Academia Health Journalism Politics Religion Science

On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria


What you should know before starting a doctorate…

A few days ago an interesting article on Graduate schools circulated around the web. The article suggested that Graduate school has many of the features of a cult and that some people staying on to undertake postgraduate studies almost needed to be deprogrammed until they understood that there was value in life outside the Academy. Here (just in case you don’t have the stamina to read a short pithy well-written article) are the first two paragraphs:

Several years ago, the professional career counselor Margaret Newhouse wrote an essay for The Chronicle called “Deprogramming From the Academic Cult.” Newhouse argued that graduate school in the humanities indoctrinates its students into believing that they are failures if they do not remain inside the ivory tower, even if there are no suitable academic jobs for them. Career counselors, she argued, have to find ways to persuade unemployed Ph.D.’s to believe that the outside world is not evil and that they are not apostates if they do something besides teaching and research.

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

A little under seven years ago I left a doctorate in Classics that I’d been undertaking at Bristol University. I’d been working on my PhD for three years – time initially very well spent and which produed enormous amounts of reasonably good-quality work. Over the first two and a half years or so I produced around sixty thousand words on models of the mind, mythology, story-telling and identification; I’d taught various undergraduate classes on drama, mythology and Ancient Greek language and I’d produced two papers (on on anachronistic interpretation and one on The Bacchae) which I delivered at national conferences in Nottingham and New York. However, from the end of my second year I started experiencing a slow deterioration in my work, had a number of crises of motivation and started to feel that I was being overwhelmed by the material and sheer amount of commentary and opinion that I needed to get to grips with. I started to feel that I was never going to be able to produce work that I was going to be happy with – that I was never going to find the answers that I was looking for. Then followed a few months of highly self-destructive behaviour when I felt that I was starting to fail, followed by a few months of anti-depressants and then the final realisation that if I was going to complete my work it would take me years of penury and misery and that I was likely to have problems finding any kind of employment afterwards. And then the realisation that I no longer had faith that the work I was producing would have any kind of impact or be taken in any way seriously. And that’s when I decided to quit.

If you believe the narrative that I’ve just told you (and there’s no reason why you should simply swallow it whole – I’ve taken considerable license with it for speed and clarity) then you might well be asking yourself why I went from doing good work to leaving academia completely, and whether I regret it. I ask whether you believe it because I’m not sure that I believe it myself – I find the whole period difficult to interpret and difficult to feel confident about because of the sheer weight of the different interpretations, personal relationships, arguments, tensions and various senses of betrayals that I came – by the end – to associate fully with my time in doctoral work. And here’s where the article about the cultishness of Graduate School comes in again. Because whlie I don’t necessarily believe that it does have cultish tendencies, I do feel programmed by circumstance to forfeit my right to a public opinion about it. Any statement I make about academia – or my experience of academia – that isn’t entirely complimentary must necessarily be seen in the context of my own failure to complete the process. Because I’m not now Doctor Coates, any statement I make that puts any blame on anyone other than my own inadequacies can be dismissed as sour grapes or an inability to accept failure or inadequacy in one field or another.

I’m not going to fight this assumption – I feel comfortable in admitting that whatever else may have led to my ungracious departure from academia, I clearly did not have the necessarily discipline to carry through the work I’d started to its conclusion. I failed. But I’ve seen a lot of other people fall hard off the back of the academic lorry as well, and a good number of them I believe have done so not because they’ve failed the system but because the system has failed them. And they feel similarly confused and conflicted – unable to determine where the failure was their own. Even many of the people I know who have completed their doctorates have experienced the burn of tarmac on their departure from the academy. These people were intellectually able, self-disciplined and strong and fought through the academy with all the discipline and strength they could muster and were still brought low by it. And worse still, these people feel the same anxiety that I do about talking about it – any rejection is in itself an admission of failure. Here’s where the academy’s cultishness emerges most strongly – because it’s an institution where you can only fail yourself and your leaders. They can never fail you.

I want to talk a little about the reality of post-graduate work for people who are considering it because I think you should know what you’re letting yourself in for. Courses which are mostly taught are almost always achievable. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’d recommend a Masters course to almost anyone. On the other hand, Universities often encourage their pupils to stay with them at their University because they get money for students. I would advise you to never do this. It can be very difficult for undergraduate students to adjust to the new roles and status that undertaking a Masters should afford you. It’s particularly difficult if you’re doing those role-changes with people you have been used to being highly deferential towards. And why would you want to work more with them anyway? Unless they really are the world-leading experts in their fields, you should be looking elsewhere for different perspectives, different expertises and different lessons to learn. You’ll learn much more from a new teacher than from the one who has already articulated much of their approach and beliefs and ways of seeing the world through your undergraduate work with them.

