Academia’s Function

Art fans often say art makes people more creative and peaceful, and sport fans often say sport makes people healthier and better at teamwork.  Some claim that these idealistic reasons are not only why art and sport should be subsidized, but why in fact donors actually give to art and sport charities.  I find it far more plausible that donors prefer to affiliate with other donors and with prestigious artists and athletes, and that citizens subsidize such things to make themselves look good as a group. The idea that cities build statues to mainly promote world peace and creativity, or that nations subsidize Olympic teams mainly to promote teamwork and exercise, seem a bit hard to swallow.

In a post titled “Another reason I’m glad I’m not an economist” Andrew Gelman took issue with my saying “academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive”:

Granted, Robin is far from a typical economist. Nonetheless, that he would write such an extreme statement without even feeling the need to justify it (and, no, I don’t think it’s true, at least not in the “academia” that I know about) . . . that I see as a product of being in an economics department.

Now I have posted many times here on my view that academia functions mainly to signal, much like art and sport. (See here here here here here here here here here.).  But for Andrew’s sake, let’s lay out the argument more systematically.

Academics get support from students, foundations, governments, media, and consulting clients.  Yes academics mainly publish papers, books, lectures, etc.; the question is why academics are paid to do this. The standard idealistic answer is that academics know useful and important things, things which students want to learn, media want to report, consulting clients want to apply, and which foundations and governments want to promote the creation and spread of, for the good of the everyone.

Andrew probably accepts this story largely at face value; after all he says voters vote out of altruistic concerns for their fellow citizens and the world. And when asked directly, “What do the customers who are paying your salary get from you?,” he answered, “They learn how to fit multilevel models.” But not only are these idealistic theories pretty implausible from an evolutionary point of view, they also have detailed problems.  Consider:

  • College students prefer to be taught by profs who research, and hence ignore students more, yet students have little idea what their profs research.  Students know and care a lot about their school’s general prestige, but know and care little about the research done there. There is relatively little relation between what profs teach, what profs research, and what students do after they graduate.
  • Patrons of research similarly pay lots more attention the prestige of a researcher and his institution than to how much his research could plausibly benefit the world or uncover important deep truths.  Prestige is set primarily by academic journals, who attend much more to whether a particular work was difficult and impressive while following standard methods than to its beneficial impact or deep insight.
  • Citizens prefer to fund their nations to maintain impressive researchers, but have little idea what those researchers do.  Citizens would rather that other nations did less research, so their nation can excel by comparison, and their funding preferences have little to do with the size of their nation relative to the world, or to the practical relevance of research topics.  In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.
  • Reporters seeking quotes care primarily about the prestige of a researcher and his institution, requiring only the loosest connection between his research specialty and the topic at hand.  Engaging prestigious academics can become respected pundits on topics far from their research areas.  Clients seeking consulting care a lot more about the prestige of the consultant than what he actually says.  Corporation often fund basic research that gains them little other than connection with prestigious researchers.

Yes one might save the idealistic theory via various ad hoc assumptions, such as that people are ignorant in various specific ways and use prestige only as a heuristic to achieve their altruistic ends.  But it seems far simpler to me to just postulate that people care primarily about affiliating with others who have been certified as prestigious.

Andrew may disagree with me on where the weight of evidence lies, but why would that make him “glad I’m not an economist”?  It appears he thinks the theory I’ve outlined is not only wrong, but also distasteful.  He apparently thinks that having to attend to the details of social phenomena consistently forces social scientists to accept distasteful views on many social topics.  On that, he and I can agree.

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