If your bottom line as an academic is that the world is a complicated and uncertain place, then expect job replacement by a smart search engine

Case in point: A bad analogy between UK Olympic funding and UK science policy funding. Clearly the author hasn’t thought through the idea that in a neo-liberal political economy, targets make all the difference – and the Olympics provided those, whereas those who call for greater national science policy funding don’t. Science policy advocates merely talk about how far the UK’s science funding has fallen below its competitors, how many British scientists have emigrated, how low certain university science enrolments have become and how few science jobs there are. Not good news, to be sure, but not quite the issue that needs to be addressed.

Of course, the neo-liberals may be wrong to demand targets in the first place, though I find that hard to believe. Socialists were the great champions of targets, and no private investor dumps unrecoverable money into scientific projects for very long. Long-term private investment tends to be justified by deliverables that are largely by-products of the original plan. ‘Blue sky’ research advocates – and I include myself – need to provide an economic strategy that takes into account that today the cost of potentially failed/useless research is much higher than in, say, Faraday’s day, 150 years ago, from which economists tend to take the examples of success.

But then we hear the more general complaint that ‘the very idea’ of international comparisons is fraught with untold difficulties, at both a conceptual and an empirical level. At that point, you know the postmodernist has come to lunch.

One of the least attractive features of our postmodern condition is the tendency for otherwise well-educated academics to contradict every general statement not with a direct falsification but with a broad range of circumstantial evidence that in some combination may falsify the statement in question, depending on how it’s taken. In this respect, they mimic Google’s search engines that can be easily consulted with a modicum of web competence. As long as that competence is generally lacking, those academics remain secure in their jobs – but for how long?

There are two problems with the postmodern approach – however intellectually honest it may appear. (1) It turns the critic into a wild card who may be used by whomever stands to gain by casting doubt on the general statement in question. (2) It abandons the classical academic ideal of ‘judgement’, whereby someone steeped in learning resolves the various claims in question while remaining open to a reversal or his or her judgement in the future.

Tenure was originally designed to enable academics to exercise ‘judgement’ in the above sense, and thereby provide a role model for students (and the general public) of what it’s like to resolve contradictory testimonies in a rational fashion that can then be made a basis for further reflection and action. Max Weber, the great champion of this perspective, thought that its main threat came from dogmatists who refused to admit contradictions. Nowadays the threat comes from the other side, the professional sceptics.

Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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