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The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

Academic Terror: “Further Research Can Be Done”

Academic Terror: “Further Research Can Be Done”

A fish.

A fish.

An interesting insight into a profession can sometimes be found in how they compliment each other. Lawyers will frequently say of an opponent, “He/she is a straight shooter.” Among lawyers, you can represent slimeballs or moral paragons, your fellows will still compliment you if you, “don’t hide the ball.”

Journalists, to the horror of decent people everywhere, often compliment their fellows by saying, “He/she is well-sourced.” Best case scenario, this means that the phrase “a source close to the discussion” means, roughly, that the source could be telling the truth.  In practice, it means that Maggie Haberman gets the scoop when something bad happens to Jared Kushner. Do you care whether you learn about his security clearance on February 28th in the New York Times rather than on March 1st in USA Today? Maybe. So you buy the Times.  Does it matter for democracy? Of course not.

As I type, Robert Mueller is conducting a leak proof investigation of the President. No one is “well sourced” on that subject. There are zero people “with knowledge of the investigation.” Is that bad? No. It’s fantastic. Like virtually everything of any interest to a citizen of a democracy, when there is news about the Mueller investigation it will happen in public. The important news will be announced by government actors or written in government briefs filed in government courts. The role of the media will be to turn on the cameras to record the words government actors release or file.

Academics, when they are excited about what a fellow has published frequently say, “This paper opens up many new areas of research.”  

For example, when one particle physicist publishes a paper, the NYT finds another particle physicist to rate the importance. A zero rating is “this paper has significant limitations and may not be applicable beyond its own terms.” A three out of five is “this paper significantly advances what we know about the subject.” And a five out of five sounds like, “If correct, this paper opens up vast new areas of research.”

But what is research? What does that word mean? To an innocent bystander, “research” simply means a paper published in an academic journal. On a physical level, it’s research if it’s published and if it’s published it’s research. “Publish or perish” means, in short, that the job of an academic is to make research the way a woodworker makes cabinets. Is it morally good that a cabinet maker now has lots of new markets to sell cabinets to? No. No one cares except cabinet makers.

But academics would never do that, would they? Obviously, individual academics publish not very interesting stuff all the time for the sake of their jobs. But academics wouldn’t deliberately create an entire area of research strictly for the purpose of having a subject to write about, would they?

No. I doubt it. But... 

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas with lots of scholarship, lots of research, and lots of academics engaged in making more research, that are, nonetheless, total bullshit. We humans can rationalize anything, especially what we get paid for.   

Stanley Fish writing at Balkinization on “The Interpretive Poverty Of Data”:

Lee and Phillips then say, in a truly terrifying statement, that “further research could be done,” for, “the value of a corpus is the ability to slice and dice context to get to the most relevant semantic context.” I would ask relevant to what? As far as I can tell, there is no semantic context in their analysis -- all there is is the tabulation of frequencies -- and no way of getting from their analysis to a semantic context.

The entire article is a good read. The subject is “a paper co-written by Justice Thomas R. Lee and James Phillips, Data Driven Originalism,” an attempt to add big data and math to a concept that was intellectually bankrupt even before these two got involved: Originalist interpretation of the US Constitution. Fish’s response spells out in no uncertain terms that there most definitely are academics engaged in producing ever more “research” that is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing. This particular corner of meaningless scholarship is built on the faulty idea that there is such a thing as text qua text sans human intention, i.e., language outside a particular language game.

This is my favorite paragraph: 

Lee and Phillips’s first example is the phrase “domestic violence” as it appears in Article IV of the Constitution where the government is assigned the task and duty of protecting the republic from foreign invasion and “domestic violence.” The corpus linguistics question is how do you know the “domestic violence” here means violence committed by militia men like Timothy McVeigh rather than the violence committed by one spouse or partner against the other. The obvious answer is that anyone who has gone beyond the sixth grade knows that; but that answer will not be accepted by corpus linguists because it does not have any statistical or numerical backup. So, Lee and Phillips proceed to their data mining operation and, after a lot of work, say triumphantly that their method has “confirmed the intuition” that they and we had in the first place. “Our data show that domestic violence today is almost always used in reference to an assault on a member of a person’s household, but was a reference to an insurrection or rebellion in the late 18th century.” Shades of saying that Swift’s preference for connective transitions over determiners means that he is an author who likes transitions.

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