About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Much ado about nothing

During the past couple of weeks I attended two seminars on the Stony Brook University campus, one in science, the other in philosophy (no, I won't say who the authors were). They were by all means standard talks about technical issues in either field, just like many that are offered on campuses worldwide. Thinking back to both events I was struck by the fact that – for very different reasons – they were examples of academic irrelevance.

Before I go on, I should remind readers of this blog that I am both a scientist and a philosopher, so I most certainly am not going to make an argument that either discipline is irrelevant tout court, or that we should close down universities and tailor higher education to the needs of big business, and so on. Indeed, at their best, science and philosophy (together with the fine arts) are what makes our life better: science improves our understanding of the world as it is (as opposed to as we would wish it to be), and affords us an incredible (if imperfect) degree of control over it. Philosophy helps us develop our critical thinking skills, and provides us with non-religious (i.e., non-nonsensical) answers to questions of existence and ethics. (The fine arts, of course, add to our aesthetic appreciation of life and to our understanding of the human condition.)

Nonetheless, it occasionally pays to question what's going on inside one's own field, especially from the vantage point of years of experience practicing it. The joke about scientists and philosophers is that the former know everything about nothing (meaning that they are hyper-specialists), while the latter know nothing about everything (being hyper-generalists). Actually, academic philosophy in that sense has been moving toward the science model, with technical talks and publications that are so specialized and esoteric that they have absolutely nothing to envy to the most abstruse science talk or paper.

But that's a necessary consequence of doing cutting edge scholarship in fields that have existed for four hundred years (in the case of science) or more than two millennia (in the case of philosophy). It's just not that easy to come up with new broad ideas or discoveries equivalent to those of Plato and Galileo.

Nonetheless, many science or philosophy talks and papers strike me as largely irrelevant for another reason: they are either concerned with minutiae that are largely mute as to the big questions (science), or they belabor trivial, or even downright silly, ideas while employing abstruse language, resulting in, well, a lot of fluff (philosophy).

It is fascinating to see how many scientists can spend an entire career studying the intricacies of a single molecule, or the sexual behavior of a single species of insect, and truly be convinced that what they are doing is important in any meaningful sense of the word. Most of it is actually irrelevant, not just to the world at large, but even to scientific progress. Most scientists would reply in their defense that that's the way “basic” research works, that in the end it could very well be that studying the mating habits of, say, fruit flies will lead to a cure for cancer. But they don't really believe that (and if they do, they are delusional). Yes, there are occasional examples of fascinating connections of that sort, but it is hard to see how people can actually justify their entire professional existence based on those serendipitous exceptions. Now, there wouldn't be anything wrong in admitting that academic scientists (and philosophers, but back to them in a moment) are lucky enough to be paid to teach the next generation, while being allowed to have fun attempting to solve whatever little puzzle happens to stimulate their curiosity. It's an honest way of making a living, more meaningful than selling Hummers or psychic predictions, and far less dangerous to society than producing cigarettes or automatic weapons. But at least one ought to have the decency of not taking oneself too seriously, which instead is an endemic disease among academics.

Back to the philosophers. The problem there is that a lot (tough, as in science, not everything, of course!) of what passes for scholarship is either sophisticated (and obscure) packaging of fairly obvious ideas (it really doesn't take a PhD in philosophy today to realize that women are still at a disadvantage in Western societies, and that it would be only decent for the rest of us to do something about it), or downright nonsense (as in attempts to argue that mystical experiences ought to be taken at face value because they are a “form of reality” as valid as the one biologists or engineers deal with). Last time I heard one of these talks I wanted to scream “nonsense on stilts,” Jeremy Bentham's favorite phrase to brand stuff that sounds sophisticated and interesting, but is in fact, well, nonsense.

So, what are we to do? The academic culture will not change from within, and it is already seriously threatened from without – just consider the public assaults on the teaching of evolution in the United States, or the spate of closing of philosophy departments in the UK because they are not “economically viable” (as if the point of universities were to sell cars, or make money for shareholders). But it would be helpful if academics were to take a harder look at what they do and why. The foremost duty of a university faculty is to society at large, which after all pays his salary and research grants. This means high quality teaching (which ain't exactly a high priority when it comes to tenure decisions), and public outreach, i.e. getting regularly outside of the Ivory Tower and talk to people, engage in the social discourse through blogs, panel discussions, op-ed pieces, books, and what have you. If, after all of this is adequately taken care of, there is some time to indulge in one's favorite little puzzle (or even a bit of nonsense), by all means, let's indulge. But please let's not get the world exactly upside down and go home at night convinced that much of our scholarship is actually of any intrinsic value, or interest, to anybody. George Bernard Shaw once said that “A fool's brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” C'mon, colleagues, let's demonstrate to Mr. Shaw that we can do better than that.


  1. So, you would be pleased if these scientists and philosophers started their talks out with:

    "I doubt this will be of any interest to you, or anyone other than a few of my colleagues, but it fascinates me. Thanks for coming!"

  2. To "me": all kidding about what MP does or does not want aside, what you suggest isn't too far from the truth, anyway. I've completely lost track of the number of mind-numbingly boring colloquia that I've attended, both pre- and post-doctorate, and only extremely rarely were the speakers anything less than ecstatic (or at least enthusiastic) about their work. Academia is, for the most part, an excercise in applied hope: we pay people to follow research interests, but only if they go down an untraveled path, and we hope that--out of the countless new papers, dissertations, studies, and reports that result--there might be one, two, or even a few useful notions. But we're fooling ourselves if we really believe that the bulk of that work is really interesting to a wider audience, much less useful.

  3. There is nothing more attractive and inspiring on related matters, be it science, philosophy or religion, than someone who LOVES what they do and does it with the most intentional of convictions. So I'd have to agree with 9/10s of your commentary, M. I just have no idea where on the earth you think women are better off than in the western world.

    In the soviet countries, women are often well educated and usually work, but the rates of alcoholism (especially among men folk) are very high.

    Asian countries? Maybe, depending on a few variables. But on the matter of variables, just about the same is true here. Except that we have “reproductive rights”, many areas of Asia do not.

    Possibly some of the Scandinavian countries? There again, I think one gains certain things in one regard in those people groups, and loses other freedoms. (you know, inside of socialism it's at least equal opportunity slavery for everyone :)



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