Masters aside then, what of the research degree? Here I’m going to be blunt. First things first, please believe that academic departments get money for postgraduate students and that more money means more and (and more stable) jobs for the staff. You must never forget that while all academics have altruistic motives, they also have a vested interest in encouraging you to stay with them. Again consider why they’re suggesting you continue your work, and think particularly hard if they’re advocating you staying with them.

Next think about your skills and expertises and whether or not you actually want to be an academic after you’ve tried to complete your course. Now think about whether or not you’re going to be the person who actually gets the really hard to come by academic job afterwards (this is particularly true in the Humanities). If you don’t want to be a History lecturer and do academic research for the rest of your life, then don’t do a doctorate. If you’re not sure, then get sure before you sign on the dotted line. Academic jobs are not easy to get and they’ll all be looking for certain skills and expertises that are relevant to the teaching of your discipline. If you want to spend years doing research into an incredibly obscure branch of history, then bear in mind that no one may wish to teach courses in that particular obscure branch of history. If you’re going to be revolutionarily cross-disciplinary, then consider – are there any departments in the world who could hire you when you were done? And if not, then don’t do it!

Doctorates don’t count for much outside academia – and in fact they may count against you. If you can’t find a directly relevant area for subsequent professional work, then many employers are likely to look at a 25-30 year old person with three-six years of post-graduate work as being a strange and slightly worrying employment prospect – they’re going to be too smart for their own good, too ivory-towerish, too specialist, out of touch with the way that the “real world” works. If you’re working in an area where there’s a lot of commercial interest (say the way in which people use technology) then you may very well find enormous career opportunities open up before you. This is not likely to happen if you’ve spent six years writing on gender roles in Baudelaire – no matter how ground-breaking the work.

And here’s the other lesson – doctoral work is professional training. You have to think about it like that – you’re being made into a lecturer / professor / teacher / researcher. The aim of doctoral work is not – no matter what anyone tells you – to think up good stuff and write great works and reveal your genius to the world. The aim is to make professional people who can teach undergraduates, deliver papers and – yes – also (subsequently) push the discipline further in one direction or another. You have to approach your post-graduate work in this way. The most successful doctoral students in my experience are the ones that are thorough and careful and take on relatively unambitious projects which don’t stretch the assumptions or structures of the discipline too much. They’re the ones that finish their doctoral work and go on to useful teaching positions (and then may or may not start exploring more widely). It’s definitely not the best and the brightest, the most imaginative thinkers or the people with the great ideas that get through. If they get through it’s because they’re thorough and they’re careful and they’re professional and treat it as it should be treated – as a job of work rather than a calling or an exploration.

Which brings me to drop-out rates. Another thing you won’t be told is how many people don’t complete their doctorates. I’ve heard various figures mentioned, but I believe that around 50% of people who start doctorates don’t get a PhD out of it. This may be humanities only or it may be throughout the academy. An enormous proportion of people simply never finish the things because it’s not quite what they were expecting when they started. And many of these people will feel like failures, will come into the job market late and will find it harder to get ahead in their new chosen career. It’s not clear to me whether it’s harder to get a job with a completed irrelevant doctorate or an incomplete one. It’s not easy with with either.

And then there’s the day-to-day atmosphere of it. When you’re doing research, you work almost exclusively alone – for three to five years. You should spend large periods of that time in a library – ideally (again taking into account that this is a training course and a career) you should use the working hours that you might expect from a job – eight hours a day. You will get paid either nothing or a barely livable wage to do this work (again – more true for humanities students). This is not a glamourous occupation, by any means. And as I’ve said before, there is no glamour in the work itself, a restricted chance that you’ll get a career in academia and a very real possibility that by undertaking this work you’re going to make yourself less employable. The “positive” aspects of the lifestyle (apart from your gradual progress towards getting your doctorate) are limited, but you do get relative freedom to think and explore ideas, you are forced to be self-motivating and self-determined and – when things are going well – you will get self-respect and the respect of some other people (who in my opinion are rather easily impressed). These freedoms, and the self-respect and the respect of others that you get from undertaking a doctorate will stay with you (to an extent) if you go into the badly paid field of academia. If you do not, they will swiftly evaporate.

