Function of Stat Academia

Imagine an academic arguing:

Some say academics are lost in their “ivory tower” trying to impress each other and so aren’t very useful to the wider world.  But this is ridiculous.  Every academic paper cites previous papers the author found useful in writing this paper, and academics are very eager to be cited.  The most cited papers are the most celebrated papers.  So of course academics try to be useful.  If huge areas of academia seem pretty useless that is just because those academics just happen to be quite ignorant about to be useful – it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to be useful.

See the flaw in that argument?  Right – being useful to other academics in trying to impress each other isn’t at all the same as being useful to the wider world.  Now consider a recent exchange between Seth Roberts and Andrew Gelman (with whom I discussed this in July.)  Seth:

Graphs and transformations are low-status. They are low-status because graphs are common and transformations are easy.  Anyone can make a graph or transform their data. I believe they were neglected for that reason.  To show their high status, statistics professors focused their research and teaching on more difficult and esoteric stuff — like complicated regression.  That the new stuff wasn’t terribly useful (compared to graphs and transformations) mattered little.  Like all academics — like everyone — they cared enormously about showing high status.  It was far more important to be impressive than to be useful.

Andrew:

This is, in my experience, ridiculous. Seth … says that useful statistical research work is generally low status. No, no, no, no! It’s hard to be useful! Just about everybody in statistics tries to do work that is useful.

OK, I know what Seth is talking about. I used to teach at Berkeley (as did Seth), and indeed the statistics department back then was chock-full of high-status professors (the department was generally considered #1 or #2 in the world) who did little if anything useful in applied statistics. But they were trying to be useful! They were just so clueless that they didn’t know better. … It’s certainly true that they didn’t appreciate graphical methods or the challenges of getting down and dirty with data. (They might have dismissed such work as being insufficiently general and enduring.) …

And they were also dismissive of applied research areas such as survey research that are fascinating and important but did not happen to be “hot” at the time. This is consistent with Seth’s hypothesis of status-seeking, but I’m inclined to give the more charitable interpretation that my Berkeley colleagues wanted to work on what they viewed as the most important and challenging problems. …

It’s much easier to run a plausible regression or Anova than to make a clear and informative graph.  I’ve published thousands of graphs but created tens of thousands more that didn’t make the cut.

Seth:

In every department they look down on being useful. In some more than others, sure, and it isn’t constant over time, sure, but the general preference for useless over useful is blindingly clear. This is why academia is called “ivory tower”. …. So to me you seem to be arguing that stat professors are somehow different than all other professors.

Andrew:

I’m not suggesting that professors are different from everybody else … Whether or not status-seeking is the universal behavioral solvent you seem to feel it is, I don’t think it explains much. It seems to serve for you the same tautological purpose that for others is served by explanations such as “self-interest” or “unconscious drives.” Basically, if someone does something you don’t like, you’re attributing it to status-seeking. In my experience in statistics departments, it is applied work, not theoretical work, that has the highest status. Not always, and not everywhere, but most places.

But the “status” theory that academics are mainly trying to be credentialed as impressive often gives quite different predictions than the theory that academics are mainly trying to be useful to the wider world.  And Andrew seems to accept this when he talks about academics focusing on what seems “hot” rather than important – this data seems less likely if academics were mainly trying to be useful to a wider world.

Also, this status theory suggests not so much that academics try to do things that are hard, but that they try to do things that can be reliably credentialed as hard.  Yes it might be hard to make a good graph, but can journal referees reliably evaluate that difficulty, or is that mostly a subjective judgment?  The status theory expects graph-only stat papers only if referees have a reliable way to evaluate their difficulty, while the useful-to-society theory predicts frequent publication of insightful graph-only papers even when it is hard to objectively evaluate their difficulty.   So what does our data say – can you really get published in a top stat journal with an article containing only hard-to-make but also hard-to-evaluate graphs?

Rather than waive his hands pretending impressing-each-other theories of academia make no different predictions than useful-to-society theories, Andrew would do better to confront these theories with our actual data.

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