Monday, August 06, 2007

Getting Academia Wrong

[note: there may be a gap in posts, as I go off the grid - reluctantly - for a few days]

I suppose that academic scientists are just as likely as humanities professors to make generalizations about academia based on their own experience, but I was struck yesterday by a glaring example in the Sunday NY Times Magazine by Michael Ignatieff. The article ("Getting Iraq Wrong") is about Iraq, the war, and the experience of a war supporter changing his mind. It is written by an academic turned politician, and contains musings about the difference of perspective of an intellectual/academic as compared to a politician. For example:

In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with.

The author is writing about his experience as a political science professor, but it struck me that few science professors could write that sentence. Even those of us who do research that is not immediately applicable to society are aware that what we do is not completely disconnected from the world. I can appreciate that even 'false ideas' can be interesting to discuss intellectually, but obviously false ideas are quickly abandoned in science (though I may be quickly proved wrong by diligent commenters who can think of counter examples).

This essay therefore interested me, not only for its discussion of the Iraq situation, but for how it made me think about academia. I tend to think of science professors as disconnected from society because what we do can be so difficult for other people to understand. Yet, when I read about the difference between intellectuals (i.e., political scientists) and politicians, I wondered if the difference wasn't even greater for some fields of the humanities.

I don't have time to develop that thought further -- I am sitting at an airport gate during a flight delay as I type.

In closing, for now, I will add one more thought, so as not to disappoint those who like to accuse me of twisting everything through a gender filter.. here is an Ignatieff quotation that caught my eye:

An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead.

[yes, I know, it is awkward to interrupt a beautiful sentence with 'his or her'..]


Kea said...

...but obviously false ideas are quickly abandoned in science

Gee, you're not in Theoretical Physics, are you?

Male Humanist said...

There's something else really strange about that article. Ignatieff thinks his mistake in supporting the war at the outset has to do with the isolation from practical consequences that characterizes academia, as you say. But academics were by a huge majority against the war. So Ignatieff's self-diagnosis makes no sense. Why were all those other ivory towered academics able to understand what was actually going on and what was actually going to happen, when you weren't? Because you were so sheltered from practical consequences? Riiiight.

promoteyourblogforfree said...

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Ms.PhD said...

I totally disagree. See for example my post today.

False ideas in science can be useful, because in proving they're false, we learn all kinds of interesting things.

That's what we do, actually. Come up with ideas and then... test them. By definition we don't know if they're false until after the testing part is done.

And what to me is a false idea might be someone else's holy grail.

Some false ideas have persisted for a long time before they went away. The earth is flat, for example. HIV only infects gay men. Reading too much makes women infertile. And so on.

But I do sometimes think that in the humanities/arts it's easier to maintain a certain idealism and isolation from the rest of the world. I both admire and fear that, but mostly I wonder if it's really the case or if it just appears that way from the outside. And whether that would be better than the corruption I'm constantly faced with in science, to the point where I can't ignore it even if I want to.

bsci said...

That article was painful and I was barely able to get through it. It seemed to me that Ignatieff was making broad generalizations about all of academica because that's easier to do than admit that he made ignorant decisions. At his stage in life experience he was acting shocked to discover basic things that most people figured out in high school.
If he didn't have "Harvard" included in his byline, I can't imagine the NY Times would have even published the piece.

Anonymous said...

Not that awkward.

Juliet said...

Yes, Ignatieff is trying to play upon common misperceptions about academia to cover his a**. To follow up on the previous comment, most prominent political scientists - conservative and liberal alike - publicly spoke out about going to war with Iraq, many very early on. For example, in fall 2002 33 prominent international security scholars took out a full-page ad in the New York Times laying out reasons against going into Iraq, while over the course of 2004 a nonpartisan group of foreign affairs specialists called Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy amassed over 650 signatures for a public document calling the war a mistake and telling the administration to change course in Iraq.

More broadly, as a political scientist myself, I am offended by Ignatieff's apparently casual attitude towards scholarly research and analysis. It certainly does not reflect my work, nor those of most other political scientists I know.

PhsyioProf said...

"Ignatieff thinks his mistake in supporting the war at the outset has to do with the isolation from practical consequences that characterizes academia, as you say."

No, he's lying. He's struggling to gin up post-hoc justification for his abject pre-war fuckwittitude.

"Why were all those other ivory towered academics able to understand what was actually going on and what was actually going to happen, when you weren't?"

Because, unlike Ignatieff, they aren't total abject fuckwits.

Igantieff's article is utterly dishonest and bankrupt, both personally and intellectually. He and his cronies were *completely* wrong about *everything* that concerned the Iraq war. And instead of taking responsibility for their total failure, they now seek to characterize it as some sort of inevitable consequence of the structure of academic discourse. This is just Ignatieff's contribution to that end.

The bottom line is that before the war there was plenty of information available that indicated to non-fuckwits that invasion and occupation of Iraq was (1) not necessary for national security and (2) destined for *exactly* the horrible outcome that occurred. These people--academics, politicians, journalists, and others--tried to make their case, but they were dismissed as America-hating terrorist-loving traitors.

Ignatieff just doesn't want to admit that he was an abject fuckwit, as a matter of personal failure. He seeks something other than his own intellectual and moral failure to blame.

And he even has the gall to claim at the end of the piece that while he and his fellow fuckwits may have been "wrong" it was "for the right reasons", while those who were absolutely correct about *everything* relating to the debacle were right "for the wrong reasons". This is just one more attempt to impugn the patriotism and motivations of those who should have been listened to in the first place.

Igantieff's piece of tripe is only "interesting" as an example of a feeble attempt at historical whitewashing by those whose hands are dripping with the blood of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

Bro. Bartleby said...

I do think humanity lost its sense of community when we left tribalism, then each felt very personally the decisions of each and every other member of the tribe, so I find it no mystery that today war can be "played out" in far away places, yet "we" go about our own business in our own microcosm, when we should, as a society/community, all feel personally the decisions of those we elect to lord over us. Iraq War? We should have the military draft, and not just draft the youth, but draft across the board, everyone gets an equal chance to go to war. You have issues about "fighting", well I would allow you to serve your time as a prison guard in any one of the many prisons. Or pull neighborhood watch in the inner cities. All kinds of honest work that would transform us all, for the better, to be citizens of a society/community that would take care in making decisions, for each decision would have realtime and personal consequences.

DanS said...

I was terrified when Ignatieff ran for leadership of the Liberal party (here in Canada). Luckily, he didn't make it!