Which brings me (briefly) to my final point. Do not believe there is no worthwhile life outside academia! It’s difficult sometimes, when you’ve been in the education system for getting on for twenty years to remember that there’s an enormous panoply of jobs outside academia and not all of them are sullied by the feeble crust of crass commercialism. It is more than possible to find enjoyable, ethically-sound, world-improving work outside academia – in fact it’s probably no harder than it is to find similar work inside the Academy. The stereotype (and the assumption of many potential postgraduate students) that study for the sake of study and the stretching and mental gymnastics of intellectual work are somehow naturally superior and elite practices would hold more water with me if such warming-up regularly translated into actual attempts to build or refigure the world in positive ways. If such goals are your intent – consider carefully what effect you are actually likely to have. Is the respect of a narrow and dishevelled set of peers (and a steady stream of undergraduate neophytes) enough to get you through the night? If not, consider that there is good work to be done outside University and that some of it pays rather better and is equally interesting.

If you’re considering a longer research-based degree, please consider carefully what you’re letting yourself in for. Remember the key facts: only fifty percent of people come out of the other end of this process with a doctorate and even then they have to look towards finding (mostly pretty badly-paid) work. Many of them won’t that work despite having proved their discipline, committment and intelligence. Do yourself a favour and make sure that you go in with your eyes open – that you know how unpleasant the work can be, that you know what a risk you’re taking with your time and with your life, that you’re strong enough to deal with the self-doubt and the humiliation and the shame and the anxiety that the work can cause and that you’re totally sure of the career path that you are choosing for yourself, before you agree to continue with your studies. If you don’t do this, then you may very well find yourself in a cult that genuinely believes that everyone else is basically wasting their lives and from which there is no easy or elegant way to escape.

Note added 25th September 2004: Thanks to Phil Young for sending in this link which I hope might be useful to people who enjoyed this article: Beyond the Ivory Tower.

Academia Personal Publishing

On parallels with academic citation networks…

As ever when I’ve written something long and vaguely serious, I can’t think of anything to talk about for days afterwards. So to try and break me back into the writing habit, I’m going to talk a bit about the response that Discussion and Citation in the Blogosphere has received. As NSLog() has pointed out, it’s not the most revolutionary of posts, but I think sometimes it’s still important to state what we believe to be obvious – either to have it challenged or because other people don’t find it obvious. I think both types of reaction have taken place in this particular case.

(1) A few responses to comments

I’m going to start off by looking at a couple of the comments that I received about the piece. Jumping right in, these were (1) that I didn’t talk about the kind of indented hierarchical threaded-discussion boards (in which discussion can take a much more non-linear approach than my diagram suggested) and that (2) my diagram of micro-paradigm shifts was too neat and doesn’t mirror reality (Microdocs).

Firstly I’d like to say straight-away that they are – of course – both right. Real-life is always messier than abstractions, and I could never hope to have talked about all the kinds of online discussion boards that exist.

In the case of the indented-threading models – all I can say in my defence was that the piece I was trying to write wasn’t so much about the directionality or linearity of message-board discussions, but more about the filtering mechanisms implicit in the system. Another commentator) also pointed out that some message-board systems allow trackback on individual posts. Here I can only say that there’s a certain degree of bifurcation going on there – I can’t see a way in which those people within the social system of the board itself can help the filtering process for strangers, except by moving outside it and linking to it from outside (say from a weblog). And he also talks about weblog / message-board hybrids – which again I can only say that I wasn’t specifically familiar with. There are a lot of interesting models for online fora – and I hope people forgive me for concentrating for the most part on the one that the most people are familiar with… I think the most important thing that I want to say about this stuff is that I was definitely not undermining the importance of message-board technology in community-building. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of message-boards and have been playing with some new models in moderation and administration over at Barbelith Underground for several years now.

As regards my diagram being too regular and not reflecting reality (again cf. Microdoc’s diagram of this debate)- where they see difference – I see considerable similarity. Let’s call those posts that have one or less inward link “supporting” posts, and all those with more than one “structural” posts. If one does this, then even at this early stage it’s clear that only a couple of posts are driving the discussion forward. At the moment the debate has bifurcated (I specifically mention that as a possibility in the last post) – and no doubt one of those will be taken further by a subsequent structuring posts at some point. While the reality will always be messier than the abstracted diagram, I believe that (if we give the debate time enough to develop) the two diagrams will come to look more and more similar.

