Alas Shy Academics

Tyler Cowen:

I commonly meet … social scientists who will tell you about the implications of their latest research, yet if you ask them other questions they will respond in hushed tones of the most severe agnosticism. …  Yet I find … these same people will hold very definite political views and act on them in their private lives. … This is one of my pet peeves.  It is defensible to be truly agnostic.  It is also defensible to … have “all things considered” policy views on matters we have not studied closely.  It is not defensible to hold such views but, under the cloak of a not-really-meant agnosticism, refuse to put them on the social science table, so to speak. (I find that bloggers hardly ever suffer from this problem.)

I share Tyler’s peeve, because I just don’t see the point in being an academic who doesn’t aspire to be an intellectual – with coherent and informed opinions on many interesting and important topics.  Oh I see the status-seeking point in the abstract, most academics are that way, but I just can’t relate.

Outsiders assume that if academics spend all this time discussing all those obscure questions, surely there must be armies of them discussing the big important questions.  But in fact, most academics consider it presumptuous to speak there; such questions are reserved for very senior academics in their later “philosophical” years.  Which, alas, means they mostly get ignored.

It is a true pleasure to talk with people smart and careful enough to become successful academics, yet willing to engage many big questions.

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  • q

    is it a problem to be publicly wrong? because you are going to be wrong a lot, if you have a large number of opinions on many things, no matter how good you are.

  • Dagon

    This isn’t a problem just for academics. Most professionals require less rigor in their non-career beliefs and actions than in their job.

    I’d hope that those who strive for correctness in all areas are better at it professionally as well as in other aspects of life, but I don’t actually have much evidence for that. The truly successful seem batshit crazy on some topics.

  • Φ

    The truly successful seem batshit crazy on some topics.

    This is an astute observation. To give an example, consider Noam Chomsky, a brilliant man in his field of expertise (linguistics) who tries to trade on that reputation to make absurd left-wing political pronouncements.

    It should not surprise us that the vast majority of people, even academics, come to conclusions on the “big issues” for reasons having nothing to with a careful analysis of the facts and evidence. Indeed, most of the time, we first make emotional commitments as a function of our ingroup loyalties, and then go looking for “reasons” to justify those commitments.

    At some level, academics (other than Chomsky) understand this distinction, and they wisely do what you describe: separate their professional opinions from their personal ones.

  • Philo

    Suppose you were conversing with Tyler Cowen or Robin Hanson, and an issue came up that you hadn’t thought much about, but on which you had an opinion (lightly held). You might want to duck the issue, professing agnosticism, lest you be cross-examined and shown up as an ignorant fool. In some contexts, one wants to save face.

  • michael vassar

    Robin, don’t you think that some of your and Tyler’s disagreements in your blogging heads conversation amounted to him making just this sort of dodge?

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  • It was once said by a wise man: “People’s opinions are as different as their faces”.. Being an academic does not mean one should not express exactly what he thinks. This is what makes him who he is..

  • rvman

    Your average academic is facing several issues:

    1) She is the sort of person who comes to VERY considered conclusions and opinions after lots of thought and work. This is, after all, what academic research is.

    2) Intelligence and deep contemplation are central to an academic’s self identity. Arguing an issue, and losing because of a stupid arguement, would be a more central blow to self-identity than ducking the issue. IOW, ’tis better to remain silent, and be thought a fool, than to speak, and prove it.

    3) Academics are, heavily, introverts, and also tend toward visual forms of learning. (I.e. learn by read or write, not be speak or hear.)

    Writing allows folks to think through their opinions before posting, to craft and edit arguments. Spoken arguments on issues that are not central to one’s research would be like writing a first draft in a different subfield at three in the morning and sending it unedited for review. The result most likely would be rather mortifying by light of day. (Not that people don’t blog like that, but “shy” academics don’t.) So, duck a conversation on a topic, but not an editorial or blog post.

    I don’t see being an ‘intellectual’ as being predicated on being a wit. (That is, being predicated on an ability to reel off an opinion, process the return, and give intelligent and strong arguments in ‘real time’ on issues the intellectual knows, but hasn’t reviewed beforehand.)