Some problems with academia


Leandro Castelluccio

I remember once having read a reflection by Carl Sagan about the level of innovation and modern changes. He was referring to the difference he perceived between the past and today, not denying modern advances but alluding to the increasingly small number of prominent figures, in the sense of figures that we could classify as historical, surprisingly absent now taking into account the increase in world population.

In the past, the number of people was lower, however, the number of prominent figures with significant, and substantial contributions to the sciences can be seen as greater in relation to the population. How likely, for example, is to find ourselves today in American politics with figures such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Paine or Abraham Lincoln?

In the past, a handful of people promoted very significant changes in different areas of science, including politics, economics, physics, philosophy in general, biology, psychology, etc., but today these characters seem to be scarce, what is behind this?

In 1971 John Rawls published his most influential work: “A Theory of Justice”. A character, who published only a small handful of articles in his life, and only 3 main books, including “A Theory of Justice”, is someone who moves away from the stereotype of current academics in this sense of quality over quantity. Within the scope of philosophy we also have the example of an influential author for me, as was Ludwig Wittgenstein, who has only two main works, one of which was published just after his death. Also, his first work was published right about when he was almost 30 years old, a time at which all the people in the academy seem to be under pressure to have a doctorate and have published dozens of influential articles. Or think of the work of Albert Einstein, who in 1905 published 4 important articles that would change, along with his later work of general relativity, our understanding physics until then. Also for him, there were no dozens of articles or a long history of previous academic activity.

So a difference that usually seems to exist between now and then is the significance of a large growing portion of scientific or academic articles in general, in terms of relevance and contribution to science. It is usual to find many extremely specific articles, with very vague or little impact results, or with results almost irrelevant for science in general, articles where effects are found for very specific or particular things, where except for a handful of interested people, few find utility or meaning. Perhaps we could catalog this as a triumph of quantity over quality. I would like to find an article or work that radically changes our understanding of cognition, intelligence, consciousness, physics, morals or politics, for example. It seems that every time more academics and authors are interested in publishing for the sake of publishing, having many articles in their collection but of little relevance or impact for science. In turn, the repetitiveness of the research lines and the articles that arise from these is very large, in the sense that it is usual to find people who begin to research on topics already investigated or currently under investigation in many parts of the world at the same time, which makes it difficult to generate distinctive works, which differ from what others are already doing.

In connection with this, it seems that there is an increasing emphasis on the empirical versus the theoretical, that is, it seems preferable to carry out an experiment and gather some statistically significant data, than to write a theoretical article generating models to explain such results. In this sense, authors with a more theoretical component of thought, such as a theoretical physicist, seem to be less and less valued, and this is to the detriment of science in general. Similarly, whoever publishes a book instead of an article seems to have less weight in the academic field, since there is greater pressure to publish articles, specifically articles related to empirical investigations. But the empirical does not work disconnected from the theory, and while many of these articles put into play theoretical aspects, there seems to be little emphasis or work in generating models of this type, and the work put into the theory leaves much to be desired. Science and academia cannot advance without abstract thinkers, of a more theoretical nature, and nowadays this class of people is forced to develop another intellectual work, more practical, far from its type, where its true potential lies. This is so as to the point of having theoretical model undervalued in the face of empirical research of little or no impact, but empirical research in the end.

In a world with more and more people publishing works and researching, I think we should re-consolidate the theory with the empirical, and value more the quality over quantity, and perhaps put aside the pressure of publishing for the sake of it, which is what the academic structures demand (and the advance of science is ignored), in order to be able to truly innovate and be creative, and to once again push in leaps and bounds the advance of the sciences.

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