

Posted by Big Arm Woman at September 28, 2004 09:44 AM

It's dot-connection. You can infer things that are true because they connect dots. Then the dots are connected because of things that are true.

The NYTimes is an example of fine dot-connection humor.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at September 28, 2004 10:07 AM

See also this TCS post:

..and you don't have to believe in conspiracy theories to believe that academia influences the broader culture. There's an old Royal Navy saying: "Today's wardroom joint (roast beef) is tomorrow's lower-deck stew," meaning that what is being discussed today among the officers will be discussed tomorrow among the crew.

Posted by: David Foster at September 28, 2004 01:07 PM

It's not just academia and the media pulling these stunts. The administration is, too, in fields ranging from hard science (Manhattan health hazards post 9/11) to sociology ("Iraqis really love us").

And I always thought we conservatives were the ones who opposed postmodernism and believed in such things as objectively verifiable facts ....

Posted by: Lex at September 28, 2004 01:59 PM

I almost sprained my neck nodding my head while reading your post. I have the same feeling when hearing "news" of any sort these days.

Maybe wonks of all stripes would benefit from the method I developed of writing last-minute research papers when I was an undergrad. I'd go to the library with a large bag and check out as many texts as I could get related to my topic, take the books home and scan them furiously, and follow whichever came first: either I'd find material to support my thesis; or I'd find other material in common between the texts, change my thesis to reflect this information, and go with that.

It's not very intellectually honest, but hey, at least it came out of the information at hand.

Posted by: Omar at September 28, 2004 04:15 PM

Oh, DARN! I posted this in the wrong thread, the one about the kiddie artist. Sorry. Maybe you can delete it from there?

Here goes:

I agree with everything you say about the infuriating nature of intellectual dishonesty.

Would you agree that it might not have come along recently? I am 48 -- I'm guessing somewhere between 15 and 20 years older than you -- and I assure you that it's-true-because-it-SHOULD-be-true is nothing new. It also is not restricted to one political or academic approach.

Even in the sciences, while scientific method assures certain standards of repeatability and verifiability, interpretation of those results, by the same scientists performing the experiments, can vary widely.

I'm sorry to say, the human capacity for mental laziness (at best) to willful deception (at worst) was not invented by the people who are currently on the academic landscape!

Final thought: If you'd like a blast from the past and have a few hours to expose yourself to still more irritation, go to the stacks of your local library and look up the back issues of, say, "The Nation," "Dissent," and their conservative equivalents during the Vietnam years. Lousy logic and carefully selected evidence abounded on all sides then, too. With, of course, attendant moral posturing, again, on all sides.



Posted by: Nancy2784 at September 29, 2004 09:39 AM

Nancy -

Deleted the post from the art thread.

And also, I am not surprised. Plus, sigh.

Although maybe the internet will help clear a lot of this up--what with the instantaneous availability of the other p.o.v.

That's me, cockeyed optimist!

Posted by: BAW at September 29, 2004 10:16 AM