(2) On parallels with academic citation networks

Now I’m going to turn to another common response to the post. A few people have argued that (i) the existence of peer review mechanisms and (ii) an expertise-based barrier of entry makes academic filtering mechanisms very different from weblogging ones. I’ve seen this position articulated on a few sites – particularly 2lmc, commonplaces and a comment by Ross Mayfield on Many to Many – but I’m going to concentrate (yet again) on the response from Microdoc because it’s the most succinct and clear:

There is a substantial difference between writing an academic paper and having it published in comparison to blogging. In the academic world, I write a paper, have my peers review it, and then I submit it for publication where it may go through another review process, and eventually be published and it is from that paper that has two or three reviews that people will cite in their papers. That is, the academic paper is already “authorized” or “reviewed” and therefore has some weight already.

This is certainly true – there is a substantial barrier to entry in writing academic work. You have to be (to an extent at least) an expert in your field before your words will be seen by the rest of the community. And that means you also have to be an expert in your field before you can cite another article as well (although you don’t have to have the same level of expertise in the field of the article that you’ve cited).

But once you are inside that community of people, what then? Articles are not cited an equal number of times and nor are they given same value within the community – these mechanisms of citation and linkage appear to occur in almost exactly the same way as within weblogs. Individual scholars choose who to cite through a complex balancing act of who they wish to credit to, who directly inspires them, who they have to employ to back up their arguments and which articles have achieved such value and ubiquity that you can’t have a discussion about a given subject without citing them (this last one is more common among graduate students persuing a doctorate). Some of these citations consist of nothing more than a vote – a gesture that the article concerned is pertinent to a discussion. Often articles (or books) crystallise a discussion and are treated as a baseline from then on.

Essentially – the only difference that having barriers to entry into the community makes is that the criteria for judging whether a piece of writing is worth linking to may be different. The mechanisms, however, remain identical. Certain articles get cited, others do not. Discussion happens in a series of discontinuous leaps – sometimes collapsing back onto itself, sometimes bifurcating – with the community self-filtering the good stuff to where it’s most likely to be seen.

Academia Gay Politics History Politics

A piece of writing from a book about Baudrillard pertaining specifically to Nietszche and history…

I’ve been re-reading a little book on Baudrillard because it’s the only thing that fits in the pocket of my brand new coat (excessive money spent – we’ll say no more about this). In it I’ve stumbled upon a section about Baudrillard’s relationship to history and his debt to Nietszche that really appeals to me. It goes like this:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Unfashionable Observations of 1874, criticised historical inquiry in his time for making the present look just like another episode, and the creative acts of individuals humble by comparison. It burdened individuals with more knowledge than they could absorb; it encouraged a resigned relativism because change implied that the present was unimportant; and it generated irony and cynicism because it engendered a sense of late arrival…”

When I was doing my doctorate I got really excited by a passage in Forster’s Maurice – it’s a fairly iconic passage used in a lot of scholarship in a fairly throwaway fashion. In it, the character of Dr Cornwallis, teaching young undergraduate men (including our hero) says of a piece of translation that they are about to undertake, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. I remember thinking this was extraordinarily radical considering how we now approach history. Current academic practice is one of dislocation – people in the past were nothing like us. They are incomprehensible to us by the standards that we generally operate by, and we have to hygenically and distantly analyse their behaviour with none of the emotional outbursts and resonances that we might use to examine contemporary matters.

This is considered true in basic historicist approaches, but even more true in historicist approaches to literature, where the assumption seems to be that one of the implicit acts of criticism is some kind of model-making of the minds of the audience (or author) of a work. Only by understanding the people do you understand the work. Personally I always thought this was a highly dubious intellectual move – particularly when undertaken in an absolutist fashion. Too many questions emerge from this kind of behaviour: Whose is the mind? Who does it represent? What about divergent readings from the period? Does it idealise a particular kind of reading or intepretation? Is the mind that we use to understand the text simply itself generated by us from the text itself?

Similarly there are problems with a complete lack of historicism, of course. It would be delightful to think that one could try and force a modern mind through a text without any historical information whatsoever, in such a way that they were encouraged to think about the text purely in terms of contemporary society – but it’s simply not possible. The mind constructs a fictional world as it reads – it contextualises, it tries to fit disparate and apparently nonsensical elements together. The practice of reading a work removed from historical context is simply an exercise in the conceptual reconstruction of that period. And this is never more true when you’re thinking about texts in other languages, where even basic comprehension the text requires a reconstructive leap.

So why is the statement in Maurice so challenging? Because it amounts to a statement that texts from outwith your cultural frame of reference aren’t just there to be examined analytically and distantly, nor even merely to undermine your assumptions of ‘normality’ and push you towards total moral relativity. Instead they can have very real and potent social and political effects. They are inevitably political, weapons / devices with no function other than to stimulate, entertain and use in argument and discussion to forward a case, a goal, a political end…